Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past



Merlin Coverley's new book, Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past seeks to make sense of the term 'hauntology' and its meaning by examining the history of our fascination with the uncanny, from Dickens to M.R. James, Mark Fisher to the folk horror revival. You can read the introduction to the book below, which the author has kindly allowed Horrified to publish in full...


The ghosts are swarming at the moment. Hauntology has caught on. It’s a zeitgeist.Mark Fisher (2006)[1]

Hauntology may be a thing of the past, but this of course means that it will always be with us. Mark Pilkington (2012)[2] 

Ghosts and spectres, the eerie and the occult. Why is contemporary culture so preoccupied by the supernatural, so captivated by the revenants of an earlier age, so haunted? The answer to this question is to be found through an examination of what one critic has described recently as ‘perhaps the most important, political-philosophical concept we have right now’[3] This is a term that was first coined in the early 1990s by the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, in his discussion of the enduring legacy of Marxism. Since then, however, hauntology has evolved and entered the cultural mainstream, becoming a shorthand for the ways in which the past returns to haunt the present. Today its use is widespread, its effects visible across a broad spectrum of academic and popular culture, from film and television to music, the visual arts and literature, as well as informing our understanding of the political currents that have shaped our recent history. Despite its growing familiarity, however, hauntology remains a term whose origins and antecedents are unclear, and whose meaning is stubbornly obscure. 

‘I believe that ghosts are a part of the future’, claimed Jacques Derrida in 1983.[4] This statement was a prophetic one, for ghosts were to become an integral part both of Derrida’s future and our own, thanks in large part to the publication of his Specters of Marx in 1993. The title of Derrida’s book, which I shall be discussing in detail in a later chapter, recalls the opening line of The Communist Manifesto of 1848 by Marx and Engels: ‘There is a spectre haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism’. Marx’s famous proclamation marks the moment at which a spectre was invoked that has been haunting Europe and the wider world ever since, lending retrospective validation to the paradox at the heart of hauntology, in which certain futures have the potential to haunt us even before they have come to pass. As a result, it is 1848, that year of revolutionary near-misses, which marks the beginning of my own account of hauntology and its precursors. It is in Derrida’s maddeningly opaque book that we find the textual origin of hauntology, or rather l’hantologie, a pun on hauntology and ontology that loses much in translation, through which Derrida expresses his belief that being and haunting are interwoven concepts, the ghostly coming to invade every aspect of our lives, from the political and the technological to the cultural and the literary: to be is to be haunted. Derrida’s resuscitation of Marxism was a response to those on the political right in the early 1990s, such as Francis Fukuyama, who had proclaimed the final victory of western liberalism and with it the end of history. Derrida used hauntology, his science of ghosts, to demonstrate that far from this being the case, the spectre of Marx, like all ghosts which have yet to be laid to rest, would return, repeatedly, disrupting the present and continuing to remind us of another possible future. In fact, so influential was Derrida’s account that the figure of the spectre was soon to escape the confines of his text, triggering a ‘spectral turn’ in the academic study of the ghost. A subject which had hitherto been largely dismissed as unworthy of serious critical attention now returned with a vengeance, as ghosts, spectres, revenants and all manner of occult entities came to haunt seemingly every aspect of our culture. As we shall see, ours is by no means the first historical period to be preoccupied by the ghosts of its past, but in the western world, at least, the 1990s was the beginning of such a moment, one in which hauntology, accompanied by the uncanny, the eerie and the weird, first came to public prominence. 

If it was the 1990s which witnessed the emergence of hauntology in its first incarnation, it was to gain what Mark Fisher called its ‘second (un)life’ in the middle of the following decade.[5] The name of Mark Fisher is one that will recur throughout this account, for if Derrida is the father of hauntology then it is Fisher who played the greatest role in bringing this concept within the purview of popular culture. In correspondence with his friend, the music journalist Simon Reynolds, in 2005 Fisher began to refer to hauntology on his blog, k-punk, as a means of describing this spectral resurgence, and in particular his belief that the first decade of the twenty-first century was experiencing what he described as the ‘failure of the future’, as cultural time decelerated and went into reverse, overwhelmed by a nostalgia for the popcultural artefacts of our recent past.[6] From these beginnings, hauntology soon emerged as a means of highlighting this cultural, and increasingly political, impasse, a failure of social imagination that left us seemingly unable to envisage any other society than our own. 

