Guest post by Brian Norman
Forget vampires, zombies, and ghosts—I’m talking about actual dead people who nonetheless chatter on and go about their daily lives. In my book, Dead Women Talking, I make an impassioned case that such figures in literature help us navigate social justice issues that a community might otherwise prematurely deem done and buried. I focused on literary examples, but they’re everywhere in popular culture, too. Now that the book is published, I’ll count down my top ten favorite talking dead, literary or otherwise, of any gender.
1. Ethel Rosenberg
Ethel, the delightfully ornery moral center of Kushner’s Angels in America, needles, taunts, and heckles Roy Cohn, the McCarthy sidekick who orchestrated her execution. In the HBO film version of the play, Meryl Streep steals the show with every pursed lip, sidelong comment, and ice-pick stare. But all that pales in comparison to the real Ethel Rosenberg’s actual last words. To her final prison letter she appended a hand-written note, penned just before she followed her husband Julius to the chair: “The fat’s in the fire, to say nothing of the books.” This terrifying line coils around her impending doom, and yet it is wrapped in a wry Yiddishism about more work to come.
2. Meryl Streep
Ms. Streep seems to have a penchant for playing dead women. Long before her stint as Ethel Rosenberg, Streep joined Goldie Hawn in the campy Hollywood film Death Becomes Her, which featured two aging doyennes desperate enough to accept Isabella Rossellini’s offer of immortality. The catch: their bodies remain mortal, requiring hilarious upkeep via spray paint, glue, and the like. Ms. Hawn’s annoyance at a shot-gun blast to the stomach is matched only by Ms. Streep’s perturbed frumple when she rights her head after Hawn clobbers it with a shovel. Harumph, indeed.
3. Desperate Housewives
On par with the question of who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, the question of why Mary Alice Young shot herself launched eight seasons of delightful primetime schlock. The dead woman herself was on hand to narrate her own story, and that of her suburban enclave of ruthless women, gossips, and thieves. The pilot’s opening sequence is among the better two minutes of recent network television.
4. Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Morrison’s novel of slavery is the best model I know for how to address the wounds of history. Perhaps the most terrifying line in all of American literature: “I am Beloved and she is mine.”
5. Tiger Woods’s Father
The dead have made strange cameos in ad campaigns ever since John Wayne’s 1996 ad for Coors beer. Perhaps the most uncanny example is Nike’s 2010 “ghost dad” commercial, featuring the voice of the deceased father of Tiger Woods scolding his son in the wake of a highly public sex scandal. The commercial combined the intimacy of Natalie Cole’s posthumous duet with her father for 1991’s “Unforgettable,” the crass commercialism of Fred Astaire’s 1997 Dirt Devil ad, and the vague discomfort of Janet Jackson’s posthumous dance tribute with her brother Michael for the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seasons six and seven
Spoiler alert: She dies at the end of season five only to return for another couple seasons—and more, if you count the comic books and fan fiction. If Buffy hadn’t clawed her way out of her own grave, we’d never know the full delight of Anyanka’s human embrace of unfettered petty capitalism, that witchcraft was a tough drug to kick, that Betty Friedan-style feminism lives on among the slayerettes, or (spoiler alert #2) that talentless Xander could save the world with a loving hug.
Classical mythology is filled with posthumous returns, and passage between the lands of the living and the dead is a mere ferry crossing—if you’ve got the right fare. In my book, I discuss Alcestis and her return from Hades to rejoin Orpheus. But Persephone may be the most consequential example. The daughter of Zeus and Demeter, she is the goddess of the underworld. Ever since her abduction by Hades, she returns every year when the vegetation shoots from the ground, proving that death is no final state. Think of her when raking that tenth bag of leaves.
8. The Crypt Keeper
Tales from the Crypt served up old-fashioned horror vignettes on HBO from 1989 to 1996, along with a comics series. Everyone remembers the host: a jovial corpse maniacally laughing and delivering terrible puns with devilish aplomb. He is part Rod Serling guiding us to a story’s moral center, part Oprah inviting us to chat. True to his time, the Crypt Keeper also embodies the ennui of Bernie, the titular corpse of Weekend at Bernie’s, and the impish glee of Phoebe Cates’s invisible friend in Drop Dead Fred.
9. Jesus Christ
Christ’s post-resurrection activities are featured in the biblical gospels and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous is John’s account of doubting Thomas, when Jesus invites him to probe the wounds for himself. That moment has captured the imagination of many, from Italian baroque master Caravaggio to rock group R.E.M. in their iconic video for “Losing my Religion.”
10. Addie Bundren
The title character of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is among the most gasp-worthy dead women featured in my book. She reveals a bevy of secrets in her posthumous chapter—Sadism! Adultery! Blasphemy! My favorite is that she liked to whip school children when they misbehaved. “Now you are aware of me!” she would think. Much the same can be said of the poor townsfolk along her makeshift funeral path in the Mississippi summer sun. Her decomposition, too, is a form of speech: “Now you are aware of me!”
I’ve now spent a few years thinking about corpses and such questions as why the dead retain their occupations in ghost stories or whether we have the legal capacity to dictate what happens to our own corpses (turns out: less than we think!). It seems perfectly normal to me when the dead talk. In fact, it seems downright expected that a body might sit up and chat at her own funeral, as in Ana Castillo’s brilliant novel So Far From God. But in the real world, it is our job to take on the big social problems of the day—the legacy of slavery, the prevalence of violent assault, the hemming in of women’s opportunities—so that we don’t look to the dead to solve those problems for us. That way, at a funeral, we can get to the real work of remembering the lives of those who pass. And they can get on with their own work: what Addie Bundren thinks of as the business of staying dead.