The Turn of the Screw, Op.54 “Interlude Variation III Scene 4 The Tower”
Benjamin Britten


“Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo”
Théodore Chassériau.

My juniors are reading the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw. The music is from an opera by Benjamin Britten based on the novella. One of the things I enjoy about this book is how it plays against the conventions of the traditional ghost story. The first two sightings of the ghost of Peter Quint take place in the daytime, the first sighting on a sunny summer afternoon. The music has a melancholy flavor to it throughout but the opening section suggests sunshine and sultry summer weather, perhaps in part because it evokes, for me anyway, the “Morning” section of Edvard Grieg’s Peter Gynt Suite, which in turn suggests sunshine. As the music progresses it becomes more tense and takes a turn to the mysterious and ghostly.

I have always enjoyed ghost stories. I think from the popularity of ghosts in literature that I am not alone in this. The picture at the top is of the ghost of Banquo haunting Macbeth after Macbeth has orchestrated Banquo’s murder. From the dialog in the scene we know that the ghost is only visible to Macbeth and that the strange behavior the ghost evokes begins to cast suspicion upon Macbeth and the manner in which he ascended to the throne. Ghosts often serve that purpose. Ghosts make regular appearances in Shakespeare and attest to their popularity in Elizabethan culture.

Marley’s ghost, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol.
John Leech

Marley’s ghost is probably the most famous of literary ghosts, at least in the English speaking world. He appears at the beginning of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and gets the book’s festivities underway. He and the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are the only ghosts that frighten anyone, the others are much more gracious and friendly. Dickens’ tale also underscores another aspect of the ghost story, the tradition of telling a ghost story at Christmas time. James’ story also begins with a Christmas gathering that culminates with the telling of ghost stories.

Robertson Davies wrote a collection of Christmas ghost stories called High Spirits. They were selected from comic tales he told each Christmas to colleagues at the University where he worked and many of the ghosts were familiar characters to the faculty. The stories in this collection suggest P. G. Wodehouse more than Edgar Allen Poe or the traditional view of the genre as one devoted to terror. In an interview with Terrence M. Greene shortly after the book was published, “Beyond the Visible World” (pp 220-223 of the web page if you get lost) Davies talks about ghost stories and the role of ghosts in literature and their associations with evil. He thinks many tellers of ghost stories try too hard to scare the reader and as a result write stories that are not that effective. But those storytellers that use ghosts well, like Shakespeare and Henry James, evoke the essence of evil and it is the presence of evil in the story that is frightening.

Those that have read the Harry Potter books, or Davies collection, realize that there is nothing inherently frightening in a ghost and that they do not have to be evil incarnate to capture a reader’s interest. I think Dickens’ ghost suggest that even when they terrify they can be in the service of virtue and the good. But where they represent evil they are terrifying. In the case of Macbeth the ghost reflect Macbeth’s own actions and start him on his road to a tragic end. It is less clear where the evil lives in the story by James, but there is certainly a malevolent presence in the story.

Dickens Dream
Robert William Buss

This painting suggests the ways an author might be haunted by her or his own creations. In the painting Dickens appears to be haunted by the characters he has created, they seem to live not just in his imagination but inhabit the room in which he worked. This suggests there is more to being haunted than being visited by ghosts. Some may be haunted by memories of past actions, and as the painting suggest, those actions need not be acts that shame us. Dickens is surrounded by the “spirits” of his success. But there is something potentially dangerous in this kind of haunting in that it can result in a satisfaction with the past that interferes with the future and produces stagnation.

The more troubling hauntings, though, are those of past failures or moral lapses that haunt a person and do a bit of damage to the psyche. Some of this damage may be deserved and even necessary if one is to go on to enjoy a happy existence. There are things in all of our lives, I suppose, that must be expiated. There is a poem by William Butler Yeats that captures the essence of this kind of haunting. It addresses the way those involved in the Easter 1916 insurrection at Dublin’s General Post Office were treated after the insurrection was put down. The poem is titled ” The Ghost Of Roger Casement”. Roger Casement was involved in the rebellion and was executed by the British. This execution and others like it that were carried out too quickly many believe by the British and it came back to haunt them later.

“The Ghost Of Roger Casement”
O what has made that sudden noise?
What on the threshold stands?
It never crossed the sea because
John Bull and the sea are friends;
But this is not the old sea
Nor this the old seashore.
What gave that roar of mockery,
That roar in the sea’s roar?

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull has stood for Parliament,
A dog must have his day,
The country thinks no end of him,
For he knows how to say,
At a beanfeast or a banquet,
That all must hang their trust
Upon the British Empire,
Upon the Church of Christ.

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull has gone to India
And all must pay him heed,
For histories are there to prove
That none of another breed
Has had a like inheritance,
Or sucked such milk as he,
And there’s no luck about a house
If it lack honesty.