No sooner had it re-emerged, however, than some critics began to distance themselves from the term, fearing that hauntology was in danger of attracting an unwelcome degree of mainstream recognition, and with it the misuse and oversimplification that often accompanies such overexposure.[7] But since his untimely death in 2017, Mark Fisher’s work has reached a new audience, thus ensuring hauntology’s most recent and prolonged return to fashion. Once again, the term has evolved, outgrowing its earlier manifestation as a musical micro-genre and recasting itself in a more overtly political role. By placing the present in conjunction with the recent past, hauntology highlights the shortcomings of the former, identifying the political failings of the present by returning to those moments when a different path might have been taken, turning points whose promise remains unfulfilled and which continue to offer us hope for the future. For Fisher, one such moment was that of the early 1970s, as the revolutionary spirit of the counterculture began to subside and the neoliberal world we inhabit today first started to emerge. At the end of his life Fisher was working on a project that he hoped would recuperate the lost potential of this era and in doing so provide a means of challenging what he saw as the deadening ubiquity of life under late-capitalism. 

In both Derrida’s and Fisher’s conceptions of hauntology, the crucial element is that of time. For Derrida, the return and repetition of the past in the present is manifested through the figure of the revenant, that which returns each time as if it were the first, unchanging and insistent, demanding a reckoning for a message that went unheard or was ignored. For Fisher, as we shall see, there are two opposing temporal currents intrinsic to hauntology: the no longer and the not yet.[8] The former haunts the present from the past, an event, idea or entity whose moment is past but which continues to make its presence felt. The latter haunts the present from the future, through the unfulfilled promise of that which never came to pass but which may yet do so. In both instances, their impact is felt now, in the present, either through repetition or anticipation. The very idea of the ghost as that which comes from the past to manifest itself in the present and yet which belongs to neither, simultaneously both absent and present, challenges our belief in the unbroken progression of linear time. Hauntology foregrounds such temporal disjuncture or ‘dyschronia’, questioning whether we truly experience time in so straightforward a manner as the linear model suggests. Instead, both Derrida and Fisher see history as one characterised by repetition and disruption, as the past recurrently irrupts into the present, forcing us to reconsider events and ideas we might have regarded as safely consigned to the past. Fisher goes further, arguing that since the closing decades of the twentieth century, cultural time has faltered, dragged to a standstill by the ever-growing weight of our recorded past; not so much the end of history as an excess of history, beneath which we struggle to move forward.[9] 

One way in which the repetitions and discontinuities of history are manifested is through the emergence of new technologies which allow us to record and replay the past. This is a process whose uncanny effects began to be felt in the nineteenth century as new forms of media such as telegraphy, photography and later cinema allowed us to capture and control time, bringing the past back to life and allowing us to revisit it at our leisure. As we shall see, it was innovations in Victorian stagecraft which first allowed the ghost to take on a seemingly corporeal form, enabling audiences to visualise what contemporary expressions of supernatural belief such as Spiritualism could only hint at. The evolution of such ghostly media is one which forms a backdrop to many of the precursors of hauntology, from the role of television and early computer technology in the residual haunting of TC Lethbridge and Nigel Kneale, to the haunting obsolescence of Space Age technology depicted in the work of JG Ballard. In recent years, an increasing preoccupation with analogue technology has become a staple element of hauntology, as we contrast the imperfections of earlier recording techniques with the timeless anonymity of the digital. Of course, this strand of what Fisher has labelled the ‘technological uncanny’ reached its zenith with the emergence of internet technology.[10] It was in cyberspace that the ever-growing archive of the recorded past first became instantaneously accessible, releasing a seemingly endless deluge of recorded time from which it seemed no aspect of the past, however trivial, was able to escape. According to Fisher, it was directly as a result of this technological revolution in the early years of the twenty-first century that hauntology re-emerged, as a cultural and political response to the atemporality of a present in which the past no longer dies. 

