In Haunt

A retrospective overview of the Death and The Sacred symposium at Manchester Metropolitan University by Dr Emma Liggins (Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University and also a member of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) who submitted and presented the paper ‘A Crypt-like Damp Filled My Mouth’: Sacred Space as Sepulchral and Haunting in the writing of John Ruskin and Vernon Lee’.

Death has always commanded ritual and sacred attention, as shown by the preponderance of sacred sites such as cemeteries, churches, artworks and memorials which invite encounters with the dead. But how do manifestations of the sacred differ in ancient, medieval, Victorian or contemporary cultures, and to what extent do historical, regional and national contexts affect these manifestations?

Death and The Sacred Artwork

The meanings of the sacred and its relation to theology, mortality, memorialisation and the Gothic were the focus of a dark and disturbing symposium held at Manchester Metropolitan last week. Drawing on research in cultural geography, architecture, film studies, aesthetics, literature, photography, tourism, archaeology and dance, the presentations and discussions offered a wide-ranging set of responses to different cultural understandings of the sacred. Dr Eleanor Beal, the organiser of the event, explains: ‘Our representation and expression of death involves not only art, religion and ritual but increasingly incorporates interactions with science, technologies and media. The focus today is mainly on the sacredness of those interactions and, more broadly, what we might mean or value by the sacred’.

As my own research into Victorian haunted houses had recently broadened to include a focus on haunted churches and cathedrals, I was very much looking forward to participating in more discussions about the value of the sacred. My work on the neglected writer, Vernon Lee (pseudonym of Violet Paget), who published ghost stories, art history and travel writing, had thrown up some interesting questions about the ways in which church architecture became haunted and sepulchral around the turn of the century. In 1898, whilst reflecting on the tombstones in a German churchyard, Lee wrote, ‘my fondness for churchyards … does not depend upon their inmates being dead, but rather on their having been alive’. This fondness for the spaces and stories of the dead is an important way of understanding both the past and the present. Sacred space, and the responses it inspires for visitors, worshippers, tourists and artists, was to become one of the key themes of the day: how is sacred space different from secular space, or more mundane, domestic spaces? How might it be gendered? How important are localities for the commemoration of the dead?

The first session on ‘Cemeteries and the Art of Memorialisation’ brought together three practitioners with a close involvement in death spaces and memorials. Siobhan Maguire-Broad show-cased some of her artwork (as shown in the first picture) made in, with and of St George’s Field, a former cemetery in the grounds of Leeds University, and talked about its transformation from a cemetery to a public park. Site warden and researcher Lucy Talbot shared stories, songs, art and material objects left by visitors from a tour she is developing at Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark, London. The stories associated with the spirits of the graveyard, such as Goose, a medieval prostitute denied a Christian burial, gave a fascinating insight into the outcast dead. How to memorialise the soldiers who convalesced at Dunham Massey, Cheshire, during the First World War also raised questions about collective memory for architect Siobhan Barry. The construction of, and visitor responses to, four unusual sculptures in the Winter Garden, inscribed with the numbers of the forgotten men, suggest an alternative way of rendering the sacred through the modern monument.

Creative responses to death and the sacred were explored via the mediums of art, film and fiction. Inspired by Victorian mourning practices, Siobhan Maguire-Broad’s artwork was on display, as was a coffin dressed with material specially soaked in grave dirt! A screening of Chris Gerrard’s video artwork Frankenstein (Re)membered (2018) exhibited the stitching together of diverse fragments of the Frankenstein myth and science fiction from the birth of cinema to the present day (Boris Karloff vying for space alongside Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Rocky Horror Show and Buffy The Vampire Slayer). This unique collage aesthetic celebrates the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein.

In the Authors in Conversation slot (pictured below, presented by Eleanor Beal), four award-winning Northern novelists reflected on their understandings of sacred space, the importance of death, religion and memory in their writing and the various ways in which they are influenced by place. Reading from her recent haunted house narrative Fell (2016) set in Morecambe Bay, Jenn Ashworth suggested that domestic spaces, crammed with memories, can become sacred. Memory and place are also key to the Gothic fiction of Andrew Michael Hurley, whose evocative novel Devil’s Day is set in a remote farming community in Lancashire, where outsiders struggle to fit in. The opening sequence of the novel dwells on the rural superstitions about the Devil and the harsh inevitability of death for those at the mercy of the Northern weather. Hurley also talked about the way in which the death of the grandfather brings the narrator back to the community, unearthing buried secrets and forgotten stories.  Writer in residence at the fabulously Gothic John Rylands Library on Deansgate, Manchester, Rosie Garland spoke about how she inhabited the mind-set of a medieval priest for her historical novel Vixen. Her imagining of a time when community understandings of the divine origins of the Black Death were unquestioned is revealing about changing attitudes to devotion, superstition and disease. Catherine Fox, who read from the last of her trilogy of novels set in a fictional cathedral town, talked about her blogging and the challenge of incorporating debates about the referendum and contemporary atrocities into novels about the Church of England.

Authors in Conversation

My session on ‘Haunting and Purification’ gave me the opportunity to compare my research on Lee’s representation of the sepulchral uncanniness of Italian cathedrals in her ghost stories and gallery diaries with Jessica Gosling’s recent work on representations of the threshold space between life and death in the poetry of Ernest Dowson. As Decadent writers, both Lee and Dowson were fascinated by the excesses and restrictions of Catholic spaces and rituals, which prompted some interesting discussions after the papers about perceptions of Gothic architecture, conversions to Catholicism in the nineteenth century and the possible links between agnosticism and the post-sacred.

Other intriguing topics of the day included Jon Greenaway’s history of the function of bones and encounters with skulls in Gothic literature (which raised questions about catacombs as an alternative burial site) and Stephen Curtis’s discussion of the almost unwatchable scenes of martyrdom in French horror film. National contexts were explored in Becky Alexis-Martin’s tour of spaces of peace and war, from Los Alamos to Hiroshima, prompting a meditation on the necropolitics of returning to a place of nuclear destruction. Dance practitioner Argyro Tsampazi gave a fascinating account of the orthodox ascetic practices such as fasting and meditation engaged in by a group of dancers in Dublin in 2017, as preparation for their choreography and performance in Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea.

Delayed apocalypse was the theme of the philosophically intriguing keynote by Dr Simon Marsden, from the University of Liverpool, one of the leading commentators on theology and the Gothic. Apocalyptic thinking in the mid-nineteenth century, according to Marsden, affected the literary imagination in ways which were different from theological thought, providing a useful way of looking at the anticipatory endings of Victorian novels and poems, such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) with its unquiet sleepers beneath the earth and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’ (1855), about the alienation of visiting a monastery at a time of lost faith. The suggestion that stories told about death might be dependent on disagreements with theological discourses, a crisis in faith or a fervent belief in Biblical narratives was a fitting ending to a day which had successfully interrogated the meanings of the sacred and the secular, leaving us all re-assessing the practices, stories, spaces and rituals used to commemorate the dead.

Photography: with thanks to Helen Darby

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