Ghosts on Christmas Eve

Henry James began his novella The Turn of the Screw with this:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen upon a child.”

In Victorian England it was customary to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Think of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” James used that tradition as the framing story for his tale.

There is an odd sort of religious element in the genesis of Henry James’s story. I understand—I have not researched this enough to state categorically that it’s true—that the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, told James an allegedly true story about a lady whose children were being menaced by a pair of ghosts in an old manor house. (James dined, at times, in rather rarefied circles.)

Something that has occurred to religious readers of The Turn of the Screw is that although the Anglican Church does have a rite of exorcism, and the beleaguered governess is the daughter of a vicar, she never seeks professional help in defending her charges against what she must believe is either (a) a pair of demons or (b) the unquiet souls of the damned. James decided that the story would be more interesting if his protagonist decided on a do-it-yourself approach. (As I’ve said before, plots are driven by bad decisions.)

I’ve noticed that although ghost stories necessarily require discussion of a core religious issue—life after death—modern ghost stories rarely operate within an explicit theological framework.

Such frameworks are certainly available. Some forms of Buddhism include complex models of the next world—one could, for example, wind up as a “hungry ghost” consumed by greed, envy, and unfulfilled desires. Writers can use these off-the-shelf structures for supernatural tales.

Jewish folklore is a rich source of such material, and Jewish sacred texts make it clear that, in ancient times, a rabbi’s job description included the necessary skills to dispatch demons should the need arise.

By the time the Reformation erupted in the early 1500’s, the Catholic Church had built an elaborate map of the hereafter that included Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. The Church had developed systems and rituals to deal with escapees from the neither regions and to assist souls in Purgatory.

One way to read the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder is that the protagonist is in Purgatory. There is a conversation in the film that explicitly references Catholic mysticism, which makes me think that is the case. In the 2001 film The Others, there is no explicit explanation for the characters’ predicament, but the frequent references, albeit not terribly pro-faith, to Catholicism make it at least possible that they are in Purgatory.

The early Protestants would have none of Purgatory. Some of them, like the early New England Puritans later on, refused to let a clergyman anywhere near a funeral. They didn’t want anything that smacked of Catholicism, such as a religious funeral rite or prayers for the dead. For these people, the soul was already in either Heaven or Hell, and no clergyman could do anything about it. A funeral was merely an exercise in waste disposal. (And, by the way, during the few years the Puritans ran England, they outlawed Christmas, and, in general, tried to outlaw fun. H. L. Mencken once described a Puritan as someone who lived with the haunting fear that, somewhere, someone was happy. )

It’s difficult to say anything about Protestant maps of the hereafter that covers all cases. It’s like trying to say something definitive about desktop Linux computer systems. There are hundreds of different roll-your-own versions that can be very different from each other, and there are exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions. However, to oversimplify for purposes of this blog, Protestants tend to either believe that the souls of the dead remain unconscious until Judgment Day (not terribly helpful for a writer of ghost stories) or get shipped off to either Heaven or Hell right after death. Not a lot of wiggle room for a writer of ghost stories.

Most of us who write spook stories avoid even implicit religious issues. There are exceptions.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that the recent film Possession is about a rabbi attempting to exorcise a dybbuk that has possessed a child.

Russell Kirk’s story “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” operates very much within a High Episcopal/Anglo-Catholic religious world view. It is about a contemporary priest in an inner-city church who finds himself at war with the damned souls of a vicious street gang.

A somewhat less clear-cut case that I’ve decided to include is Joyce Carol Oates’s splendid story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly.” It’s The Turn of the Screw told from the point of view of the ghosts. Particularly as regards Miss Jessel, it conveys the horror and degradation of damnation in especially visceral and disturbing terms.

In case you have never heard of it, for my money the best film adaption (with the creepiest children) of The Turn of the Screw is the 1961 movie The Innocents. The screenplay was written by Truman Capote. Yes, that Truman Capote. Actors get all the attention in movie land, but a good screenplay is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Happy Holidays!


2 thoughts on “Ghosts on Christmas Eve

  1. Pingback: Ghosts On Christmas Eve « Romancing the Bee

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