A Ghost Story: The Last Haunted House Movie
In David Lowery’s latest work, a small experiment shot in the big-budget aftermath of Pete’s Dragon, a couple sleeps in their bed. The characters of C and M, played respectively by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, are in a state of caress; warm and still until they’re startled awake by a sound. In typical masculine fashion, C searches the house while stumbling in a tired, aggressive slant whilst M holds tight to a wrinkled bed sheet. “Something must’ve fell on the piano,” C states, and the couple wanders back to their place of slumber, kissing and cuddling before staying motionless through the night. At first glance, A Ghost Story romanticizes a ‘bump in the night’ and little else, dipping a typical The Conjuring scenario with groggy, comfortable sensuality, but the film’s ultimate study is much more melancholic, suggesting a grace and comfortability with the ghosts of our past.
A Ghost Story’s subversion lies in the genre in which it’s placed. Announcing its intentions as a ‘ghost story’, Lowery plays with every expectation of the ‘haunted house movie’, and the thrills which usually accompany them. Our ghost, C’s specter covered with an eerily white bed sheet, isn’t a volatile demon or an outrageous manifestation, but a childlike vision soaked in innocence. His presence is entirely passive, forced to wander his rental space and observe time’s inevitability—the changing tenants, the years passing by like seasons. From this adorable, gentle touch, much of the conventional ‘horror’ of a ‘haunted house movie’ is upended. A scene where a single mother and her two children are preyed upon by the spirit is nothing more than the ghost’s physical release of his own frustrations. In any other genre film, the actions of the afterlife are villainous, and this is no different, but there is reasoning and empathy behind his actions.
Keeping this in mind, the film’s spatial constructions benefit greatly, especially as a mode of haunted house filmmaking. That the ghost is simply a dead loved-one, and explicitly told linearly to provide a degree of sympathy for him as his partner leaves for good, contrasts greatly against other terror pictures. It isn’t the house that’s haunted, it’s the home that is the singular victim. Groups of people come and go, leaving their mark on the rooms and hallways, but the ghost is the sole constant. Even when the house is torn down in favor of large metropolises and neon cityscapes, the spirit remains a restless soul. He haunts what is constructed around his own lingering memories, not those who are distinctly present in their given moment. To think back to the single mother and her children, their encounter with the ghost was an initial misconception that disturbing the present will affect the proceedings of his own life.
It is history that the ghost learns to accept and, soon after, embrace. The terror in A Ghost Story is the apprehensiveness in comprehending the vastness of our ebbs and flows, the impending specter of death. Spirits in gothic stories and their cinematic translations are usually birthed out of unfinished business, unable to pass into the afterlife because of their fresh marks on the living. A Ghost Story broadens this by stating that ghosts are everywhere, for our loved ones are never gone, made physical in the expanses of the heart. Apparitions do not intentionally haunt us like the movies say, but their impressions and our perception of them provide the energy for a lingering chill, a sudden door slam, a noise in the night. Human temporality doesn’t concern a ghost, but how their influence affects our limited viewpoint of time brings about a whole new meaning to a world of horror.
It is why a darkened passageway or a flickering light in the kitchen is frightening—the sight reaches inward, where memories thrive and past presences peek through. A Ghost Story suggests that the unknowable is infinite and it has always and will always be happening. In typical campfire tales, an apparition’s physical sight is just a millisecond of time in their larger doomed existence, forced to reckon with the smallness of their impact, and the generosity of that effect. Lowery’s film expands, and makes cosmic, the ‘haunted house movie’ until it collapses into nothing. Even the ghosts will leave their own mark and, once they’re gone, another will wander until the letters start to form on that little buried piece of paper, ink wetting as it appears, stating the meaningful gesture in letting go. In the existential, ambitious sense, A Ghost Story is the last ‘haunted house’ story that will ever need to be told, for the end of the journey is discovered, a whisper of an indentation left in the light to be glanced at in admiration.