In the face of what may appear a growing obsession with excavating and examining the cultural detritus of our recent past, hauntology is often viewed as little more than a new form of nostalgia. In her history of the subject, which I will examine in a later chapter, Svetlana Boym charts the evolution of nostalgia in all its forms, as it moved from a longing for one’s homeland to an urge to return to an earlier era, often that of the reassuring rhythms of one’s childhood. This transmutation in the subject of one’s nostalgia from place to time, has culminated in the epidemic which has engulfed us in recent years, as increasingly we turn away from the present in favour of the styles and ideas of an earlier age. Manifesting itself principally through music but displaying its effects across a myriad of forms, nostalgia has morphed into ‘retromania’, Simon Reynolds’s term for this obsessive grip the recent past now holds over us. Such an analysis is not new to hauntology, however, being a central component of Fredric Jameson’s celebrated formulation of postmodernity in the 1980s. What hauntology has identified in subsequent decades is, then, less a change in content than in degree, as the formal nostalgia that Jameson first described has since grown to an overwhelming extent, expanding to fill our cultural horizons and effectively denying a foothold to the new. As a result, Fisher claims, nostalgia has now become so ubiquitous as to be taken for granted, effectively losing its meaning as it no longer has anything against which it might be measured. In such circumstances hauntology may be regarded as post-nostalgic, describing a world in which the present can no longer be experienced as anything other than a sum of its pasts. And yet, as the concluding chapter of this book explores, in an era as obsessed with recycling its past as hauntology suggests, it seems there is one particular past towards which we are unerringly drawn. From the folk horror revival, to the fictions of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, from The Stone Tape to Scarfolk, it appears that there is only one decade, both culturally and politically, that hauntology wishes us to revisit: the 1970s. If, however, this is an era that hauntology appears to hold in preference to all others, it is less the result of what that society achieved than the promise it failed to deliver. The early 1970s are now seen as exemplary of the unfulfilled potential hauntology wishes to revive. This is not a nostalgia for the past but one directed towards the lost futures it encapsulates. 

In his recent book on the work of Mark Fisher, the author Matt Colquhoun employs a splendid neologism, one of which Derrida himself would surely have been proud: ‘Blobjective’. Colquhoun uses this term to describe the way in which capitalism absorbs all it comes into contact with, bringing otherwise disparate elements within its orbit: ‘The goal, for Mark’, he writes, ‘was to stay one step ahead of capitalism’s consolidatory forces and its “blobjective” nature. Alternatives were of no use if they could be immediately folded back into the system they were attempting to escape from.’11 In as far as its appropriation of cultural forms appears as rapacious as that of capitalism itself, it seems to me that this is a term equally applicable to hauntology, in which all that comes within its reach is likewise rendered hauntological. As a result, everything from Marx and Engels’s Manifesto to The Wicker Man, the works of Arthur Machen to those of WG Sebald, have since been drawn within its borders. In both its academic format and even through its repurposed popular incarnation, discussions of hauntology often encourage an overly narrow understanding of the term, alongside a lament at what are considered the pernicious effects of mainstream recognition. It seems to me, however, that it has been precisely through such recognition, as its carefully policed boundaries are at first threatened and then overrun, that terms such as hauntology, rather like its intellectual cousin, psychogeography, come into their own, mutating in new and unexpected ways, broadening their conceptual depth and range of reference, and bringing ideas and figures into conjunction that might otherwise have never been brought together. In this respect, rather than persisting in a misguided and ultimately futile attempt at maintaining conceptual purity, we should instead welcome the results of hauntology’s rampant blobjectivity as it hoovers up an eclectic and ever-growing mixture of canonical and pop-cultural elements. 

As readers of this book will soon discover, this is a principle I have employed in marshalling the wide range of material which either anticipates, encapsulates or reiterates the formal characteristics of temporal disjunction, the technological uncanny and a nostalgia for lost futures common to hauntology. At first glance it will be clear that in doing so I have largely privileged the literary and the theoretical over the audio and the visual, a choice wholly at odds with hauntology’s latter-day origins in the music of a small group of artists on the Ghost Box label and elsewhere. Thankfully, however, this decision has been rendered largely academic by two books published in 2011: Simon Reynolds’s astonishing Retromania, in which he painstakingly details the emergence of hauntology in the music of the early twenty-first century; and Rob Young’s equally encyclopaedic Electric Eden in which hauntological music is seen as the most recent manifestation of the English folk tradition. But just as music, through the very manner of its recording and dissemination appears to foreground many of the ghostly characteristics attributed to hauntology, so too may the literary be regarded as a similarly spectral form, its ‘unheard voices and unspoken perspectives’ communicated to us from beyond the confines of the printed page.[12] 

