The frightening and familiar world of film ghosts

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 8:18pm

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When I was eight, a strange thing happened. I was on my way up the stairs of my old house, about ready for bed, and heard my mom gasp from the kitchen. I looked back to her to see her clutching her coffee cup with her eyes somewhat wide. “The basement light just turned on,” she said. No one was supposed to be downstairs. My sister was next to me, my dad in the living room. Warily, my parents headed to the basement armed with steak knives and searched every corner. Of course, they found nothing out of the ordinary. My dad even trudged out into our snowy backyard to look for footprints. He didn’t find any. The whole thing was silly, in retrospect.

Many of us have memories that fringe on the preternatural, that are somewhere between the almost explicable and the undeniably spooky. But a place that nearly everyone has seen the supernatural at work for themselves is in film. Film ghosts are everywhere — they’re not limited by genre or archetype. In fact, they span an array of abilities, personas, and motivations.

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Casper:

At their shallowest, and arguably their most fun, ghosts in film are odd companions, comic relief and maniacal antagonists. Casper the Friendly Ghost, first created as a cartoon character in the 1940s, has become our collective interpretation of how the average ghost should look like: a cloud-like, white apparition hovering wherever it pleases. Casper is the ultimate “everyghost,” the spirit of the afterlife most relatable to the living. His relation to the supernatural is a giddy and purely benign one. He shows us that we don’t have to be scared of ghosts at all. They may be a little more translucent and monochromatic than we are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be companions.

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Moaning Myrtle:

J.K. Rowling brought to life a whole new kind of ghost with the “Harry Potter” series, and while these ghosts are largely underrepresented in the film adaptations of her novels (most notably Peeves the Poltergeist), Moaning Myrtle steals the ethereal spotlight in the second installment of the series, “The Chamber of Secrets.” Myrtle is not simply the wailing tormentor of a decrepit bathroom at Hogwarts; she also provides the key piece to the story’s central mystery of unlocking the Chamber. Behind her hilarious melodrama, deceptive coyness and ear-splitting wails, Myrtle is the ghost with the missing answer — the solution that has evaded Harry and his friends from the beginning. She’s wonderful.

“Beetlejuice”:

Tim Burton, a director known for his theatricality and otherworldly atmosphere decided to push the boundaries of the spirit world with 1988’s “Beetlejuice,” a film as over-the-top as it is rewatchable. Michael Keaton’s full-throated, comical performance as the film’s eponymous villain is something of a twisted delight to witness. Beetlejuice is both grotesque and sloppily charming. Of course we find him repulsive, but there’s something uncannily inviting about Keaton’s exaggerated gestures, snarky delivery and clownish affectation.

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“Coco”:

At their most profound, ghost stories provide far more than goofy characters and visual spectacle. Ghosts in film have the capacity to express our shared human expectations, ruminations and anxieties about death itself. Perhaps no movie captures this depth better than Pixar’s “Coco,” a poignant journey about a young boy lost in the land of the dead with only the assistance of his departed family members to find his way home.

“Coco” explores the spirit world in ways that few other films have. Not only are the ghosts of the film benign, but they are Miguel’s own ancestors, shedding light on his heritage and the lost truths that have ultimately torn the family apart. The film uses these ghosts so effectively because they become essential vehicles to tell the story at hand as well as unravel more complex quandaries of grief, detachment and reconciliation.

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“A Ghost Story”:

The most on-the-nose title for a tale of the supernatural also managed to become one of the most heart-wrenching and philosophical examples of ghosts in film. “A Ghost Story” is an affecting story about supernatural forces that act through the bond of love. As mawkish of a premise as that may sound, director David Lowery (“The Old Man and the Gun”) maximizes the emotional impact of the movie in a way that feels fresh and simplistic. Rooney Mara’s performance as a mourning widow is empathic and legitimately haunting, enhanced by the invisible presence of her late husband outfitted plainly in a white sheet, played by Casey Affleck. Lowery’s work is a testament to the simplicity ghost stories can operate without losing their sweeping cosmic implications.

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“The Others”:

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to discuss my favorite ghost story without spoiling its whirlwind of a conclusion. Suffice it to say that what “The Others” does best is to blur the line between the real and the ghostly, investigating death as a process rather than an event. “The Others” uses a hackneyed haunted house premise to take advantage of a viewer’s expectations, but subverts them ruthlessly by the end of the film. What seems like a traditional horror story on first watch turns ultimately into a spellbinding tragedy that might be the single best example of cinematic ghosts.

It was only much later, years after my family’s strange incident with the basement light, that we realized what had actually triggered our panic. The pressure from my sister and I walking up the stairs had likely disturbed wiring above the basement, causing the stairway light to switch on.

The aspect that differentiates film ghosts from the supernatural phenomena that we recall around campfires and during thunderstorm blackouts is this: The ghosts in movies need no explanation. They can be make-believe because film itself is an escape from reality. In real life, we have a tendency to explain away the initially inexplicable to feel in control of our surroundings. But in film, there is no desire, no necessity to do such a thing. We can interact with the supernatural, become endeared or frightened by it. But most importantly, we don’t have to challenge it.