A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Ghost Week: The Epistemology of Ghosts

Bed Sheet Ghost by IsidorSwande

“Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen. What expression he read upon it he could not or would not tell, but that the fear of it went nigh to maddening him is certain.
But he was not at leisure to watch it for long. With formidable quickness it moved into the middle of the room, and, as it groped and waved, one corner of its draperies swept across Parkins’s face. He could not—though he knew how perilous a sound was—he could not keep back a cry of disgust, and this gave the searcher an instant clue. It leapt towards him upon the instant, and the next moment he was half-way through the window backwards, uttering cry upon cry at the utmost pitch of his voice, and the linen face was thrust close into his own. At this, almost the last possible second, deliverance came, as you will have guessed: the Colonel burst the door open, and was just in time to see the dreadful group at the window. When he reached the figures only one was left. Parkins sank forward into the room in a faint, and before him on the floor lay a tumbled heap of bed-clothes.” – M.R. James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You My Lad!

How is it that these two paragraphs – particularly when paired with the iconic BBC Adaptation from 1968 directed by Jonathan Miller – are some of the most terrifying, the most disturbing, in the history of horror literature, as well as the subsequent adaptations? Perhaps it’s in part due to James tapping into primitive, primordial fears – the fear of the dark as well as the fear of the unknown, the oldest and strongest kind of fear as Lovecraft would have it.

That inscrutable shroud inherently calls to mind childhood fears, peeking through fingers, unable to look, unable to look away, watching in transfixed horror as a doorknob slowly turns in the night. Of peering out into the inky blackness outside your bedroom window, afraid of what you’ll see, afraid of what you won’t. In one simple, elegant, instantly recognizable image, so many of life’s anxieties are summed up.

Perhaps it’s the iconic simplicity that makes this particular representation of the spectre – commonly known as the “bedsheet ghost” – such a relevant figure for our times, perhaps more than at any other time in history. When, before, have we ever been confronted with so much absence? So much spectral presence, via the ghostly teleportation of digital technology? Or when have we ever encountered so many people of whom we know so little?

The figure of the bedsheet ghost reminds us how little we know – how little we can know. It’s epistemology, personified, made concrete, perhaps un-crossable.

And yet, despite the potential impossibility of breaching the gap, of crossing the electron-thin abyss of truly knowing another, of ever escaping the prison of our Selves, it’s never been more important to try. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to Other another, to dehumanize and objectify and rain down all our frustration and scorn. Maybe it comes from so many of our interactions occurring online, where we’re dealing with anonymous unseen strangers on the other side of a screen, but these instincts become ingrained and habitual, working their way into our day-to-day IRL interactions.

In some ways, we are all one of James’ bumbling, terrified protagonists – afraid to lift the corner of the shroud, petrified of what we might find.

There’s no guarantee you’ll be greeted by putrescent flesh, though, or even an inky black void. You might find marigolds and chrysanthemums, smelling of sandalwood. You might find treasure. You might find… nothing at all.

We posit that ghosts have never been more timely, more important. What are ghosts, after all, but the Return of the Repressed – that pesky refusal for the past to stay buried. The past has never been more present, more insistent, or more relevant to our day-to-day life, even as we lean into the Future like an Art Deco angel.

The ghost seemed like an auspicious icon with which to announce the beginning of a few new initiatives. First, a series on The Iconography of Horror which we’ve been wanting to get to for the past few years, where we explore some of the different aspects of some common symbols and icons of the Horror genre as a way to expand the scope of what we talk about here at Forestpunk.

Secondly, this will be the first post of our new Substack, Hauntology Now!, where we’ll be exploring some of the themes raised by the first wave of hauntologists circa 2007, some related topics and concepts, and just whatever the heck else we want to talk about.

So welcome to Ghost Week! Stay tuned for more ghostly art, books, and music. Then later this month we’ll turn our gaze to other icons of horror.

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