Projected Ghosts

     Ghosts are nothing new to literature and film. The thought of the supernatural specters has spawned such varying works as Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw to the Patrick Swayze snooze-a-thon Ghost. But I am not really interested in the concrete ghosts if there are such things. I am not concerned with spirits.

     What intrigues me is the predilection of literary figures to obsess over the dead, a lost lover, loved one, anything. Although the actual spirit of the deceased does not appear in spooky garb and clanking chains (a la Marley in A Christmas Carol, its presence, as a projected ghost that rules the life of the obsessed, affects the character's reality. Take, for example, the cases of Dr. Austin Sloper from Henry James's 1880 Washington Square and Blanche DuBois from the 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. They are both obsessed with former lovers; and. thanks to this fixation, their projected ghosts affect their realities.

     Dr. Austin Sloper's obsession is with the memory of his deceased wife. His first child with her had been a son. But when the son died young, his hopes were placed on his daughter, especially when his beloved wife passed away. Soon he comes to realize that she will not live up to the image of his deceased mate. I hardly think anyone could, for Dr. Sloper was projecting the ghost of his wife onto the impressionable mind of his daughter, who wanted nothing more than to gain her father's affection. There is the famous scene where Catherine is adorned for the ball, and the doctor comments that his wife dominated the color red. The doctor refuses to believe that his daughter is wanted by Morris because this offspring, his own child, does not deserve any suitor. It looks as if Dr. Sloper wants to protect his daughter, but really he is confirming his own belief that she is not worthy. Ralph Richardson accurately displays the mindset of the doctor in the 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler and based on James's book. The most important object to him is the photograph on his desk of his wife. This photo is the manifestation of his projected ghost. Its reach is illustrated in the psychological grip the doctor has over his daughter (Olivia de Havilland).

     Blanche DuBois, especially as depicted by Viven Leigh in Elia Kazan's 1951 film, also projects a ghost, but it is of a deceased young boy. Unlike Dr. Sloper, the reality that she projects destroys herself as well as others. She has been fired from her position as a teacher for having had an affair with a young boy. Her proclivity for young males stems from the ghost she has been projecting since the boy she loved died at right after her marriage. The sensational part of the story was this: the boy she married was a homosexual. Because she had been disillusioned by this fact and then the death of the boy, Blanche's mental condition has been steadily decreasing by the time she reaches New Orleans. Surrounded by the tempestuous relationship of her sister and brother-in-law (Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando on screen), Blanche begins to break down. She is courted by Mr. Mitchell (Karl Malden in the film), but the only erotic attraction she reveals in the play is given to a young boy making collections for charity. The older woman seduces the young boy into letting her kiss him. The projected ghost of her past love is manifested in an act that contradicts the mores of the time. In the end, Blanche is raped by her brother-in-law and taken away to the local asylum. Unable to piece together the emotional fragmentation of her youth, Blanche is doomed to projecting her ghost onto a world that will never match up to the image she has created in her mind.

     The film versions of Washington Square and A Streetcar Named Desire are excellent supplementary exhibits. They give the viewer a chance to examine the face of those haunted by past misfortunes and watch them specifically project ghosts onto their environment. The idea of ghosts in film and literature can be effectively handled and need not include the cheap pyrotechnics and special effects of modern Hollywood movies. Instead, real ghosts are those that are not necessarily seen but are ones that manifest themselves in the actions of the ones they haunt by binding their victim to the past.

Jonathan Sircy

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