Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Ghostsbusted

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, DickensChristmas 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!

16 comments:

Gina Verster aka ZY-XIN said...

When in Paris I live across from the Hôtel de Brinvilliers where the bedeviled Marquise poisoned almost her whole family and she herself was decapitated and burned in the Place de Grève in 1676!
I had always wondered if her fantôme terrible was still hovering around her home... Well, one late evening as we were descending the grand staircase after a visit to friends who live on the top floor in the building, I definitely felt the chill of a wispy spirit in the darkened corners...I whipped out my camera and took some pictures and when I uploaded them, there is something palpably spooky in those images...!

Adam said...

Gina -> I didn't know that story but I'd love to see the pictures!

Tim said...

I think perceptions of all things paranormal are an extension of real-world culture and society, and if so it would explain why phenomena of the like are more present in some countries/cultures than others.

Isn't it said that near-death experiences (people who view a tunnel of light and float above themselves before being brought back from the brink of death on an operating table) often reflect what people believe they'll see? So the vision welcoming the person at the end of that tunnel will be in line with people's beliefs, whether they're Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. The irrational can therefore be mapped out just as you might map out cultures and countries. I digress...

Wouldn't you say that the French are more "into" orchestrated demonstrations of the paranormal, through séances reaching out to deceased beings and the like? There are recurring ghost scenarios though such as the mysterious "dame blanche" spotted on various roadsides around the country (presumably now she'll have to stick on one of those fluorescent yellow bibs to stay on the right side of the law). Apologies, I think I've outstayed my welcome with these ramblings...

Adam said...

Very interesting Tim. Yes, I'd say that the French feel perhaps somewhat closer to the dead, with their Catholic faith giving them channels to stay connected. Halloween means very little in France today, but the All Saints Day (day of the dead) that follows it is still a public holiday and well respected occasion.

GloamingDesigns said...

this was very interesting! the one thing i think that is forgotten, but you almost mentioned it in your above comment, is that halloween grew out of the catholic "All Souls Day" on the 31st which is indeed followed by "All Saints Day" on the 1st. it was not, at it's origin, a day to celebrate all the spooky tales we love today.

Peter said...

All Hallow's Even, Halloween, is the evening preceding the All Hallow's Day or All Saints Day, if I have understood it correctly. In old religious times the day started to count at the sunset, so actually, somehow, it's the same day. ?

Your article and the comments are extremeley complete and interesting.

I guess that the beliefs may have existed in many countries. If it's more present in some cultures like in Ireland, Scotland, England... (and brought to US), is it because of stronger original belief or thanks (by conincidence?) to the excellent authors show wrote these stories?

Adam said...

I think there are two points. Firstly, whilst the French have always celebrated the soul, there has been little history of belief in ghosts, but whether this is due to repression from the Catholic church or not is a moot point.

Secondly, and more interestingly for me, why is there such a lack of the supernatural in French culture? If we accept that ghost stories are in fact acceptable representations of our fear of illness, death and other catastrophes, what have the French done to confront these universal fears? Perhaps they have always been happy to confront them head on and had no need to dress them up. Is there any ghost story more macabre than Zola's L'Assommoir for example?

Alain said...

Probably the most famous ghost-supernatural story in 19th century French litterature is Le Horla by Guy de Maupassant.

This terrifying story is not usually described as reflecting universal fears, but rather as an example of alcohol plus syphilis induced delirium...

Adam said...

Thanks for the recommendation Alain. I didn't know that one but I'll try and find it now.

Peter said...

Reading Alain's comment on Maupassant... It could not be that the British have been more adicts to alcohol and have suffered from different deliriums? :-)

Adam said...

Peter -> I'm not sure whether alcohol was the drug of choice of the 19th century novelist. Wilkie Collins for example had a laudenum addiction which certainly affected what he wrote, to such an extent that it became a plot line in 'The Moonstone', and what can we say about Thomas de Quincey?

I meant to ask you as well - Shakespeare told us that there were ghosts in Denmark, but are there any in Sweden?

Mélisse said...

As someone from Brittany I have another perspective of the Death, ghosts and legends related to them. Did you ever heard of La Légende de la mort chez les bretons armoricains d'Anatole Le Braz ? De l'Ankou et des Lavandières de la mort ? There would be a lot to tell ;-)

maitresse said...

"why is there such a lack of the supernatural in French culture?"

I don't know, but you can judge a blog by the questions it asks. You've hooked me on yours! A welcome addition to the Paris blog network.

Adam said...

Mélisse - yes, there seems to be a haunted corner of France, strangely enough, populated with Celts! I don't know your examples, but I'll be sure to check them out.
Didn't Chateaubriand talk of being haunted by a cat too?

Peter said...

To naswer your question... No, Sweden has to my knowledge no famous ghosts like Elsinore in Demark, according to William. But it's only a short swim over the narrow strait from Helsingborg (Sweden) to Helsingor (Elsinore) in Denmark. In Sweden there are trolls, but they are mostly quite friendly.

Anonymous said...

Hello once again Adam, and as usual thanks for yet another very interesting post.Please accept my apologies for coming late (via the ghost signs post in August 2012) to this post.

My French wife has always been sceptical about ghosts - even though she may have seen one in England many years ago.

I on the other hand, with Anglo-Irish roots, have always been keen not to dimiss out of hand such things have never made the acquaintance of one from Beyond the Veil.

You mention the Roman Catholic church and its prevalence (at least on paper) in France. It may be a factor than the Catholic church looks very unfavourably on things such as spiritualism and contacting the dead.

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