Background Noise: What’s the Deal With Ghosts in Movies? (Plus the Best One Ever)

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The Noise Today: Ghost Movies

What’s up movie fans? Let’s talk ghosts in movies, something bouncing around my mind today, probably spurred by my over-indulgence in The Muppet Christmas Carol this time of year, which is still the best Christmas movie ever. Well, after this one. In case you don’t know the story, there’s this guy who hates Christmas, so he gets visited by ghosts who show him about the past, present and possible future, teaching him that it’s not too late to turn things around. I love these ghosts. They’re funny, scary, kinda adorable and well, Muppets, so, yeah. What’s not to like? However, they aren’t typical for ghost movies. Most are of a more traditional lot, and, as such, have some issues. Here’re some thoughts.

The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992 © Walt Disney Pictures

BREAKING THE RULES: One of the biggest problems I have with ghosts in movies is simple physics. Or biology, I guess. One of the two. Ghosts are most often, if not always, manifested as corporeal beings, creatures of no bodily mass that sort of linger about in a half state of here and there, sometimes visible and sometimes not, able to pass right through objects, walls, furniture, people, even each other. Fine. The problem is where movies bend – or outright break – that rule. For example, take the most beloved ghost movie ever made, appropriately called … GhostPatrick Swayze meets his end and comes back as a spirit to protect Demi Moore. Here’s a picture.

Ghost, 1990 © Geffen Company

Once dead, however, he notices that he can pass through doors and such while things go right through him, like, you know, a ghost. These serve as visual cues for the audience, too, but – and here’s the kicker – he can also sit in chairs and run up stairs! Heck, he can walk on the floor. How is that possible? Why don’t these pass right through him? (Sure, much later in the film he gets ‘taught’ to manipulate things, but not at the start.) The filmmakers of course, choose to ignore this, and while I get that – the story’s the thing after all – it’s a little distracting. A lot actually. And it happens ALL the time, in so many movies and television shows. Even in Star Trek: The Next Generation (though, technically, Geordi and Ro are phase shifted – Season 5 Ep. 24). Watch for it next time you see a ghost in the movies. Moving on. (I’ll skip the part where ghosts wouldn’t be able to speak or see since both require mass.)

2) BANANAS: That said, I do like a few ghosts. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice is a minor masterpiece. Any ghost that can make a roomful of people stand up and sing the Banana Boat Song is okay by me. Burton’s ghosts don’t really follow the traditional rules, appearing like actual people, at least in form, with the power of immortality – immortality being passed on, but not living. You get it. I like this variation. The film is constantly inventive and makes ghosts funny-scary and even something you might look forward too. Unless you’re that head shrunk guy.

Beetlejuice, 1988 © The Geffen Company

3) TRUE STORY: One of the worst trends in modern horror movies, especially ghost stories is that disclaimer at the start of the film. You know the one: ‘Based a True Story’ or ‘Inspired by Real Events’. I know the Coen Brothers got away with this at the beginning of their classic Fargo, but that was done with satire. Ghost movies are not being satirical. They are trying to convince audiences (some admittedly a tad gullible) that what they are showing is real, hoping to build credibility. But think about it. If anything that happened in let’s say The Conjuring was even remotely real, it would change the world … entirely. Seriously. Think about the impact of what verifiable proof – that the existence of life after death and a dimension populated by evil beings – is real, would have. You’d stop going to work. Right? Either way, the whole ‘true story’ bit is kind of insulting.

Hamlet, 1992 © Warner Bros.

4) BEST GHOST EVER: So with all that said, I tend to take ghost movies with barely a grain of salt. Have a few made me jump? Certainly. I love the ending of The Blair Witch Project (ghost unseen) and Poltergeist is still ridiculously fun. But trapped on a deserted island, my ghost of choice is Hamlet’s father. Hand’s down. And of the many who have done him right on screen, the best, hands down, is the work of Paul Scofield in Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1990 adaptation with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. Yes, yes, he breaks the above rule, sitting and walking along as he delivers what is arguably one of the best speeches in literature, but damn, it’s a good speech. I mean, damn. Scofield is leagues above anyone else in the film and so effortlessly steals this movie. I may have burned a hole in the DVD back on release. That’s how DVD’s work, right? Go watch Hamlet today.

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One Response

  1. Nuna January 3, 2018