The Return of the Ghost: Hauntology, Hontology & the Art of Growing Good Horror From Dead Things Today


It has long been surmised by the Literary Establishment as well as much of our genre establishment that the best of the ghost story is behind us.

“Authority” after “authority” has said so. Yet since the 1980s, there has been a growing American fascination with ghosts in general that is eerily reminiscent of that early twentieth century fixation on seances and spiritualism. From talk shows featuring modern-day mediums to Hollywood offerings that range from comedy to romance to outright Horror, right down to ghost hunters and fascination with demonology and witchcraft… we have become obsessed with ghosts.

Isn’t it ironic that we seem unable to capitalize on this successfully in the genre? And why is it that so many other academic researchers outside of Literature have seen the obvious and are actually studying the phenomenon?

Maybe it is time to wake up – to see with open eyes what these other academics are seeing:

That our obsession and preoccupation with ghosts is all about our national heritage and the subtext of our reinvented history.

That ghosts are Literary business. And it is no wonder a great ghost story is so hard to write even when we are bursting with personal demons.

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Hauntology and Hontology: the Future is Cancelled

One of the most interesting discoveries to make about the Horror genre is that Horror is complex in its primordial roots. Horror is not just about urban legends and folklore and paperback terrors – indeed Horror is all about philosophy, biology, brain science, social science, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and religion. And in every one of these academic subjects lies a research angle or two that draws inference from Horror and our invention, use of, and reaction to it.

We don’t have to flirt with haunted houses or seances or EMF meters chasing rumors of spirits to be drawn to the subject matter – to ask apart from religious association if ghosts are “real” and if so what their presence means. We don’t have to dissect and catalog the types of ghosts and hauntings to be captivated and disturbed by the idea of their presence. Yet we have been doing this in increasingly commercial ways since the 1980s, rationalizing that we are not at all incorporating “deep” religious questions into our own investigations which we proclaim are objectively scientific or cloaked in simple “curiosity”… We have been operating under the pretense that we ourselves have no secrets, and that our “interest” in the subject matter is exploited purely for the sake of entertainment.

Whether we are talking about paperback plots or haunted asylums, we posit a curious divestment from the subject matter of ghosts and the bigger questions they represent.

But that is not how historians and philosophers in particular are seeing this fascination with the paranormal.

Forget psychology and religion. These folks are associating a concurrent rise in ghost-busting with an international rise in political populism and  Black Lives Matter… In the cultural global phenomenon of cancelling the future in the effort to glorify and reclaim a reinvented past rife with – not ghost stories – but the real thing: Horror.

So how is this connected – this seemingly unrelated pursuit of proving or disproving ghosts and who we elect as President of the United States or Prime Minister of the UK, or ruler of a China or Russia?

The answer – as Mark Payne put it – is our collective “shame of life.” Payne, a professor in the Department of Classics and the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, explains: that “shame is the route by which we access the capabilities for living that are abrogated in modernity. This is the hontology of my [book] title, as opposed to the hauntology that Fisher took up… that it is the loss of the New World as a horizon in which these abrogated capabilities were still in play, and the inhabitants of the New World as presenting forms of life before which Europeans felt shame in comparison with their own…” (Payne 1)

In other words, all of that American Exceptionalism that we have pushed at each other nationally and internationally, has led to all of us feeling not only inadequate in these times of global economic and historic and social challenge, but has led us to rely on historic narratives of shady origin to begin with. We find ourselves competing with a mythology even as we attempt to reconstruct it in its own image. We are desperate for a semblance of stability we believe past generations have had, when in fact past generations were simply too (willingly or intentionally) socially isolated to compare notes about reality.

And as any ghost story lover can tell you, what we believe about reality means everything.

