“Ghosts” on soap operas

At my play writing class the other night, one of the topics of discussion was “establishing conventions” – setting up the rules of your universe and sticking with them.

With a play specifically, for example, that means don’t have normal, conversational verse through the first half and then suddenly switch to poetic verse. If you’re doing a musical, have a song in the beginning to set that up so it doesn’t feel like songs are coming out of nowhere – that sort of thing.

Soap operas seem to bend this rule, which I’ll elaborate on momentarily.

This idea of staying within the rules of your world is applicable to many other story lines, whether it’s with a book, television show, movie, etc. If your story takes place on another planet, in another time, with vampires and unicorns present, all that is well and dandy as long as you don’t break your own rules.

Speaking of vampires, if you take a look at Twilight and True Blood they each have differing “rules.” In Twilight, vampires can sort of go out in the sun, but they sparkle if they do; in True Blood, vampires cannot go out in the sun at all. In True Blood, vampires have coffins (or “hidey-holes”) they stay in during the day when they’re sleeping. In Twilight, if I’m remembering correctly, there are no coffins, and in fact, I believe vampires don’t sleep at all. Etc, etc.

The point behind all of this is that if you’re opting out of the coffin thing for the first two Twilight books you can’t have Edward suddenly pop out of one in the third book.

Supernatural stuff in general clearly fits into certain guidelines or rules that the writer would set up in the beginning of the story and have to stick to. You can’t have a modern, contemporary novel and suddenly have a ghost show up half way through – unless of course, you set that up in the beginning somehow with a hint of supernatural things to come.

As mentioned before, soap operas seem to break many conventional rules, and having dead people stick around seems to be one of them. I am not speaking of when people “come back from the dead” (when so and so falls off a cliff and was presumed dead, but comes back years later having been living as a nun the whole time). I’m also not speaking of soap operas that have concrete supernatural things going on, like with Passions.

I am talking about when a character on a soap dies and the producers really want to keep that particular actor around. This dead person will come back and talk to the other characters – usually just one. The dead character often acts as a voice of reason, or the conscience of another character. 

Most soap fans are quite used to this by now, but it still catches me by surprise sometimes. It’s like, whoa, did we switch genres? This is not a ghost story! 

The Young and the Restless does this ghost story line all the time with John Abbott, played by Jerry Douglas pictured above. John has been dead for several years now, but returns quite frequently to speak with his son, Jack.

Jack is a business obsessed man who also happens to be addicted to pain killers. Often, his father will pop up when no one else is around to remind Jack that family is more important than business, and oh yeah, stop taking pills and drinking Scotch.

Very recently, Y&R has also brought back Camryn Grimes, who played Cassie Newman, pictured below.

In a truly unusual move for a soap opera, who almost never kill off kids, Camryn Grimes’ character died in a car accident at the age of 14. Every year on the anniversary of her death her parents, who are no longer married, come together to grieve once more and bond over their daughter’s death.

In addition, once every few years or so Cassie returns from the dead to speak to her mother, Sharon. In this most recent return, it would appear that Cassie is not so much speaking as the voice of reason for her mother, but she is instead telling Sharon what Sharon wants to hear – this would imply that Cassie is perhaps a figment of Sharon’s imagination and not a “real” ghost; this idea is highlighted by the fact that Sharon is mentally unstable.

Again, though, John visits a perfectly sane Jack all the time, so often in fact, that it would appear that having dead people hang around is a perfectly acceptable convention of the soap opera universe.