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

I poked about a village church
And found his family tomb
And copied out what I could read
In that religious gloom;
Found many a famous man there;
But fame and virtue rot.
Draw round, beloved and bitter men,
Draw round and raise a shout;

The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

John Bull is the British version of Uncle Sam; he is the persona of the British Empire. In the poem wherever he goes Roger Casement haunts him, not literally the ghost of the man but the story of the man’s treatment. It follows John Bull and affects the way he is received when he travels abroad. This haunting reminds us that actions have consequences and that we need to learn to think before we act. I think ghosts are often educational and sent to us, like Marley’s ghost, to aid in our reform.

The Canterville Ghost
Sony Pictures

Perhaps there is nothing more humiliating for a ghost than the inability to scare people. That is one problem the ghost in the film has. The ghost in this story, like many literary ghosts, desires only to be set free, that is, to be able to go to his rest and be relieved from the tedious and tiring work of haunting folks. Marley would like to go to his rest; the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present both go to their rest. The Ghost of Christmas Future, though, is different. He like Marley’s ghost is frightening and he like Marley’s ghost has no rest to go to. Past is past and the present becomes past, but the future always lies ahead and it is in the future that those things we have done that trouble us come to haunt our existence. Perhaps for the religious the rite of confession can put these ghosts to rest, but for the more secular other avenues need to be found.

In James’ story the ghosts might, as is Banquo’s ghost, be a figment of the governess’s imagination. They may not be real. Their presence enables the governess to excel at a job, if only in her own mind. But the consequences of her personal haunting have an evil stamp to them even if the governess herself is not evil. If the ghosts are not real her actions are criminal. The criminal acts the product of a troubled mind. But how do we counter an evil that lives inside us that we do not recognize and that goads us, as in the case of the governess, to actions that in their intent are good and virtuous. That is perhaps the most gruesome aspect of this particular haunting; that the ghosts in their defeat triumph. Perhaps the real terror is the undisciplined mind that is unaware of its limitations.

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12 thoughts on “Hauntings

  1. I have never enjoyed ghost stories, I can still enjoy stories and novels that contain ghosts, but I have never found a story based solely on the existence of ghosts that I have enjoyed. I have read the Harry Potter series, and due to the fact that the ghosts are not significant characters, I enjoyed the series immensely. I did not enjoy reading “The Turn of the Screw”, I did not find the story interesting, the ghosts were never proved to be real, and Miles died suddenly in the end. I have also read “Macbeth” and found it to be a less then interesting play. The whole play focuses on Macbeth as he lost more and more of his mind. The appearance of Banquo was just another piece of evidence that Macbeth was insane.
    I have never found ghosts interesting, partly because they are not real, and partly because they have no interesting characteristics other then the total lack of body parts. They do not breath fire, live underwater, have x-ray vision, or contain any fantastic quality. Ghosts were invented to spice up horror stories when in fact they do the complete opposite. They can not cause any harm to anyone other then the person who supposedly sees them, and the fact that the person sees them to begin with proves them to be insane, and not worth listening to.

  2. I suppose like many things it is a matter of what interests you. I think characters that are insane where a manifestation of the madness is seeing things that aren’t there, like ghosts, can be interesting characters. The reader is not expected to believe in the ghost, in fact they are expected not to, it is the working of the mind that captures the interest, not necessarily the ghost.

    J. D. Wilson, Jr.

  3. I love ghost stories. Some may be cheesy but they always grab your attention and you want to know more about the plot of the story. It’s also interesting to know about the ghost past life. Like why is its soul still on earth, were they bad humans, did they murder anyone, or perhaps they were murdered.
    I too enjoy the Harry Potter series with the ghost and the gouls. All the ghost have quirky personalities.

  4. In literature, ghosts can evoke the essence of evil if they are used well. When I first started thinking about ghosts and their effectiveness in stories, they seemed foolish, because they can’t harm you. They aren’t real, and they don’t have any body parts. They simply are just there. But now I realize, that that’s what is so creepy about them. The fact that they ARE there. You don’t know when to expect them, and they are a symbol of death. You can’t kill them, and be free from there presence, because they are already dead. And there really isn’t an explaination as to why they might be there. In most stories, you are the only one who sees them, and is haunted by them. No one believes you. You are alone. People could be haunted of past memories, thing they regret, or something terrible that happened. It’s a slow and painful process, and the constant remindings could drive the person to death. Since you may not always see them, you feel like it’s all in your head, and you wonder what is real and what is not.

  5. I have always found ghost stories to be quite frightening despite the fact that I do not believe in apparitions. Even “The Turn of The Screw” gave me some shivers. I believe that ghosts have the tendency to be so alarming because they represent death. They embody something that people fear most.
    Ghosts have been both represented as bad and good which causes people to be suspicious and maybe less scared at times. I feel as though the main reason they cause so much panic is because they are truly a mystery. They float and fly, have no body parts, and can go through objects. The fact that all of these things are unnatural causes people much despair. They have also been typified as torturous creatures because of their habit of haunting people. This habit can be so frightening that it could cause someone to go mad.