“Shame – la honte” is a term derived from French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 1993 lectures on Marx and Marxism, in which the title of the collection (The Spectres of Marx) refers to a statement by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto that a “spectre [is] haunting Europe.” Payne then asks, “What is this specter-ridden Europe?” And his argument is that shame lies somewhere in between the hegemony (leadership and dominance) of the United States with its own foundation resting on a repurposing of its indigenous peoples and an original (and borrowed) history from Europe that has resulted in a simple reinvention of the same Europe its founders had left…repeating the same sins from European pasts while proclaiming… well… alternative facts. And furthermore that the consequence of this reinvention has led (over time) to the realization that the lives we are living “is not really life.”  (2)

We have then a great need to keep our mythologies about – for instance – cowboys and Indians alive in our imaginations. We Americans need the fantasy of true freedom, true democracy, of feeling what it is to truly live every moment “to its fullest” by selectively remembering only the adrenaline of success of the hunt, or in war, in overcoming death. We romanticize a history that is neither true nor viable in order to live vicariously through those images.

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This is why we have to keep Native Americans culturally “dead.” If they are “alive,” they challenge the carefully crafted myth of freedom… from Chief Wahoo to Thanksgiving.

We have, in our fictionalized American lives, repurposed Native ones for our own use – supplanting indigenous peoples and making our real indigenous people superfluous, redundant, and strangely disingenuous. Says Joshua T. Anderson in an essay from Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre: “Carol Clover suggests there is a ‘special connection between the country folk of the urbanoia [or city-revenge] films,’ such as The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, ‘and the Indians of the settler-versus-Indian western.’ As Clover elaborates, ‘In these stories both redneck and redskin are figured as indigenous peoples on the verge of being deprived of their native lands,’ suggesting that ‘the rednecks of modern horror even look and act like movie Indians…” (Weird  132)

Here not only have we eviscerated that freedom, but we have devoured the dead and become one with the delusion. We have absorbed democracy – not practiced it. The American cowboy represents that ‘rugged’ individualism we value in our cookie-cutter understanding of our indigenous populations, that sense of imagined democracy in which we allegedly ‘do nothing we do not believe in personally,’ and abscond with the belief that we can in fact do anything and be anything we want…that the West (if not the Western U.S.) is a big enough place in which to act out our dreams.

Yet go West and the land is full. The Indians are “disappeared” onto out-of-sight/out-of-mind reservations, and the cowboy is a caricature for commercial use and selling cigarettes. We have no place left in which to realize our manifest destiny of machismo and individualism…

Go West and we are deflated. Our hopes are crushed. There is nowhere to go, no world to conquer, no challenge against which to prove ourselves… in which to live… We have killed ourselves. And we are haunted by that which we can no longer have.

Hauntology is described by James Ashford in an article from The Week, as “the idea that the present is haunted by the metaphorical “ghosts” of lost futures.

The concept asks people to consider how “spectres” of alternative futures influence current and historical discourse, and acknowledges that this “haunting” – or the study of the non-existent – has real effects.”  https://www.theweek.co.uk/104076/what-is-hauntology

Is it starting to come together – this quirky marriage between philosophy and history and Horror?

We keep telling ourselves that other people or peoples live more “real” lives. And we compound these imaginings with the knowledge that they are living these presumed lives despite our most vigorous efforts to eradicate them. And the more we entertain this inner dialog, the more personally angry we become at those people while believing ourselves even more disenfranchised of our own dreams. There is a term for this…

Hauntological melancholia…We become terrified that we – as a nation or even as a species – have already lived our best lives, done our greatest things, that we are a civilization and species in decline.

Says Mark Fisher, there are “two kinds” of such melancholia that the hauntological kind springs from: the first is “Wendy Brown’s ‘left melancholia’ [which] is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness, but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of desire is backward-looking and punishing.” (Fisher 23) Herein the loss of the future we assumed to be ours has led to that weird pride of failure we see enacted by those ‘proud to be poor/I am what I am’ folks – a pushback to an immobile and stagnant future bereft of all imaginable forward momentum by being proud of how we got here because we can’t be proud of where we are going. We look backward and say it has all already been done.

