Midwinter Chills: Ghastly Ghosts and Comical Phantoms

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It’s the middle of winter in Melbourne and there have been icy winds, frosts and dull days. A good time for ghost stories as these are so much more enjoyable when it’s dark and cold. Reading a modern ghost story has brought back memories of the classic old spooky tales, which I have always loved. Not all are serious and a bit of humor is needed when it is chilly. These stories stimulate the imagination and have led to endless interpretations of this intangible world.

Belief in the supernatural has provided plenty of material for artists and writers over the centuries. Shakespeare gives a chilling account of a ghostly apparition in the form of Hamlet’s murdered father, which has given visual artists inspiration for some beautiful illustration.

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In the 19th century ghost stories were very popular. They were so much more convincing at a time without electric light. In winter one could imagine terrible spectres lurking in the dark of night. Some of the stories are quite creepy, like those by the Irish author, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, who wrote some truly disturbing tales. A couple about haunted houses, like An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Anger Street (1851) and An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, are full of terrible apparitions and shadowy figures on the walls (click on titles to read stories). Read these late at night when the wind is howling for full effect.

Ghostly legends can also be very funny. The Ingoldsby Legends (1840) by Thomas Ingoldsby (Rev Richard Harris Barham) contains many humorous stories and poems about ghosts. Tales such as The Spectre of Tappington; The Ghost; The Legend of Hamilton Tighe; and The Dead Drummer are accompanied by quirky black and white illustrations (click on titles to read stories), which include skeletal spectres, headless figures and phantoms done by well-know artists of the time. These stories are wonderful parodies of ghostly folklore.

Another writer and illustrator who dealt with ghosts in a humorous way was W S Gilbert, the lyricist of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta fame. His collection of poems, Fifty “Bab” Ballads (1884) contains a nonsensical poem that I have included below called The Ghost, the Gallant, the Gael and the Goblin, complete with Gilbert’s (Bab) delightful drawings. It’s about competitive haunting that does not go to plan. A very quaint story with the witty use of words you would expect from the man who wrote, “I am the very model of a modern major-general, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…etc.

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Probably the most famous ghost story of the 1900s is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. We have a copy from the 1890s that has drawings by Fred Barnard, who was one of the illustrators of Dickens works. The grotesque depiction of Marley’s ghost became the prototype for many film versions of the tale. Michael Hordern as the tormented Marley in the 1951 version of Scrooge starring Alistair Sim, seems to have stepped out of the illustration. Below is a colourized version of the scene.

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The magic of film has made it possible to depict transparent ghosts and ghastly hauntings. From the earliest days of film we can see attempts to bring the spectral world alive for the viewer often with unintentionally hilarious results, as for example in George Melies The Haunted Castle, 1896.

Since then there have been some very terrifying movies, such as The Haunting (1963), with its horrifying haunted house. You would not want to watch this one alone on a dark winters night. It uses sound to a frightening degree (warning: even the trailer is really chilling). Often films that leave much to the imagination are scarier than those with lots of special effects because of the mystery.

There have also been many entertaining comedy films about ghosts, such as Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennet, a hilarious story about a dead married couple haunting a crusty old bachelor that lead to some ridiculous situations.

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Plains of the Darling, NSW, detail by Edward Officer

In Australia there are old bush ballads about ghosts, such as the swagman who haunts the billabong in Waltzing Matilda (Matilda was his swag, not a woman). Like Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the idea of a ghostly horseman riding through the countryside has also peaked Australian writer’s imaginations. One of my favorites is the poem Rafferty Rides Again (1940) by Thomas V Tierney about a bushranger’s ghost that is seen riding in the bush on moonlit nights. As it is still in copyright click on title for a link to the poem. The song Ghost Riders in the Sky is in this tradition and Johnny Cash does a great version.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, in wintertime it is fun to read or watch spooky stories, especially when you are inside near a fire or heater and you know you can turn up the lights any time you like.

And what better way to end this post than with Australia’s Kransky Sisters, singing Talking Heads Psycho Killer as only they can.

Kat

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