Ghosts and Trauma

June 4, 2023

Ghosts are a lingering echo of our past taking form in the present. To ignore a haunting is to avoid confronting our past. When we turn away from their presence, the phantom grows more intrusive and frequent — like an open wound we try to ignore.

Ghosts are a portal to the past and embedded in our culture — materializing in film, painting, books, and folklore. Brimming with symbolism, I find myself often returning to them as a motif both in my work and in those of others, from Redon’s and Blake’s surrealist phantasms to Munning’s visual depictions of the Britsh Gothic Tradition of the supernatural, to Ukiyo-e specters.

The apparition is a bridge between the threshold that separates the past from the present. Spirits are often a manifestation of pain, trauma, or loss. Accepting these frightful specters is learning to live with the pain or what’s been lost or buried in our past.

And there is a comfort that we can gain in confronting them. Ghosts suggest to us our sometimes painful history and mortality and a visual emblem of the thin line between life and death — a memento mori. Learning to live with our pain and our mortality helps us move forward from the past. Neil Gaiman, on asked why we tell ghosts stories, stated:

We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.

Ghosts may remind us of our torment or mortality, but they may also remind us of the beauty in life and the impressions we leave on one another.

They remind us of the ones we love and leave behind.

Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House” explores how the bonds of love transcend time and death. A deceased couple, hand-in-hand, haunts their once-occupied home, hunting for the “treasure” they left behind. But, at the end of the story, the treasure they sought was the love they shared in life, still pulsing in the house — still shared in the couple to whom the house now belongs:

Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.

“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees —” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.

“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again, you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—”

Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! Safe! Safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry, “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”

The ghostly couple leans over the sleeping lovers. The ghosts discover themselves in the couple, mimicking their past life activities — asleep in the bedroom or kissing in the garden. When the narrator awakes in the end, both the living and the dead realize where to find the treasure — the light in their hearts — the love that still remains in the home.

The titular Haunted House itself is a character. Thrumming like a lover’s chest, alive and “gently knocking like the pulse of heart,” — the treasure is “safe, safe, safe” The heart of the house beats proudly...” Virginia Woolf bent the gothic horror tradition into something new — revealing the ghost is more than just pain that can haunt us; it also reminds us of the beauty in living and the love we leave behind.



I like to leave my readers with what I’m listening to in the studio. This week, I’d like to recommend “Perverted Disco” by Cincinnati based The Serfs.

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