James Thurber’s "The Night the Ghost Got In": More Funny Than Scary



James Thurber writes about their family’s encounter with a ghost in an extremely witty and humorous manner, which makes the description more funny than scary in "The Night the Ghost Got In". The incident also helps to highlight the eccentric and fictionalized account of life in the Thurber household. The story begins with a short introductory paragraph that prepares readers for the more colorful events that will unfold in the pages to come—his mother throwing a shoe through a window, his grandfather shooting a policeman—and then goes right into the events of that night. James taking a bath at one o’clock at night, his mother desiring to throw a second shoe through the neighbour’s window, his grandfather deliberately mistaking the policemen for Meade’s men—all illustrates the unusual characteristics of the Thurbers. Thurber himself acknowledges that their unpredictable behaviour puts a strain on the more sedate people around them. ‘Most everybody we knew or lived near had some kind of attacks.’

"The Night the Ghost Got In" starts with the narrator coming out of a bath at 1:15 in the morning and hearing a noise downstairs in the dining room. It sounds to him like footsteps and assumes that it is his father or older brother, Herman. Wakened suddenly, Herman is frightened when he is told that there is someone downstairs. The noise downstairs is gone, and, Thurber explains, "None of us ever heard the ghost again." The mother comes to the conclusion that there are burglars downstairs and she throws a shoe through the window of the house next door, waking Mr. and Mrs. Bodwell, who live there. After a momentary confusion Mr. Bodwell calls the police and tells them to go to the Thurber house. The arrival of the police blows the whole event out of proportion. When the narrator's grandfather, who sleeps in the attic, makes a slight noise, the policemen spring into action. They race upstairs to investigate. Grandfather is obsessed with the retreat of the Union army under General George Meade from the forces of Stonewall Jackson's Confederate army. When the policemen arrive at his door, he is convinced that they are Meade's army. He calls them cowards and tells them to go back to the battle. He takes the man's gun from his holster and shoots at him, hitting him in the shoulder. He fires twice more and then goes back to bed.

Another unique feature, especially of the mother and the grandfather, is to get carried away by the drift of events and extract its dramatic potential to the fullest extent. His mother can think of no better way of cuffing the police other than breaking her neighbour’s window while they are sound asleep! From his grandfather’s conversation at the breakfast table, it is quite clear that he knew that the intruders were policemen. Yet he pretends to think of them otherwise, fires bullets dangerously and enjoys himself immensely generating terror and chaos among the policemen. Thurber’s attempts to explain things only add to the confusion. For example, the information that a guinea pig slept inside the zither or that the hullabaloo was caused by a ghost only convinces the policemen and the reporter respectively, that the family is crazy. By contrasting unusual happenings with common sense explanations, Thurber deliberately highlights the former and also illustrates how perfectly logical statements sound absurd in strange situations. Neither the police nor the reporter have any clue to the reasons behind the pandemonium and therefore suspect the Thurber family to be either mad or devious. It shows how drab and unimaginative the so- called normal world is and how ill-equipped it is to deal with anything beyond its familiar range.

Thurber’s use of laconic understatements, colloquial language, a gusty and vigorous style and above all the ability to see the humorous side of every calamity makes the piece extremely entertaining. It gives the impression that growing up in a chaotic household like Thurber’s is much more exciting and enjoyable than in a sedate, routine-bound one.

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