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Literature / The Canterville Ghost

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"The Canterville Ghost" is an 1887 short story by Oscar Wilde which serves as an Affectionate Parody of the Haunted House tradition.

A wealthy American political family, headed by Hiram Otis, purchases Canterville Chase from its aristocratic owners. Initially, Mr. Otis scoffs at the news that the estate comes with a ghost, but sure enough, one soon appears: Sir Simon de Canterville, who murdered his wife in 1575, and was murdered himself a few years later. As Sir Simon discovers all too quickly, the Otis family proves resistant to his best haunting effects, and he becomes deeply melancholic. The innocent Virginia Otis, however, turns out to be the solution to his plight.

The story is in the public domain, and can be read here. For another parodic ghost story (one that, coincidentally, also premiered in 1887) see Ruddigore.

There have been several screen adaptations, most notably a 1944 film directed by Jules Dassin and starring Charles Laughton as Sir Simon. A 2021 TV adaptation, co-starring Anthony Head as Sir Simon, flew under the radar but won a Children's and Family Emmy for makeup work.

"The Canterville Ghost" provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Some adaptations make Sir Simon more sympathetic than he was in the original.
  • And I Must Scream: Sir Simon's corpse is found chained up in the basement, with a plate of (what used to be) food and a mug of water just out of reach.
  • Animated Armor: Attempted, but since Simon hasn't worn it in 300 years, he instead falls down and hurts his knees.
  • Bedsheet Ghost: The twins use one to play a prank on the ghost.
  • A Bloody Mess: For most of the story, the mysteriously-regenerating bloodstain is actually paint that Sir Simon steals from Virginia.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Sir Simon's self-justification. "Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics! My wife was very plain, never had my ruffs properly starched, and knew nothing about cookery. Why, there was a buck I had shot in Hogley Woods, a magnificent pricket, and do you know how she had it sent to table? However, it is no matter now, for it is all over, and I don't think it was very nice of her brothers to starve me to death, though I did kill her."
  • Broken Tears: When Virginia hears how sad Sir Simon really is and that he cannot sleep and longs for peace in death, her eyes grow dim with tears and she hides her face in her hands.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Mrs. Umney, who speaks in a "low, mysterious voice." Though the effect is rather spoiled when she faints after Washington pulls out a stain remover on the bloodspot that won't go away.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Simon's brothers in law execute him by immural - that is, putting a person in an alcove and building a wall over it.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Virginia has a long chat with Sir Simon.
  • Death by Materialism: Invoked and then hilariously subverted with the Otis family, who are walking infomercials.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: Wilde leaves no Gothic and horror trope unstoned.
  • Defanged Horrors: The house is haunted by a terrible spectre who destroys the lives of everyone who stays at the Chase, but you wouldn't know it if he didn't keep banging on about everyone he's Driven to Madness.
  • Dramatic Thunder: When Washington Otis erases the bloodstain.
  • Eagleland: The Otises are a mix of Type One and Type Two—most of them mean well, but are quite materialistic in multiple senses of the word. (On the other hand, after Sir Simon's treasure is discovered, Mr. Otis tries very hard to persuade his descendants to reclaim it, and is embarrassed when they decline.) It's notable that Virginia, who is the most sympathetic to the ghost's plight, ends up marrying into a British noble family after the main plotline is resolved.
  • Evil Tainted the Place: The bloodstain on the carpet started out as Rustproof Blood from the murdered Lady du Canterville, however, Mr. Otis cleaned it up. Simon du Canterville, the titular spectre, won't have it and keeps replacing it. By using Virginia Otis's oil paints.
  • Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Averted. Sir Simon's idea of heaven is a quiet garden with long, soft grass that he can sleep in forever.
  • Genre Savvy: Sir Simon, who spends his entire ghost career acting out one Gothic trope after another.
  • Ghost Story: This one being Older Than Radio as it was published in 1887.
  • Ghostly Goals: Played with. Sir Simon considers haunting to be his "solemn duty". And what he really longs for is to finally find his peace.
  • Haunted House: Canterville Chase is haunted by the ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville.
  • Headless Horseman: Sir Simon as "Reckless Rupert, or the Headless Earl."
  • Horrifying the Horror: Parodied. Poor Sir Simon winds up being completely terrorized by the little Otis twins.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Virginia, which is why she is the only one capable of saving Sir Simon.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Virginia has big beautiful expressive eyes. She's a very sweet, innocent girl who helps Sir Simon to find his final rest.
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: A massive storm blows up right as the Otis family reaches the Chase. Nobody is concerned.
  • Jacob Marley Apparel: Sir Simon's first manifestation is a Shout-Out to Marley, complete with lots of chains. However, he can change his outfits at will.
  • Large Ham: Sir Simon's whole persona as he tries to scare the family out of the house.
  • Meaningful Name: The innocent, virginal Virginia.
  • Monster and the Maiden: The titular character was a lonely and grumpy Elizabethan ghost bound to his English family mansion by a curse. When an American family with young, rambunctious children moves in, he attempts to scare them out. The boys think it is a great adventure and play along with his tricks. The little girl, however, makes friends with Canterville, and assists him in solving the riddle of the curse.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Uses Finnish rules, where the ghost has a semi-corporeal body that can be hurt and get sick, but also has supernatural powers, such as walking through walls and vapourizing to make use of flues.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Virginia's parents don't consent to the Duke of Cheshire's marriage proposal. He's madly in love with her. They do agree at the end of the book.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: The belatedly-introduced prophecy in the library.
  • Prophecies Rhyme All the Time: Played straight:
    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.
  • Really Fond of Sleeping: Sir Simon is The Sleepless who hasn't slept for three hundred years, but he longs to go to sleep and dreamily describes a beautiful garden where he could sleep in peace. Virginia soon realizes he talks about death.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Sir Simon first manifests with eyes "like red burning coals," which doesn't impress Mr. Otis.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: Sir Simon's brothers-in-law murdered him by locking him up in a secret room in the Chase, then leaving him there to starve.
  • Setting Update: The 1944 film, in which Castle Canterville is used to billet U.S. Army Rangers during World War II. Also a 1986 Made-for-TV Movie version, in which the Otises inherit Castle Canterville and have to survive three months rather than buy a Chase-style mansion. Removes Washington and the Twins.
  • Supernatural-Proof Father: Invoked and then inverted. Everybody, including Mr. Otis, believes in the ghost; it's just that nobody finds him frightening. The ghost makes its first appearance by clanking its chains. Mr. Otis' response is to hand him a bottle of lubricant and go back to sleep.
  • Take That!: Americans bear the brunt of it.
    • The Otis family is named after one of the pre-eminent American political dynasties of the period.
    • Two of the products poke fun at American political corruption: Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator (Tammany Hall) and Pinkerton's Paragon Detergent (Pinkerton Detective).
    • Sir Simon's various "roles" ("Dumb Daniel, or the Suicide's Skeleton") are all send-ups of Gothic stage melodrama.
    • Sir Simon himself behaves a lot like a bombastic but down-on-his-luck actor.
  • Trickster Twins: The youngest members of the Otis family, who spend much of their time playing pranks on poor Sir Simon.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Played with. Sir Simon's roles combine this with actual costumes and props.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Sir Simon swears to kill everyone with a Cruel and Unusual Death when the rooster crows twice. Then he hears the rooster crowing. Sir Simon expects a second time without success. Puzzled, he retires to his room and checks on their Gothic Horror books that whenever someone says that oath, the rooster always sings twice. Discouraged, he's off.