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Subversive Spirits - The Female Ghost in British and American Popular Culture

Subversive Spirits

The Female Ghost in British and American Popular Culture

By Robin Roberts
Hardcover : 9781496815569, 186 pages, January 2018
Paperback : 9781496825582, 184 pages, January 2020

How some women find their greatest powers narrating after death


The supernatural has become extraordinarily popular in literature, television, and film. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, witches, and wizard have become staples of entertainment industries, and many of these figures have received extensive critical attention. But one figure has remained in the shadows--the female ghost. Inherently liminal, often literally invisible, the female ghost has nevertheless appeared in all genres. Subversive Spirits: The Female Ghost in British and American Popular Culture brings this figure into the light, exploring her cultural significance in a variety of media from 1926 to 2014. Robin Roberts argues that the female ghost is well worth studying for what she can tell us about feminine subjectivity in cultural contexts.

Subversive Spirits examines appearances of the female ghost in heritage sites, theater, Hollywood film, literature, and television in the United States and the United Kingdom. What holds these disparate female ghosts together is their uncanny ability to disrupt, illuminate, and challenge gendered assumptions. As with other supernatural figures, the female ghost changes over time, especially responding to changes in gender roles.

Roberts's analysis begins with comedic female ghosts in literature and film and moves into horror by examining the successful play The Woman in Black and the legend of the weeping woman, La Llorona. Roberts then situates the canonical works of Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison in the tradition of the female ghost to explore how the ghost is used to portray the struggle and pain of women of color. Roberts further analyzes heritage sites that use the female ghost as the friendly and inviting narrator for tourists. The book concludes with a comparison of the British and American versions of the television hit Being Human, where the female ghost expands her influence to become a mother and savior to all humanity.


"Roberts repeatedly emphasizes that the realm of the dead is a new arena where masculine rules, tools, and knowledge do not advance their user but render them handicapped. Tracing the female ghost across British and American media over decades, Subversive Spirits convincingly makes the case that she deserves the thorough examinations that the werewolf or male ghost have received. The female ghost’s lingering presence reveals a cultural fascination and anxiety over this figure's significance. It serves to make manifest, Roberts painstakingly shows, the sometimes-invisible and ever-lurking gender disparity that haunts us."

- Natalie Grove, Supernatural Studies

"In Subversive Spirits Robin Roberts focuses on the ways female ghosts across centuries of popular horror narrative challenge the power of male authors to script women's stories. With spellbinding research, bewitching style, and mesmerizing arguments, Roberts reinterprets such classic ghosts as La Llorona, the Woman Warrior, and Beloved, and introduces us to the female ghosts of film and stage comedy, TV drama, and--most innovative--the digitized heritage ghosts who mediate history for tourists in displays at Blenheim Palace and the Old Louisiana State House. This book belongs in every pop culture enthusiast's library."

- Jane Donawerth, professor emerita of English at the University of Maryland and author of Frankenstein's Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction and Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women's Tradition, 1600-1900

"A compelling exploration of the female ghost in American and British popular culture. Roberts's lively and wide-ranging analysis of this figure demonstrates that she has haunted our books, our visual media, and even our historical monuments since the opening decades of the twentieth century. As a character whose return from the dead invites living women to write beyond the ending of their own life stories, the female ghost is, as Roberts persuasively argues, a literary creation as worthy of study as her vampire and werewolf counterparts. Highly recommended."

- Lisa Yaszek, professor of science fiction studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech and faculty coordinator for SciFi@Tech