Western American spectral studies: haunting in film, literature and landscape

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The American Western narrative has historically not had time for ghosts. In its dominant historical form, the Western prescribed a white, male, civilizing discourse while acting as the 'nation-building' narrative for the United States. Especially in the latter context, the genre could not afford to be haunted. Yet, because the Western produced a very narrow race, gender, and ideological spectacle within a West that historically involved a wide range of peoples and experiences, it is, I would argue, an 'exceptionally' haunted American narrative. Additionally, because the West has resisted comparisons with colonialism and notions of Empire--while explicitly functioning as a settler colonial discourse--ghosts of neglect continue to plague this influential cultural expression. So, because ghosts indicate something lost, forgotten, or pathologized by a narrated cultural reality, as recent 'spectral studies' scholarship has shown, understanding how haunting exists and functions within western cultural forms provides insights into American cultural power structures. Combining postwestern theory, spectral studies discussions, and affect theory, I create a 'spectral lens' to understand the functionality of haunting within western film, literature, and landscapes. This study draws attention to both the affective power of cultural expressions and to how haunting expresses hegemonic resistance. Additionally, such a study illuminates the changing power structures of a Western narrative that continues to wrestle with cultural notions of justice and equality while increasingly realizing a destructive settler colonial historical reality of indigenous displacement and eradication. Therefore, through a better 'conversation with ghosts,' I aim to not only theoretically break down the rigid structures that fortify race, class, and gender hierarchies, but seek a more nuanced approach to heritage. This is a negotiation of what Wallace Stegner realized as the western American divide between the overly critical 'urban intellectual' and the often reactionary 'defensiveness of the native son.' In this manner, I also utilize spectrality to directly engage with the American Studies tradition of searching for a 'useable' American cultural history.




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