Halloween is just a few days away and with it will come signs of all sorts of nasty creatures, including ghosts, ghouls and gory-looking goblins. Invariably we will see Frankenstein, Dracula, a hungry werewolf and a few witches come knocking on our door. Very macabre and very cute at the same time.
Of course, Halloween is not the only time we are greeted with a visitation from ghosts and demons. Perhaps the most famous treatment of ghosts was Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” dealt with a ghost who hung out up in Tarrytown. Ivan Reitman’s 1984 smash hit film “Ghostbusters” starred Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver and it was filled with all sorts of slithery ghosts from the sewers of Manhattan.
Maybe the most serious and frightening treatment of ghosts and demons comes from the German legend of Dr. Faustus, which was rendered into two separate masterpieces, first by Christopher Marlowe and then by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The story is about an unhappy man at midlife who makes a pact with the devil. Mephistopheles promises to provide Dr. Faustus with unlimited fame, fortune, women and happiness and all he must give in return is his soul upon his death. No problem, sir!
The reason that we love to read about demons, devils and all variety of ghosts that dwell in the basement is the same reason that Halloween is celebrated every year. These stories are about exactly what occurs in the inner recesses of every adult mind. Granted, your demons may be small or perhaps they are large, but we all have these demons within and just like Dr. Faustus we have made some sort of pact with him. Here is how all that works.
During our childhood we all encounter disappointment, neglect and even abuse at the hands of our parents, our teachers and our elders. But as children we are in a precarious predicament because if we admit that a parent is nasty, neglectful or abusive, the awareness is too shocking and unsettling. So we make a pact with ourselves. We say it is our inner self that is bad and evil and not our parents. We begin to pretend that our parents are all good and loving and it is our self that is evil and bad and we lock this nasty, bad, evil, smelly self-image away in the basement called our unconscious.
This pact works pretty well until we get to be adults and want some joy and happiness and we try to escape from our own miserable basement. What occurs is that our inner demon we created does not want to be left alone, so we stay in the dark dreary basement with him until the bitter end.
If you observe ghost stories of all kinds, you will see this process manifested in the plot. The story of Frankenstein written by Mary Shelly was about a doctor who tried to escape from the monster he had created. You may find it interesting to know that Mary Shelly’s mother died during childbirth and it is likely that Mary Shelley wound up blaming herself for the mother’s death and thus began the story of a monster she created within herself.
The psychoanalyst who wrote most persuasively about the demon within and how it possesses us was Ronald Fairbairn in the early part of the 20th century. Unlike Freud, who was consumed by sex and the pleasure principle, Fairbairn thought that love and relationships were the key elemental factors in the cause of psychopathology. He eventually concluded that the failures of parental love had a devastating and long-range impact on adult happiness.
The tragic aspect of this is that whenever an adult tries for joy and happiness, the demon within keeps hold of a leg and pulls them back into their miserable basement. I can see this in the athletes I treat who are endlessly showing how they self-defeat at the end of a match. I see it in accident-prone patients as well when they reach out to find joy through travel and relaxation. “Whoops! I fell down and broke my wrist!”
The pleasant ending in Goethe’s Faust concludes with the manner in which the angels loved Faust despite his pact with the devil so when Faust dies the angels take him up to heaven anyway. This implies something about the power of love to overcome misdeeds, bad influence and even our own unconscious.
So this Halloween if you find yourself trapped in the basement of your own self-created misery, just turn around look, that ghost in the face, give him a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups and say: “So long, my friend, I’ll see you in the afterlife!” Nearly all phobias, anxieties, procrastination and avoidance are nothing more than ghostlike remnants from past relationships that you are clinging onto. If you have trouble facing them or letting them go, I recommend you call a therapist who, much like a ghostbuster, has the tools to help fight your ghosts from the past.