Rudolf Otto suggested that people naturally associate dead people with the numinous realm, and that this sense of a holy aura surrounding the dead explains both ancestor worship and ghost stories. The latter may seem like an odd claim, since holiness is good, but no one wants to encounter a ghost. One must remember that, as Otto explains so well, a true encounter with the holy is awe-inspiring, disorienting, and terrifying. The presence of the dead does bring a distinct discomfort, whether it be a body without a soul (a corpse) or a soul without a body (a ghost). No doubt there are more obvious reasons for us to find corpses unpleasant, both distressing and disgusting. They remind us of death; they are unsanitary. Still, the more obvious points don’t capture the uncanniness of looking at a thing that a moment ago was a person.
Once, when I was in grade school, my family and I went shopping in a nearby city, and our dog died while we were gone. The vet said that her stomach twisted, or something like that, that sometimes this happens to big dogs, and there’s nothing one can do about it. Anyway, when we came home the dog was dead. Now, I really loved that dog; she was sort of my dog. My parents asked me if I wanted to see the body before it was disposed of. I remember being frightened to look. There would be this thing that looked just like my dog sleeping, but it wouldn’t be my dog, and that really disturbed me. And there is the eeriness of it: the appearance of the lost person (or even, in this case, animal), but not the soul. As the corpse decomposes, it becomes more disgusting but less disturbing, because it is no longer masquerading as someone.
So we have an apprehension, but one whose cause doesn’t fit into any of our day-to-day categories. We are possessed by an emotion like fear, but there’s no sense that the dead are an actual, physical threat. When we have an emotion we can’t process, we represent it in fiction in a form that makes more sense to us. In our time, movies are the preeminent form of fiction. Thus, our modern, materialistic age presents us with the zombie movie. These movies serve a sort of therapeutic function; they help us to eliminate our sense of the numinous in the dead. Do we find corpses disturbing? Well, let us take that unease and make it a simpler emotion–actual fear. Let the corpse be an actual, physical threat, the crudest threat imaginable: something that wants to eat us. We bring to light what we take to be the underlying emotion (fear). In directly facing it, we see that it is ridiculous, and we are cured. That is, discomfort with corpses is rendered absurd, and we cease to feel it. Although moviemakers are perhaps not conscious of this goal, what they have done is to cut off one of mankind’s avenues for experiencing the sacred.
If I am right, then the purpose of a zombie movie is to be absurd. First, we imagine what everyone knows is not true–that dead bodies want to eat us. Then, just to make the fear of corpses seem even sillier, we don’t even imagine them as a credible threat. Zombies are just stupid staggering automata, who can only be at all menacing in large groups. This creates a dramatic problem, though. The genre does such a good job of making fear of the dead seem silly that it risks making itself uninteresting. Thus, the real drama in a zombie movie has to come from the living characters. Usually, they’re trapped in some restricted area under siege from the outside zombies, and they start to fight among themselves, which livens the movie up in a way that the moaning bodies outside can’t. Even in spite of this, these movies almost never work. They have too little respect for the emotion that feeds them. The only one I kind of liked, Shawn of the Dead, was a comedy.
On the other hand, most cultures have ghost stories. Now, its worth noting that while ghost stories are supposed to be frightening, the ghost itself isn’t really much of a physical threat. That the ghost itself will actually directly kill one of the characters is seldom presented as a possibility. In order for ghosts to be frightening and not mere nuisances, the story must evoke the eeriness we associate with death, so it must respect the numinous sense, at least much more than zombie movies do.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to ramble about ghost stories for a while.
It is odd, and yet it seems to be true, that while one would expect that adding fantastic elements to a story would enlarge the range dramatic possibilities, actually they seem to shrink it. There seem to be fewer distinct storylines with preternatural, science fiction, or fantasy elements than there are without them.
Most of the ghost movies I’ve seen fall into two categories. First, there is story, told from the ghost’s point of view, of the ghost who doesn’t know he’s a ghost and only finds out at the end. Examples are easy to give, but I will refrain, lest I spoil a movie for someone. It’s funny that this plot has become so popular, especially given that its popularity compromises its effectiveness–audiences are getting harder to surprise. It does follow a nice trajectory where the uncanny elements start out small, in the background as it were, and then grow to engulf the protagonist’s whole world, including his self-conception–the classic Twilight Zone formula. Still, I think the main reason moviemakers keep coming back to this story is that it’s so well suited to their medium. We who have been watching movies our whole lives have been trained to ignore certain things. For example, we don’t expect movies to show characters performing mundane tasks like eating, sleeping, or buying groceries; we assume they do these things in between scenes. This class of ghost stories has gotten very good at using audience expectations against us, so that clues can be placed in plain sight. In my example above, it might be obvious in retrospect that a character never slept but was doing things at all hours, or that the main characters never interacted with anyone but themselves. I could also give examples where this same trick is used in movies told from the perspective of a living but mentally ill and hallucinating character, but again I will restrain myself.
Then there’s the ghost story about the wrong that must be avenged, told from the point of view of the living characters. For example, a man commits murder and is not caught, and the ghost of the victim haunts a third party until he solves the mystery and exposes or avenges the crime. This story appeals not only to our interest in death, but even more to our interest in justice. We have a sense that a crime hidden and unpunished still happened, that it leaves some kind of mark on the cosmos that cries out for recognition and redress. It isn’t even clear to me if the ghost is really the disembodied soul of the victim, or if it’s supposed to be some spiritual marker of guilt or the crime itself. Ghosts are very vindictive; a sincere apology never seems to be enough to make them “at peace”. Anyway, even though ghost stories start from a more humane appreciation of death, they generally veer off into exploring other issues.
Yes, I know, you and I have all read some stories or seen some movies with ghosts that didn’t fall into either of these categories, but I still think it’s notable how many of them do. Tinkering with the formula is difficult. For example, the movie Ghost is a justice/vengeance story told from the point of view of the ghost, and that didn’t work at all. Yeah, I know the movie was popular, but it succeeded as an adventure story, not as a ghost story. It really makes you admire someone like Charles Dickens, who took the ghost idea and did something very different with it that dramatically succeeded.