The Guardian 1 February, 2006

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Ghosts and paranoia

Over the holiday period, my wife and I went to see several current movies, including Just Like Heaven, an extremely well-made if modest little film about a ghost (Reece Witherspoon) who’s lost her memory.

That’s not quite true, since Witherspoon’s character is not really a ghost since she is actually not yet dead. She is languishing between life and death in a coma after a traffic accident. Meanwhile her spirit, sans memory for the first half of the film, wants to know why there is a strange man in her apartment and how come she can now walk through solid objects!

The strange man (Mark Ruffalo) has leased her apartment and is a trifle agitated at the appearances of a young woman only he can see. Their joint efforts to uncover the truth about her character, and then to steal her body (I won’t explain — see the film) makes for an engaging romance with comic elements.

The cinema has had an infatuation with fantasy almost from its beginnings. French filmmaker (and former conjuror) Georges Méliès made charming fantasy films replete with all manner of trick photography from 1896 to the First World War.

The ability of cinema to create credible fantasy scenes was recognised by the makers of silent films, especially for "serious" fantasies — meditations on death or symbolic reviews of the carnage of war or adaptations of "science fiction" adventure novels such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

It was not until the industry switched over to sound, however, that fantasy films (especially ghost stories) came into their own: the addition of sound enabled cinema to be truly convincing in its fantasies, with complete suspension of disbelief.

The sound of sobbing coming from the large empty room downstairs in 1943’s The Uninvited was guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck no matter how committed you are to dialectical materialism.

Devotees of ghost stories or films know that, whatever doubts or protests may be expressed by characters in the story about the existence of ghosts, these will quickly be resolved in the ghosts’ favour. To do otherwise would seriously inhibit the story itself.

As with science fiction, fairy tales, musicals and a number of other cinema genres, the makers of films about ghosts — along with the audience for them — understand the conventions of the genre: no one is surprised in a musical when everyone starts singing all over the set.

Characters in science fiction adventures are not the least bit bothered by the lack of any real science amidst the fiction. It’s a convention we are familiar with; we know that without it there would be very little science fiction at all.

And so it is with ghost stories: we know there are no such things as ghosts, no "afterlife", no messages from "the beyond". We also know that people cannot hover in the air or glide through walls.

We accept such things in this genre for the sake of the story. Nothing more.

One curious feature of the ghost story film is the way it was ignored in the cinema of Eastern Europe and the European part of the USSR. Although some of the classics of the genre were made in Germany in the 1920s, you will look in vain for any among the films of the GDR.

The only ghost I can recall in a film from the European part of the Soviet Union is in Grigori Kozintsev’s stunning 1964 film of Hamlet. There, the ghost of Hamlet’s father could hardly be omitted.

And what a magnificent, awe-inspiring creation this apparition is: a gigantic, armour-clad figure striding past the battlements, its great cloak billowing behind it, its loud but muffled voice calling for vengeance.

In the cinema of Soviet Central Asia, on the other hand, ghosts were readily found. Like the ghosts in Japanese films, these Central Asian ghosts were very solid, needing food and even housing.

If anyone knows of any ghost story films from the socialist countries of Eastern Europe or from the studios of Moscow or Leningrad, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

Of course, capitalism as a system is more than happy to see people accept the conventions of the ghost story and other fantasy films as real. It suits capitalism to keep people as far removed from the real world as possible.

The ruling class has a long history of blaming evil spirits (in one form or another) for the ills that befall people as a result of the greed, self-interest and wilfulness of the ruling class itself.

The United States of America, simultaneously the most paranoid and the most superstitious of countries on Earth, reinforces its warped culture (and exports it to other countries) through the medium of television, the most powerful means of persuasion yet discovered.

American television, as a casual survey of the US programs seen in Australia quickly demonstrates, is and has been for years awash with programs about the unreal. High schools are overrun by vampires, suburban middle class families keep alien life forms in their garages and witches are forever interrupting their daily routine to battle vicious demons.

As long as these remain just a playful reworking of genres with which we are all familiar, there is no great harm in it. But when, as today, genre conventions are blended with a cultivated paranoia in society and encouragement of superstition in people’s beliefs, then we should be aware that innocent genre fun can have a sinister ulterior purpose.

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