THE unknowing of the afterlife is one of life’s great mysteries.
It is a theme that filmmakers have long explored, playing on fears that the supernatural might be hostile, or in contrast, by subverting these scary figures for more gentle purposes.
As Halloween approaches, let us look back at the different manifestations of ghosts in cinema.
Children and parents of the ‘90s will be familiar with cinema’s friendliest ghost, Casper (1995). With his harmless appearance and mischievous ways, Casper had the charm to win the hearts of audiences and Kat (played by a young Christina Ricci).
Love and an unjust death tie Sam (Patrick Swayze) to the material world in Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990). Helped by psychic Oda (the Oscar-winning Whoopi Goldberg), Sam contacts his unchained melody lover, Molly (Demi Moore), to save her life and get revenge on his killer.
The battle with grief and pursuit of closure, with the aid of supernatural interaction, are common themes in film. Ghosts watch over – and interfere with – ex-lovers’ relationships in Safe Haven (2013) and Over Her Dead Body (2008).
Disney films such as Lion King (1994), The Good Dinosaur (2015) and Moana (2016) see family members return in spirit form to inspire and validate their loved ones – who are now trying to forge their own way in the world.
Less memorably, Connor (Matthew McConaughey) is visited by ghosts of the past to persuade him to change his bachelor ways in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009). Mark Waters’ romantic comedy follows the framework of one of cinema’s most beloved ghost tales – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
This tale has been retold countless times on the big-screen – from Walter R Booth’s silent short film in 1901, The Muppets version in 1992, through to a 2009 animated version starring Jim Carrey. In these cases, ghosts steer the living on the path towards redemption.
A movie trope that has frequently recurred, particularly in the horror genre, is the bond between children and the ethereal. Films such as The Sixth Sense (1999), Insidious (2010), The Others (2001) and The Woman in Black (2012) have seen children encounter ghosts – or demonic spirits – in disturbing ways.
Children, who are by nature vulnerable and innocent, are prime victims for vengeful ghosts. Put in these perilous situations, the child is likely to elicit paternal feelings from the audience. These instincts are intensified in films such as The Innocents (1961), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Spanish horror The Orphanage (2007) – where orphan children are at the heart of the story.
Instead of absent parents, it is an abusive one that endangers young Danny in Stanley Kubrick The Shining (1980). While his father descends into madness, Danny is visited by the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel, including two creepy identical twins, that speak to a sinister past of abuse.
This corrupting of youth not only evokes paternal sympathy, but raises questions about society – and its failings. Unruly teenagers are not free from these murderous spirits as seen in A nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Ghosts – demonic or not – often remain in the material world because they are tied to a location, person or object. The Haunting (1999), The Grudge (2002) and Skeleton Key (2009) are examples of the typically suburban and safe home being infiltrated by the supernatural.
Casey Affleck’s bedsheet ghost (A Ghost Story, 2017) is attached to the small Texas home he shared with partner (Rooney Mara). Even when Mara’s character moves out, the ghost stays lingering in this familiar and sentimental space as time bends around him.
Ghosts have similar attachments to places in films such as Carnival of Souls (1962) and highly-regarded comedy Beetlejuice (1988). In the Harry Potter series, Moaning Myrtle stays in the girls’ bathroom to cry and, occasionally, give vital information.
Within the house, objects such as dolls – again connected to innocence and childhood – are subverted by murderous spirits in both Chucky (1988) and Annabelle (2014).
Curses, too, can keep ghosts rooted to the natural world. For example, Captain Barbosa’s men in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), The Dead Men of Dunharrow in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003); and Christine (Alison Lohman) in Drag Me to Hell (2009).
With technology’s growing influence – and its intertwining with the self – filmmakers have injected the supernatural into this modern way of life. Ringu (1998), which inspired a 2002 American remake, sees a killer ghost climb through the television screen to claim a victim. Sinister spirits also use the television in Poltergeist (1982 and 2015).
Likewise, young teens are haunted on social media in Unfriended (2014) – a movie that plays off the anonymity of the internet and the dangers associated with this. Kristen Stewart’s character, Maureen, also has to deal with anonymous messages, this time via text, in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016). Maureen had originally been waiting in her twin brother’s Parisian home for supernatural contact.
Advances in technology and the accessibility of cameras have made film evidence a common feature on the big-screen. Following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, an invisible force is captured haunting a suburban couple in Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007). The box-office success of this film inspired footage parody horror A Haunted House (2013), in which horror films and ghosts become the cause of laughter.
This use of ghosts as a figure of humour is not uncommon – Ghost Town (2008), The Ghost and Mr Chicken (1966), The Ghost Breakers (1940), Hold that Ghost (1941) and RIPD (2013). Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984), rebooted with a female cast in 2016, is the most successful example of this use of humour, hosting a cast of creative and amusing ghosts.
Ghosts will always have a place in cinematic consciousness – whether they are terrifying (Freddy Krueger), child-like and friendly (Casper), redemptive (Sam in Ghost) or comical (those found in Ghostbusters).
They entertain. Long may they haunt us.
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