Research Stream


Cassandra Whittem
The University of Melbourne

Haunting Fear: A Literary History of the Ghost from the Medieval to the Gothic Era

This project maps changes in the representation of the ghost in literary culture over a three-hundred-year period. It focuses on the emotional discourses that surround ghost encounters in literature, and what these discourses reveal about the cultural and emotional economies of the ghost in literary contexts in the past.

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The ghost is an enduring device in literature, one that has appeared over centuries in a variety of different forms. It is a ubiquitous figure, so haunted by generic convention that its metonymic associations with fear often pass into cliché. Yet the power of the ghost as a literary device and the key to its endurance is in the intense, heightened emotion of the moment of encounter between living and dead. Moreover, when these moments of heightened emotion are expressed in popular cultural forms, cultural attitudes and expectations surrounding ‘stock’ or prescribed emotional responses are revealed. This project seeks to use these moments of encounter to investigate cultural expectations that govern the representation of fear in literature, and how these expectations change over time.

This project examines an emblematic text and form from three key periods in literary history: the anonymous fifteenth-century romance The Awntyrs off Arthure, William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet (c.1605), and Horace Walpole’s novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764).

This project will examine what emotions each text engages with, through the form, environment and genre in which the ghost appears, and through the language in which these are expressed. By tracing a history of the representation of ghosts through these texts, this project seeks to gain new insight into the evolving representation and narrative function of the ghost in literary culture.

Image: Henry Fuseli, Hamlet and his Father’s Ghost (1780‒1785). Wikimedia Commons.