Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Fate of the Humble Spook in this age of Surveillance

The Fate of the Humble Spook in this age of Surveillance

In Oscar Wildes short story ‘The Canterville Ghost’, the ghost Sir Simon De Canterville, has been successfully haunting Canterville Chase for over four centuries, since 1584. His latest success had been to ensure no one from the family had lived in the house since he had put his skeletal hands on the shoulders of the dowager aunt, the Duchess of Bolton.

There are many stories in literature of ghosts and poltergeists occupying houses and buildings and being left there in relative peace by the living, in fact the haunted house is very much a successful trope of literature, one need only think of the successful deployment of this trope by the Fox series, ‘American Horror Story, series 1, Murder House’, where the ghosts are so real, they occupy the same space as the living.

M R James made the point over many of his stories, that to disturb a ghost, usually by searching for antiquarian objects, or by engaging in research in the wrong area, would bring the absolute wrath of the revenant, resulting in a chase, a haunting, or even in the protagonists death. One need only think of the fate of Parkins in ‘A Warning to the Curious’, found dead with his teeth and jawbone smashed to bits, or Mr Wraxall in ‘Count Magnus’ pursued to his death by ‘Count Magnus’ a singularly nasty revenant, whom Wraxall had disturbed by intruding on the hallowed ground of the Counts mausoleum .

One would think that there were enough folkloric warnings, to ensure that haunted places would stay, undisturbed, maybe even places of reverence. However in this age of the camera, the sites of haunted places have become some of the most surveyed by the living. There are guided tours of infamous murders, like those in Whitechapel, visitingthe ‘jack the Ripper’ sites, haunted house camerasshows like ‘ Most Haunted’ and entire photographic sites on the net devoted to haunted houses.

The humble ghost trying to live quietly in his castle vault or decaying mansion, now has a similar set of problems as many of the living face, when it comes to the whole can of worms surrounding privacy and surveillance. He has to fear the glare of the security camera as much as everyone else. But where theterrorist may have to worry about a drone attack, the spook has to worry about the living exposing him to the fear of the exorcism, and being pushed into ‘the light’, something he may have avoided for centuries.

Where Count Magnus, could pursue his offender and together with his ‘tentacled companion’ despatch Mr Wraxall, today’s participant in these haunted surveillance visits, are not afraid of the ghosts they are pursuing. As the demon ‘Sahjhan’ in the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ spin off series ‘Angel’ remarked in series 3, episode 8, today people are unafraid of ghosts, demons or anything they could do. In the age of CGI anything that could offend or frighten has been portrayed in the lens of the camera. Indeed if the ghost or spook was to try anything excitingtoday’s kids would film it with their mobile phones, and put it on ‘YouTube’ or twitter.

Indeed playing on the word, spook, in modern slang this means spy, or the agent of espionage, there to pry into secrets. It also means to frighten or ‘to spook’. There are multiple signs and signifiers attached to the use of this word. Here the surveillance agents are there to spook the object of their surveillance. But nowadays they manage to spook the spook, with the incessant glare of the lights and cameras meaning that the poor ghost, (alas poor ghost) has nowhere in the shadows to retreat to. His carefully guarded secrets and lair reduced to a three minute sound bite, in a television programme or on the internet, just for entertainment. Thanks to the overuse of cameras to intrude into our everyday lives, there are no more secrets, with facial recognition it only stands to get worse. Even the ghost has much to fear from surveillance, god knows how much the rest of us have to lose.

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