The Traumatic Subliminal Intersection of Dissociation and Shamanism in Ghost Hound
Mind-body dissociation, as an “altered state of consciousness”, has figured largely in the history of religion as a means by which societies and cultures could ascertain vital messages from inhabitants of mythological cosmologies. Many works of speculative fiction have made use of dissociation as an allegory for the exploration of subliminal aspects of characters’ personalities, but have also vividly depicted such explorations with intentional sensory distortions. The 22-episode animated series Ghost Hound is an exemplary modern exploitation of this core plot element: the correlation between disconnection from normal senses and exposure to the subsensory. The series makes use of this to explore a familiar trope in horror and mystery fiction: communication and interaction with the realm of the dead. Ghost Hound offers a view into the modern intersection between the religious, scientific and artistic views of dissociation as a window into the sublime.
The prior experiences of the three central male characters of the series set the stage for the discovery of the sublime by the viewer. Taro, a 16-year-old middle school student, suffers from trauma caused by the kidnapping of himself and his sister 11 years prior, and the death of his sister during the incident. Makoto, a distant relative of Taro, suffers from witnessing the suicide of his father and abandonment by his mother, as well as the overbearing influence of his grandmother, who operates a local “new religious movement”. Masayuki, a recent transplant from Tokyo, is haunted by both the memory of a classmate’s suicide due to bullying as well as his parents’ emotional withdrawal from each other.
The three students’ own unique hauntings by unfortunate incidents from the past are manifested psychologically. Taro’s almost-daily occurrences of lucid dreams take him through replays of his kidnapping, including the moment of his sister’s death on the bed opposite him with their hands tied behind their backs. However, after exposing themselves to the location of Taro’s sister’s death, the trio discover the ability to consciously experience out-of-body travels. This soon leads them, their families, their classmates and other characters as diverse as Taro’s school counselor and workers at a mysterious laboratory in the mountains into the experience of both psychological and supernatural forces at work in the town of Suiten.
The terror of facing past trauma constitutes a core feature of the plotline, and the trio make use of soul travelling in order to more capably face the manifestations of their traumas. They also soon realize that the daughter of the local Shinto priest unwillingly experiences her own interactions with travelling spirits, which manifest themselves by taking brief possession of her body.
Historical Religious Elements in the Subliminality of Ghost Hound
Religion serves as a significant and vital theater of the sublime and subsensory in Ghost Hound. Drawing strongly upon Japanese cosmological mythology, the series provides a rich, historical backdrop whereby the viewer can understand the cultural context of what the children observe in both the Hidden Realm and real world.
A sublime feature of the plot is the wonder and terror at the geography of the “Hidden Realm” in which the spirits of all species reside, and particularly how it overlays the geography of the land within and around Suiten. The world of the dead which the three encounter in their disembodied sojourns is a vast, highly-distorted realm which is inhabited by countless species of creatures, many existent, extinct or mythological. The forest, particularly that part separating the shrine from the lake, initially holds a lot of terrible elements which frighten Taro, as he frequently sees the tall, looming, exaggerated visage of his long-dead kidnapper striding ominously through the forest. This is because the forest itself symbolically demarcates the real world inhabited by the living from the distorted and sensually-intense Hidden Realm.
The shamanistic roles of the characters derive from historic perceptions of dissociation as a means of communication with deities and spirits. In addition to her duties as a miko (female joint shrine assistant and shaman), the lead character Miyako also encounters recurring instances of spirit possession, whereby disembodied spirits possess and communicate through her. She is the only character with the ability to see disembodied souls, including those of the three lead characters when they are in the midst of an out-of-body experience (O.B.E.). These unbidden gifts of mediumship harken to the historical shamanistic roots of the miko position. The historical miko, who could either be attached or non-attached to any particular shrine, was usually one who possessed the innate trait of communication and interaction with the spirit world. This ability made the miko a role of high importance for local cults of kami (spirits), as the words of a miko under the thrall of a trance could be interpreted as either communications from beyond the grave of a loved one (Feldman 14), prophecies of great political and economic weight or as means by which patients could be healed of ailments (Lee 291).
Likewise, the three male lead characters’ pursuit of this endeavor is fundamentally shamanistic in its intentions and actions. While Miyako herself may be the more “professional” shaman of the lead characters, the three male lead characters are engaging in interactions with the denizens of the Hidden Realm – the spirit world – in order to ascertain answers of paramount interest to not only their own individual desires to bring their mental states under a more capable governance, but to also bring closure to the minds of their disrupted families. This harkens to Lee’s recounting of shamanistic social networks in ancient non-Western societies, whereby those who were adept at dream communication with the afterlife often found and helped each other cultivate their abilities for future applications for the masses (Lee 293).
