Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Articulating Absence: Ghosts in Disney Theme Parks

I came to this post, at a blog dedicated to exploring Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride, through JR's tumblr. The image there has a sort of sweet humor, its text (divorced of whatever context it initially appeared in) seeming beyond (in)sincerity. There's no reason to doubt that these diagrams are anything but in earnest, and yet, who has ever heard of a ghost ascending stairs that don't exist? Flying, certainly, but plodding up a no-longer-existent staircase?

Having never (at least that I can recall) actually been in Disney's Haunted Mansion, I'm not going to contribute to the debate about whether the attraction is more amenable to what HBG2 refers to as the "Spirit Possession paradigm" or the "Parallel World paradigm," but I would like to briefly discuss how these "paradigms" don't quite work, in my view, and again try to advance the way in which I've been prone to thinking about ghost stories for a little while now.

Here are HBG2's working definitions of the two paradigms:

Spirit Possession:
Quite simply, wicked spirits are out to get you. They want to take possession of your body. Failing that, they'll take an animal or even a building, but they want to move up to humans if they can.

Parallel World:
[G]hosts may continue to inhabit the world that was there, regardless of what is found there now.

I've been meaning to write, for a couple of years now, a coherent argument regarding representations of ghosts. The closest I've gotten is almost certainly the final paragraph of my post Unified (Gar)Field Theory; there are fragments in this comment I left here and a lot of this post, from the 14th paragraph until the weird occupy stuff at the bottom, but both of these are very specifically arguing about ways of reading the Haunted House, and so don't so much present a theory of ghosts as elaborate on a theory that I still have yet to present. For the record, my theory basically revolves around a reading of John Carpenter's The Fog, which has always seemed to me to be a film about the ways in which space itself attempts to become linguistic. Obviously this is something that needs a significant amount of explanation, that I'm just not going to be able to provide here.

Back to the two paradigms, though. It is fairly unsurprising when, at the end of the post, HBG2 concludes that, "P[arallel] W[orld] and S[pirit] P[ossession] are not mutually exclusive theories." In the context of the discussion he's intervening in around the Haunted Mansion, this is meant as a way to hold open ambiguities; he, like many interpreters and critics, wants to open up the possibilities of enjoyment of this ride, instead of foreclose them, and having (apparently) competing lenses allows this. To my mind, though, the reason that his two paradigms aren't mutually exclusive is kind of a lot easier -- it's because they're the same thing.

Well, not exactly. The "Parallel Worlds" theory is a lot more appealing to me, for instance, because the "Spirit Possession" theory smacks of that intolerable misunderstanding of ghosts as the products of "unfinished business." There's really no excuse for so direly misinterpreting what it is about ghosts that makes them compelling as that catchphrase does. It makes ghosts nothing but a narrative function, a conflict, a pending resolution, masquerading as an ontology. But the "Parallel Worlds" theory does this too, albeit in a slightly more clever way, reducing ghosts to the psychological or metaphysical. No matter which of the theories you choose, what you ultimately advocate is an understanding of ghosts as presences. Which is all well and fine, I suppose, if you want your frights wrapped in a nice little blanket of affirmation of your belief in immortal souls, or whatever. But that's fucking boring.

As I said in the Garfield post, "ghosts are absences of space, absences within space, that structure the space." The "Structuring Absence" theory of ghosts, I would argue, applies broadly across all ghosts, and touches on what is truly interesting about them. Because the second you start to think of ghosts as presences, and specifically as individualized presences, you lose the way in which they function not as the story, but of it. It is the story which shapes itself around the ghost, not the ghost which is the story -- unless we're talking Casper here, in which case we're just talking about the ghost as a purely aesthetic object.

The further I try to go here in articulating the idea, the more unmanageable this is going to become. So I'll try to just lay out a few ideas, necessarily underdeveloped, that I think are absolutely necessary to support my claim at a very basic level, and leave the heavy shit for later. I'll also try to tie this back into the Haunted Mansion post out of which this whole thing began, if only for my own sake.

It is, for me, impossible to overstate just how important the idea that Ghosts Are Space is. Because, for one thing, this goes very much against most of the received narrative wisdom of ghosts, which argues incessantly that ghosts are dead folks. And so they surely are, but they are dead folks in a very specific way, which is to say in their relation to space. Because ghosts haunt; in ceasing living, they cease to take up space, and instead constitute it. Whether they are rattling teacups or murdering interlopers, whether are motivated by redemption or revenge, what makes them ghosts is that they articulate a space. I actually kind of like "Articulating Absence" as the name for this theory of ghosts. Maybe we'll stick with that one.

That is precisely what ghosts do: they make a space speak, and they provide it with joints. They hinge space. The ghost is that space which fits together in such a way that its parts may move, and which through voice can define itself.

And so, to return at last to the Haunted Mansion. Despite never having been on the ride, it's my contention that the reason that the two proposed paradigms overlap so neatly is that they are both, as are most understandings of ghost stories, theories of the ghost as narrative function (which, to be entirely fair, is HBG2's entire point; I'm not so much arguing against his ideas here, at least I don't think so, as trying to use them as a springboard to talk about something else, as if that weren't obvious enough already). I am proposing, instead, that the psychological and metaphysical readings of ghosts that renders them narrative functions is wrongheaded, in that it doesn't come close to capturing the stuff that makes ghosts interesting beyond the particular narratives in which they are embedded, and that an alternative theory of ghosts is needed, which properly situates ghosts not within the psychological, but within the topological. Simply put: for the Haunted Mansion and for every other ghost story, it is not a question of whether the ghosts "possess" spaces, or whether it is a question of how they view spaces; the ghosts are themselves the spaces, or at least the absences which articulate them.