  6. Ghosts have always fascinated me. Whether they have been in ghosts stories or just life in general. I think many people are so interested by the mysterious figures becasue they are so complex but yet so simple. They are a symbol of death. A figure that has merely passed on and then has found the way and strength to enter back into this world. In a way it is frightening because we dont know why these figures are here and they are so difficult to understand. Are they here to haunt us or is it to speak with us and tell us of something of great importance? While reading Turn of the Screw i found it completely impossible to put down. I was so interested in the book and was so curious as to when the ghosts were to appear next. i wanted to know about the ghosts purpose and what they were trying to say. So many people crave to understand and know more about these entities. They are a mystery, capturing fear and fascination.

  7. I have always been interested in ghost stories and some are more frightening than others. As I read a Christmas Carole by Charles Dickens I was never afraid of the ghosts that appeared to Scrooge I was more frightened by the lesson it gives to what would happen to you if you were a horrible person. On the other hand I found “The Turn of the Screw” a very scary story due to the fact that everything appeared to be psychological. It was hard to tell if the ghosts were just in the governess’s mind or not since she was the one telling the stories. In scary stories I find that psychological stories are more frightening than anything else. For example the movie Psycho scared me especially at the end when you find out the the guy has two personalities. Things like this could really happen when people have chemical imbalances in their brains which is a lot scarier than a ghost.

  8. Horror stories and movies have always been my some of my favorites. To me, reading a ghost story is not nearly as good as watching a ghost story. Ghost movies, such as Poltergiest, are my second favorite type of movie. By far my favorite ghost movie would be “House on Haunted Hill.” First of all, it involves my favorite horror actor, Vincent Price, but also, much like “Turn of the Screw,” you must decide for yourself if the house is truely haunted or it is a scam. I will not spoil the ending, but it is in fact very compelling. Even moreso than ghost stories, I like stories of insanity. Another Vincent Price movie, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” based off of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, was very interesting to me as well. You could see as the movie progressed that Price’s character started to lose touch with reality little by little. Seeing the development of his psyche can be almost bone chilling. But truely, my favorite horror film of all time would have to be psycho. As a younger child, around 12 or 13, I was completely terrified of the movie. You do not find out the identity of the murderer until the end of the movie, and it’s painstaking to try to not know. This just, I think, shows the key to a good horror movie. Not just to jump out and scare people intially, but to mess with how people think, and keep them guessing.

  9. Personally, I truthfully enjoy a good ghost story. I am drawn to plots of horror, and, typically, ghosts are associated with this genre. The thought of a ghost’s presence is especially disturbing to me. I think this is what captivates me in reading novels of this nature. I will say, though, that I do not believe in ghosts. When I common sense to surpass the intense imagination I possess, I am fully capable of understanding that ghosts are simply an unreal superstition. I have never seen a ghost, and I will never accept that they exist until I do.
    Secondly, I would like to say that I, too, enjoyed reading The Turn of the Screw mainly because it puts a twist on the average ghost story. The first unusual scene was most definitely when the governess witnessed the ghost of Peter Quint during hours of daylight. I had never before read any story in which the ghosts made their presence during the day. I think the fact that the details of The Turn of the Screw were so subtly unique aroused my suspicion and attention immensely.

  10. Like most of my peers here, I enjoy a good ghost story every once in a while. I haven’t read many ghost stories that provoke a significant amount of fear in me, but i still enjoy them. When we read ghost stories, most of the time the ghosts are portrayed as particularly evil or the bad guy, but few chances are they portrayed as a good character. About a year ago I watched the movie “The Messengers.” This movie is about a psycho husband who killed his family, but never left the house. The ghosts of his family were still there, but they were there to warn the new family that the man that was helping them was actually the man who had killed them years before. When he went psycho again, the ghosts killed him and the family went unharmed. In this movie, the ghosts were portrayed as saviors as opposed to the normal bad guy.

  11. There’s something really mysterious about ghost stories that just pulls me in and makes me want to learn more. I think it’s probably because there is no definite explanation for anything having to do with supernatural things that makes me interested. Ghosts are scary because you have no control over them. Nothing can be proven about ghosts, so anything you believe in your own mind can basically be considered true. The fact that spirits can neither be proven true nor false leaves a feeling of fear and unsureness that is very eerie. In most literature ghosts are used to scare people that they are just naturally considered bad, when in reality, they are harmless.

  12. Umm……. First of all i didnt know Tracey Perez liked ghost stories because im sure Casper wasnt a fan of Lil Wayne so i dont know how those two common interests go together..

    Also I believe all ghosts are not evil. You have the event of Casper and maybe more ghosts are like him. But i have yet to have encountered a ghost so honestly i dont come to believe in ghosts. ONLY MEN ARENT AFRAID OF GHOSTS

    PS. It was an honor to finally meet the man they call Mr. Wilson

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