Image: Spectral apparition, who often appears attractive to the viewer but quickly morphs into a terrifying visage.
Power: Cthonic power, psychopomp, lightbearer.
Symbology: The clash between modern, scientific thought and faith or belief in the occult or what can’t be proven by science. Skeptics who encounter that which can’t be proven and must question their own experience/senses.
The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker
The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
The Tapestried Chamber by Sir Walter Scott
Unlike the fictional detective, who always knows what to look for and perceives hidden
meanings at a single glance, the fictional ghost-seer is typically caught in a disconcerting double bind between instinctive faith in the evidence of one’s sight and the troubling knowledge that vision is often deceptive and unreliable: a subject precariously positioned at the crossroads of ocularcentric faith and anti-ocularcentric skepticism.12 Reading Sir Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber” as an early and representative example of the genre, I will argue in what follows that the ghost story’s complex negotiations between faith and doubt in the epistemological value of sight are the result of an emerging crisis in early nineteenth-century discourse on vision, a crisis shaped by two related and concurrent developments: the rapidly declining influence of theology and metaphysical philosophy in forming popular thinking about visual perception, and the dissemination of ideas through physiological science about the fundamentally subjective character of human vision. He eventually admits that the real reason for his departure is that he had been visited by an apparition, a spectral woman with a “diabolical countenance” and “a grin which seemed to intimate the malice and the derision of an incarnate fiend.”15 As the other rooms had been occupied before Browne’s arrival, Woodville was forced to reopen the allegedly haunted chamber, but Browne’s unexpected visit, the nobleman later confesses, also “seemed the most favourable opportunity of removing the unpleasant rumours which attached to the room.” Browne, it turns out, had been the unwitting subject of an experiment, an ideal candidate for exorcising certain “unpleasant rumours,” since his “courage was indisputable, and [his] mind free of any pre-occupation with the
subject” (“T,” 139). Unfortunately, for Woodville, these rumors appear to be true after all; before taking his leave, Browne visits the Woodville gallery of family portraits where, in one painting, he immediately recognizes his spectral visitant: “‘There she is!’ he exclaimed, ‘there she is, in form and features, though inferior in demoniac expression to, the accursed hag who visited me last night.’” Woodville, previously a staunch skeptic on the subject of ghosts, is now satisfied that “there can remain no longer any doubt of the horrible reality of your apparition. That is the picture of a wretched ancestress of mine, of whose crimes a black and fearful catalogue is recorded in a family history in my charter-chest.” The narrative concludes with Browne’s hasty departure, and Woodville’s welladvised decision to reseal the haunted chamber and “restore it to the solitude to which the better judgment of those who preceded me had consigned it” What is “brought . . . into view,” both literally (through visual imagery) and figuratively (through verbal explication), ought to remain just barely visible, glimpsed rather than fully seen. Such a narrative must occupy a liminal space between expressions of faith and doubt, belief and skepticism, and it is precisely to the extent that it manages to maintain this liminality that the fiction succeeds or fails to do justice to Scott’s concept of the “marvellous.”
THE TROUBLE WITH GHOST-SEEING: VISION, IDEOLOGY, AND GENRE IN THE VICTORIAN GHOST STORY BY SRDJAN SMAJIC ELH 70 (2003) 1107–1135 © 2004 by The Johns Hopkins University Press