The Brontë Sisters grew up in an era of technological innovation and upheaval. From steam engines to the telephone, the 19th century birthed some of the most progressive inventions humanity had ever seen, one such invention was photography and by extension, film. The 1800s were also filled with a strange and incessant obsession with the macabre and grotesque, with morgues being open for exhibition and seances and fortune tellers booming in popularity.
Within this context of technological progression and morbid curiosity, it is no wonder that photography and film have been intrinsically tied to abstract notions of presencing and the supernatural since their inception. Emily Brontë was no doubt influenced by these pervasive ideas when she wrote her novel Wuthering Heights in 1847, as the book perfectly reflects this convergence of cultures.
Partway through the novel, a character named Catherine Earnshaw passes away, and proceeds to haunt the protagonist Heathcliff from then on. However, her haunting doesn’t take place through the traditional spectral apparitions or pervasive flashbacks, but rather in a liminal, abstract presencing. Due to the oblong nature of Catherine’s presencing, filmmakers attempting to adapt Emily Brontë’s text have had a difficult hurdle to overcome, as they must imagine new ways to represent life after death that are not reminiscent of archetypal presentations conjured up by practitioners in the past. Taking on this hefty challenge, filmmakers such as William Wyler and Andrea Arnold have taken Catherine’s presencing and translated the untranslatable, rendering it visual for movie watching audiences.
Since its inception, photography has been interested in the presentation of abstract presencing. Arriving in early 1830s France, photography was developed by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and began as mere shapes of light transfixed to metal plates via a camera obscura. Already with this primitive technology there is a separation from the realm of the physical and a sense of the ethereal, as a capturing of someone’s image deforms and morphs them into something which they are not, emancipating them onto a flat pewter surface, beyond traditional reality.
The below photograph is the first to capture a human being. While at first the photographer had attempted to capture the bustling city street outside his window, due to the long exposure time, the roaring cars and thronging crowds were transformed into a single solitary figure. The reason this figure was able to be captured was because his shoes were being shined, making him the only subject stationary long enough for the camera’s exposure time to capture him. From this, the first photograph of a human, we can see themes of abstract presencing start to emerge and weave their silken threads throughout photography’s developing technological narrative .
The figure stands isolated, temporally separated from the world around them, not quite a ghost, not quite a remnant of the past, but a spectral presence nonetheless, outside of the traditional realm of temporal and spatial normality. Due to the long exposure time, we may have multiple versions of the one person within the same shot, each captured at different temporal intervals within the time frame of Daguerre taking his photograph. These multiple people are separate yet connected, all inhabiting the one body, reinforcing the strange and liminal nature of early photography to capture the lucid presences of individuals.
Theorists have often tackled this intersection between the afterlife and photography, the strange sense of spirituality and spectral emancipation from one’s body that the technology allows. André Bazin spoke of how “the plastic arts” is “the process of embalming the dead”, a “mummy complex,” inferring an intrinsic relation between photography and the liminal nature of life after death. For Roland Barthes, he uses evocative language to describe the photographed subject as “decomposed” and existing dialectically as both present and non-present. Referring to an analogous photo of his mother, he describes her as both within the image while also absent from it, tapping into the strange, abstract presencing of subjects, within time and out of it, living whilst dead.
With the development of double exposure techniques, and an interest in the macabre that dominated Victorian society amid the 1800s, photographers began experimenting with the idea of capturing the dead, or a life beyond death. Melander and Bro’s The Haunted Lane from 1889 is an example of photographer’s attempts to conjure the spirit world and is one of the more archetypal representations of spectral presencing. Here, it is clear that the practitioners were attempting to conjure up images of the dead, with signifiers of ghostly embodiment such as a pale white robe and transparent appearance dominating the frame and setting the benchmark for future apparition photos in the decades to come.
Catherine’s presencing in Wuthering Heights, however, does not follow the conventional images of haunting that The Haunted Lane established and has been reinforced through media such as Casper the Friendly Ghost or David Lowry’s A Ghost Story. Catherine’s spectrality is more akin to the abstract existence of the subject in early photography and film.
Begging her to “haunt” him at the moment of her death, Heathcliff is followed by Catherine’s presence during the second half of the book. Describing, in one moment, a “sigh” with “warm breath” that displaced “the sleet-laden wind,” Heathcliff experiences his first encounter with Catherine post-mortem. However, much like the photographed figure, he cannot exactly point to her existence. Much like Barthes, he is unable to discern her bodily “sigh” from the “wind,” he is unable to have that cathartic reverie of saying “there she is,” as her presence is abstracted and disappears in the folds of something else. This is confirmed when he asserts that he “knew no living thing in flesh and blood was by.”
William Wyler’s film adaptation is probably the most well known adaptation of Heights, despite the fact that it only adapts half of the book. The film concludes right after Catherine’s death, so while viewers are not given access to Heathcliff’s interactions with the abstract presencing of Catherine, we are given a small preview of it in her final moments on screen. As Emily Brontë’s vision of Catherine is rendered in a way that departs from the norm, so too must Wyler in his conjuring of her ghostly visage.
As Heathcliff mourns Catherine’s death, the camera cuts to a long shot of the whole room, capturing him bent over her bed, with the window on the other side of the scene. The window’s curtains blow forward, pushed by the wind and towards the bed, as if a spectral presence is ushering them toward the body of Catherine, or towards Heathcliff himself, fulfilling his demands for her to “haunt” him.
The mise-en-scene also features a heavy motif of frames within frames, hinting at the self reflexivity of the film as it attempts to replicate Catherine’s presencing from the book that was distinctly filmic in nature.
Andrea Arnold’s film adaptation continues this trend of Catherine’s presence being embodied in natural elements of the world, rather than any physical embodiment as a spirit or spectre. In the case for Arnold’s 2011 adaptation, it was in a series of abstract light formations that occur throughout the film, forgoing any need to depict an embodied spectral presence by Catherine.
Early on in the film, following Heathcliff’s arrival at the Heights as a young boy, the audience is given a glimpse at a strange light formation that appears on the wall. The film barely lingers on it, but it catches our eye nonetheless.
Later on in the film, after Catherine has passed away, this same light formation rears its oblong head once again. I argue that this light is evocative of Catherine’s strange presence post-mortem, able to transcend time and embodied space as the light is stretched across past, present and future. This mirrors the temporality of the earliest photo of a man, with his frozen figure evoking multiple bodies stretched out over a long period of time. What we witness, then, is a Bazinian “embalming of the dead,” with Catherine’s presencing preserved and mummified throughout the film.
In this way, each of the filmmakers are drawing on what makes the filmic medium different from other art forms that would make an adaptation of Wuthering Heights in any other context impossible, and one I’m arguing Emily Brontë was aware of and engaging with: its eerie spectrality. While an adaptation to the stage could yield some praise, its inability to capture Catherine’s unique post-mortem existence is due largely because of the medium’s lack of connection with the afterlife, and any notion of liminal presencing.