Friday, 30 October 2015

Victorian Ghosts and Spectres

Victorian Ghosts and Spectres

by Sonya Lane

Adding supernatural elements to literature is not a recent thing. From Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, ghosts have played a major role in much of the well-known literature of the 1800s. It is no surprise that many of the great novels and stories are still widely read today, especially those that contain the element of supernatural horror, but why is this the case?

                The fascination with the supernatural world in the Victorian Era can be somewhat explained by the new technologies of the age. As Bown, Burdett, and Thurschwell say in The Victorian Supernatural, electricity, telegraph wires, and the speedy railway started to transform the world, making everyday life feel “uncanny”. Those technologies may seem normal today, but at the time it caused people to question what they knew about reality.

                Another explanation for the deep interest in spectres is human fear. In his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Howard Lovecraft takes a psychologist’s standpoint by stating that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Since the supernatural world can never be fully known, it is often accompanied by fear. Whether this alone accounts for the continued appeal of the supernatural or not, who can tell?

One thing is for certain; many Victorian writers leaned towards the Gothic style that opened literary doors for ghosts everywhere. Although it seems ghosts were already seeping through the walls. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published in 1820, a good 17 years before the beginning of the Victorian Period, but it contains similar aspects of Gothic horror as well as introducing one of the most notable ghosts ever written about. What child doesn’t get chills when talking about the Headless Horseman?

It may not be considered Victorian literature per se, but The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fits right in with thrilling supernatural works that came only a decade or two later. Washington Irving paved the way for novels like A Christmas Carol and other ghost stories such as The Signal-Man.

Charles Dickens is the first name on the list when it comes to experts on Victorian ghosts. He may be praised specifically for writing A Christmas Carol, but Dickens wrote ghosts and spectres into many of his novels and short stories. The Signal-Man in particular shows how eerie spectres can be. The narrator is an observer who becomes entangled in the story but is not the character seeing ghosts, which gives the story a believable tone. As the thrilling tale progresses the narrator wonders if the strange occurrences are truly the work of spectres, then the strong ending leaves no doubt in the narrator’s mind, and perhaps the reader’s mind also, that the supernatural events could be real. That uncertainty draws readers and keeps the supernatural genre alive.

Wuthering Heights is an example of using ghosts to create the right mood in a novel that does not have a supernatural focus. Brontë mixes the genre by periodically mentioning ghosts. First she uses it to paint a picture of the daunting Wuthering Heights manor that Mr. Lockwood visits. He stays in Catherine’s old room and has an encounter with the ghost of a child who might be Catherine (67). Even though ghosts are not the topic of the novel, they persist from that moment until the last page when a passing boy claims to have seen the dead Heathcliff and Catherine. It is uncertain whether the narrator believes the boy, but that uncertainty is exactly what keeps the reader from forgetting this novel too quickly.

The heavy use of the supernatural element in Victorian literature sets it apart. Ghost stories have existed as long as someone existed to tell them, and will continue to exist, but the gothic style of Victorian writers brought out superstitions and ghosts in droves. The reasons for this can be speculated on, as well as the explanation for mankind’s intense interest in the supernatural, but it might be more fun to remain uncertain. What makes people shiver when the lights go out? What causes the hair on the back of our neck to stand up? Is it the ghost stories everyone has heard, or is it instinct trying to protect us?


Bown, Nicola, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell. The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Penguin Books, 1847. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Three Ghost Stories: The Signal-Man. Project Gutenberg, 2013. e-book.

Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. 1820. Digi-Media-Apps, 2013. Web.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature. Courier Corporation, 1945. Print.


  1. You do a really nice job of touching upon some of the most prominent literary spectres throughout the Victorian age and in the decades previous. I have always liked the idea that spectres are so commonly known with the Victorians because of the arrival of what was then modern-day technology. It makes you think about how far technology has evolved since then and how much it is apart of our daily lives today. Your mention of 'the uncanny', I believe, was first expressed by Freud in his essay, Das Unheimliche, which dappled with "the opposite of what is familiar." The connection between what would have been uncanny for Victorians and what would be uncanny now is an interesting concept to think about. Because of these technological advances it is revealing as to why some ideas for Victorians might have been absolutely spine-tingling whilst the same stories do not have the same affect to a modern day reader.

  2. I loved your entry overall and was interested to learn some of the reasons why the Victorians were so enthralled by ghosts. I really liked the inclusion of Sleepy Hollow as well and your connection with it back to Victorian ghost stories was well put. It was a pleasure to read your work and I'm glad to say that I learned something new from it!