HOFFMANN’S HAUNTINGS: Notes Toward a Parapsychological Approach to Literature

Lee Jennings

It is comforting to relegate spirits to the spirit world and to declare that world to be one of the imagination. Ghosts, however, have a disturbing way of refusing to stay where one puts them.

Insofar as dates can be set, it seems that the intrusion of spirits into our world of physical causality was declared to be unthinkable quite late, around 1800 (Justinus Kerner was still quite surprised at the opposition to just this proposition aroused by the publication of his Seherin von Prevorst [Seeress of Prevorst] in 1829); and the widespread disbelief that such mental phenomena as clairvoyance and telepathy were a part of this physical world set in even later, around 1850, along with the eventual discrediting of Mesmer, Schubert, and the doctrine of mysterious sympathies and correspondence, and with the growth of experimental science.

In some circles, this naive materialistic skepticism sets the tone even today, though modern physics, with its quarks and black holes, is little calculated to reassure anyone as to the inviolability of his Weltbild, while on the other hand the discipline of parapsychology, though still weak in explanations, has gained a certain academic standing due to the considerable accumulation of pragmatic experimental evidence that the phenomena in question do indeed exist, whether or not discarnate purposeful entities are posited to explain them.

Literary scholarship has unfortunately remained, in this area, at about the level of understanding prevailing around 1870. This situation has not been without its effect on the evaluation of literary treatments of “the supernatural” or of “occultism” (as this field of phenomena is still often described). One tends to regard the authors who favor such matters, or even seem to show some receptivity toward them, as at best swayed by deviant prevailing philosophies, at worst dangerously gullible. (One thinks of the embarrassment caused to scholars by Mörike’s serious investigation of his parsonage haunting. )

But why, certain colleagues will doubtless interject at this point, is it necessary to inquire into the “beliefs” of the author or reader as regards “the supernatural”? Surely it is a question of merely traditional motifs, justifiable on aesthetic grounds and requiring (like fairy-tale events) a suspension of disbelief. Of course, we are dealing with motifs used toward various literary ends, but this could be said also of many motifs which have clear real-life counterparts: deaths, illnesses, wars, love affairs, neuroses, lawsuits, and earthquakes; and in these cases there has been little hesitancy to compare the literary motif to the real phenomenon, whether it be to check the author’s capacity for “realism” or as a means of finding phenomenological classification-handles.

Further, the question of “belief” is peculiarly difficult to put aside, since what is at stake is the demarcation of the author’s personal world, the delimiting of his reality. If this is insignificant, then art as mimesis belongs on the garbage heap.

The possibility, necessity, or opportunity of taking a stand on this issue seems to have existed for authors since about 1730, when the rationalistic Weltbild crystallized. (The skeptical hardenings of ca. 1800 and 1850, already mentioned, have rather to do with the growth of the natural sciences, but they naturally augment the problem under discussion.) Whereas, for instance, earlier uses of the ghost motif are strictly traditional (cf. the vengeful or admonitory ghosts, à la Seneca, of the Baroque drama), the situation changes as “belief,” at first perhaps favored, comes to be frowned upon, and defenses and disclaimers become necessary to the extent that something “supernatural” is clearly felt to be implied. (People in the Baroque age seem to have considered ghosts a fact of life; cf. the article “Spectrum” in Zedler’s Universal-Lexikon, vol. 38, 1743.) Rationalists (Nicolai, Gellert) continue to use the time-honored motif while dismissing the phenomenon itself as phantasm or hallucination. Authors of the various antirationalistic traditions — Pietism (Jung-Stilling), Göttinger Hain (Bürger, Hölty), and Sturm und Drang are inclined to be more receptive and, in any case, they make vivid use of folklore material involving ghosts without taking pains to register their disbelief. The ghost, like the clown, becomes an almost obligatory rallying point (cf. the reception of Bürger’s “Lenore”). It should be mentioned, however, that the popular ghost and horror stories of the eighteenth century were a hodge-podge of various motifs and points of view and, if anything, remained rationalistic in their basic conception.