Yet, at the same time, the trait of communication and interaction with spirits causes problems for Miyako in her daily life. As a born medium, she always finds one foot planted in the realm of ancient, disembodied souls who can take possession of her body at a moment’s notice. The public knowledge of her occupation in the local area allows her to be both the benificiary of parishioners’ gifts as well as the scorn of neighbors. This causes her to doubt her ability to relate to the people around her, and also compels her to constantly reassure herself of her own sense of self.
As a result, the enthusiasm for interaction with the Hidden Realm among the lead characters varies widely. This is exemplified by the fact that the three lead male characters – Taro, Masayuki and Makoto – are eagerly exploring and seeking for answers within the Hidden Realm, while Miyako – a significant figure throughout the series – is seeking for normalcy and acceptance away from the denizens of the Hidden Realm. Makoto, however, is personally conflicted because of his emphatic rejection of the role of heir apparent to his grandmother, herself a spirit medium.
Scientific Psychology’s Significance in the Sublime
Psychological references, particularly those referring to dissociation, figure heavily in the series’ depiction of the sublime world inside the mind. Dell et al. describe dissociation as the “partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of a person’s psychological functioning”, of
ten in “ways that the person cannot easily explain (Dell et al.).” Ghost Hound, as a series, takes stock from the centuries-long appraisals of mental hallucinations from both religious and psychological points of view. In particular, it explores and contrasts such in their historical religious role as means of communication with the deceased and their current role in psychology as theaters for personal (or, if possible, shared) confrontation with traumatic incidences.
The three central characters of the series each have their own psychological reasons for connection with the departed. Taro, whose sister died in front of him during a double-kidnapping attempt 11 years prior, makes use of his almost-daily lucid dreams in order to attempt a reconnection with the soul of his sister. Makoto, a truant whose father killed himself a short time after Mizuka’s death, looks for answers and reconnection with the father who he barely remembers. Masayuki, a transplant from Tokyo, seeks to overcome the stress caused by the bullying-related suicide of a classmate.
The key dissociation away from the body occurs through an encounter with the site of a traumatic experience. It is through exposure (namely a crude attempt at “Exposure therapy”) to the exact place of Taro’s sister’s death that the three are able to achieve the ability to travel out of, and into, their own bodies at will. This allows them to make several journeys through both the present reality around the town of Suiten as well as into various areas of the “Hidden Realm” of deceased and mythological heritage. Other altered states of consciousness come more naturally to the three characters following the initial OBE, in keeping with Blackmore’s hypothesis concerning altered state experients (Alvarado et al. 298).
This exploration of both roles of mental hallucinations, and the reliance upon the measurement of powerfully-manifested emotional reactions to such hallucination, sheds light onto the sublime aspect of mental hallucination as a means of interaction with creatures of the past, including the spirits of the dead. Hallucinations are marked by their vivid pronouncements to the receiver, but are simultaneously noted by their reliance upon some degree of sensory obscurity. Because of the combination of their vivid and obscure elements, hallucinations such as lucid dreams and spirit possession provoke raw, emotional and irrational responses from the receiver.
The utility of certain physical objects to the characters when experiencing their respective OBEs is also of dissociative importance. Taro often sleeps in the room of his sister Mizuka, focusing upon her backpack hanging from the chair as he nods off. Makoto often goes soul travelling while his physical arms clutch his electric guitar, his favorite pastime and means of sensory escape from the gloom of the Ogami shrine complex. Masayuki often nods off into an OBE while wearing his gyroscopic video game headset. All three objects hold sensory importance to the characters, providing individual means of sensory dissociation and removal from the physical body, and perhaps a root by which they can reenter their bodies. Such objects as utilized in real-world meditation are described by Lutz et al. as tools in “Focused Attention” meditation (Lutz et al. 6), a practice that is well-known to societies with large Buddhist populations such as Japan. The objects, when applied in the context most appropriate to the meditator, allow for the users to ignite the sensation of dissociation in the user.
Finally, the concept of the Hidden Realm is also dynamically reapplied to a more naturalistic, disenchanted reappraisal of the invisible, externalized repository of memories. It is somewhat secularized by Hirata, Taro’s psychiatrist, in the form of Thought Field Therapy (TFT), a form of therapy which attempts to treat phobias (Callahan et al. 123) by means of interaction with a hypothetical “invisible field” external to the brain which contains long-term memories (Sheldrake 32; “Affordance/TFT”). This concept may also explain why Taro is able to visit the eternal Kameiwa Hospital, which resides on a floating island within a “forest”of flashing neural synapses which he supposes as the inside of his own brain. This pairing of the religious concept of the “Hidden Realm” with the secular hypothesis of the external “though field” allows for the series to carefully reposition the concept of the human mind as both a window into the self as well as a window into the abodes of the permanently-disembodied selves.
