Celebrating my birthday on Halloween has always been most enjoyable. That said, I do not particularly like horror genre, nor do I appreciate being frightened whatsoever, though I do love the spooktacular festivities harvest-time brings. Therefore, in the spirit of this spine-chilling season I think it’s wholly appropriate to write about ‘A Ghost Story’, one of the most haunting movies I’ve ever seen. Not because it’s menacingly terrifying, it’s not (no cheap scares at all – whew), but because it’s such a trippy well-done film that lingers in the psyche for a long time. Similar to cobwebs in the attic this rather simplistic picture released in 2017 sticks in one’s head as the mind gnashes through a myriad of interpretations. Like a moth to a flame, drifting thoughts are caught ambling over countless notions trying to explain the often-silent happenings and puzzling ending of this yarn. Life, death, existence, purgatory, significance, limbo, hereafter… What on earth – or rather what in heaven’s name is the takeaway message of this fiendishly philosophical film? Wearing my paranormal investigator’s hat, I will go undercover to unveil the profound meaning this picture aims to transmit.
Written and directed by David Lowery this intriguing tale of manifestation tells the story through the ghost’s lens, hence the movie’s long stints of quietness. A muted lonely shell of his former self, this gloomy desolate essence is a sad quiescent soul who cannot break through the invisible barrier between life and death. So, in silence this trapped sorrowful spirit despondently watches in frustration behind the curtain of his draped white morgue sheet the life he once had, in a house he travels back to after his death, on a quest for finality necessary to enter the next dimension.
One of the most captivating qualities of this film is that its meaning is entirely focused on the audiences’ self-directed perceptions; so much so the characters don’t even have names – only initials (C played by Casey Affleck and M played by Rooney Mara). It’s as if the director is screaming that no slants in the narrative will be provided. It’s up to the observer to determine the purpose, worth, and destiny of a life-force because it is purely just an entity with no real identifying distinctions required. In short, the viewer must construct their own perceptions, opinions, views about what lays beyond the grave. Given that Lowery is a self-proclaimed atheist it is a most interesting tactic to offer watchers creative licence to settle on their own assessments about theology, religion, otherworldliness, piety, and what awaits us in the afterlife, if anything.
From this vantage point, it is my opinion that the ghost of C appears stuck in an indescribable experience with no way to communicate his pain, or to move forward and cycle out of the never-ending time loop he finds himself interred in. Yet one thing is clear, grief is not just for the living. It is excruciating to watch this ethereal presence suffering an unbearable overwhelming sense of longing. By design this film’s slow-burn approach leaves audiences saturated with raw heartbreak while observing the ache that C feels as he stands by waiting and waiting for an answer that might never come.
Decoding the main takeaway of this movie is like so many tales – the ending is in the beginning. How stories, relationships, and events start is frequently a window into how they may also end. In this film the first line in the opening credits is from the short story entitled ‘A Haunted House’ –famously written by Virginia Woolf that states, ‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.’ The gravity of this incredibly genuine comment delivers such a punch of intensely powerful realism, because it is sadly so true. Every single moment of every single day someone’s world just collapsed, blew up, or shutdown. The point is, change is an inescapable reality with destructive occurrences an inevitable certainty. Regardless of fate, life never stops shifting, time continues to pass, and the world moves on. Being transfixed in a moment stops nothing. It’s apparent that fighting unavoidable transformations associated with loss is a losing battle. Indeed, it’s a cruel realization when dreams turn into nightmares; when at the height of vulnerability as everything falls apart, a battered self must bear witness to and accept that a life so meticulously crafted just evaporated in an instant. Nothing will ever be the same again. Naturally, releasing attachments to expectations would help avoid becoming paralysed when what once was is no more, but that’s easier said than done. Although disconnecting may be one avenue to serenity it’s not the life lesson of this film.
This story is about more than constant upheavals or motionless stagnation, however these initial concepts help springboard us closer to the finish line. To elaborate, the ghost of C, in his angst, knocks a few books off a shelf, and one of them opens to a page with even more telling lines again from the work of Virginia Woolf. Her cryptic words dig deeper into the import of our existence beyond mere change and what that brings. Woolf’s verses are more about the buried treasure we leave behind – the immoral riches that endure. It’s ‘the light in the heart’ and what we luminate in others that’s eternal, ageless, and everlasting.
As emotional beings we are all excruciatingly scratching out a sonnet of our lives that we hope will brighten our signatures on those around us. What remains once the physical self is gone, especially for the ones who matter most is paramount in our conscience. Valued vs. Vanishing – although Affleck’s character has his face shielded for most of the movie, the film manages to evoke such deep emotions. In fact, despite the blankness C’s ghost portrays, his feelings of bleakness are so palpable. His low-energy glum, melancholies about corporeal life, and the ambiguity that space and time represents leaves moviegoers seriously pondering the possibility of their own departed loved ones languishing as voiceless spectators. Perhaps such dither waifs are in fact detained in some kind of semi-tangible physics-based matrix, in search of successfully crossing the great divide. Um, that’s a frightening prospect.
Yet it seems that the humble act of letting go may in fact be the key to closure’s door, except escaping its tricky lock remains the real mystery. Maybe we just need to read the writing on the wall to solve the riddle, or in the case of this movie – in the wall. Knowing somehow that our mortal core left behind a spiritual mark of love on humanity’s heart could provide concrete permission to peacefully slip away. Possibly. Then again, it’s all just supposition. In short, what happens in the end is the ultimate unknown. But that’s okay. What kind of adventure would any experience be if we knew beforehand what lay ahead – said the spider to the fly. As famously stated by the woman of the hour Virginia Woolf, ‘…we must wait for the future to show’. So, in the meantime welcome to my web – now who’s afraid? muahahaha, bwahahaha, muahahaha…
P.S. This year our OHF Committee decided to have a traditional Halloween High Tea in none other than ‘A Haunted House’ of course! Only Calgary’s famed phantasmic Deane House would do (Fast Fact: On a hot summer’s eve in 1985, I as a teenager, and my then boyfriend Owen Hart who would later become my husband, saved the Deane House from burning to the ground; an arsonist set a fire in the kitchen, we spotted the blaze while bike-riding in Inglewood, ran to a neighbor’s house, called the Fire Department, and the rest is history.). Going to ‘A Haunted House’ this year (and the Deane House is definitely haunted – look it up at: https://npiweb.com The Inspector | Haunted Places: The Deane House), was also our small way of paying tribute to the troubled yet brilliant author Virginia Woolf and her short spectral story of the same name that wasn’t released until after her death in 1941. (Fast Fact: After lifelong struggles with mental health issues, multiple suicide attempts due to severe depression, Woolf drown herself in the Ouse River at the age of 59 in Sussex, England near her home. Oddly enough the Deane House sits at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers). To add to the macabre mood, we invited real-life psychic Faye Steinberg (who has worked with the Calgary police for many years) to describe the lingering spirits in the home and perhaps any additional apparitional visitors to our group. What an exceptional existential encounter it was, but much like the supernatural, such foretelling that occurred at our ghoulish gathering will remain surreptitiously unearthed. Happy Halloween!