Romanticism, while continuing the folkloristic-primitivistic tendency, makes at least two new major contributions to the broader and more tolerant apperception of psychic phenomena. In its mystical trend, it focuses attention on the problem of other worlds or multiple realities and on the visionary faculty necessary to perceive them (the inner eye); thus, phantasy is legitimized as a way of approaching and grasping a higher reality (cf. Arnim, Die Majoratsherren [The Primogeniture]). Also, Romantic philosophy, drawing on Mesmer’s concept of animal magnetism, a universal fluid medium, and “sympathies,” provides legitimate theoretical underpinnings for the investigation of paranormal phenomena (which, however, did not proceed on an empirical basis until Kerner’s Seherin von Prevorst (Seeress of Prevorst), and then in somewhat deficient methodological form). Thus, in works of the early nineteenth century we may expect to find occasional examples of paranormal phenomena examined or presented from a scientific point of view as it was then understood. Even in the case of such masters as Hoffmann and Tieck, however, we find considerable confusion as to legitimation and provenience of the described phenomena; folklore elements are mingled with dreams and insane visions, and these with apparently valid first-hand observations.

When homage to Romanticism is past, ghosts are banished to the realm of superstition, “local color,” and metaphor. Heine, in his Harzreise (Harz Mountain Journey), deplores the rationalistic “debunking” of ghost stories but seems to feel that they have at best a symbolic or psychic trueness. Theodor Storm’s concession that accounts of paranormal phenomena (as in his Am Kamin [By the Hearth]) may at least set us to pondering the unknown remains a rarity, and the Chinese ghost of Fontane’s Effi Briestis readily understood by most critics as a mere incorporation of the heroine’s perhaps sexually tinged fear and unrest (but did the author mean it to be taken entirely this way?).

The spiritualistic movement of the early twentieth century represents a significant shift in the prevailing consensus of the thinkable, so that once again “the supernatural” can be rendered with some expectation that the phenomena in question may not be eschewed out of hand by the reading audience. Thus, Thomas Mann has made it abundantly clear that he was convinced of the genuineness of the mediumistic phenomena witnessed by him in Schrenck-Notzing’s seances, which he took as the basis for the corresponding description toward the end of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). (Note 1) Thus, even over a few decades of German literature and thought, we find that the scale of the possible has been a sliding one, and no doubt the truly gullible are those who assume it always slides in one direction.

Since ghosts and hauntings, aside from their small claim to a corner of our reality, may also be used in a symbolic way (as may earthquakes and fishing expeditions), it might be well to consider what these symbolisms may be. Traditionally, we think here of guilt, fear, discord, and covered-up evil, which does nothing to discourage Freud’s view that some repressed hostility toward the recently dead may play a role. In Freudian terms, we may also see a ghost as the punishing father or superego, while in the domain of Jung we think rather of the Shadow (the inferior personality-aspect of a protagonist or ego figure) or of the Anima, an archetype of the soul, a soul-guide, muse, femme fatale, a nourishing mother or an avenging one who “nips in the bud.”

Ghosts, apparitions, and hauntings may also serve, however, to expand the world-view somewhat and to raise the question, at least, of multiple realities. They may open the door a crack for Fate (a dimly understood regulation of human affairs by higher powers or remote organizing principles — and while Fate is also presumed to operate in some way through the innermost recesses of the individual in question, the stress never seems to be placed on this part of the operation). Uncanny things seen may call attention to the problem of vision and perception in general and thus to the problem of the artist or aesthetic person (cf. Hoffmann’s Sandmann [Sandman]; though there is, strangely, nothing demonstrably paranormal in this eerie tale). Finally, as something defying comprehension, psychic phenomena of this type may be intended to represent an existential “Grenzsituation,” the end of one’s wit and the boundary of one’s ken, hence a touchstone for one’s true nature or self. And it is precisely here that some attention to the more reliable accounts of paranormal experiences can stand an author in good stead, and it is here, too, that the factor of “belief” must rise above the negligible. Since the author wishes to stress the incomprehensible, he must avoid undue “explanation” of the kind that would stamp the described events as (1) purely imaginary or dreamed, (2) explainable, after all, by ordinary means, or (3) exegetically relatable to some widely accepted religious or mythological cosmology. Too great a dependence on literary traditions, such as the Gothic, is also likely to detract from an elemental horror at the unknown .

We can almost speak of a “realism” in such matters. One would not wish to be as naive as Justinus Kerner, who used to berate Tieck and others for writing about ghosts without believing in them, (Note 2) but, as noted, we need not accept the total objective reality of haunting phenomena, nor draw any conclusion about their cause, to admit that the experience of haunting follows certain recurrent patterns.

