(Dis)embodiement of the Uncanny, pt. 1

The pokéverse is just weird. If it was slightly weirder it’d be easier to accept–immersive fantasy with some odd elements is more familiar ground than a world with slight, never explicit elements of magic. There’s a run of episodes, though, that underscores how Kanto is a bizarre mix of hyper-technological and bizarrely mystical elements. Today I want to talk about ghosts.

Ghosts and ghost pokémon–is there a difference? 
It’s clear that pokémon are accepted as a part of the “natural” world. There’s educational institutions built up around studying pokémon–Oak is a professor, implying higher ed., and we saw Pokémon Tech. in an earlier ep.
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In episodes 20 and 23, though, when Ash, Misty, and Brock encounter ghost pokémon and their reaction to them is immediate fear, that signals that ghost pokémon are different from other kinds. I assumed that “ghost pokémon” as a category was figurative and that there was a biological explanation for their “ghostliness.” But these episodes make me wonder whether that’s really the case, because they make it clear that the pokéverse has a spiritual element that exists outside of what we’d call “natural.”
In episode 20, an entity the gang initially believes is a human ghost turns out to be a ghastly. A mysterious crone says the stone Maiden on a local cliff is the remnant of a woman whose love went off to war and never returned. Once a year at the spring festival her spirit emerges to… use her forlorn beauty to attract rando dudes, I guess? Brock and James, entranced, sleepwalk to the cliff and are dragged into the air. When Ash, Misty, and Jessie try to intervene, they’re all attacked by a flock of flying skulls that turn out to be, TWIST, the ghastly. The ghastly’s been taking the form of the ghostly Maiden, the crone, and the skulls (using hypnosis, I think, although this isn’t super clear). Ghastly is nearly impossible to fight, shape-shifting into what its opponent fears most. It’s alternately incredibly creepy and imageabsurd (the ghastly petrifies the snake-like ekans and the poison-spewing koffing by turning into an enormous mongoose in a gas mask). The ghastly retreats, but only because sunrise is coming.
There’s another twist, though–one of the last scenes is Ghastly bidding farewell to the actual ghost of the Maiden. They’re bffs, and she thanks the ghastly for reminding people of her story. Ghastly replies (in a posh, male British accent), “I enjoy keeping alive all the old legends people have forgotten over the years.” He also reassures the Maiden that he’ll continue to keep an eye out for her dead lover, intoning, “I am a ghost pokémon, and perhaps one day I’ll meet the man you love.”
Um, okay, what

So, what’s going on? Let’s start with the obvious–ghosts are real. Weird.

Ghastly in particular seems invested in human culture. It spends a lot of time masquerading as that old lady and as the ghostly Maiden to keep the tradition alive. There doesn’t seem to be a biological explanation for this. Unless it somehow feeds off belief (and there’s no indication it does), it seems that the ghastly simply enjoys acting like a classic ghost–i.e., a haunting presence, a fragment of an unresolved (and, oddly, human) past. The authentic ghostly Maiden seems to be more passive and bound to her final resting place. The way that ghastly performs the role of the Maiden on her behalf makes her story alive and unstable.
At the start of the episode Ash and co. attend an open air auction (this show is so weird) where someone’s selling a stylized painting of the stone Maiden, setting up the theme of retelling old stories. James and Brock, seeing the painting and the ghostly Maiden, are in love. They, like the artist, fetishize this female figure (she’s never named, just called the “Maiden”), seeing her as ethereally beautiful, an artistic subject to be mooned over. Ghastly, by assuming the role of the Maiden and playing out her plot every year, troubles this fetishizing view,  making the figure of the Maiden far more creepy and less virginal/desirable than Brock, James, and the unnamed painter want to think.
And don’t forget that Ghastly also knows the actual Maiden who is simply, honestly heartbroken in her separation from her lover. The layers–what people want to perceive, what Ghastly shows them, and the truth at the heart of the story–all contrast and overlap in a way that not only keeps the story alive and unfinished but also keeps it from solidifying into any one version. It becomes a piece of enduring but uncanny folklore, the kind of really good traditional story that endures even across cultural shifts in our own world.
Um, okay, what–pt. 2

This leads me to the second strangest and most important characteristic of ghostly ‘mon–that they don’t fit. They’re uncanny, shifting, gaseous. They’re incomprehensible, as we see in episode 23. Traveling to Lavender Town, Ash finds a haunter and a gengar, ghastly’s later evolutionary stages, and when he whips out his pokédex it can tell him only that “Ghost pokémon are in a vapor form. Their true nature is shrouded in mystery.” Confronted with haunter and gengar specifically, the ‘dex simply IDs them, notes that they’re “gasous pokémon,” and says, “no further information available.” If the Pokédex, representative of all academic, codified (and misleadingly coercive?) pokémon knowledge, has no further info, there has to be a culture-wide ignorance about these ‘mon. This fits with the way the ghastly enjoys inhabiting folk tales–maybe they’re deemed “ghostly” because they’re too elusive for more academic, skeptical research to get hard info on them.

But honestly, I’m not sold on the idea that they are definitely pokémon at all. I’d always assumed that ghost pokémon were gaseous beings, somehow manipulating the charges of atoms/molecules to maintain a form and interact with physical surroundings; but that ghastly talks to a human spirit, and the ghosts in Lavender aren’t any more animalian than the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak.For example, Ash “dies” and comes back to life in ep. 20 after the ghosts, who love to watch slapstick comedy on their television, drop a chandelier on Ash and Pikachu.1 To their chagrin they can’t revive them. Instead, they pull Ash’s and Pikachu’s transparent,

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this right here is the definition of chagrin

floating spirits from their bodies. Ash, Pikachu, and the ghosts spend a few minutes playing tricks on Misty and Brock and flying around giggling incessantly. Ash does return to his body in the end, but the way they can manipulate Ash’s soul/spirit/astral form doesn’t resemble anything we’ve seen any other ‘mon do.

The second reason I’m hesitant to believe they should be called pokémon is that when Ash leaves with Haunter as his companion, Ash doesn’t catch Haunter. I’m not sure he even could; after all, it’s gaseous, so a pokéball would just fly through it. I’d’ve said that a pokémon was a creature that was containable in a pokéball, imageso are we sure that these ghost “pokémon” should be in the same order of beings as critters like pidgey? Maybe they’re really more like non-human spirits rather than non-human animals. Is “pokémon” just a really flexible term that applies to elementally powerful non-humans? Our own term, “animal,” is no less rigorous, so this is possible.

 I love that I can’t settle the question. The viewer, like the characters, remains uncertain as to how to categorize the ghosts. The ambiguity here seems purposeful rather than sloppy, shrouding the ghosts in a general mystery that’s never fully resolved.
All of this–the way ghost pokémon defy categorization, control, and reliable perception–will come back in the next post, because these characteristics tie episodes 20-24 together. Ash seeks out a ghost pokémon because he needs to fight Sabrina, the telekinetic gym leader who herself transgresses categories but does so in order to place others under her control. Ghosts, with their slippery, shifting nature, are the only ones that can face her. But that, dear readers, is for next week.
1. Similar to the ghastly at Maiden’s Peak, these ghosts are inhabiting a human-centric trope and performing a narrative in a way that’s darker and creepier than humans would expect. This is a little different from repeating a local folktale, but it’s essentially the same thing–bringing to life human tropes and then defamiliarizing them in a way that’s scary and dangerous.
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