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What is Hauntology?

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

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Defining hauntology

The term “hauntology” is a play on words, a portmanteau of “haunt(ing)” and “ontology.” Ontology is the philosophical study of states of being, of what things are and how they can be classified. Though hauntology sounds like the study of ghosts, it’s more about lost time than lost souls: hauntology is concerned with what is no longer, what is not yet, what may never be. The word attempts to describe the state of the twenty-first century as a time not only longing for irretrievable pasts but also mourning lost futures.

As philosopher and cultural theorist Mark Fisher writes in “What is Hauntology?”:

What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate. [...] [T]he disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live. (2012)

Hauntology is founded on a belief that even that which does not exist physically or currently can still leave impressions on the present. The influence of these “effective virtualities,” as Fisher calls them, flows from two directions. Haunting is typically associated with the past breaking into the present, previous events or emotions staining a place. But the present can also be haunted by what’s yet to come. As Fisher writes, “The future is always experienced as a haunting: as a virtuality that already impinges on the present, conditioning expectations and motivating cultural production” (2012). Hauntology recognizes the effects of these virtualities — past and future — on politics, art, culture, and more.

As Katy Shaw writes in Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-First Century English Literature, hauntology “dissolves the separation between now and then”:

Haunting its own ontology, hauntology draws attention to the ephemeral nature of the present and offers the specter as neither being or non-being, alive or dead — the ultimate conceptual, and cultural, paradox. (2018)

Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-First Century English Literature

Katy Shaw

Haunting its own ontology, hauntology draws attention to the ephemeral nature of the present and offers the specter as neither being or non-being, alive or dead — the ultimate conceptual, and cultural, paradox. (2018)

Fisher cites John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986) as an example of hauntology. Created by the Black Audio Film Collective, the documentary explores the experiences of Black British people in light of the civil disturbances in the 1980s, especially the 1985 riot in Handsworth and London, and engages with a history of colonialism and struggles for racial justice. Fisher argues that the film’s presentation at the Tate Modern in the wake of riots in the summer of 2011 posed “a question about hauntological casualty”: what is it about certain places, such as Tottenham, which means that riots keep happening? How, when the whole population of an area has changed, do such repetitions occur?” 

Fisher reads Handsworth Songs as “a study of hauntology, of the specter of race itself (an effective virtuality if ever there was one) an account of how the traumas of migration (forced and otherwise) play themselves out of generations, but also about the possibilities of rebellion and escape” (2012). The film is certainly haunted by the past, but it is also haunted by the future: is the future determined already? To what extent can hope for an alternative future motivate the present? Below is a clip from the film.

In our current moment, the future appears more fixed than formable. Fredric Jameson begins Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by acknowledging this sense of an ending:

The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the ‘crisis’ of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.). (1991, [2013])

Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

Fredric Jameson

The last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the ‘crisis’ of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.). (1991, [2013])

As the saying goes — attributed to Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, used by Fisher in his seminal Capitalist Realism — “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Facing the increasingly dire effects of climate change, it is now indeed easier to imagine the end of the world than anything else. Hauntology grieves for this lost future: what it mourns is “less the failure of a future to transpire — the future as actuality — than the disappearance of this effective virtuality” (Fisher, 2012). Our present, Fisher and other hauntologists argue, is shaped not by an anticipated future but by the absence of futures that we’ve been denied, even cheated out of.

Origins and development: Derrida and Fisher on hauntology

The term hauntology was originally coined by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx (1994, [2012]). Although Derrida uses the word only three times in the volume, ideas of haunting, futurity, and virtuality are at the heart of Specters, laying the foundation for how later writers, especially Fisher, would revitalize “hauntology” as a critical term. 

Derrida writes,

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept.

Specters of Marx book cover
Specters of Marx

Jacques Derrida

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept.

Throughout Specters, Derrida repeats a line from Hamlet: “the time is out of joint.” This broken sense of time is crucial to Derrida’s project and to the later development of hauntology. Time is not how it should be; ruptured by the past, deprived of the future, time folds back on itself.

In Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, Martin Hägglund argues,

Derrida’s aim is to formulate a general “hauntology” (hauntologie) in contrast to the traditional ‘ontology’ that thinks being in terms of self-identical presence. What is important about the figure of the specter, then, is that it cannot be fully present: it has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet. (2008)

Here, Hägglund indicates the two directions in which hauntology works: a lingering past which is no longer but compels us to repeat it, and an anticipated future which is not yet but shapes our current behavior. An example of this latter kind of hauntology lies in Karl Marx’s own invocation of haunting in The Communist Manifesto (1848, [2020]), in the oft-cited line referenced by Derrida’s title:

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.

The Communist Manifesto book cover
The Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.

Marx and Friedrich Engles identify a ghost of the future whose threatened coming is already affecting the present. 

Derrida’s philosophy of hauntology is political, responding to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the “fall” of communism and in the words of Francis Fukuyama, the “end of history.” The era of what Fisher calls “capitalist realism” — the increasing belief that there are no alternatives to capitalism — was beginning to awaken, haunted not by the specter of communism but by its disappearance. 

The flipside of Fukuyama’s “end of history” is Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s “slow cancellation of the future,” a phrase Fisher borrows from Berardi’s After the Future. To Fisher, the twentieth century saw infinite possibilities for the future of everything from art to politics; the modernist impulse compelled us to continue innovating better forms to express reality. As these feelings diminished, and the future was slowly canceled, the twenty-first century became stuck, ever doubling back rather than striving forward.

In Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Fisher writes,

While 20th-century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century. (2014)

Time is out of joint, as evidenced by the postmodern attraction to anachronism and recycling old forms. We are nostalgic for a future that seemed endlessly open, not fixed or lost.

Hauntology concerns a “crisis of space and time” (Fisher, 2012). The twenty-first century, Fisher argues, is marked by the contraction and homogenization of space and time. For example, Marc Augé describes non-places — airports, retail parks, chain stores — which resemble each other more than where they are actually located. Haunting, and often hauntology, “happens when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time” (Fisher, 2012).

In his discussion of hauntological novels, Fisher cites a piece of graffiti that supposedly inspired Alan Garner’s novel Red Shift (1973): ‘‘Not really now not any more.” Fisher writes that this cryptic graffiti captures what is at stake in hauntology: it describes “the postmodern impasse, the disappearance of the present and the possibility of representing the present” and points toward “an alternative temporality, another way in which time can be out of joint, a mode of causality that is about influence and virtuality” (2014).

In the next section, we’ll explore how music captures the feeling of time out of joint.

The sound of hauntology: from Arctic Monkeys to Dua Lipa

Fisher conjectures that hauntology has an “intrinsically sonic dimension” — the pun, after all, works best in spoken French (2014). Many of Fisher’s theories of hauntology are founded upon or exemplified by music.

Throughout the twentieth century, popular music evolved rapidly; genres and subgenres proliferated and mutated in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The same cannot be said, Fisher argues, since the mid-1990s. If a record released in the past few years were played in 1995, it would not seem discordant or shocking; in fact, it would sound familiar. On the other hand, “play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be” (Fisher, 2014). 

Music, representative of culture at large, has stagnated. Music trying to sound “futuristic” today sounds the same as music trying to sound futuristic thirty years ago. Moreover, popular musicians recycle existing styles and sounds rather than developing new ones, participating in postmodernist anachronism. Fisher discusses Arctic Monkey’s single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” (2006) as a prime example. When he first saw the video for the song, Fisher believed it was some “lost artifact from circa 1980”; everything — “the lighting, the haircuts, the clothes,” the postpunk sound — seemed to come from another period. Importantly, the artists were not trying to present themselves as “retro.” The music of the future sounds the same as the past.

