Death, decay and ghosts

Posted by Matt Foley on November 25, 2009 in Blog tagged with
I am thinking quite a lot just now about death – not an easy task. Obviously, I am thinking about death for a reason (my thesis on haunting) and not just suffering from a dose of melancholia (though, if it rains anymore this week in Stirling I think that could be on the cards). Although the word ‘death’ implies some sort of experience, death in itself is quite unimaginable, and in life we are completely barred access to it. Indeed, the supposed binary opposition between life and death is a kind of imaginary hoax as – given its total inaccessibility – death as an experience does not exist for the living.
In the midst of the existential difficulty of thinking about death one thing seems quite clear to me. Namely, that whenever we discuss death we are always talking about something else. We are not talking about death the experience but imagined representations of it (things like purgatory, heaven, hell) or the physicality of what death does to the human body (i.e. representations of the corpse). Even at a funeral the eulogies tend, with the slow and steady decline of religious ceremonies in the West, to focus on the experiences of the dead when they were alive.
Here I would like to think about representations of the corpse, the physicality of death but always an Other to the living, in terms of apparitions. What is the effect when the apparition has full human form but is mutilated in death? Also, what is the effect of the apparition’s appearance being untouched and unblemished? I would like to suggest some ideas below.
Firstly, dealing with the apparition whose form is a mutilated corpse, I would like to turn to The Sixth Sense and one of its more powerful scenes. Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette are stuck in traffic, due to a road accident, only for the excruciatingly mature and insightful Osment to be confronted by the full horror of the accident’s victim (this is a longish scene but the ghost appears around 1.55 very briefly and the discussion after is of interest).


Here, the vacancy of the ghost suggests that it is simply a vehicle (no pun intended) for presenting the audience with the horror of the body and creates significations of death or at least our own subjective imagining of death.
The discussion in the second half of the scene where Osment mentions that he chews the fat with his dead granny nicely move us on to the subject of the ethical apparition; a ghost with a message from beyond to guide the living and whose function is primarily not to terrify but to pass on information. Again, the first thing that comes to my mind is slightly odd but it serves the purpose. In Star Wars Alec Guinness returns as a mentor to Luke to provide support and information. His body has not decayed in death and so his integrity also seems to remain intact. There is a sort of etheral glow that surrounds him but this adds to his omniscience (unfortunately I can’t find the proper scene so this is an edited version with fan-inserted flashbacks but you get the idea):


Of course, Star Wars is not unique in calling upon the trope of the ethical apparition. Shakespeare employs it in Hamlet where the apparition of King Hamlet in the opening scene is only very mildly terrifying. Confronted by the apparition, the watchmen and Horatio focus more on discovering the message they instinctively feel the ghost carries from his enigmatic origins. Kenneth Branagh, though, obviously felt that a ghost should be scary and so his film version of Hamlet furnishes the ghost with not only a simulation of deathly paleness but with some piercing blue eyes and a robotic voice that sounds like Cher with a hangover:

The paleness of the ghost suggests a corpse not freshly dead but there is no extreme decay. King Hamlet’s appearance is enough, though, to generate some sort of terror. Perhaps Hamlet’s fear of the ghost nicely fits with the uncertainty over the ethical apparition’s revelation of brotherly murder that requires conformation in the play within a play.
This has just really been a series of observations and some more thought is needed before constructing a persuasive argument to link everything together. In general, though, does the presentation of the body of the apparition reflect our own attempts of approaching the unapproachable experiencing of death? Or is there something else going on?



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