The BBC has not broadcast an original “Ghost Story for Christmas” since 2013, which seems of questionable competence considering the recent asset bubble in retelling and critiquing MR James’ ghost stories. But this year a very popular ghost story is being told on Twitter and so maybe Twitter has become the best place to hunt for ghosts. The writer is named Adam Ellis and he has been tweeting his story “Dear David” in regular batches since August. Ellis currently has over 820,000 Twitter followers and “Dear David” is being written about excitably in national newspapers.
Is Ellis the nearest thing that 2017 has to an M.R. James? If James was alive today, would such a redoubtable conservative have only experienced extreme discomfort on Twitter? Or would he have instead identified this medium as especially advantageous for ghostly storytelling? Would he have set up a fake @Parkins Twitter handle and then decanted “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (orig. 1904) sip by sip? If “Dear David” is anything to go by, then I would suggest that the format of the traditional short story should not be dispensed with too quickly. “Dear David” is ultimately haunted by the limitations of tweeting. The opportunities that are earned from its “found footage” status do not make good on its piecemeal progress and lack of narrative agility.
You might notice that most other online commentators are either referring to the ghost as if it is a real phenomenon or angrily spluttering that it is “fake” and “a hoax.” These responses come across as rather plastic to me. I do not believe that anybody could have ever believed in David to begin with, or, alternatively, that it is possible to approach this ghost with any sceptical seriousness. “Dear David” is too much of a rounded product and every element of its story derives from fictional ghost stories in popular culture. Ellis’ Twitter account is openly linking to an online emporium that sells novelty hoodies and t-shirts. His business model is no secret: come for the ghosts and stay for the shopping.
Ellis supposedly lives by himself in an apartment in Manhattan. “Dear David” was initially launched with a recognisable urban legend feel. The first tweet reads: “So, my apartment is currently being haunted by the ghost of a dead child and he’s trying to kill me.” David was an urchin with a misshapen head who came to Ellis in dreams and during sleep paralysis. Then Eliis dreamt that an anonymous girl had approached him in a library, the sort of girl who is, in the no-nonsense manner of urban legends, little more than a plot lever. She told Ellis the particular rules of this urban legend that he had found himself in. “He’s dead. He only appears at midnight, and you can ask him two questions if you said ‘Dear David’ first… But never try to ask him a third question, or he’ll kill you.”
In true, time-honoured fashion, the next time that Ellis met David he immediately forgot the advice that he had been given and asked the ghost a third question. Now, according to the contract that comprises this story, Ellis is down to die. Unfortunately for the story, however, or luckily for Ellis, he was on Twitter. No protagonist in a story on Twitter can ever die because it is improbable that somebody else would have access to their password and log in after their death to inform their followers that they would not be tweeting any more. So Ellis had no other option but to live.
At this disappointingly early stage, therefore, “Dear David” had abandoned a convention that is intrinsic to the Jamesian ghost story: that the ghost is meant to be predatory, unstoppable, and unstoppable in a manner that ideally crescendos to a gory climax. Ellis’ ghost had been downgraded from “the ghost of a dead child and he’s trying to kill me” to just “the ghost of a dead child.” Perhaps Ellis was on a learning curve and he was realising that you cannot feasibly tweet about a supernatural attack live, but only report on it after it has happened. Or perhaps he had planned a swifter ending to his original story and its unexpected success had persuaded him to bed down for a longer narrative. In any event, his story changed tack to become a more measured haunted-house affair.
An important cliché of this genre is that the haunting can only begin properly once the protagonist has moved into a new residence. Ellis henceforth moved house – upstairs to a “larger apartment.” This detail didn’t in fact quite work – subsequent images have shown the new “larger apartment” to be naturally the same size as the previous one downstairs. Moreover Ellis was still renting. So, unless there was a lower rent upstairs, he had moved from one identical apartment to another purely in pursuit of atmospheric effect.
One strength of the consequent narrative is that it rifles perkily about, chopping and changing, between different “found” audio-visual materials. We start out with a focus on the threshold, as occurs in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1863 classic “Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand.” The ghost is trying to get into Ellis’ flat; murky shadows are snapped through the peephole; and we go for the tried-and-tested device of vigilant animals, in this case cats, which are preternaturally sensitive to the presence lurking behind the front door.
As soon as David has satisfactorily overrun the apartment, we switch to a device familiar to such movies as Paranormal Activity (2007) in which the household is rigged up with cameras and recording equipment (in Ellis’ story ostensibly to monitor his cats). Stick a camera in front of any ghost and you are bound to get some good poltergeist friskiness before too long. The different episodes in Ellis’ story also feature pareidolic polaroids, premonitory dreams, and apports (as in Paranormal Activity, our attention is directed towards the loft space). Ellis has lately started to capture snaps of David himself, though the demon’s stubby size and his muppet-like attributes have not gone down too well amongst some fans of the story’s earlier humdrum realism.
Incidentally, I think that this story has suffered, along with so much of Twitter, by the doubling in September of the word limit from 140 to 280 characters. “Dear David” is now, along with so much of Twitter, woollier. Along with so much of Twitter, there is twice as much to read. Actually, this is untrue – without the word extension, the same tale would have been simply told in more tweets. I am complaining more about the damage to the brisker pacing of the old format.
The initial eeriness of “Dear David” came from its setting and how it evokes the fear of being alone in an urban apartment. For many people, apartments are characteristically busy places with flatmates coming and going and neighbours often packed in above and below. “Dear David” reminds you of those rare times when everybody is away for the night and you find yourself alone in bed, listening to the occasional noises outside your bedroom. Hang on, was that a footstep in the corridor? Did I hear somebody put down a cup in the kitchen? You are suddenly experiencing a lost-in-the-forest loneliness in the middle of your own, normally friendly home.
There is an added frisson of discomfort, and a somewhat innovative one, to the fact that David is a child. Or is he? Is it the case that a deceased child is so experienced and mature that they can be no longer regarded as a child? Or is the protagonist being spooked by a very twenty-first century phobia of unattended children? Is it this that has led him to treat David’s ordinary childish playfulness as malevolence? There is an interesting tension in the story between the cold and predatory child and the silly terror of the designated adult. If I was writing this story, a good way to conclude it would be for the adult to take a more compassionate, responsible approach towards the needs of the dead child. After all, David is alone, confused, and orphaned by his own death. Why not show a bit of sympathy?
So far “Dear David” does not amount to enough of a story to justify all of the energetic activity that has gone into fleshing David out and building him up. David was at first going to kill Ellis but he is now reduced to merely supplying ongoing evidence of his own existence. In this respect “Dear David” is danger of resembling an Instagram account rather than an active storyline, with photo after photo being aimlessly uploaded. The story has entered that period native to the later stage of all ghostly hauntings in which it no longer seems to be going anywhere. If David was intending to harm Ellis in any way, he would have done so by now. As Twitter’s first popular ghost, David deserves to be more than just a nuisance. This exploratory ghost story should end along Jamesian lines, with blood and death and choking black horror.