Chapter Five | Coda


From its inception, revenge tragedy made of itself a highly self-aware, metatheatrical, self-commenting genre. Later characters such as Beatrice-Joanna and Hamlet display remarkable interiority and psychological depth, but they are always also performances just as much as the heavily ritualized Richard III is, or the rhetorically formal Hieronimo. Jacobean playwrights are as fascinated as Kyd and Shakespeare by the metatheatrical possibilities of the genre.

The eight plays discussed in this dissertation are only a partial selection of the genre's breadth and diversity. George Chapman, John Marston, and John Webster (to name but three) each took the genre in a different direction and used it to address different concerns. But these eight plays allow us to gain a broad sense of the ways in which revenge tragedy generates horror and the ways in which it uses ghosts.

Kyd's Andrea is the most structurally Senecan of the ghosts in this study. Like Senecan ghosts, he serves as prologue; Kyd's aemulatio assimilates him as the chorus as well. Andrea is overtly structural in another way, accompanied as he is by the allegorical and metatheatrical figure of Revenge. Together, they stand outside the action of the play, observers rather than participants.

Andrea is also perhaps the least overtly horrifying of revenge tragedy ghosts, precisely because of his structural and metatheatrical functions. If he horrifies us--and I have argued that he does--it is because of his character, his vengefulness, not because of his status as a ghost.

My chapter about Richard III and Lavinia in Titus Andronicus argued for two nominally living characters as ghosts, and these two characters are the principal sources of horror in their respective plays, Richard as villain and Lavinia as victim. But both plays also have an uneasy relationship with the dead; the ritual procession of ghosts at the end of Richard III and the ritual slaying of Alarbus to pacify the potential ghosts of the Andronici both attest to the desire for mediation between living and dead, for interactions to be structured and limited. Richard and Lavinia horrify precisely because, like ghosts, they collapse the boundary between the living and the dead, because they combine in their persons characteristics of each without benefit of mediation or distance.

The Ghost in Hamlet is at once the most complicated and the most straightforward ghost in this study. On the one hand, the Ghost abides by the folkloric rules of ghosthood: walking by night, refusing to speak to any except his closest living kin, appointing a task. But the Ghost, as I argued, is also the avatar of revenge tragedy within the play; he carries layers upon layers of overdetermination on psychological, structural, generic, and thematic levels. This seemingly straightforward ghost is also a bewildering collection of ambiguities, as shown by the critics who have argued for centuries about whether he is ghost or demon. The Ghost is a spectacle of horror, an overloaded nexus of meanings and paradoxes.

Jacobean revenge tragedy displays a shift from ghosts as sources of horror to ghosts as products of horror. The ghost by this time was a familiar staple of revenge tragedy; playwrights turn elsewhere to find dramatic power. Rather than being horrifying in themselves, ghosts such as Montferrers and the Lady merely point toward D'Amville and the Tyrant as the true sources of horror. Their role is less structural than that of Andrea, Richard, Lavinia, or the elder Hamlet, who shape the stories that surround them as much as they are shaped by them; Montferrers and the Lady also have less ritual surrounding them. They are far less opaque. Charlemont and Govianus do not have to wonder what the ghosts want, as Titus and Marcus must puzzle out Lavinia's meaning; Montferrers and the Lady speak plainly and without ambiguity.

The situation in The Changeling is complicated by the fact that the actual ghost appears only briefly in dumb show, with his brother taking over most of the functions of haunting. Horror in The Changeling, too, is more diffuse, save for the grisly murder of Piracquo itself. What horrifies us is less what happens than the reasons behind the characters' actions. Here, too, the conventions of the genre lead us to expect the grisly and ghastly; we are mentally prepared for that kind of horror before the play begins. The Piracquo brothers, artifacts of revenge tragedy as a genre, serve mostly to show that The Changeling is interested in something else, some other source of horror that is less expected and therefore more powerful.

