A Ghost Story and the Haunted Arthouse

David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story adopts conventions of the haunted house film and blends them with the aesthetics of what might be broadly referred to as “arthouse cinema”, fusing the fantastical with the existential. Its title signals its alignment with the horror genre, and in doing so draws attention to its fundamental stylistic diversion from other ghost stories. Boot claims that “Ghosts…have always been a staple of horror,” yet on its release it was identified by film journalists as “post-horror…a new breed of horror [that] is creeping into the multiplex, replacing jump-scares with existential dread” (p.5, Rose, 2017). “Elevated horror” seems to have become the preferred term among reviewers, emerging in response to a recent wave of critically acclaimed horror films such as It Follows (2014), The Witch (2015), It Comes At Night (2017), Get Out (2017), A Quiet Place (2018), Hereditary (2018), Suspiria (2018) and Midsommar (2019). The Hollywood Reporter defined this subgenre as encompassing “character-focused stories and horror plots that focus more on primal human fears than jump scares or a specific horror trope like zombies or vampires” (Aquilina, 2018). This proposed new subgenre, not yet substantially explored academically, invites exploration of the interplay between horror and the arthouse. However, A Ghost Story cannot be so easily placed within the confines of elevated horror. The films listed above are clearly constructed to frighten their audiences, even if they do so having adopted stylistic or narrative features of the arthouse film. Yet A Ghost Story appears more inclined to perplex or provoke, than to petrify.

The film’s title is not a misnomer; it does indeed tell the story of a ghost. C (Casey Affleck), is a musician who lives with his wife, M (Rooney Mara), in a small, quiet house in a rural area on the outskirts of Dallas. She wants to move away but he remains drawn to the history of the house. C is abruptly killed in a car crash and reawakens in hospital covered in a sheet with two black holes for eyes. Invisible to the living, the ghost haunts his former home and lingers long after M moves away and other residents come and go. The ghost is cosmically hurtled through time and aimlessly traverses through past, present and future but remains rooted to the site where his house stood.

The ghost’s appearance as a sheet covering a human body with two black eye-holes is a clear visual cue, a cartoonish symbol unambiguously connoting “ghost” made three-dimensional. The ghost also indulges in some familiar supernatural behaviour; picking objects up so they appear to float, hurling plates against the wall and making the lights flicker when he is enraged. Yet it appears that the film does not intend to induce fear or shock. Slow-moving and dreamlike and devoid of any obvious “scares,” it is a meditative reflection on the passage of time, death, and legacy, more akin to Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) than classic haunted house films such as The Innocents (1961) or The Haunting (1963). Lowery is very consciously playing with generic iconography, stating that he “liked the challenge of trying to take what is an inherently silly concept and imbuing it with some degree of gravitas” (Yepes, 2017). A Ghost Story certainly explores themes familiar from the haunted house subgenre, reflecting the view that ghosts essentially “frighten us but at the same time console us, hinting that death might not be the end,” yet takes an alternative stylistic approach to universal anxieties about mortality that entirely eschews the aim of inducing fear, perhaps aligning the film with art cinema, rather than horror (Ruffles, p.1). By examining a few key scenes I hope to uncover Lowery’s attempt to revise the “inherently silly” sheet-ghost as a sympathetic protagonist who is neither a figure of fear nor derision, demonstrating his simultaneous adherence to and subversion of conventional representations of ghosts, and potentially positioning the film in an ambiguous space between horror and arthouse.

Since its advent, critics have put forward the notion that cinema is fundamentally ghostly. John Durham Peters states that “Every new medium is machine for the production of ghosts,” facilitating the recording and recreation of that which has passed (p.139). Christie describes cinema as “a temporary phase in the supernatural tradition that started as long ago as the seventeenth century,” and Leeder partially credits “the continuing appeal of the cinema as haunted space” as emerging from the trick photography of early filmmakers such as Georges Méliès (p.111, p.3–4). The Phantasmagoria, a horror theatre popular in the nineteenth century that used magic lanterns to “conjure” ghosts and ghouls, was “the ancestor with which Méliès wished to align his own cinematic magic” (Bear, p.19). Indeed, Mélies’ Le Manoir du diable (1896) or The House of the Devil, is often considered the first horror film as it features the Devil conjuring several spectres. There is an indication that not only did early cinema emerge from forms of entertainment concerned with portraying the ghostly, it is also a medium that is particularly suited to that purpose. It is also notable that Le Manoir du diable features what is probably the first cinematic depiction of the sheet-ghost.

