Reflections on the Ghost as a Representative 21st Century “Monster”

19 10 2010

[written by author, editor and reviewer, Robert Hood]

If the Monster in fiction (and hence film) takes a form that becomes symbolically resonant of particular periods of social history, then broadly (and simplistically) it might be said that witches (and demons) are Mediaeval (the conflict of Church, the old religions and to some extent the State), werewolves are late feudal (the tension between the New World and the Old — the Beast that still lurks within), vampires are Victorian (reflecting the dominance of the middle classes and their struggle for power against the old aristocratic social structures), giant monsters are post-World War (and meditate on the rise of Science and Technology) and apocalyptic flesh-eating zombies channel late 20th century consumerist angst. What then is the iconic monster of the 21st Century, the creature that has, during this century’s first decade, been most successfully molded by the creators of popular entertainment into a symbol of the time?

The zombie remains a definite contender, going on the sheer volume of popular works — books and films — that feature the post-Romero cannibalistic living dead. As such it has been somewhat re-defined beyond the 20th Century consumerist view of the zombie made popular by George Romero’s 1970s-80s films, particularly Dawn of the Dead (1978). The consumerism aspect has been extended in the sense that it increasingly depicts the rise of a non-spiritual materialism — an abandonment of spirit in favour of the flesh. Clive Barker once described the modern zombie as immortality without religious belief.

The zombie subgenre also resonates with a concern that is prevalent in modern horror generally: a fear of viral contagion. Vampires have a viral aspect, but it tends to be played down in favour of other themes (especially since the rise of Twilight’s “new-age” blood-suckers). In zombies the fear of an unstoppable plague has achieved some sort of apotheosis. Films such as 28 Days Later…, and even such inventive re-inventions as Pontypool, are all about uncontrollable infection.

However, despite the contemporary upsurge in zombie films, I would argue that there are two other iconic monsters vying for the rule of monsterdom in the post-millennial period. One is the serial killer, a real-life phenomenon that has been thoroughly mythologised on film and in literature over the years. As a monster, the serial killer/slasher goes back many decades, to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and beyond — in its modern form, probably to the later films of Bava and then to Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), which fuelled the proliferation of slasher films, even if the tropes appeared earlier. The 1990s were full of them. Now we’re seeing their resurgence in the form of both remakes and originals. Silence of the Lambs and Thomas Harris’ subsequent Hannibal Lecter novels and the films they spawned introduced a level of malevolent intelligence into an image of “the serial killer” that had previously been merely physical and rather mindless. Now we have a whole slew of high profile “killers” that range from Hannibal Lecter through to the mutant cannibals of the The Hills Have Eyes remake, the red-neck maniacs of Rob Zombie’s films and the sadistic torture pornographers of Saw and Hostel. They’ve even become the “subject” of TV shows (such as Dexter). Apparently they’re everywhere. I would, rather contentiously perhaps, say that politically motivated fearmongering in regards to terrorism has played a huge role in molding this “monster in our midst”. At the moment, however, despite its box-office ubiquity I don’t feel that the serial killer/slasher is capturing our time with any great originality. Most of the films feel like earlier exploitation films with high-tech upgrades.

No, for me the most iconic “monster”, the one that is capturing a huge part of the spirit of the 21st Century as we have seen it so far, is the ghost. Ghosts of all persuasions have undergone a massive renaissance, producing not only significant books, but more films than all the others combined — not to mention TV series such as Medium, Supernatural and — the best of the lot, in my opinion — the UK series Afterlife.

Central to the upsurge in major ghost films has been the influence of Asian, and specifically Japanese, horror. When Ringu (1998) hit the scene it re-energised horror films generally, and dragged them into the mainstream box-office in a way we hadn’t seen for a long while, bringing with it a malicious haunting that utilized the technology of our time. Ju-on: the Grudge and its many progeny followed, and brought with them successful ghost films from Hong Kong, Thailand and Korea — the Hollywood remakes inevitably followed. Somewhere in the early inspirational mix, though, there was The Sixth Sense (1999) with its “I see dead people” plotline. The enormous and unexpected success of that film worldwide was as influential as the Ring cycle. These films arguably created an aesthetic than is still functioning, despite signs of stagnation, and has led to the rule of the ghost. And that aesthetic is quite different from that of ghost films of previous eras.

