Things and people are generally defined by their contradictions. This is especially true of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Indeed, one of the contradictions is right in the title. Ghosts are generally scary. Casper is a ghost who is friendly. Our goal is to illuminate the dialectics of Casper, and determine what the primary contradiction driving his personal growth is.
Chairman Mao wrote that you can tell what a thing is going to become based on its contradictions. When a thing or person is acted on by forces outside it- or themselves, the response will be determined by that thing or person’s internal contradictions. In the Marxist classic “On Contradiction,” Mao explains:
The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes.
We posit that by applying these principles to our investigation of The World’s Most Famous Ghost, we can determine the internal forces driving his personal development. To do this we have to tell the difference between what Mao called primary and secondary contradictions. The primary contradiction is the one driving the thing or person’s development.
So, following Mao, we must dare to ask: What is the primary contradiction driving the development of Casper the Friendly Ghost?
One might be tempted to say that the primary contradiction of Casper is that his values and personality are at odds with general ghost culture. Even in Casper’s earliest appearances, we see that the ghosts of his fictional universe relish scaring the living.
Take for example “There’s Good Boo’s To-Night,” a mid-40s Famous Studios cartoon that has lapsed into the public domain. In this story, Casper dwells in a graveyard. When night falls, another ghost rises from his grave and takes the form of a ghostly rooster, waking all the spirits of the dead with his weird cry.
The other ghosts, all of whom seem to be adult men, are excited. It is time to carouse. “There’s good boos tonight!” one announces, pantomiming riding a bicycle as he flies through the air.
The adult ghosts shapeshift. Now they are warplanes ready to raid the living. They take dreadful flight. The sounds of propeller engines drown all else. We see the aeronautic dead pantomime strafe runs on a nearby city.
In this sequence we see that Casper is in contradiction with this culture of scaring. He has no desire to scare. He just wants to be friends. He leaves the cemetery on his own. First he goes to a farm and tries to befriend a cow. The cow screams and runs away at cartoon speed.
Casper is discouraged but not defeated. He sees a skunk. Hoping to avoid scaring the creature, he gets down on all fours and follows the skunk, mimicking the skunk’s prancing. Casper is somehow smaller than the skunk. One is left with the impression of a baby skunk following its mother.
But this is not what the skunk wants. She screams and sprays the dead boy from noxious glands. Later we see Casper cleaning himself in a wooden tub and running his malleable ghost body through an old-fashioned hand crank like dirty laundry.
The world views Casper as a scary ghost but he only wants to be friends. Is this his primary contradiction? We say no. The dialectic of friendliness and scariness is a secondary contradiction. We cannot conclude otherwise because Casper’s scariness is not an inherent quality. The animals we have discussed did fear Casper. However, we shall see, not all among the living feel the same.
Instead, the primary contradiction is between a self-hating ghost and the truly awe-inspiring and uncanny supernatural powers associated with ghosthood. When Casper overcomes this contradiction and embraces the supernatural, his afterlife can be a joyous one.
We have talked about primary and secondary contradictions. We also need to talk about the primary and secondary aspects within a single contradiction.
We must dare to ask: What is the primary contradiction driving the development of Casper the Friendly Ghost?
As Mao sees it, the principal aspect of the contradiction is going to determine how the contradiction is overcome. Now in any given contradiction the principal and secondary aspects may differ over time. What happens when the power of the supernatural becomes the principal aspect of Casper’s primary contradiction?
We return to the aforementioned cartoon. Beset by a deep loneliness, now Casper is resigned. He walks along the wall of the graveyard. Something amazing is about to happen.
Hither comes a fox with the manner of the puppy. Casper believes the fox will be scared, but no. The fox does not care that Casper is a ghost. What he cares about is the game of fetch which he teaches the dead boy how to play.
The fox licks Casper lovingly and enjoys the tricks Casper can play, such as passing through a solid stone fence. Overwhelmed with joy, Casper decides to name the foxlet “Ferdie.”
Self-hatred is overcome by the joy of supernatural power. They scramble and play in the woods. But then something terrible happens. Something that drives home the primary contradiction of Casper.
A hunter, a giant compared to the childish figure of Casper, comes marauding. His horse’s hooves thunder. Fierce dogs give chase to Ferdie. Bullets fly. It happens so fast that before Casper can scare off the hunter and his dogs, Ferdie lay dead.
The scene cuts back to Casper’s home in the graveyard. Now there is a smaller plot next to Casper’s with a little headstone labelled Ferdie. Casper is weeping.
The immortal spirit of Ferdie hears Casper crying. A ghost fox emerges from the earth and begins licking Casper. Now they can be friends forever.
The eight-minute short shows us everything we need to know about the contradictions of Casper the Friendly Ghost. The external force of Ferdie acts on Casper. The uncanny joy of being a ghost overcomes his self-hatred and he performs ghostly tricks. More stunning is that the uncanny power of the supernatural returns his dead friend to him.
There are other Casper stories where his self-hatred is principal and these resolve in the renunciation of uncanny powers for fear that they might scare. But here we see that a friendly ghost need not reject ghosthood. In fact, his ghostly powers enable his friendship with Ferdie.
Casper! We call on you to embrace your power and status as a ghost! Amuse your friends and overcome death!