Artistic Depictions of the Sublime
The sublime value of dissociation in the series is manifested through visual and auditory distortions. Distortions and unrealistic increase whenever the viewer is brought within any distance of mental or religious significance, resulting in artistic cues for the viewer to immediately decipher as an experience within the mind or in the mind’s travels. These cues of distortion give the viewer a strong sense of the intensity and subliminality, the heightened sense of heavy emotional drama, which may likely be felt by the character at that exact moment.
The Hidden Realm, for example, is characterized by heavy, predominant visual elements. It is depicted as a transparent overlay over the reality of the living, one which is as ghostly and flexible as its inhabitants. Heavy colors predominate in certain environments during key scenes in the series. When Taro travels to the Kameiwa hospital and talks with a patient, only to find that he is visiting an area of the Hidden Realm in which the souls of the hospital’s oldened patients reside for eternity, the predominant color of the area is various shades of brown (“For the Snark”). When travelling through the swirling eddies of the Hidden Realm, the predominant color is blue; this color is also the predominant shade which the souls of OBE experients assume when in the out-of-body state.
As a further explanation of places in the series which hold sublime importance and relevance to the realm of the spirits, a contrast of sublime elements can also be made between the mountain shrine belonging to Miyako’s father and the larger shrine owned by the Ogami sect. The mountain shrine, while old, is comparatively bright, earthy and rich in its predominant brown shade; the only time where any prolonged focus takes place in a dark part of the shrine is in Miyako’s bedroom at night, as her psychological condition visibly worries her awake. The Ogami shrine, on the other hand, is so dark and suppressed in its exterior and interior atmosphere that the only sources of interior lighting come from candles. The only room lit by window light is the room in which Makoto’s father killed himself. As he, at age 5, was the first to discover the body of his father, Makoto finds it most difficult, yet most necessary, to enter this room in order to seek the answers that are kept hidden in the dark by those with whom he lives.
The sound effects used in the series also strongly evoke the intense and sublime. From the perspective of his recurring nightmares, Taro’s perception of sound within his dreams, particularly those recounting images from his kidnapping, is highly distorted and often jarring to the ears of the viewer. Williams interprets this experience of sound as Taro “sealing his aural memories in a womb-like enclosure” (Williams). Similar sound effects also feature in the mental episodes of Makoto and Masayuki when recounting their own personal traumas.
The choice of instrumentation for the soundtrack, again, reflects the and are applied at key moments of mental or religious sensation. Most of the instruments used for the background music are traditional Japanese instruments associated with Shinto observances at shrines like the Komagusu and Ogami shrines. Makoto’s electric guitar, on which he occasionally practices in certain episodes of the serie
s, is a channeling of his otherwise-cold and rough emotion through his fingers.
The entire plotline of Ghost Hound is imbued with a strong essence of the sublime, as best filtered through a modern Japanese cultural filter. The psychological, artistic and supernatural are easily blended, while the effects of such blendings upon all of the characters is made evident through their varying reactions and coping mechanisms. The applications of dissociation and the resulting distortive effects of such dissociation deliver to the viewer of the series a strong sense of the highly-personal.
The intersection of mind-body dissociation and, as shown in Ghost Hound, allow for the modern generation to explore ancient, yet modern, constellations of the sublime and emotion-inspiring. The series, in itself, is not a horror-oriented work, nor is it totally geared toward the solicitation of suspense, thrill or awe, yet it manages to combine portions of such plot elements into a procedural call to the viewer to reappraise the characters’ experiences as intimate, sensually distorted and intense in its relevance to the plotline. Such a combination, when best performed, is difficult to find in the larger corpus of speculative fiction, but it is also rewarding to the viewer in its rich, subsensory narrative.
From the meditation to the lucid dreaming to the out-of-body experience to many other types of dissociation depicted, the most general constant visible in these techniques, their applications and the intersections of dissociation and distortion is the adventure toward both resolution with death and the reaffirmation of living. In this complex adventure, which takes the characters and viewers through the most sensually-intense corners of the mind (both inside and out), Ghost Hound accomplishes such goals, and its presentation of the sublime leaves the viewer desirous for more of what it offers.
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“Affordance/TFT . Thought Field Therapy”. Ghost Hound. Nakamura, Ryūtarō, dir. Shirow, Masamune, wri. WOWOW. Tokyo. 20 Dec 2007. Television.
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“For the Snark Was a Boojum, You See”. Ghost Hound. Nakamura, Ryūtarō, dir. Shirow, Masamune, wri. WOWOW. Tokyo. 31 Jan 2008. Television.
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