In line with hauntology’s desire to unearth those points in time at which lost futures may be reanimated, I have chosen three such moments with which to begin the chapters of this book, each of them heralding an era during which our conception of time was to undergo a profound reappraisal: 1848, 1921 and 1989. Thus my opening chapter begins in the Victorian London of Marx and Dickens, a city haunted not only by the spirit of revolutionary change taking hold across Europe but by an array of ghostly phenomena closer to home, as the façade of secular rationalism was threatened by the emergence of Spiritualism and other supernatural beliefs. Such beliefs were articulated not merely through the stories of Dickens and his contemporaries but found their visible manifestation on the stage through such pioneering theatrical devices as Pepper’s Ghost, innovations which were soon to be reflected in the similarly uncanny transformation of urban life itself. But such changes were to be overshadowed by an equally revolutionary recalibration of time, as the theories of Darwin and others vastly extended the Victorians’ sense of the prehistorical past, opening up the dizzying expanse of deep time. In the closing decades of the century, the fears and anxieties such changes had provoked were reworked in the tales of writers such as Vernon Lee and Arthur Machen whose fictional explorations of the cyclical nature of the mythic past and the atavistic return of our evolutionary forbears undermined the idea of history as one of unbroken progression. In the final years of the nineteenth century, the nascent discipline of psychoanalysis would seek to explain such anxieties; in his celebrated essay on the uncanny, Freud explored a phenomenon which is still perplexing us a century later. It is, however, MR James, the final figure of my opening chapter, whose work most clearly embodies the temporal disruptions and uncanny repetitions that have since been recognised as the hallmarks of hauntology. 

The subject matter of this book is almost entirely English, for as one critic notes, hauntology is a peculiarly English phenomenon, bound up with the haunting and haunted landscapes of the English countryside and the ambivalent response they continue to evoke.[13] Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the work of Alfred Watkins, with which I begin my second chapter. It was in Herefordshire in 1921 that Watkins experienced the epiphany that was to result in his theory of ley lines, a temporal and topographical reordering of the English landscape that was to inaugurate an esoteric tradition that continues to this day. The 1920s were a time of great temporal experimentation, as an array of writers and mystics sought to establish a new theory of time with which to replace the model dismantled by Einstein and others a generation before. Chief amongst them was the now all but forgotten JW Dunne, whose theory of serial time was both impossibly abstruse and hugely influential. Drawing upon his own experience of precognitive dreams, Dunne was led to conclude that past, present and future could be accessed by us all, allowing us to revisit the events of our lives in any order we wish. The paranormal consequences of such a theory were to be outlined by Dunne’s successor, TC Lethbridge, who employed a similar temporal model in his theory of residual haunting, in which he proposed that materials such as stone could record and store moments of heightened emotional intensity through time, which might then later be replayed. It was this theory which was to form the basis of perhaps the most resonant of all hauntological texts: Nigel Kneale’s television play, The Stone Tape. Kneale’s contribution to hauntology will be explored alongside that of another figure whose works have been memorably translated to the screen, Alan Garner. Garner’s idiosyncratic account of what he calls ‘inner time’, a perpetual present experienced through myth and the rituals of primitive religion, informs both The Owl Service and Red Shift, two novels whose characters are compelled to re-enact events from a time alien to them. Britain’s mythic past re-emerges once again in the novels of Susan Cooper, as the familiar landscapes of the present become the backdrop to an elemental struggle for the control of time. Finally, the myths of the past give way to those of the near future in the work of JG Ballard, an author whose preoccupation with temporal paradox is displayed in an array of fictional futures in which time decays, regresses or ceases altogether. 

My final chapter begins in 1989, some months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Francis Fukuyama announced the final victory of Western liberalism and with it the end of history. It was in response to Fukuyama’s provocative thesis, that Jacques Derrida published Specters of Marx in 1993, arguing that we had been too hasty to consign Marxism to its grave and predicting that we would continue to be haunted by his ideas. Quoting Hamlet, Derrida’s epigraph reads ‘The time is out of joint’, a striking encapsulation of the meaning of his newly minted neologism, hauntology, and one which would subsequently prove considerably easier to understand. Derrida’s concept swiftly developed a life of its own. The past, as he had suggested, refused to remain quarantined from the present and instead returned in unsettling and disruptive ways. In The Rings of Saturn, his melancholy recollection of a ramble through the East Anglian countryside, the author, WG Sebald, seems positively overwhelmed by the ghosts of the past, which at times threaten to negate his memory and undermine his health. Both here and in my discussion of his final novel, Austerlitz, the boundary between past and present, between memory and history, appears decidedly porous, Sebald’s own recollections often indistinguishable from those whose stories he uncovers. Perhaps Sebald’s narrator, one might speculate, is suffering from a malady similar to the nostalgic illnesses Svetlana Boym describes in her book The Future of Nostalgia. I will be drawing upon Boym’s work in my account of the epidemic of nostalgia that appears to have taken hold in recent times. 

