Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture

September 16, 2010

Ever considered the link between Lenin and cyborgs? Or the "haunting tourism" associated with prisons as haunted houses? Then this is a book for you. With its premise that the ghost is part of our "experience of the everyday", this work opens up a variety of exciting avenues relating to the hauntings that surround us.

The 22 essays in this volume have been arranged into five sections that engage with genealogies of the ghost; politics of the contemporary; 21st-century ghosts; ghostly spaces; and spectral images, sounds and bodies. As an interdisciplinary collection, Popular Ghosts explores a variety of different media including literature, film, television and music. The essays are lively, engaging and extremely readable: you do not have to be a scholar in the field to appreciate the many interesting observations on contemporary culture made here.

However, for me, the volume simply attempts to do too much: 22 essays seems more of an anthology than an edited collection. Because of limited space, each essay is fairly short, which results in brief explorations of many different topics. Fewer essays with a longer allocated word count would allow more detailed coverage of underdeveloped themes in some - not all - of the essays.

As a collection that explores the possibility of the ghost as a complex figure, the title does not do the volume justice. Rather than the variety of rich explorations presented here, the title suggests a broad and non-specific approach to a complex subject. For me, the term "ghosts" probably should have been replaced with "hauntings" or "the ghostly", which suggest more accurately what is in store for the reader.

Rather than a study of the figure of the ghost, the essays here explore the variety of hauntings that take place in contemporary culture. Such diversity includes adolescence as a transitional ghostly period between the past and the future; spectral language employed in the inauguration of Indian independence; zombies who are concerned with work and shopping; and the haunted soundtrack of the Twin Peaks TV series.

In line with the title and the volume's focus, aligning the ghost with the everyday and the popular is somewhat problematic - I find myself asking what isn't a ghost. Perhaps the use of such general terms is due to the extreme diversity of contributions here, which range from Japanese tattoo practices to reality TV.

Of particular note are Christine Wilson's essay that interestingly links the haunted house with eco-criticism and Georgiana Banita's contribution exploring a cultural "blockage" of haunting associated with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Her discussion of biopictures is not for the faint-hearted: they consist of photographs "overla[id] with the subject's genetic code, which is sequenced by a laboratory from donated blood". Equally uncanny are Peter Hitchcock's insights into the preservation of Lenin's body, which is removed from view every 18 months for a 30-day bath of glycerol and potassium acetate. These essays clearly highlight the haunting effects of our contemporary culture rather than the figure of the ghost itself.

As a cultural study, this volume is keen to detach itself from fields such as the gothic and psychoanalysis that are repeatedly concerned with - or haunted by - the ghost. In this venture, however, the editors are not successful: the gothic in particular haunts this volume throughout and, rather interestingly, acts as a ghost that they have attempted to exorcise. This failed ostracism is a positive aspect of the book, as it raises all kinds of interesting questions regarding genres, in particular how all genres haunt one another. Therefore, the book also functions as an interesting study of contemporary criticism itself: haunting indeed.

As a study of haunting, the essays in this volume do exactly what they should: instead of closing down the ghost with a definitive meaning, they open up several lines of thought that respect - and indeed relish - its multiplicities.

Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture

Edited by Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren. Continuum Books. 360pp, £65.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781441163691 and 4018. Published 1 June 2010

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