Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 November 2016
In 1887, Oscar Wilde published ‘The Canterville Ghost’, a parody which satirically rehearses some features of the Victorian ghost story. A mansion is leased to an American family named Otis. The family is warned that the owners ‘have not cared to live in the place’ themselves, since a great aunt ‘was frightened into a fit … by two skeleton hands being placed on her shoulders’. The Americans take up residence nonetheless, and with the sturdy rationalism of the New World, turn the tables on the ghost. Clanking chains, suits of armour that move of their own accord and a recurrent blood stain have no effect on the new tenants. The blood stain is cleaned up with Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover; the younger Otis boys play pranks on the ghost, mimicking his own behaviour back at him; and the family refuses to believe that there is anything frightening about him at all. Exhausted by his impotence, the ghost agrees to his own exorcism, and the story ends with the Americans in possession of a stately home now without its supernatural tenant.
Wilde's story pokes affectionate fun at the well-worn conventions of the ghost story. Like many parodies it works as both a joke against, and a homage to, the genre. Without the presumption that any reader can immediately pick up the references to the form, there would be no tale to tell and no comedy from the incongruity of a ghost who turns out to be more afraid of the people he is meant to be haunting than they are of him. As the editors of one ghost-story anthology put it, ‘The successful ghost story … depends on using the conventions creatively.’ When we read a ghost story, ‘we know that we are to be shown a climactic interaction between the living and the dead, and usually expect to be unsettled by the experience’. Wilde's atypical example shows that the ghost story's effects depend on our recognition of, and agreement to accept, the rules of the genre – ironic perhaps, in a genre that is also supposed to surprise and to shock. The elements I foregrounded – local knowledge of a haunting, the empty untenanted house and a repertoire of ghostly behaviours – were clichés, by 1887.