Thus, one may distinguish between apparitions (Erscheinungen), which appear to behave as shared hallucinations, are attended by intense fear, may assume the image of a person but are just as often purely acoustic, suggestive of a repetitively performed action, and tend to be bound to a particular place; and poltergeist phenomena (Spukphänomene), which tend to be associated with a particular living person (who, according to one theory, unconsciously brings them about by as yet unknown means) and take the form of concrete, though inexplicable, happenings such as the movement of objects as if of their own accord. The latter type of haunting, which can be less readily associated with the popular concept of a discarnate former human, characteristically runs its course in a period of weeks or months and is, in general, the more dynamic of the two. (Note 3)

It is, of course, the apparition which finds its counterpart in the usual literary “ghost.” The traditional and folkloristic accounts differ primarily from “first-hand” accounts in their attempts at rationalization and justification, as reflected in “spooky” trappings and scenery, dramatic entrances, and the motivation of the appearing spirit (usually some kind of “unfinished business”: revenge, revelation of a secret, etc.; a more subtle motivation is parasitism upon the living). Thus, Das Bettelweib von Locarno (The Beggarwoman of Locarno) must rank as one of the more “realistic” accounts, simply because of Kleist’s refusal, or failure, to flesh out the phenomenon by bringing it into harmony with traditional views (the spirit may be personally and socially motivated, but the general effect is one of relative mindlessness on its part).

The poltergeist type is described more rarely in literature, no doubt because of its intractability as far as human purposes are concerned. Goethe, however, gives a (so to speak) credible account of puzzling acoustic phenomena associated with a particular person in the “Sängerin Antonelli” (“Singer Antonelli”) episode in the “frame” of hisUnterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (Diversions of German Emigrants). The characters of the “frame” even arrive at a kind of rudimentary theory of paranormal phenomena, stressing what is wahr (true) about seemingly sympathetic occurrences rather than what is wahrscheinlich (true-seeming, plausible) about them — a rather evasive theory, to be sure, but one which anticipates Jung’s views on synchronicity and the nature of archetypal occurrences. (Note 4)

Contrary to his reputation as a writer of ghost stories, Hoffmann seldom portrays paranormal events as being able to compete with real ones on equal terms. Often the possibility of delusion is left clearly open (Ritter Gluck, Der Sandmann [Chevalier Gluck, The Sandman]); or a phantasy macrocosm is superimposed on our world (Der goldene Topf [The Golden Pot] and other cosmogonic tales); or the conventional forces of Heaven and Hell may be too easily invoked. It is odd, too, that there are so few true instances of ghosts or hauntings in Hoffmann’s works. There is, to be sure, an abundance of Mesmeristic phenomena, but these could almost stand as fictionalized reports of new and projected scientific discoveries. (Note 5)

Das Majorat may serve as an example of Hoffmann’s more definite excursions into the realm of haunting. Here Daniel, the old servant of an ill-fated family whose first-born sons successively inhabit an eerie castle, is roughly treated — treated, indeed, like a dog — by his new master, and later in a spirit of revenge pushes the baron to his death through a high doorway. We learn of this, however, only in a protracted flashback, by way of explanation of the Spuk encountered at the beginning of the story. There, the young narrator and his somewhat eccentric great-uncle independently have the same, predominantly acoustic dream or “vision”: footsteps, animal-like sighing or moaning, and scratching at a newly plastered wall (as it turns out, the place where the fatal high doorway had been). The figure of an old man is briefly seen, mouthing the rather elaborate warning: “ — Nicht weiter — nicht welter, sonst bist du verfallen dem entsetzlichen Graus der Geisterwelt!” (“No farther, no farther — or you enter the spirit world with all its horrors”) Sounds of a horse being taken out of the stable and returned to it are also heard. The young narrator (who had been reading, of all things, Schiller’sGeisterseher — a story of spurious hauntings) is filled with a vague but intense feeling of dread and foreboding, as are indeed all the inhabitants of the castle — a credible detail, but an overelaborated one: “… Ich fühlte mich wie von einer unbekannten Macht berührt, oder es war mir vielmehr, als habe ich schon an den Kreis gestreift, den zu überschreiten und rettungslos unterzugehen es nur noch eines Schritts bedürfte, als könne nur das Aufbieten aller mir inwohnenden Kraft mich gegen das Entsetzen schützen, das nur dem unheilbaren Wahnsinn zu weichen pflegt.” (“I felt the touch of an unseen force, as though I had grazed a fateful circle; one step over its bounds, I knew, would condemn me beyond all hope of salvation. Only by mustering all my strength could I ward off the utter horror that fades only with the onset of incurable madness.”) (Note 6) The great-uncle is shortly afterward able to conduct a successful impromptu exorcism, though we do not yet find out that he was personally acquainted with the revenant.