With The Revengers Tragedy, we find ourselves in a world where there are no ghosts because, as Lindley argues, there is no past. The material skull brought on stage is a signifier controllable by the revenger, who can use it, not merely as a representation of his dead beloved and a philosophical memento mori, but also as a property in his deceit. It is the truly voiceless dead, without the agenda or subject-position expressed by ghosts such as Andrea, Hamlet's father, and even Montferrers. The past is reduced to the mute and inanimate skull of Gloriana; the horror in the play does not come from the pressure of the past upon the present but precisely because there is no sense of either past or future, merely this endless present of depravity and predation. The play does not have the energy to manifest a ghost; the world and the genre are both, in this imagining of them, worn-out, exhausted, depleted, a sterile mocking ritual whose only goal and glory is death.

Thus, ghosts can serve a multitude of purposes, both in their presence and in their absence. They represent the past; they are a metaphor for the workings of memory, both cultural and personal. Beginning with the Reformation, the cultural work done by ghosts changes, shifting from an emphasis on the functions and functioning of community to an emphasis on the plight of the outsider, but ghosts always signal a rupture of the boundary between the natural and the supernatural, and thus always mark an eruption of horror, even if they themselves are not its primary source. The presence of the ghost is caused by category violation, the psychological state of abjection; they haunt because something else in the world of the play is out of balance.

Ghosts are thus a heuristic device. By reading for the figure of the ghost, we can also read through the figure of the ghost. As my discussions of Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and The Revengers Tragedy have shown, the category of "ghost," itself a violable one, can be just as importance in its absence as in its presence; moreover, as a structural category, it need not be filled by a literally ghostly character. Haunting is always also metaphorical, always a way to talk about something else. Hauntings are themselves haunted with the overdetermined meanings that accrete to them, and thus, in this instability of meaning, they trope the category violations that they represent.

This principle applies broadly to the monsters of the horror genre. Modern horror films with a Senecan sensibility, such as Le Pacte des Loups (The Brotherhood of the Wolf 2001) and Ginger Snaps (2000), use their black half-camp, half-tragic ethos to critique social structures, as Seneca and the early modern English playwrights did before them. The supernatural maps onto the social; the ruptures in the natural order are both echoing and echoed by ruptures in the social order. Modern Senecanism is less likely to involve ghosts as it is to invoke other, more blatant kinds of category violation, such as werewolves, vampires, and zombies: creatures which embody transgression materially rather than spectrally.

I would argue that this change from the ghostly to the bodily starts with Mary Shelley and Frankenstein (1819). Her Creature, after all, is a composite of dead bodies returned to a sort of life--and all of her most vividly ghastly descriptions focus around those bodies and the process of their reanimation--although the consciousness inhabiting this collage seems to be new rather than itself a revenant. It is worth remarking that the infamous Burke and Hare flourished in the decade following the publication of Frankenstein--not because there is any connection between them and Shelley, but because the success of their scheme was based on anatomists' demand for corpses. The bodies of the dead were becoming a source of fascination.

The nineteenth century also saw the rise of Spiritualism, which envisions the dead as incorporeal, although capable of manifestation on the material plane, and benevolent. Ghosts had less cultural power as objects of fear (although they were certainly not entirely bereft of the charge of the unheimlich), and thus the fear of death and the dead reoriented away from the spirits of the dead and toward their bodies. Thus the remarkable fad for vampires in the 1880s and 1890s.

In Eastern European folklore, vampires are no more than animate corpses, insatiably hungry for the life they no longer have. They are frightening but also pathetic, homicidal but stupid. As the idea made its way west, though, the figure of the vampire began to change, to shift to meet different cultural needs. It went through the algorithm of Byronism, and what emerged from the other side was Count Dracula. The vampire becomes seductive, a symbol for all sorts of things repressed and feared by Victorian society: social upheaval, racial tension. Vampires are inherently Freudian; they embody the return of the repressed on as many levels as one cares to count. The most powerful in Dracula itself is women's sexuality--thus the weight of horror behind the transformation of Lucy Westenra from ingenue to literal femme fatale.

