[Horatio:] O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
[Hamlet:] And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Ghosts may seem meant—too meanly meant, these days—for a medium based, for more than its first hundred years, on a flickering light in the darkness, trying to haunt a (movie) house with apparitions on a wall. But ghosts are often shrilly, screamingly one-note in Hollywood—they’re usually all about fear; horror, tending to rely on the sudden visual shock for cheap thrills, has tricked out demon-like phantoms in fright-and-flight finery. What’s now mostly ghouls-gone-wild with murderous mayhem, though, used to be spirits mirroring grief and desire. They were embodiments of trauma or truth-tellers or the means for mortals to reconcile themselves to death. Epic heroes descended to the Underworld to talk to the shades of parents, siblings, or lovers. Hamlet’s father returned to tell him how he was killed. Dickens’s three spirits in A Christmas Carol embody three different times for the miserly Scrooge and terrify him most when offering harsh truths about his stingy actions. They’re as much outer as inner, as much supernatural as part of what we’d now call Ebenezer’s “unconscious” (and repressed conscience). And it’s not just past times, in stories of yore, which wreathed wraiths in so many weird and wondrous ways; on film, other cultures still twist and turn those winding-sheets in different directions. Beyond our Judeo-Christian frames, a wide spectrum of spectres hark back to their complex folk-culture, pagan, or animist origins. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Recalls His Past Lives (2010), for instance, offers a Thai world of reincarnation where a red-eyed, black-furred Monkey Ghost—as much human as animal—sits at a table with his human mother; a ghostly sister reappears for a conversation. See-through second selves ethereally exist next to their mortal counterparts.
Culture-clashes and culture-crossings inspirit Jacques Audiard’s prison-epic A Prophet (2009), a French film whose otherworldliness seems steeped in Islamic lore. That’s because, after Corsican mob-boss César (Niels Arestrup) pressures—in a grisly initiation and conversion (to imperial César’s side)—lapsed Muslim Malik (Tahir Rahim) into killing a trial witness-to-be, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), Reyeb returns in moments of phantasmagoria. In a compound vice-gripped by a brutal hierarchy meting out nightmarish violence, these are surreally beautiful, funny, oddly comforting scenes between murderer and victim, now thoughtful cellmates. He’s not a conscience, Audiard has said, but a conscience reincarnated as a kind of soulmate. On the inside, after César hurts Malik, Reyeb seems to offer Malik a salving prophecy—a vision of deer and a deer-warning country road-sign; it flickers forth like a dim, through-a-peephole road-movie—which happens
to save his life when he’s on the outside (on day-release). Some Muslims believe in jinn—these could be ghosts wandering the earth after being killed, but another notion has it that every human has a partner jinn. The Qu’ran states that “the jinns did He create from a smokeless flame of fire” (55:15). Reyab puffs on a cigarette and the smoke comes out of the fatal gash in his neck; later, his back’s on fire. When Malik Brutus-es César and rejoins
the jail’s Muslim faction before he finally leaves, a mob-boss himself now, he’s been led to his strangely expiating resurgence—risen from the underworld, a newfound (criminal) leader of his people—by the victim who hauntingly befriended him.
One of the most tender, complex re-imaginings of the ghostly in recent film-lore is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998). A Danish film by way of the constraining Dogme 95 manifesto, it’s set on a vast estate (the manse is run as a hotel) where a son must contend with his father (the hotel-owner, celebrating his sixtieth with family and friends)—and so it’s shadowed by Shakespeare’s play about that great Dane. Vinterberg and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle halo a cracklingly atmospheric, spiritual aura around Christian’s memories of his dead twin Linda (in the process breaking the manifesto’s Rule 7: “Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden”). Christian’s dreamy vision of his sister on the “other side” is connected to the billowing-curtain, opaque-window, and refracting-water image-motifs throughout, especially when her spirit seems to hover over the three siblings, linked in crosscut scenes, as sister Helene, in her late sister’s white sheets-covered room (“Look, it’s spooky. Really ghostlike.”), is about to enter a bathroom (from which we briefly see, in eerie slo-mo, Helene and a hotel employee uncovering the adjoining room) and discover clues leading to Linda’s farewell note. A curtain, a window-pane (through which we see the family patriarch running beside a child), and bathwater (in which Christian’s sweetheart Pia submerges herself) eerily evoke: the filmy barrier between our world and another (our future?), the diffraction and
distortion of memory (including the secrets of Christian and Linda’s abuse by their father in the past), and the rippling effects of Linda’s watery, Ophelia-like suicide (stirring up the present—Christian decides to tell the truth at the dinner-table). Amid sexual tension and trauma, Vinterberg and Mantle float us beyond the earthy and the earthly, infusing scenes of confrontation and chaos with liltingly sublime moments of humanist transcendence—of Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) and Helene (Paprika Steen) looking beyond themselves to a secret which must be voiced, to honour their memories of Linda and for the greater good.
The brutishness of the patriarch, Helge (Henning Moritzen), is overwhelmed by the strange calm and secular holiness surrounding the scenes of Christian’s inner determination to tell the truth, an atmosphere suggesting the right-ness and justice of his personal (but not sole—it’s twinned in spirit with his sister and fellow-victim) mission. This determination, fired by her memory—the present-ness of Linda, passing but not past—provides the lasting hope and solace here, and leads us to re-envision the candle-light in the film, much like the light of a film in the darkness, as not merely flickering. It’s a signal-reminder of Christian’s need to be constant to his sister and speak the truth—for himself, too. And so, after his revelation, in Christian’s dream-vision, when he and Linda hug, the star-point of a candle-flame shines like a beacon as Christian reconciles himself to life, the truth, and the loss of his twin. The final shot, after fading out from Christian’s face, is of a sparking, moving flame, and the credits are shown under light-dappled water, as tragic death and traumatic memory have been cleansed.
But as the curtain goes down on The Celebration, consider once more the film’s curtain-motif—also a metaphor for the flimsy screens put up by Helge and others to block the truth. Christian shines a light through this barrier at last, unsettling it (as he shakes a glass of still water in that cross-cutting sequence) until the curtain’s parted. Yet the curtain’s also the fragile demarcation between our world and the afterlife . . . which Christian briefly breaches after he spills the truth and is reunited for a sweet, fleeting farewell to Linda in his dream-vision. A curtain to be lifted—between the audience and the stage, between the viewer and the screen, between our world and another. A curtain, ghostlike in its diaphanous whiteness, its nearly sheer barrier, veiling yet beckoning us toward a world only just, barely, beyond our imagination.
The Celebration [Festen]. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Nimbus, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.
A Prophet [Un prophète]. Directed by Jacques Audiard, UGC, 2009.
The Qu’ran. c. 609-32. The Quranic Arabic Corpus, University of Leeds, 2017, corpus.quran.com.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. c. 1600. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Oxford UP, 1995, pp. 653-690.
Uncle Boonmee Who Recalls His Past Lives. Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kick The Machine, 2010.
The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.