While “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” recreates a specific past, singers like Adele evoke a more timeless past. Fisher writes,

Although her music is not marketed as retro, there is nothing that marks out her records as belonging to the 21st century either. Like so much contemporary cultural production, Adele’s recordings are saturated with a vague but persistent feeling of the past without recalling any specific historical moment. (2014)

Fisher points to other musical examples of hauntology, like the Caretaker project and the Ghost Box label. Spearheaded by Leyland James Kirby, the Caretaker captured “the sense of yearning for a future that we feel cheated out of” (Fisher, 2012) in the album title: Sadly, The Future is No Longer What It Was. The album “subjects 1930s tearoom pop to degradation (delay, distortion), rendering it as a series of sweet traces that are veiled by one of sonic hauntology’s signature traits, the conspicuous use of crackle, which renders time as an audible materiality” (Fisher, 2012). Meanwhile, the Ghost Box label incorporated “a canon of audiovisual culture from the near past — alluded to stylistically and in sleevenotes” (Fisher, 2012).

Riffing on past sounds, this hauntological music doesn’t actually tap into nostalgia for an earlier era: it exhibits nostalgia for a previous form and for a view of the future as open-ended. 

A more recent example of hauntology in music is Dua Lipa’s 2020 album Future Nostalgia. The title invokes a yearning for the future while the album embraces a range of retro sounds spanning the 1980s and 2000s from disco to R&B. Dua Lipa described the album as feeling like “a dancercise class” (Savage, 2019). In its title and throwback sound (and visuals), she aimed to invoke “a future of infinite possibilities while tapping into the sound and mood of some older music she loved” (Tucker, 2020).

Reading the album through a hauntological lens, the results are more cynical. Although Dua Lipa sings on the title track, “You want a timeless song. I want to change the game” (2020), the game is fixed. Her album, while enjoyable, is representative of twenty-first century music, filled with pastiche and recycled sounds from before Dua Lipa was born. The game hasn’t changed in quite some time; Fisher might even argue it hasn’t changed in Dua Lipa’s lifetime. Rather than gesturing toward “a future of infinite possibilities” still ahead of us, Future Nostalgia actually taps into nostalgia for a time when the future still seemed infinite, before it was lost.

Hauntology in film: The Shining

Based on Stephen King’s classic horror novel, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a film that lends itself to critical interpretation, including through the lens of hauntology. In fact, the Caretaker project, one of Fisher’s examples of sonic hauntology, is named after the position Jack Nicholson’s character takes on at The Overlook hotel in The Shining.

Like most ghost stories, The Shining is about a place stained by another time. The present is forced to encounter, and re-enact, the past. Fisher reads The Shining as anticipating the preoccupations of twenty-first century hauntology: “The film refers to hauntology in the most general sense — the quality of (dis)possession that is proper to human existence as such, the way in which the past has a way of using us to repeat itself” (2012). Following Jameson, Fisher argues that the film also stages the crisis of history itself at the end of the twentieth century — the rise of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the dominance of “immaterial” forms of labor, the standardized homogeneity of space and time represented by the non-place of a bland corporate office. Alongside these specters of the impending future are haunting references to America’s barely-repressed past — organized crime, patriarchal violence, genocide of indigenous peoples. 

While the music of Adele blurs anachronism, existing in a timeless past, The Shining stages and draws attention to it. Fisher argues that “anachronism, this experience of a time that is out of joint, is in fact the very subject of the film”:

The film’s most unnerving moments — Jack confronting his ostensible predecessor, Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), in the bathroom and reminding him of actions that he has ‘‘no recollection’’ of performing (namely killing his own family); Jack himself smiling from the center of a photograph taken in the 1920s — derive from the foregrounding of anachronism. And what is the Overlook Hotel itself, where one door can lead into a ballroom endlessly playing dreamy delirious 1920s pop, and another can reveal a moldering corpse, whose corridors extend in time as well as space, if not a kind of architecture of anachronism? (2012)

Featuring powers of telepathy and objects from the past exerting their will on the present, The Shining recognizes the core tenet of hauntology: forces act upon us from a distance, from the past and the future. The film’s violence has already been committed — by Jack to his son, by Grady to his family, perhaps by men for all time — and yet it is also about to unfold. What is in front of us is right behind us.

The future of hauntology

Hauntology stretches across political, artistic, historical, and cultural spheres. While Fisher focuses mainly on music, film, and tv, scholars of literature, theatre, and sociology have adapted hauntology to their spheres. Merlin Coverly’s Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past is one recent critical effort to theorize the term since Fisher. 

