Ghosts in the Health Machine: Visits from the Dead in Hospital

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Victoria Hume


Medicine Anthropology Theory (MAT), Volume 5, Issue 1 (2018)


delirium, ghosts, hallucination, hospital, intensive care


Ill health and hospitalisation can conjure up both benign and threatening visits from the dead. This piece is an exploratory attempt to understand these visits in the context of a long cultural history of the relationship between the ill and dying, and those already dead. It looks, too, at the role played by the machine of the hospital, with all its constituent parts, in both this cultural history and manifestation of figures of the dead during illness today. The article uses evidence from two narrative studies of delirium conducted by the author in the United Kingdom and South Africa in 2013 and 2017 respectively, as well as brief reflections on experiences within the author’s family.

Medical Humanities in Africa

WISER is working to establish the field of medical humanities in South Africa with other partners at Wits and in the region. Medical Humanities took root in the interdisciplinary spaces between social history of medicine, medical sociology, medical anthropology, literary studies, art and film studies, cultural studies, politics, philosophy, legal studies, public health, psychiatry, medical economics and medical ethics. Although initially concerned with contrasting and comparing approaches from the humanities and medical science to themes of health, suffering, therapy, pain and illness, it has grown in ambition to consider the foundational question of what it is to be fully human, inviting debate around vital epistemological problems. The interface of medicine and humanities also demands a broadly interdisciplinary discussion about what constitutes evidence, and this is critical in the formulation of all contemporary political arguments, including health policies. 

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