The first part of the haunting (the repeated, ritual-like action, perceived primarily acoustically) conforms fairly closely to both literary tradition and to what is known from the parapsychological records of apparition-seeing. The motif of murder revealed through haunting might pass as “credible” also; whether the Spuk is meant (by ghost and by author) as atonement or mere admonition, or as a disturbance per se, is not clear, but this very lack of clarity renders it more authentic- seeming. The careful couching of the experience in dream form, however, seems at best overcautious, and a height, or nadir, of superfluous belaboring is reached when we learn that Daniel, who was a sleepwalker, carried out the same compulsive re-enactment of his crime while still alive. And when Daniel (in the flashback) dies as a result of hearing his name called while sleepwalking, our credulity is strained in a way that the haunting itself did not strain it; but perhaps the parallel partial explanation in terms of Mesmeristic rapport phenomena “set” better with Hoffmann’s contemporaries than it does with us. (Other ramifications of the plot — the intrigue and deception involving the inheritance and the near-fatal fascination which music holds for the baroness — have been passed over here as not pertinent to our theme.)

In any case, Hoffmann’s desire to provide rational loopholes is partially overcome here, and to some extent the figure of Daniel has to be regarded as a genuine apparition; that is to say, the story leaves us no other choice but to assume the survival of a spirit in a form perceptible to us, or, if one will, to assume a collective hallucination to this effect on the part of the characters (a manner of explaining things which, however, does not niake them much more understandable than they were before).

This relative authenticity seems to haunt also the figure of the demonic, spidery Count S — i in Der unheimliche Gast, a notorious love-usurper (a favorite bugbear of the seemingly underconfident Hoffmann). The macabre Count appears to the man who has stabbed him in the terms of a classical haunting (footsteps, moans, shadowy forms). As it turns out, however, he is at that juncture still alive, having recovered from his wound; he is merely highly skilled at remote magical influence (another Mesmeristic “cop-out” that leaves things about as mysterious as they were, while unfortunately removing the menace of the utterly unknown). The paucity of paranormal occurrences in the story makes the elaborate remarks of the frame-characters as to the role ofGespenstergeschichten (ghost stories) in reminding us of Mother Nature’s original harmony seem strangely out of place. (Note 7)

Perhaps the most puzzling, and, just for that reason, the most authentic-seeming of Hoffmann’s accounts of hauntings is the untitled vignette in the Serapionsbrüder (Brethren of St. Serapion) frame called variously “Spukgeschichte” (Ghost Story) or “Der schwebende Teller” (The Floating Plate) by editors. One of two sisters sees a nebulous figure, invisible to everyone else, every evening at 9:00 p.m. The family tries to cure her of her “delusion” without success, until finally she hands the being a plate, which then is seen to float around the table before gently alighting. Thereupon the family is thrown into consternation, and the other daughter goes insane (a case which would surely bear out some of the tenets of Laing’s “anti-psychiatry,” which exerts a healthy skepticism toward traditional reality-testing procedures). The literarily preoccupied, punch-imbibing brethren of the frame are themselves baffled by this account (which was apparently based on an actual incident). (Note 8) It seems “kindisch und abgeschmackt,” and the comment is made: “Nun ist aber auch die Geschichte mit dem Teller so ohne alle Staffierung gewöhnlicher Spukgeschichten, selbst die Stunde allem spukischen Herkommen entgegen, und das Ganze so ungesucht, so einfach, daß gerade in der Wahrscheinlichkeit die das Unwahrscheinlichste dadurch erhält, für mich das Grauenhafte liegt.” (“This plate story, though, is so devoid of the trappings of your ordinary ghost story — even the time of day flies in the face of all ghostly guidelines — and the whole thing is so simple and uncontrived that its horror, it seems to me, lies precisely in the air of plausibility surrounding the most highly implausible occurrences.”) The speaker continues to give a mental explanation, which, however, admittedly runs afoul of the equal incredibility of the collective hallucination hypothesis. Hoffmann is quite right in stressing the enhanced horror of actual (or quasi-actual) occurrences, and one might wish that he had drawn more often upon experiences rather than theory. This seems to be his only attempt to treat paranormal phenomena without resorting either to literary and folkloristic tradition or to Romantic nature philosophy, which taught that there were mysterious sympathies and correspondences which are inaccessible to reason and daylight and require a special organ — the inner eye — to apprehend them. The theory is persuasive, but it puts us one remove further away from the productive use of our ordinary perspicacity.