The 21st Century ghost has, in fact, subsumed its rivals. In its Asian form it brought zombiesque viral fears into the ghost story, without that subgenre’s visceral contempt for the flesh. Traditionally ghosts were very limited in their influence, usually seeking revenge on specific guilty individuals or the progeny of those who had brought about their deaths or otherwise wronged them. Either that, or their spheres of influence were localised, restricted to the environment in which they had lived or died (the classic haunted house scenario). There were instances of a wider vengeance, however, especially over time, as well as hints of the possibility of a viral “spread”, as in the conclusion of Stephen Volk’s TV drama Ghostwatch (1992), which had the sort of effect on its audience last seen in Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of War of the Worlds (1938). This, as well as Ringu, showed that the ghost could represent fear of our dependence on and obsession with technology as well, as the modern ghost seems quite comfortable with using television, photography (Shutter), the internet (Kairo, Watch Me, FeardotCom), mobile phones (One Missed Call, Phone) and even cinema (as in the Thai film Coming Soon) to destroy us. The underlying fear is obvious: what if we can’t contain the negative aspects of the technology that we’ve so thoroughly woven into our lives?

There’s more. The ghost story is classically about the persistence of the influence of the past. Metaphorically the subgenre explores guilt and the knowledge that the past lingers as an influence we have to deal with – one we may not be able to deal with. The current ghost film has taken this one step further in that in stories such as that of Sadako and The Grudge and many more since those the vengeance unleashed by past sins is frighteningly indiscriminate. Not only the guilty suffer, but the dire consequences extend to society in general. More widely the prevalence of vengeful spectral women and children in Asian films reflects a feeling that socially we are at a crossroads. In these films, the traditional social (specifically family) structure has broken down and yet lingers on in an inability to find a new way to heal the psychic trauma of the breakdown. Likewise films such as the apocalyptic Kairo (the original and infinitely superior Japanese version of Pulse) reflect the alienation caused by urban life and technological advancement. It is here that the most iconic of the ghost films have found a strong voice for our post-millennium anxieties.

Moreover, recent ghosts in cinema have become more than diaphanous spectres that prey on guilt and attack victims through the sort of classic numinous dread that is characteristic of ghosts. The new breed are often brutal and visceral in their attack, slaughtering their victims (who are often chosen randomly or, as in One Missed Call, via aspects of the technology they are using to haunt us) and dispensing the sort of extreme violence that we associate with serial killers and political/religious extremists. In this way ghosts become the serial killers we talked about earlier. They are spiritual terrorists, as elusive and as incomprehensible as al Queda, and as such express all those fears that were activated post 9-11.

Lastly, of course, the current popularity of ghost films also reflects conflicted attitudes to traditional matters of life, death and the “Eternal Truths” — as rational and spiritual views of reality vie for dominance within our materialist society. It’s a two-edged sword. TV shows such as The Ghost Whisperer perpetually assure the viewer than death is not the end, that we can take comfort in the knowledge that life continues after death. Ghost stories generally offer this re-assurance, of course, but more commonly it is hard to find solace in the knowledge, as the afterlife as often as not proves to be as conflicted as life and frequently offers hellish vengeance and demonic confrontation as an eternal truth. In Medium the conduit of ghostly communications might have found a legalistic niche as well as a structure of support via the family and the DA’s Office, but in shows such as Stephen Volk’s Afterlife seeing the dead only leads to pain, alienation and emotional dysfunction. Not very comforting.

[Note: this article is based on one that first appeared on The Talking Squid website on 4th October 2007.]

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