Vampires are not merely the spirits of the dead; they are the dead walking among us, who can touch us, talk to us, kill us. Werewolves, likewise, can pass in human society, only revealing their inner monstrosity under the full moon. We are frightened of their materiality. Vampires and werewolves, like Frankenstein's monster, are literal category violations. If we understand these monstrous figures in terms of the heuristic of ghosts this dissertation has developed, we see that the concerns of horror have not changed, and that the genre still operates much as it did at the turn of the seventeenth century.

The monsters in modern horror films, novels, and television shows fulfill many of the same functions as the ghosts of revenge tragedy. In many cases--the more or less material dead--they do so in very close parallel: Poltergeist (1982), for example, in which the supernatural transgressions besetting the protagonists are the result of a housing development being built on top of a graveyard. This choice of explanation resonates both with Greek and Roman concerns about burial and with the medieval community between living and dead so eloquently described by Eamon Duffy. Poltergeist is a warning about what happens when a society forgets what it owes its dead.

Other modern works of horror address different sites of instability. Flatliners (1990) is very specifically about the individual's relationship to his or her past, as the protagonists are haunted and harassed by the evidence of their own sins, both past and present.1 In the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), vampires can be read in terms of a whole host of different category violations, from sexual to social to racial. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies (series beginning in 1984), Senecan in their gruesome sense of humor, use the boundary between death and life to trope the boundary between sleep and waking. Moving away from the literal likeness to ghosts, the grotesquely lethal aliens in Alien (1979) (and Aliens [1986], Alien3 [1992] and Alien Resurrection [1997]) trope fears about the vulnerability of the body that both Seneca and Shakespeare would have recognized. The aliens use human bodies as incubators; the hatchlings rip their way out of the host's chest in a malevolent parody of birth. The Exorcist (1973), which also deals extensively in the violation of the body as category, works through the transgressive, nihilistic trope of demonic possession. Ginger Snaps uses its supernatural metaphor (the werewolf) to organize ideas about the construction of gender. The misfit protagonists, Brigitte and Ginger, reject everything to do with sexuality and social conformity; Ginger's infection with lycanthropy, coinciding as it does with the onset of menstruation, is specifically sexual, causing her to become both sexually attractive to boys who previously dismissed her as a freak, and sexually aggressive. Watching Ginger's metamorphosis through the eyes of her sister Brigitte, we see how femininity can be threatening, undesirable, even monstrous.

Applying the heuristic of the ghost to modern horror monsters also shows the way in which the fears embedded in the embodiment of category violation have changed. Ghosts are about the transgression of the boundary between life and death. Monsters--werewolves, vampires, zombies, parasitical aliens--also play along that boundary, but the cultural work they do is much more tied up in the boundary between the self and Other. Ghosts cannot reproduce themselves via the bodies of their victims. Modern monsters represent vividly the fear that that boundary between self and Other will not hold, that there will be slippage between the two. The integrity of the body is threatened and contested as much as it ever is in revenge tragedy, but along with that comes the threat to the integrity of the self. In the pilot of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the mentor-figure librarian warns the high-school-student protagonists that their friend who has become a vampire is no longer their friend: "Jesse is dead. You have to remember that if you see him. You're not looking at your friend. You're looking at the thing that killed him" (BtVS 1.2). The material body and the identity within it are no longer securely attached. Vampires are predators indistinguishable from their victims, because they are predators created from victims. The horror of werewolves is that twenty-seven days out of the month they are perfectly innocent, innocuous people. The monster cannot be detected, either by those around the werewolf or, frequently, by the werewolf's human side. Monsters can kill, but what makes them frightening is that they can alienate the body from the self, the self from itself.

Category violation, I have argued, is the fundamental basis of horror: the mixing of two things which human cosmology and epistemology insist ought to be kept separate. Thus the gruesomely happy synergy between the artistic goal of horror and the artistic form of Senecan tragedy, for that which powers the one is that which structures the other. Though Senecan tragedy is often dismissed by critics as having failed to achieve tragic decorum, the truth is that it refuses decorum of all kinds. It denies the jurisdiction of categorical thinking over its various enterprises.