We have to ask: is this why we have woken up – because the car stopped and the driver is gone?

Fisher states that his interpretation of hauntological melancholia means that instead of “giving up on desire” we instead “[refuse] to yield. It consists, that is to say, in a refusal to adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality’ – even if the cost of that refusal is that you feel like an outcast in your own time.” (24) And here we are left with those who are aware of the loss of momentum, and the awareness demands an accounting of our own selves. Is this all there is to life? we ask, isn’t there something MORE? Why don’t I FEEL anything?

So we look backward for comfort. And encounter a new wall – one Fisher identifies as “post-colonial melancholia” which dirties the myth of how we got here…and is the second type of hauntological melancholia influencing his research.

Says Fisher, “Paul Gilroy defines this melancholia in terms of an avoidance: it is about evading ‘the painful obligations to work through the grim details of imperial and colonial history and to transform paralyzing guilt into a more productive shame that would be conducive to the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness…”(24) It is about justifying why our own failure to thrive has happened; it is blaming the Other and the immigrant…Fisher is instead linking his understanding of  hauntological melancholia to the loss of the narrative of promise as compromised by the framing of our decisions of the past – in other words, nostalgia for what we think our past promised us…the evaporation of what we thought was the process, the guarantee, the formula for success if not happiness.

We have been unable to process the concept of a shelf life for “the good old days.” We lost them — therefore we must claw them back.

And here we are, living with all four forms of hauntological melancholia peeking out behind a pandemic.

And as Fisher points out, it has led to the feeling that “the 21st century hasn’t started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century…[where] the slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.” We no longer hope for a new innovations in music or technology or the arts…We do not, for example, expect to ever see another band like The Beatles, or an artist like DaVinci. “The feeling of belatedness, of living after the gold rush, is as omnipresent as it is disavowed.” (Fisher 8)

And don’t we know all about this in our genre? Stephen King (unless we change our own philosophy) will be the last great Horror writer, and H.P. Lovecraft will be what Horror was really aspiring to, and therefore will indeed come to represent the end of the genre’s evolution. Yet this is everywhere…

Look at fashion. At music. At cars. There is no innovation…no sign of diversification or development, no evolution…We just keep making more of the same…of everything.

And this is directly linked to the past — our past and our narrative of it – as surely as it is linked to the way we feel right now, in this historical moment.

Are we not seeking ways to tell our Horror stories in the midst of this pandemic, surrounded by the ghosts of our carefully constructed, self-immolating history?

We have been high-centered as writers in the genre because we know this is BIG. And we have been looking for an angle. We have been hoping for word from on genre high – from a knowledgeable and eager Establishment.

And we have been left to figure it out on our own.

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Back to Ghosts

So here we are at this precarious moment in history (yes, history is something that is made by the present) and we have no clear understanding of either our future or the past.

Yet what if this is indicative of one of those truly integral moments we have seen in the past? The kind of moment that leads to a lurching explosion of discovery and invention?

We may indeed be on the brink of another “Golden Age” in our genre – one that will break more than a few norms because it is time for them to be broken and replaced with our next growth spurt, and as a consequence then build if not rebuild our fanbase.

Clearly our ability to fantasize about the past and the people in it is without boundaries – moral or factual. And we need to imagine those things so we can fit that narrative into our own. However we need to come to terms with the likely reality that the future for our ancestors was no more clear for them than it is for ourselves; and that all of that romanticized living of those  “real” lives meant they had precious little time or energy to do much more than plod onward on their own best guesses…just as worrying about bills, and Covid, and growing up to being whatever we wanted to be as children and raising children sucks up all of the oxygen in the room and saps our psychic and physical energy.

That those in the past were in the business of making the ghosts we are now obsessed with is of more than passing interest to historians and philosophers seeking to unravel the mystery of why we seem to be imploding in our national identity, politics, and personal lives. Ghosts are back – and back in a big way. And we are making more of them daily.