It’s worth noting that many of the examples cited by Fisher originate in the UK. Shaw goes so far as to deem hauntology a “peculiarly British phenomenon” (2018). However, the United States is also ripe for hauntological readings, as we see in our analysis of The Shining, and hauntology has been applied to other nations and disciplines. Jessica Auchter uses the term to analyze international relations, while Lindsay C. Clark uses hauntology to analyze drone warfare and gender. As hauntology continues to gain prominence in the critical lexicon, the term will develop as scholars continue to place it in new contexts.

Some scholars find hauntology useful for investigating trauma (for just one example, see Emma Dee’s “Hauntology and Lost Futures: Trauma Narratives in the Contemporary Gothic”). Trauma is another strange experience of time: what has happened in the past continues to affect the present, and those who experience trauma often fear the same will happen in the future. Trauma’s ideas of repetition and broken time fit well with hauntology’s investment in similar patterns, tracking historical as well as personal traumas.

Afrofuturism is another school of thought with which hauntology has been allied. As Fisher writes in “The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology,” “Time was always-already out of joint for the slave,” a person forced into the space-time of Capital (2013). Afrofuturist projects imagine alternate histories and keep alive visions of alternate futures, reclaiming paths denied through oppression. Often, Afrofuturism places elements of the far past (for example, ancient Egyptian gods) in the far future (science fiction technology). A popular example of Afrofuturism is Marvel’s Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) comics and films. In the culture and people of Wakanda, Blank Panther resists how history has denied and dismissed the accomplishments of Black cultures, envisioning the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced country as an African country. Wakanda celebrates the real history of African peoples while using the power of fiction to imagine a future (and, therefore, a past and present) not dominated by whiteness. 

If hauntology ultimately captures a feeling of being thwarted and dispossessed, being out of joint with time and cheated of a promised future, then it can speak to many experiences. As the ghosts of the future grow stronger — futures we once imagined but now seem impossible, alongside futures promising what seem to be inevitable ends — hauntology may prove an increasingly useful and prescient tool.

Further hauntology reading on Perlego

The Politics of Haunting and Memory in International Relations by Jessica Auchter

Hauntological Dramaturgy: Affects, Archives, Ethics by Glenn D'Cruz

Gender and Drone Warfare: A Hauntological Perspective by Lindsay C. Clark

Hauntology FAQs


Ashford, J. (2019) “What is hauntology?,” The Week. 31 Oct. Available at:

Augé, M. (2009) Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Translated by J. Howe. Verso Books.

Berardi, F. (2011) After the Future. AK Press.

Coverly, M. (2020) Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past. Oldcastle Books.

Dee, E. (2022) “Hauntology and Lost Futures: Trauma Narratives in the Contemporary Gothic,” SFRA Review, 52(3), pp. 231–237. Available at:

Derrida, J. (2012) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge. Available at:

Domino Recording Co. (2010) Arctic Monkeys - I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor (Official Video). 19 February. Available at:

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? John Hunt Publishing.  

Fisher, M. (2014) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. John Hunt Publishing. Available at:

Fisher, M. (2013) “The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology,” Dancecult, 5(2), pp. 42–55. Available at:

Fisher, M. (2012) “What is Hauntology?,” Film Quarterly, 66(1), pp. 16–24. Available at:

Fukuyama, F. (2006) The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press. Available at:

Hägglund, M. (2008) Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford University Press.

Lipa, D. (2020) “Future Nostalgia,” Future Nostalgia. Available at:

Marx, K. & Engles, F. (2020) The Communist Manifesto. Open Road. Available at:

Savage, M. (2019) “Dua Lipa reveals nerves about new album,” BBC, 5 July. Available at:

Shaw, K. (2018) Hauntology: The Presence of the Past in Twenty-First Century English Literature. Palgrave Macmillan. Available at:

The Shining (1980) Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Available at: YouTube.

Tucker, K. (2020) “With 'Future Nostalgia,' Dua Lipa Reminds Us How To Feel Care-Free,” NPR, 21 April. Available at:

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.