On Halloween: Shrouded Skeletons and Friendly Ghosts

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2006 at 12:57 pm

The covers of classic horror titles were often far superior to the “chilling, thrilling tales of mystery and suspense” they promised inside. Take this cover from Dell’s Ghost Stories #30 (1971), for instance, which I bought recently because it struck me with the force of archaic recognition.

Everything, everything that matters, is here. The greenish night. The house on the hill. The broken shutter. The bent and useless fences. The black claw of tree that reaches for the house and in the same moment frames it in the protective curve of its trunk. The spectral bat that frames it on the other side, flying us into the pinprick at the picture’s center: that eerily lighted room. (Look closely: it is a human figure.)

It is of course this room that has the broken shutter; like the house surrounded by broken fences, it must bear the signs of supernatural breach. Even these broken fences are doubled by the merely relative (and thus deceptive) frames of tree and bat whose ability to enclose depends on your point of view, as if you can never have too many signs of rupture.

And supervening all, the grey skeleton, veiled. Or is that “bed-sheeted”? A garment of ghostly mist that blankets the house, not so much framing as enveloping. Snugly and reassuringly. The garment of a grim Casper, an ultimately friendly ghost. A quaint spectre who “tucks us in.” A “familiar.”

For this is not an image of horror. Those images are different, and I would discover them in other places. (A coffee table book filled with giant color photographs of insects that I was afraid to touch. Pages swarming with ladybugs.) This is a picture of cozy transgression. It is “spooky,” not frightening.

No doubt, we could roll out the entire psychoanalytical machinery of Oedipus and the family to understand the domesticated “secret” of this skeleton in bed sheets. But must we? For me, the intensity of this painting resides not in the promise of unveiling, but rather in the satisfactions of deferment. Its signs of transgression are a ruse. The doubling, tripling of broken frames (shutter, fences, tree/bat) do not “disclose” the painting’s “secret.” They are the secret. It is literally an open secret, displayed on the surface. Like the pallid ghost stories behind the cover, the promised secret is too banal to read. (The stories inside have nothing to do with the cover—total detachment, infinite deferral; the revelation of the secret, what “only the ghost knows,” must be sought elsewhere, perpetually. A definition of pleasure.) This is a painting of the only true “secret”: the one that cannot be known. That yellow room. A pinprick.

In the end, this cover painting attracts me because it is an image of our profound delight in secrets. And this delight is condensed in the childhood bogey of the shrouded skeleton because—with its familiar, comforting bed-sheet and its only half-disclosed grinning skull—it is our most intimate, most reassuring signifier of the pleasures of secrecy. The keeper of a “chilling, thrilling” “mystery” whose solution is perpetually “in suspense.”

A friendly ghost.

Why I love Halloween.

For more friendly ghosts, visit Keith Milford’s Old Haunts.


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