Nostalgia gives way to retromania in Simon Reynolds’s account before I turn to Laura Grace Ford’s refreshingly hardedged series of drifts through the streets of 1990s London, an uncommon example of hauntology in action and one in which the decaying urban landscapes she reveals seem startlingly at odds with the predominantly rural settings to be found elsewhere in this book. Coming in her wake, my discussion of the work of Mark Fisher brings us full circle, his invocation of Marx and the leftist social projects of the post-war years reaffirming the spirit of political engagement from which hauntology first emerged. Fisher’s work concludes with an unexpectedly hopeful vision of a future revitalised by the spirit of the 1970s, the decade to which I return in my final chapter. The linear chronology which I have observed throughout finally arcs back as it approaches the present to re-emerge in the early years of the 1970s, an era celebrated today through the folk horror revival, the most recent cultural expression of hauntology. 

In his collection of essays, Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher acknowledges the different ways in which hauntology is now employed: ‘There is the specific sense’, he explains, ‘in which it has been applied to music culture, and a more general sense, where it refers to persistences, repetitions, prefigurations. There are also more or less benign versions of hauntology.’[14] As Fisher’s comments suggest, hauntology ought not to be regarded as monolithic but rather as a plural manifestation of the many different ways in which our culture and our politics are shaped by the revisions and repetitions of the past. Over recent decades, hauntology has itself been the subject of such revisions, as fluctuations in intellectual fashion result in a cycle of acclamation and dismissal, a process suggestive of the similarly episodic manner in which the past may return to haunt the present. Indeed, it appears that hauntology’s changing fortunes may be symptomatic of its subject, as if this concept has come finally to mirror the very condition it seeks to describe. Could it be that we are now haunted by hauntology itself?[15] The following account will seek to establish the role of hauntology in our present, outlining the future it may help to enable, as well as exploring the many versions of its past. 


1 Mark Fisher, ‘Hauntology Now’, k-punk, 17 January 2006 at http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007230.html 

2 Mark Pilkington, ‘Hauntologists mine the past for music’s future’, boingboing, 12 October 2012 at https://boingboing. net/2012/10/12/hauntologists-mine-the-past-fo.html 

3 Tom Whyman, ‘The Ghosts of our Lives’, New Statesman, 31 July 2019. 

4 Jacques Derrida in Ghost Dance, dir. Ken McMullen, Channel Four Television, 1983. 

5 Mark Fisher, ‘What is Hauntology?’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, 1 (Fall 2012), 16-24, p. 16. 

6 Fisher, ‘What is Hauntology?’, p. 16. 

7 In 2011, James Bridle warned: ‘Hauntology, already old, is about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine; of going the way of psychogeography.’ See James Bridle, ‘Hauntological Futures’, booktwo.org, 20 March 2011 at https://booktwo.org/ notebook/hauntological-futures/ 

8 Fisher, ‘What is Hauntology?’, p. 19. 

9 Mark Pilkington sounds a more hopeful note, suggesting that ‘rather than an all-consuming black hole, the vast weight of the past will slingshot us into a new, weird, and alwayshaunted future.’ See Pilkington, ‘Hauntologists mine the past for music’s future’. 

10 ‘Hauntology is not just some lazy, hazy term for the ethereal’, Fisher writes, ‘hauntology isn’t about hoky atmospherics or “spookiness” but a technological uncanny.’ See Mark Fisher, ‘Phonograph Blues’, k-punk, 19 October 2006 at http://kpunk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/008535.html Hauntology master.indd 21 22/09/2020 13:37 h au n tology 22 

11 Matt Colquhoun, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher, London; Repeater Books, 2020, p. 88. 

12 See Katy Shaw, Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in TwentyFirst Century English Literature, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 15-19. 

13 See Shaw, p. 2. 

14 Mark Fisher, ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’ in Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Winchester: Zero Books, 2014, 2-29, p. 28. 

15 Andrew Gallix writes: ‘hauntology is not just a symptom of the times, it is itself haunted by a nostalgia for all our lost futures.’ See Andrew Gallix, ‘Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation. The new vogue in literary theory is shot through with earlier ideas’, The Guardian, 17 June 2011.

Read Horrified’s review of Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past

Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by Merlin Coverley is available to purchase now. You can buy the book by clicking this link or the image below…


Merlin Coverley

Merlin Coverley

Merlin Coverley is the author of six books: London Writing, Psychogeography, Occult London, Utopia, The Art of Wandering, and South, a critical and wide-ranging study of the allure of the South across geography, mythology, literature and history. He lives in London

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