Is seeing them, pursuing them, or denying them a sign of our cultural stability?

Perhaps. Because it means that something is bothering us… a narrative we thought we controlled is proving to have a life of its own… a different version of the truth. The subtext is rising out of the ground we buried it in and following us home from the graveyard. It haunts us. And it threatens to possess us.

“Who are you?” we ask of the dark. “Why are you here? What do you want?”

And when it answers, we turn off the recorder. We run screaming back out to the light from the place we intentionally went into in order to find a ghost. We laugh nervously. We scared ourselves. The ghost was real, but we didn’t really want to know it: we didn’t stick around for the answers we didn’t want.

Says Jeffrey Weinstock in his introduction to Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination, “The idea of the ghost, of that which disrupts oppositional thinking and the linearity of historical chronology, has substantial affinities with post-structural thought in general. The ghost is that which interrupts the presentness of the present, and its haunting indicates that, beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorized version of events. As such, the contemporary fascination with ghosts is a reflection of an awareness of the narrativity of history.” (5)

There is precious little that is more interesting than the dead who don’t stay dead; ghosts defy being confined to narrative, to discerned facts, enacting their own versions of truth. Ghosts are also liminal things – not only existing between living and afterlife/oblivion, but also between past and present, operating outside of time and space. They represent both justice denied and justice sought. They represent the would-be of US.

We need ghosts. We need them to be real… Continues Weinstock: “They speak to our desire to be remembered and to our longing for a coherent and ‘correct’ narrative of history. We value our ghosts particularly during periods of cultural transition [my emphasis], because the alternative to their presence is even more frightening: if ghosts do not return to correct history, then privileged narratives of history are not open to contestation. If ghosts do not return to reveal crimes that have gone unpunished, then evil acts may in fact go unaddressed. If ghosts do not appear to validate faith, then faith remains just that – faith rather than fact; and without ghosts to point to things that have been lost and overlooked, things may disappear forever…That ghosts are particularly prominent in our cultural moment indicates that we are particularly vexed by these questions.” (6)

Are we not at this time in a particularly profound moment of cultural crisis? Are there not voices crying out for justice and governments in turmoil? Are there not endless horrors spilling from the pages of carefully penned history? And are we not all screaming at each other, waving flags and beliefs like amulets against a history we are afraid to acknowledge when the future is no longer anticipated or viable?

And is that crisis of culture not directly related to history and the narrative that can no longer be contained by simple racism?

When the truth wants out, ghosts walk.

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Back To Horror

What we are seeing here makes for a very interesting time and future for the Horror genre. In the attempt to suppress creativity and “control” the direction of the genre’s new writings and writers by rejecting Horror that is not in keeping with the Weird tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and additionally disparages our rediscovery of and struggles to reinvent the Literary ghost story, we have been on the wrong side of our own history. And we have stifled our own growth.

Other academic theorists have been doing our work – seeing in our genre what we have refused to see and to nourish. Our newer Critics are both too few and too typical – meaning it is the nature of Literary Critics to choose a writer and their catalog of works in which to build their own body of work in Criticism. So with too few Literary Critics and too much work waiting to be Criticized, we simply need more voices pointing out the obvious and sending our writers off in new directions.

Hauntology and Hontology – ghosts of the past that devour our future and shame that devours our present – are the fertile Literary ground we have been seeking. Neither excludes traditional monsters or folklore, yet both can open the door to better and more relevant Horror as we come to grips Nationally with the errant narrative of our own history, This is the chance for us as writers to tell our own stories – whether you are a white writer in the genre enduring the shock of realization and the guilt of institutionalized behavior you never meant to be a part of, or if you are in that oppressed class of “Other” enduring a very public and painful birth – these two theories are going to reinvigorate the ghost story subgenre. We simply need to be taking our cues from other genres, other academic studies from other academic theorists – including Film Critics – and our own lives.