This stance is particularly evident in the way horror treats the ideas of rules. Rules tend to be important in modern horror, precisely because they exist to be broken. Vampire fiction provides excellent examples of this, because vampire fiction is constructed out of rules. No other supernatural being is so hedged about with rules and regulations as the vampire is. Sunlight, silver, garlic, holy water, the Eucharist ... the restrictions on vampires are endless, which one would think would make them powerless and feeble. On the contrary, however, the endless permutations of the rules means that there are more weaknesses for vampires to exploit. The most horrifying moment in any vampire story is the moment at which the rule does not work. In Bram Stoker's novel Dracula (1895), for example, the men hang Lucy's room about with garlic, but Dracula gets in anyway, because Lucy's mother takes the nasty-smelling flowers down. In Fright Night (1985), which is an affectionately comic take on vampire films, the vampire hunter (Roddy McDowell), confronted with a vampire, whips out a cross. The vampire (Chris Sarandon) looks at him for a moment, and then laughs. "You must have faith for that to work," he says. The audience, along with McDowell's character, has believed that it understands the way the world works, that it knows the rules. This moment is the distilled essence of the ways in which modern horror and its monsters both use and violate definitional categories. The rules work, but only if you know all of them, or only if you can figure out how to translate them into modern terms. In Ginger Snaps, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Sam (Kris Lemche) end up making an injectable solution out of wolfsbane--which, in the winter setting of the movie, they can only acquire because Brigitte's mother brings dried wolfsbane home from the craft store. The rules which define categories in works of horror are as much impediments to the protagonists as they are threats to the monsters.

Modern horror, like Seneca's plays and early modern revenge tragedy, most frequently ends either without closure or without a "happy ending." In part, the refusal of closure is based in the insatiable appetite for sequels: Friday the 13th was at last count up to Part Ten, not counting the crossover Freddy vs. Jason (2003), which merges the Friday the 13th franchise and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Modern horror movies frequently refuse closure simply in order to leave a space open for another movie.

But modern horror also refuses closure for the same reasons as Jacobean tragedy. Senecan horror continues to push to or past the breaking point of the fictional communities it creates, and recuperation of community continues to be a very uncertain project. Victor Turner's idea of liminal vs. liminoid space helps to explain why the events of Senecan tragedy are so often irrecuperable. Unlike liminal activities, which are meant to return the participant to the same world which they left, the liminoid has no inherent need to return to the world at all. Instead, it enacts Armageddon, sometimes small-scale (the destruction of the individual, the family, the community), sometimes not (the end of the world, a nuclear holocaust, the annihilation of society in Night of the Living Dead [1968]), sometimes secular, sometimes religious, sometimes an uneasy blend of the two. In the aftermath, the survivors, if there are any, may be able to pick themselves up and go on, or they may, like Edgar and Albany at the end of King Lear, merely be left to wander forlornly through a world which has been emptied of meaning. It is the task of the audience to reassemble what the performance has disassembled, to strengthen our own community against the disintegration troped in Senecan horror by blood and rhetoric.


1. Rachel (Julia Roberts), the only woman, is also the only one haunted by someone else's transgression rather than her own: her father's suicide. Joe (William Baldwin) is not haunted by literal ghosts, but rather the tapes of himself having sex with his various girlfriends which he made without their consent or knowledge. David (Kevin Bacon) is haunted by a girl to whom he was cruel as a child, but disperses the apparition by finding and apologizing to the adult woman. Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland) is also haunted by a literal ghost: a boy whose death he caused. The apportioning of blame along sexual lines (Joe and David both victimize women; Rachel is blameless) is fascinating but sadly outside the scope of this particular argument.

Chapter Five | Coda

© Sarah Monette 2004     Feel free to link to this academic trial-by-ordeal, but please do not reproduce it without permission.