Lucy Sante notes in Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York that the “ghosts of Manhattan are not the spirits of the propertied classes.” Rather, “New York’s ghosts are the unresting souls of the poor, the marginal, the dispossessed, the depraved, the defective, the recalcitrant. They are the guardian spirits of the urban wilderness in which they lived and died. Unrecognized by the history that is common knowledge, they push invisibly behind it to erect their memorials in the collective unconscious.” To watch any ghost story set in a city like New York requires this kind of sensitivity, an awareness that every building is haunted, and that these hauntings happen in layers: as much as each generation tries to wipe out the traces of those who’ve come before, those memories are always there. Ghost is a story about haunting that’s haunted by a pandemic just out of sight—and to watch it as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded was to be reminded that cities have always been made and unmade by their plagues and epidemics, and it will always fall to the spirits to tell the whole story.
Ghost stories always used to work like this: the ghost lingered because something was left undone, or because the living forgot something or someone that should not have been forgotten. Ghost is atypical in this regard; it follows the same track as A Christmas Carol, Lewis Allen’s 1944 classic The Uninvited, and the 1980 George C. Scott vehicle The Changeling. These stories have their moments of terror, but they’re ultimately comforting stories about making the past whole. A justice is rectified, a wrong avenged, a restless spirit comforted at last. The ghost story ensures that even if one doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion in life, there may yet be narrative resolution waiting after death.
This works well for a single ghost, but what about a city? How to make each and every one of these stories whole? What do we do when there are whole cities full of ghosts, each one with their own unique story to tell, each one with something left undone? There is so much left undone when it comes to the dead. They bustle and jostle, they howl and they carouse and they interrupt and demand your attention. They never sleep, the dead. How to imagine the work of Oda Mae, beset with spooks, each with their own unfinished narrative, needing a slow and careful expiation to make the past whole so they can rest?