We need to tell our tales. Dead men (and women) most certainly do tell secrets for which there are always two sides, because injustice haunts every living thing on this planet. It is our job as writers in the genre to speak those evils no matter what genre editors say or prefer, no matter what Critics want to see more of. We are the intermediaries, the documentarians, the liaisons between those who study and publish and judge the genre, and those who live and read it.

Don’t be afraid to turn out the lights…Call it forth, summon its forbidden truths with your eyes wide open.

Use what is happening today.

Call it by its name and it will come.

Tell us a ghost story…

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References

Anderson, Joshua T. “The Werewolf and the Were/Wear/Where-West in Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels.” Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre. Kerry Fine, Michael K. Johnson, Rebecca M. Lush, and Sara L. Spurgeon, eds. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, c2020.

James Ashford. “What is Hauntology? The Idea Asks if People Can Be Haunted By Ghosts of Lost Futures.” The Week U.K., (31 October 2019). Retrieved 12/15/202 from https//www.theweek.co.uk/104076/what-is-hauntology

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2014.

Kleinberg, Ethan. Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, c2017.

Payne, Mark. Hontonology: Depressive Anthropology and the Shame of Life. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2018.

Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination. Andrew Weinstock, ed. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press/Poplar Press, c2004.

33 thoughts on “The Return of the Ghost: Hauntology, Hontology & the Art of Growing Good Horror From Dead Things Today

  1. Fascinating and motivating read! Horror always has something to say, something to show us. I am guilty of dismissing the haunting/ghost subgenre, but this has definitely brought it back under my scrutiny. We are a haunted country right now, lousy with ghosts we have been ignoring for far too long.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. A great essay .. thought-provoking and on point! I taught a class about the spirituality of the ghost story which was lots of fun and offered some scope to discuss and think about this (favourite) topic! People do seem to seek paranormal … outlets of one kind or another during challenging times…so I’d expect ghost stories/novels to be increasingly in demand these days!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow! This was a terrific read. I found myself nodding in agreement all the way through, and thinking more deeply as to the whys. Your philosophy and reasoning is thought provoking- and spot on. Thanks, KC!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve come to believe that Horror is a gateway to understanding a lot about ourselves, Literature, and the rest of the Arts and Humanities… It is a great way to capture the imaginations and interest of people trying to understand all the “dull stuff” we struggled through in school days — Horror uniquely runs through so many things it can all start to just make sense. In fact, it is becoming a useful part of pedagogy!

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  4. A terrific post, KC, and so much to think about. I read it one day after Jan. 6th and I can’t help thinking that if people don’t understand the past, or twist the truth to suit the narrative they need to justify believes and behaviors, how will they every learn from it?

    I’d love to read more ghost stories that explore issues from a different viewpoint. For me, the popularity of ghosts was simply a means of assuring us that it’s not actually over after death. Their presence (as there seem to be few happy ghosts) also emphasize how many people die with big issues unresolved and a lot of crap still not worked out…like the Civil War, for instance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I tend to think it also demonstrates the power of our own minds to punish ourselves for our sins…whether one is the ghost or the seer of the ghost, we always cling to the belief that rather than looking to forgiveness and reconciliation, we expect the punishment we think we deserve — even if we have to punish ourselves into ghosthood to do it…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting, KC, and I think you’re onto something there. Here’s another thought; when a ghost appears in storytelling, it’s usually to share or expose some sort of truth. A revelation perhaps of those sins you mentioned and the quest for redemption. Jacob Marley is a classic example.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. As Dreamer9177 and KC Redding-Gonzalez point out, we need diversions (now more than ever). When we feel unable to control the environment around us (in this case most of the political and divisiveness that’s been happening), we seek something we can control. Ghost stories and the paranormal in general give us something we feel that we can control. We can use pseudo-science to try to explain it, we can allow ourselves to be frightened by it before taking back our control of this fear by vanquishing the demons/ghosts/spectres/whatever at the end. When you can’t find answers or sanity in the world around you, you search for it somewhere else.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

    Liked by 2 people

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