As a chronicler of the invisible, I couldn’t let Halloween pass without an investigation into one of the biggest mysteries of all in Paris. How can a city with such a bloodthirsty and gruesome history have no ghosts?
With so many victims of the guillotine in Paris, you would expect the odd headless aristocrat to pop up from time to time, but to my knowledge no such sightings exist. As a comparison, visit almost any large city in the United Kingdom and you can be sure that one of the cultural offerings will be a ‘Ghost Walk’. This is generally a moonlit guided tour through the haunted spots of the city, but obstensibly it is also a trip into a past of murders, accidents and other assorted disasters. In Paris, no such offer exists despite a very rich potential source of material.
The explanation for the lack of spooks is in part cultural. The United Kingdom has a proud literary tradition of ghosts, ghouls and hauntings, dating back to Shakespeare whose plays featured many spectral and supernatural characters. Audiences watching Macbeth, Hamlet and Richard III at the time these were produced would have been believers of the phenomena portrayed though and these were thus easily acceptable plot lines.
Later, the gothic revival brought the supernatural back into fashion, with Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights the most famous examples. These were in part a reflection of a story telling tradition in the country, with family members taking turns to relate tales around the fireplace in the evening. The author and professor M.R. James upheld this tradition in the 20th century, gathering invitees to his Cambridge rooms each Christmas to listen to the annual spooky tale he had created. In post-enlightenment, modernist times the audience did not have to believe to enjoy, and an appreciation of the macabre as an art-form in itself began to grow.
The French though have found it far more difficult to suspend disbelief, and doing anything irrational can be akin to slipping into madness. There are however a handfull of examples of such stories in French literature, but the two that are perhaps the best known are also particularly revealing. In Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and Arthur Bernède’s Belphegor (the phantom of the Louvre) the malevolent spirit is in fact unveiled during the story as being human and not actually a ghost at all. In essence, everything that appears mysterious in fact has a rational explanation.
This is not to say that there is nobody in France who believes in ghosts, or that nobody has ever seen an apparition. France also has its ghost hunters, such as Erick Fearson, but these people remain marginal. Fearson recounts some mysterious Parisian tales on his website, but more space is given over to his work as psychic. To this end, he is more in the line of Allen Kardec and the spritists and no modern-day purveyor of the gothic-romantic story.
Once again, the only recent investigation into hauntings in France has been the work of an Englishman, Simon Marsden, who in 2006 produced La France Hantée. This book of remarkable photos is however more a study of the potential of France to be a territory sheltering ghosts rather than stories of apparitions themselves. Marsden is a true believer, a man who thinks that “the relentless advance of science and technology..is robbing our world of much of its inherent mystery”. For him, the English are keen to leave a place for the unexplained whilst the French do not like gaps in knowledge to be filled by the irrational. An alternative viewpoint though has been given by M.R. James's biographer Michael Cox who wrote that we "..need not be a professional psychoanalyst to see…ghost stories as some release from feelings held in check". Is the British passion for spooky tales therefore simply a result of their traditional reserve, and do the more demonstrative French not need such an outlet?
If we look beyond tales of ghosts or belief in the supernatural, the French also show little interest in the stories that would generally create the potential for an apparition in other countries. We may think of Marat being killed in his bath by Charlotte Corday (rue de l'Ecole de Médecine), or the assasination of Jean Jaures (Le Croissant, Rue Montmartre) which if transported to London would surely have provoked strange, unexplained happenings. In France though, these are simply known as ‘faits divers’, or incidental stories, and are far less worthy of interest than the big picture behind them.
So what do the French feel about Halloween? After provoking a brief flurry of interest at the beginning of this century, it should be of no surprise to anybody to discover that today it is a sparsely celebrated event. Be warned then - if you do find yourself in the city on the 31st, don’t expect to find any spirits outside of those in bottles in bars!
Your feedback requested!
Have I missed any examples of the supernatural in French literature? Do you know of any haunted places in Paris or France? Is there a passion for ghosts elsewhere in the world? Is it possible for the sceptical to see ghosts? Let me know!