Thursday, March 02, 2006

Show Some Spirit

If you want to talk about the most popular horror archetype of all time you want to be talking about ghosts or spirits. People have talked to their dead relatives for as long as they've had dead relatives. Even as we have progressed from living in caves and worshipping the sun to splitting atoms and defining the rules of the universe we still have not shaken off the idea of the dead being aware of us and giving a care one way or the other. Such a thing generally means there is most certainly truth to it (or that is how most people consider the logic to go). Whether we believe in ghosts ourselves or not we certainly believe in our fiction that ghosts are necessary.

Spirits play important roles in our fiction and sometimes pop up in the strangest of places. Shakespeare had ghosts in his plays. Even Ally McBeal sees her dead friend Billy on occasion. The most common role of a spirit in the more "mainstream" fiction is that of a guidance councillor, a voice of warning, or an advocate of sense or morality. They also serve the same purposes and more in horror. In horror a spirit can be a harbinger of bad things to come. It can be an aggressor or an antogonist. It can even be a protagonist although usually not the main one. A spirit can even be a random agent unrelated to the rest of the story, or a peice of comic relief.

Spirits have all sorts of powers. The weakest can pass through walls, walk on water, see in complete darkness, and know the future. The most powerful can stop time, kill people with either cold, electricity, or pure thought, control the living, and raise their own bodily remains from their graves. What they use these powers for varies with the type of spirit. Some use them to help people, some to help themselves, and others to cause mischief and mayhem. Almost independant of their purpose spirits above all frighten. Countless are the stories where the protagonist almost dies or fails to save the day because of their fear of the spirit visiting them.

This unreasoning fear of the dead is almost always applied to caucasians and or maybe people with a mostly Christian background. (It's hard to tell when the authors are predominately part of the first demographic.) In part it is a reflection of the real world but it is also a statement on the part of the author whether they intend it to be or not. The statement is that these two groups are not in touch with the world beyond this one. They are above such "primitive" ideals and thus uncomfortable with evidence that the world of spirits may really be a natural idea not a primitive one.

It is spirits based on these ideas that litter horror. They are meant to prey on the fear of the audience. They are mean to illicit a chill and to add a layer to the story. A world with spirits roaming about is almost always a world with worse things lurking around a corner someplace. As a universal archetype they immediately set a mood and the audience knows that but still feels the creeps anyway.

In the stories they set a mood in the characters on both sides of the conflict. In fact often times other supernatural entities are cowed by spectral manifestations. Even the vaunted vampire is not immune to the powers of spirits. While the undead can be killed properly and the living dead can be forced to rest, bodily if necessary, the spirit must be dealt with and allowed to pass out of this plane by its own rules. They must be dealt with, reasoned to, aided, or where possible left behind.

In the end spirits are a powerful presence to the world within the story, and a strong image to the reader on the outside looking in. They are an embodiement of man's darkest fears and greatest desires rolled into one stunning package. They exist as proof that everything goes on even beyond death and that perhaps this is not the best of things to hold true. They can be proof that the body is the best deal a person can have and that without it there is only cold, darkness, and persecution. In this way too they council and guide the living. In their existence to scare there is the part of them that cares despite intentions otherwise and perhaps the cause of most of their chagrin. That is why they are necessary and that is why they are and will remain eternally popular.

© 2002 Robert G. Male

Mood: thoughtful.
Music: Overworked and Underpaid by Quiet Riot and Destiny by Stratovarius.

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