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The spooky side of Christmas

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on December 20, 2019 Published on December 19, 2019

Chill in the spine Ghosts are narrative tools through which writers expressed views considered dangerous and/or unacceptable in their time   -  ISTOCK.COM

What makes Christmas the perfect setting for a good old ghost story?

On the most memorable Christmas Eve of my life, I was sitting with my fellow backpackers around a campfire, beside a frozen lake, 10 years ago. Soon, we were exchanging ghost stories. I don’t remember who started it, but there was no stopping the spook juggernaut. That day, I heard stories about poltergeists, ghouls and straight-up murderous spirits. At one point, one of the Americans in our group delivered a masterful précis-narration of Washington Irving’s Gothic horror story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. She even did the protagonist Ichabod Crane’s bits with a Johnny Depp voice so accurate it threatened to undercut the spookiness (Depp had starred in a disastrous movie version of the story).

Christmas, clearly, is a time for celebration and excess. But, traditionally, ghost stories have always been on the menu. So much so that from the 16th century, Puritan leaders in America forbade people from sharing ghost stories since they believed it would lead to mass hysteria — as my Depp-mimicking friend told me years ago. However, the dead don’t always stay buried, as they say. From early luminaries such as Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood, all the way up to contemporary titans such as George Saunders, American writers have crafted memorable ghost stories involving Christmas.

Take Lincoln in the Bardo, the 2017 novel that won Saunders worldwide acclaim (and the Man Booker Prize). The book is about Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, who died tragically young. It’s set in the bardo — a Buddhist concept of existential limbo, which is a state between life and death, not unlike a purgatory — where Willie meets a group of very opinionated ghosts. Soon, with their help, he is able to convince his famous father to move on with his life.

Among other things, Lincoln in the Bardo echoes perhaps the most famous Christmas ghost story of all time, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In his 2017 interview in these pages, Saunders had mentioned that A Christmas Carol was on his mind when he was writing this novel.

Victorian mores and the female ghost

A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a rich old miser, even as the “Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future” take him on a journey through time and make him see the error of his cruel, petty ways. In many ways, this was the quintessential ghost story of its time, wherein the (generally) male protagonist encounters a ghost (generally of a spouse or, as with Scrooge, a close friend and business partner) who’s able to shame them into changing their behaviour. Dickens repeated this narrative trajectory in two of his other stories, The Haunted Man and The Chimes.

Two things must be understood in this context — the first is the traditional narrative function of ghosts, and second, the fact that an awful lot of Victorian ghost story writers were women (a 2016 BBC study reckoned that the figure was close to 70 per cent of all published 19th-century ghost stories in the UK).

To unpack — ghosts, witches, banshees and so on are narrative tools through which writers expressed views considered dangerous and/or unacceptable in their time. They are a kind of negotiation tactic that storytellers employ so that their words are not banned or suppressed altogether.

 

Of course, this meant that the ghosts, witches and banshees in question had to be punished for their subversions. Ekta Kapoor might claim credit today for coining the portmanteau “horrex” (horror+sex) ahead of the release of her production house’s film Ragini MMS, but the truth is that both these facts — the relative promiscuity of women in horror stories, and their eventual fates — have to do with the ‘negotiation’ between writers and societal conventions.

In an episode of That ’70s Show, youngsters Steven (Danny Masterson) and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) are watching a scary movie when Fez points to an attractive female character on the screen and says, “I like her, I hope she survives”. On cue, the girl is hacked to death by the villain, upon which Fez is told, “She had sex, man. And for that, like all movie sluts, she had to die.”

In a lot of Victorian ghost stories (especially by female authors such as Mary Molesworth, Susan Hill or Charlotte Riddell), therefore, one came across female ghosts with decidedly feminist views. As Hephzibah Anderson wrote in her 2015 article The Secret Meaning of Ghost Stories, “In stories by women, when something goes bump in the night, it’s often the sound of the author butting her head against society’s rigid definitions of her role.” For Anderson, female ghosts are “often deeply sympathetic characters” who have been freed of social restrictions by their death. “The ghosts become proto-feminist figures who — in death at least — cast off the traditional roles that society foists upon them, those of obedient wife, doting mother, dutiful daughter,” she writes.

Two Jameses and their modern-day avatars

Anderson correctly named MR James as one of the male authors whose super-popular ghost stories never seemed to feature women at all. And James was well known for narrating ghost stories in person. Come Christmas time, James, a Cambridge don, would invite his campus friends and favourite students for little soirées. James is the author of ghost stories such as O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, one of the all-time classics of the genre. O Whistle set certain patterns for the Victorian ghost stories, which solidified over time to become tropes — the lavish, ancient, haunted manor, the investigative scholar with a nervous disposition, a ghost determined to right an old, old wrong.

The other 19th-century ghost story that casts a long shadow on the genre is Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw — and it begins on Christmas Eve. And although James did include the ‘ancient haunted house’ trope, like his older namesake, he was not overly fond of the genre’s conventions, preferring what he called “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy”.

Between them, the two Jameses are a big part of why Christmas and ghost stories have gone hand in hand. The Turn of the Screw’s central conceit — that of the ghostly figures ‘sharing’ a house with the protagonists — is still regularly alluded to in modern-day ghost narratives (such as Jordan Peele’s recent film Get Out or the 2000s cult classic The Others, starring Nicole Kidman).

Jeanette Winterson’s Dark Christmas is a story that engages with the history of the genre. A group of friends assemble at — big surprise — a large Victorian manor to celebrate Christmas, when they find an old nativity set. That’s the point from which things get spooky, and Winterson ends up delivering a really scary and wholly contemporary story. In the flashback passages, she effectively channelises the Victorian Christmas ghost story, down to its sonic rhythms:

“His mind had gone, they said. At night in the attic where he slept with his wife and child, he leaned vacantly against the wall, rolling the child’s marbles up and down, down and up, pacing, pacing, pacing. One night, just before Christmas, he strangled his wife and daughter. He left them for dead in the bed and went out. But his wife was not dead. She followed him. In the morning, they found her sitting by the nativity, her dress dark with blood, his fingermarks livid at her throat. She was singing a lullaby and pushing the point of the knife into the back of the wooden figure.”

The ghost in the mirror

Most ‘ghosts’ force people to confront hitherto suppressed aspects of their lives. What are you not allowed to do? What are you upset about? What do you dearly want but cannot have due to a moral code that other people wrote and handed down to you? (If you’re avoiding any or all of these questions, beware — a ghost visit may be swiftly scheduled in your future.) No wonder, then, that Christmas is one of the times of the year when ghost stories seem to fit. It is a time of taking stock and reformulating your plans, a time not only to recharge your batteries but also introspect, to take a good long look at your life.

Which is why this Christmas, I’ll be returning to William Wilson, a horror story by Poe in which a man called William is haunted... by himself, or at least someone who looks, sounds and talks a lot like himself. Every indiscretion, every intemperate word he says, every debauched act William indulges in is amplified discreetly by this mystery man, this doppelgänger. Ultimately, William hunts down and murders his Other, who barely participates in the resulting swordfight, preferring to be killed by William. His dying words, also the concluding passage of the story, are a sly nudge-wink routine aimed at the reader — it is implicit that the doppelgänger is a plot device meant to represent William’s conscience.

“You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the world and its hopes. In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself!”

Sometimes, the scariest ghost you’ll come across is the one staring at you in the mirror — now there’s a cheery Christmas thought.

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Published on December 19, 2019
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