“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
These are Charles Dickens’s words to his readers in the introduction to his novella A Christmas Carol, first published in December 1843. The Victorian English author seems to have been concerned that his readers might be put off, or even disturbed, by such a dark tale in the middle of the Christmas season. It may seem strange to modern readers to think about A Christmas Carol as a “dark” story, but this classic story contains all three elements of a typical dark narrative: horror, terror, and the Gothic. The ghosts, except perhaps for the Ghost of Christmas Past, all take on tangible, horrifying appearances at one point or another. The main character, Scrooge, experiences terror in his times of waiting for the ghosts to appear. As for the Gothic, the entire story is written in the style of a Gothic ghost story. Dani Cavallaro, author of The Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror, and Fear (Continuum 2007), goes so far as to suggest that with this novella, Dickens makes Christmas “coterminous with darkness” (41).
Of course, most readers forget the horrifying Christmas Eve once they reach Christmas Day when Scrooge has learned how to live in the spirit of Christmas. Yet Dickens understood that the hope of Christmas Day is more keenly enjoyed after feeling the threat of hope’s absence. He wrote ghost stories to be read aloud and experienced—as the narrator of Dickens’s short story, “A Christmas Tree,” relates—“round the Christmas fire.” Only by feeling the darkness of Christmas Eve, huddled around the hearth while the story is read, can the listener feel Scrooge’s unbounded joy as dawn breaks on Christmas Day. Scrooge has been given a second chance, and those who hear or read the story feel like they have too. This is the beauty of a ghost story that has a happy ending.
Although I heartily recommend reading Dickens aloud around a hearth, there are other effective media for the telling of Christmas ghost stories. British television and film productions of A Christmas Carol abound. I find Clive Donner’s 1984 rendition to be the best in playing up the horrific elements of the story, and George C. Scott serves as an excellent Scrooge. As I watched Donner’s version again this year, the joy of Christmas Day almost failed to blot out the horror of Christmas Eve.
The moment near the end of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s time with Scrooge seemed particularly horrifying to me. Catching Scrooge and the viewer completely off guard, the ghost opens his gown to reveal two children, dirty, ashen pale, and cold. The children are hunched over as if deformed in their creation. A blast of brass declares the judgment that the ghost will bring upon Scrooge. The ghost tells Scrooge that the two are Scrooge’s children and the children of all who “walk the earth unseeing.” “Ignorance” and “Want” are their names. The former represents the unexamined life of greed that Scrooge has been living. The latter stands for those who are in need and could benefit from the generosity of someone like Scrooge. Scrooge is not ignorant of the needy; he is ignorant of the joy and mandate of the Christmas spirit, of lifting up and caring for those that want, particularly for children that want. In A Christmas Carol, it is not the ghosts who are the monsters and sources of evil; that distinction rests solely with Scrooge. The Ghosts of Christmas Present, Jacob Marley, and Christmas Future take on frightening appearances, but they do so to mirror the darkness within Scrooge.
In one shot in particular, Donner directs the judgment of the ghosts at the viewer. Donner positions the camera for the viewer to look over Scrooge’s shoulder at the Ghost of Christmas Present and the grim-looking children staring out from beneath his gown. The terrible sight is positioned at a distance. Indeed, the viewer is right there with Scrooge, several yards away from the ghost and the children. It is as if we are on trial along with Scrooge. The ghost tells us that the children of ignorance and want are our children as well, and though they may be hidden, “They live.” We are left to wonder: “Is the child of ignorance living within me keeping me from feeling responsibility for the needs of the child of want? Am I feeling the joy and mandate of the Christmas spirit: to lift up and care for vulnerable children?”
The horror of the scene awakens one’s conscience. We feel the full weight of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s judgment when we feel responsible for the deformity and ill health of the two children. Feeling indicted, the viewer edges towards a liminal space of self-appraisal and identity negotiation. We are scared not only of what we are looking at, but of the ideas being presented. These fears usher us wholly into a frightening, in-between space, a space where we cannot stay for long because it makes us feel too vulnerable. Eventually this self-awareness slips away and we fall back into our old ways, inured to the wave of emotion that has passed over us. This inclination is apparent when Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Past to cover the two children, to hide them from his sight. In fact, throughout the night, Scrooge asks the ghosts for reprieve from the horror and terror of what he is witnessing and reflecting on. This attempt to escape from the liminality is the whine of the hardened heart: “I don’t want to change!” But the ghosts have other ideas.
In his introduction to “A Christmas Carol” Dickens states that he intends to raise the Ghost of an Idea and hopes that the idea might haunt his readers in a pleasant manner. If Dickens is not being facetious, he has failed in one respect. Both his Ghost of an Idea and the dark narrative in which this idea takes root could be unsettling and unpleasant for the reader. Yet I imagine Dickens was very aware that this could be the case. Dickens cared deeply about the message he had to share and the change he hoped to inspire.
Once Scrooge moves past Christmas Eve and into the joy of Christmas Day, we get a picture of what living out the Christmas spirit looks like: he generously gives the Cratchit family a prize turkey and accepts a long-standing invitation from his nephew to come to Christmas dinner. However, the scene in Donner’s film that strikes the greatest chord for the Christmas spirit comes at the very end, some time after Christmas, when Scrooge goes to the Cratchit house for an outing with Tiny Tim. The narrator showers praise on Scrooge as a means of tidying up the story, but this narration distracts from the meat of the scene. Turn off the sound and pay attention to how the scene plays out. It stands in sharp contrast to an earlier scene in which Scrooge meets Tiny Tim in the street outside of Scrooge’s work. The boy has a “Merry Christmas” for Scrooge, and Scrooge has a “Humbug” for the boy. The two characters begin as polar opposites in their perspectives on both Christmas and, it seems, life in general.
But in the final scene, Tiny Tim rushes from the house to greet Scrooge with a huge smile on his face. Scrooge sweeps Tiny Tim up into his arms with the familiarity and tenderness of a grandfather and holds him aloft for a moment to take in his joy. Then Scrooge brings Tim down to his chest and kisses him before returning him to the ground. The two set off hand in hand down the lane, Tim craning his neck up to engage in conversation with his close friend. The scene plays out as if to say that Scrooge has translated the Christmas spirit into something to be lived out every day.
Tyler Beane is currently pursuing an MDiv at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.