Leave it to the ultimate Victorian iconoclast, Oscar Wilde, to compose a traditional haunted English estate tale not for the purpose of engendering fear of spectral possibilities, but for the purpose of satirizing tangible horrors of the existing British social order of the time. The title character in his long short story or short novel or novella The Canterville Ghost does not even possess much ability to scare the fictional characters within the story, much those readers holding the book in their hands. On the other hand, anyone who is thinking about undergoing a deathbed conversion as a means of escaping punishment for their sins…or who abuse their service staff…or who utilize the power of the helpless waif with a severity of force like swinging a mace…or who hold steadfast to ridiculous notions about the national personality of foreign countries might just feel a shiver of terror in concert with the hideous recognition of themselves in Wilde’s enormously popular break from more adult literary endeavors.
Wilde’s late 1880’s story is not just one of his most anthologized works, but also one of his most adaptable. Sir Simon—the titular ghost—has been portrayed on screen by, among others, Charles Laughton, John Gielgud and Patrick Stewart. Oddly, Wilde’s story has been adapted into at least three different operas in three different languages in addition to a stage musical, a graphic novel, a Bollywood film and any number of very loose adaptations. The source material for this wealth of interpretative artistic creations remains the best version, however, due to the fact that very few interpretive artists can top the unique brilliance of Oscar Wilde.
Who but Wilde would present within a story titled The Canterville Ghost all the trappings of gothic convention expectations such as a dark and stormy night, a macabre housemaid attired in black, hidden passages in the stairs and even bloody red stains on the floor only to create a ghost who becomes a figure of comic relief incapable even of stirring up goosebumps on the flesh of his pre-pubescent characters? Prior to the arrival of Sir Simon de Canterville, the most benevolent ghosts to achieve literary fame were those charged with the task of facilitating the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge and Ichabod Crane’s nemesis in Sleepy Hollow.
And even the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Headless Horseman were capable inspiring shrieks as much as guffaws since they were there primarily for the purpose of the haunt. While the multiple ghosts which populated Romantic and Victorian literature prior to Wilde’s contribution varied wildly in terms of their ability to haunt up some scares, none which attained the level of fame awarded Sir Simon came anywhere close to inspiring more squeals of laughter than squeals of alarm in readers. So, in a very real sense, The Canterville Ghost serves as the legitimizing progenitor for all horror-comedy to come in its wake from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Ghostbusters to Shaun of the Dead.