Saturday, August 28, 2010

Nostalgie De La Boo

No, it's not a typo. It's a lament for the sad decline of the Ghost in fiction.

CS Lewis once tried to describe the idea of "numinous" with a comparison. If I told you there was a powerful tiger in the next room, you would feel fear. If I told you, however, that there was a powerful spirit in the next room, you would feel something else altogether. Fear, no doubt, but of a much deeper kind than the simple anticipation of harm - fear touched with awe, swirling up from that space deep below rational thought, where all the great unknowns bubble.

Ghosts used to be numinous. They embodied two of our deepest fears - death, and the unknown. Some were vengeful, some reproachful, some just there, trapped in their present and our past. The ghosts of M.R. James and Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates draw their power from the fact that we can't understand them. They rarely threaten, not physically; but they terrify because they open a crack in our certainty, revealing nothing but blackness and a chill wind with the faint scent of dust and mould and earth.

Then something changed. Thanks to Peter Straub and Ghostbusters and Clive Barker and Poltergeist, ghosts became just another category of monster - a scary thing endowed with weird powers, but nothing stranger than your average Marvel Comic villain, and susceptible to defeat if you could just find the right solution. We no longer turned to shamans or priests, but to "paranormalists" (Bill Murray with a Ghostbusters containment unit, Tangina Barrons with a magic rope). Ghosts are no longer awe inspiring emissaries from realms unknown - they're logical puzzles, subject to banning or extinction through the use of the right magic formula, irritating pests who can be removed with the right exterminator.

I guess it's was an inevitable consequence of a world in which the numinous is being nibbled away by science. Rainbows are just patterns of refracting light, the sun is not being carried through the hours of darkness by giant fish towards its rebirth at dawn, and we treat fevers with penicillin, not juju. The decline of the ghost is part of the price we pay in the weaning of mankind away from the numinous and toward the numerate.

But one can still regret what is lost when the powerful spirit in the next room becomes just another tiger, and ponder what pockets of imagination may wither as wonder dies.

Crossposted from Stageleft

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