Hoffmann was, of course, a child of his time, and we should not be surprised to find him groping for a system that would palliate the stupefying chaos of the unknown and would admit of a fashionable mystery. The Mesmeristic rapports, thought-projections, karmic resolutions and atonements, and demonic menaces he wrote about were not at that time clearly beyond the bounds of the foreseeable knowledge of the future, and thus his works have a science-fiction aspect that has been underestimated. His world was one in which practically nothing was known, for example, about electromagnetic radiation (except light), the mechanics of heredity, or the microbe theory of disease.

Yet, as with Tieck, one wonders whether the tendency to shift paranormal phenomena toward the subjective or toward the traditional, thus to discredit their reality-quotient, on the part of one whose stock in trade is mystery does not constitute a basic inconsistency, even considering the demands of the day (which are, after all, not so much different in this area from the demands of our own day). Hoffmann tells us too ofen that things are entsetzlich (horrible), only to rob them of their unearthly horror by robbing them of their earthy intractability. As a writer of horror stories, he is too often rationalistic and theoretical when pragmatism, or something that will pass for pragmatism, is called for. Only in the anecdote of the floating plate does he seem to recognize this problem and to make an attempt at its resolution. At least three explanations for the floating plate come to mind: collective hallucination, perhaps furthered by the mediumistic girl; the work of an actual spirit or discarnate purposeful entity (possibly one of the guardian spirits [Schutzgeister] so often posited at that time); or a physical projection of mental contents in the manner of poltergeist phenomena bound to a specific person (or, as the case may be, unintended telekinetic activities of that person). These are, as yet, primitive and groping explanations, but they go somewhat beyond those thought of in Hoffmann’s day. It is to his credit that, in this case, he did not allow the Romantic and Mesmeristic views of his time to color or change his depiction of the puzzling phenomena in question. The failure to preclude later explanations is, after all, a sign of` open-mindedness.


  1. Thomas Mann, “Okkulte Erlebnisse,” in his Autobiographiches, ed. Erika Mann (Oldenburg: Fischer, 1968), pp. 124–61. Cf. Otto Heinrich Strohmeyer’s largely corroborative account of visits to some of the same seances, “Begegnung mit dem Jenseitigen,” in: Begegnungen. Zweites Jahrbuch der Freien Akademie der Künste in Hamburg (Hamburg, 1953) pp. 33–41.
  2. Kerner writes to Karl Mayer, 5 November 1834: “Die Romantik die wirkl. exzstirtist die wahre Romantik u. Poesie. Von Dingen die nicht existiren möcht ich gar nicht singen. Jeder der von Geistern dichtet u. von Hexen u.s.w. und sie nicht wirkl. glaubt, ist ein fader Geselle und Notzüchtler.” (“Romanticism that really exists is true romaticism and poetry. I have no desire whatever to sing of things that don’t exist. Anyone who writes about ghosts, witches, etc., without really believing in them is both a dullard and a seducer.”) Original, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, 2 770, II, letter no. 126.
  3. Cf. Hans Sexauer, “Zur Phänomenologie und Psychologie des Spuks,” Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie und Grenzgebiete der Psychologie, 2 (1959), 104–26; and George N. M. Tyrrell, Apparitions (New York: Collier, 1963).
  4. Goethe, Werke (Hamburg: Wegner, 1949–1960) [Hamburger Ausgabe] VI, 146–57, 157–58 (frame commentary), 610 (note on source).
  5. Paul Sucher’s book Les sources du merveilleux cher E.T.A. Hoffmann (Paris, 1912) deals almost entirely with the ideas gleaned from Mesmerism and Romantic nature philosophy.
  6. Hoffmann, Fantasie- un Nachtstücke, ed. Walter Müller-Seidel (Munchen: Winkler, [1964]), pp. 497–98.
  7. Hoffmann, Die Serapionsbrüder ed. Walter Müller-Seidel (München: Winkler, [1966]), p. 602.
  8. Serapionsbrüder, pp. 319–27; cf. note on source, p. 1061. Hoffman himself speaks admiringly of Kleist’s Betterweib von Locarno in this connection.

© 1976 Lee B. Jennings First appeared in Journal of English and Germanic Philology Vol. LXXV No. 4 October 1976 Used with permission