Phantoms of the Stage: The History and Practice of Uncanny Apparitions

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The theatre is the most superstitious of cultural contexts, imbued with folklore, tall tales and ‘walking shadows’. Some of drama’s greatest characters are ghosts. From Hamlet’s Father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1606), through the spectacular illusion of Pepper’s Ghost (1862) to the horrifying finale of Conor McPherson’s Shining City (2004), the uncanny apparition on stage has long been a powerful theatrical device that can have extraordinary expositional and experiential impact. Ghosts can have a core narrative function as in the numerous stage adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), including William Archibald’s The Innocents (1950), or Peter James’s 2019 stage version of his own novel The House on Cold Hill (2015). Surprisingly, ghosts even appear in the repertoire of the Grand-Guignol, the legendary Parisian ‘theatre of horror’, where extreme plays were ultra-realistic in their gruesome terrors and emphatically non-supernatural worldview. Nevertheless, in Grand-Guignol plays such as Maurice Renard’s The Lover of Death (1925), although a supernatural entity may inhabit the damaged inner psychology of the protagonist, it is a truly disturbing vision the spectator also shares.

In this chapter, the construction of the ghost on stage will be explored in terms of narrative, characterization and special effects. Through historical, contemporary and practice-based examples, we will be investigators of the theatrical ghost as we attempt to understand why and how the multitudinous phantoms of the stage have been realized.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTheatre and the Macabre
EditorsKevin Wetmore, Meredith Conti
PublisherUniversity of Wales Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-78683-846-9
ISBN (Print)978-1-78683-845-2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2022

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