In Oscar Wilde’s Canterville Ghost, we encounter a horror tale like no other, one in which the tables are turned, and a British ghost is spooked and terrorized by an all too alien American expediency.
Oh, how very Wilde!
In this comedic horror classic, which has been countlessly readapted for both screen and stage, we witness the horrific hilarity of a complete culture clash. New World pragmatism is stretched to farcicality, and Old World clutter and superstition is portrayed as ludicrous and antiquated.
The plot is straightforward but compelling in its allegorical creativity. It revolves around the Otis family, who are American, moving in to a quintessentially English castle that’s haunted by the ghost of nobleman Sir Simon, who, many years ago, killed his wife, an act for which his wife’s brothers later starved him to death in hot-blooded retribution.
Sir Simon’s ghost plagues his old residence, Canterville Chase, to which Wilde attributes all the trappings of your archetypal haunted house, such as a begrimed and dim library, and creaking floors and dingy rooms.
However, such is the only convention in this playful macabre slash comedy fable, and even this clichéd mis-en-scene is playfully tongue-in-cheek. It’s the brainchild of Oscar Wilde, after all, a man who said, “life is too important to be taken seriously”.
After a few days, the ghost of Sir Simon begins his haunt on the Otis family, with the use of jangling chains, reappearing bloodstains, and terrifying screams. However, to his surprise, he blunders in his attempts to scare the family from Canterville Chase.
The Otis family is wholly rational in their attitude towards such proclaimed phenomena, and Mr. Otis discloses that he doesn’t believe in such credulous twaddle.
However, as time goes on, and more and more strange things continue to occur, it becomes irrefutable that the house is, indeed, haunted, and that the ghost is that of nobleman Sir Simon.
It’s at this point of acknowledgment when things get somewhat more interesting, for the family, with aloof rationality, accepts his presence with an unfazed, and even mocking, demeanor. This is when the culture clash truly comes to the fore.
A memorable moment of pragmatism from the Otis Family during Sir Simon’s attempts to scare them is when Mr. Otis offers him some Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to oil up his “terrifying” chains. Everyone must sleep, after all! Similarly, Mrs. Otis, with impeccable American domesticity, states that she “does not at all care for blood stains in the sitting room”. Things must be spick-and-span, after all.
Very handy domestic products quite easily and rapidly remedy all faults and frights, you see! And ghosts, well, they ought to be swept up, and tossed to the trash, of course. Ghosts are but a nuisance, and nothing more, as able to fright as garbage, and as easily disposed of.
The breaking point for the fissured ego of Sir Simon’s ghost is when the two Otis twins petrify him by dressing up as ghosts, serving as one of innumerable pranks they play on him, all of which prove to be successful, contrary to his own futile attempts.
Such stunts take their toll on the dignity of Sir Simon’s ghost, and so he returns to the shadows of oblivion, tricking the Otis family into thinking that he has, at long last, gone away.
Following his failure to frighten the Otis family, the debilitated ghost of Sir Simon resigns and recoils to defeat and depression.
And it’s at this moment in the narrative that the hinge of the story swings from mockery to a more moving motif.
Virginia, the daughter of the Otis family, is somewhat of an outcast in the story, and, unlike the rest of the family, she’s not so quick to dismiss and scorn Sir Simon’s ghost and its intentions.
Listening to his history and his current situation, Sir Simon’s ghost ultimately reveals to Virginia that:
When a golden girl can win
Prayer from out the lips of sin,
When the barren almond bears
And a little child gives away its tears,
Then shall all the house be still
And peace come to Canterville.
Baffled by the ghost’s words, Virginia shrieks:
“But I don’t know what they mean.”
To which he responds:
“They mean,” he said sadly, “that you must weep with me for
my sins, because I have no tears, and pray with me for my soul,
because I have no faith, and then, if you have always been
sweet, and good, and gentle, the Angel of Death will have
mercy on me.
And thus it becomes apparent that Virginia, the outcast and the only member of the Otis family willing to receive his words, is Sir Simon’s only salvation and hope for peace in The Garden of Death.
And so the Canterville ghost takes Virginia “behind the veil”, as one might call it, during which time she learns many things, and becomes wise.
Finally, thanks to the innocence of Virginia’s childhood, Sir Simon’s ghost finds peace within itself and without, and is laid to rest in the Garden of Death.
Once back in the realm of the living, the rest of the Otis family are bewildered by the hiatus in Virginia’s presence, but, having been exposed to what cannot usually be witnessed by the living, she finally reveals to them the curious story of Sir Simon’s ghost, and shows them his skeleton:
Virginia knelt down beside the skeleton, and, folding her little hands together, began to pray silently, while the rest of the party looked on in wonder at the terrible tragedy whose secret was now disclosed to them.
“God has forgiven him,” said Virginia gravely, as she rose to her feet, and a beautiful light seemed to illumine her face.
Exposed to something truly profound and baffling and mysterious, Virginia appears as foreign to the rest of the family as the British and Old World customs that orbit about them.
But, ultimately, the realization dawns that some things are so complex, so inexplicable and so solemn that they cannot be resolved by New World pragmatism and light-heartedness.
Indeed, no amount of lubricant doused on the chains of Sir Simon’s ghost, and no quantity of stain remover sprayed on the bloodied carpet, would cleanse Canterville Chase of a spirit shackled to the domicile in which he murdered and was murdered.
The leaden weight of such complexity couldn’t be relieved by the remedies of simplistic pragmatism, but required the complex innocence of a child who lent her ears and her heart.
And so Virginia, Sir Simon’s salvation, discovered –
What Life is, what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.
As mentioned at the beginning of the post, this marvelous, humorous and charming gem of a horror story has been adapted for screen and stage numerous times.
But now it’s being adapted to a wholly new format altogether – an Immersive Entertainment App.
Giving Canterville the same artistic and technological treatment as with our previous creations, the unabridged text is currently being elevated to a whole new level, complete with artistic illustration, animation, interactivity, FX, sound effects, and an original soundtrack recorded specifically for this classic story.