Sheet-ghosts in Le Manoir du Diable (1896)

The sheet-ghost does not appear to be the subject of any specific academic appraisal. Ruffles asserts that“although the depiction of life after death on film has been a perennial topic in cinema, it is a little examined one,” attributing the absence of research on cinematic representations of ghosts in general to “the ambivalence with which Western society regards death” and “an association with what have been regarded as sub-literary and unwholesome forms,” referring to Gothic literature and horror films (p.1). The sheet-ghost can be traced back to the Middle Ages but it arose prominently as a theatrical costume in the nineteenth century. In English Renaissance theatre ghosts often wore armour or archaic clothing. The obvious physical presence of supposedly ghostly garb was eventually regarded as embarrassing, a response Jones and Stallybrass summarise as “the grosser the signs of materiality, the more observers are likely to detect fraud and imposture” (p.248). It was decided that “the drapery of ghosts must…be as spiritual as the ghosts themselves,” and the sheet, evoking the white burial shroud, became an alternative way to immediately connote ghostliness (ibid). However, the sheet-ghost became associated with childish Halloween costumes by the middle of the twentieth century and has frequently been mocked or presented as unthreatening, appearing in a range of media texts including Caspar the Friendly Ghost, the Scooby-Doo franchise, Charlie Brown’s Halloween costume from Peanuts, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Ghostbusters (1984) and Beetlejuice (1988). As Ruffles summarises: “A representation that might have been convincing in the nineteenth century is now nothing more than a childish game” (p.62). Sometimes the benign sheet-ghost is subverted further, as Michael Myers briefly dons one in Halloween (1978), and it also played with in a frightening context in The Sixth Sense (1999), Scream 3 (2000), The Innkeepers (2011), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) and The Conjuring (2013). The image carries multiple, coexisting generic associations with both fear and absurdity, which Lowery is highly aware of. In an interview he described a desire to explore how the sheet-ghost “has a lot of potential to be charming and goofy and childlike, but which also packs a great deal of meaning into its very simple form” (Yepes, 2017). Genre boundaries are permeable yet, as Ruffles points out, “ghosts are more flexible than their supernatural neighbours, being threatening or friendly, helpful or obstructive, comic or pathetic” (p.202).

The Ghost (Casey Affleck) appears for the first time

A Ghost Story opens with C and M, curled up on a sofa together, laughing. “I’m so scared,” M says, jokingly. The intimate scene cuts to black, and a title card displays the first line of Virginia Woolf’s 1921 short story A Haunted House: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” Lowery’s use of this quote, coupled with C and M laughing at the idea of feeling scared seems to highlight the film’s generic positioning and stylistic and thematic influences. Woolf is well-known as a modernist, not an author of Gothic ghost stories, meaning a spectator unfamiliar with this particular short story might still be aware that a film taking inspiration from Woolf’s envisioning of a haunted house might not adhere to generic conventions. Lowery then returns to C and M and they hear an ominous creaking sound that suggests a ghostly presence. “Some weird noises in this house,” acknowledges M, unconcerned, while C watches a patch of light on the wall that moves like a miniature apparition, which then fades into a galaxy of stars. This opening sequence epitomises the film’s playful fusion of the haunted house with the arthouse, utilising the genre in an attempt to make grand statements about life, death, memory, time and legacy, as well as suggesting an element of humour generated by the sheet-ghost, as C and M laugh about their house being haunted.

C’s ghost is neither frightening, nor comedic in a conventional sense, which undermines the sheet-ghost’s association with horror and parodying of horror. Nevertheless, his first appearance could possibly be described as shocking. C’s corpse lies on a hospital gurney beneath a white sheet to be identified by M. A long take sees her eventually leave the room while the locked-off camera continues to observe C’s body in the quiet and otherwise empty space. Lowery seems to be consciously testing his audience’s patience as he does not establish an atmosphere of suspense with ominous music. After just over a minute of nothing visibly happening, the body abruptly sits up, still covered by the sheet. The moment perhaps constitutes a “jump-scare,” dismissively described by Hutchings as “the crudest sensation horror can invoke inasmuch as it involves an automatic physiological response from the spectator” (p.183). However, although his initial movement is surprising after a long period of stillness and acts as a release of accumulated tension, the subsequent scene of the ghost walking through the hospital is not obviously frightening. There are two other instances of the jump-scare being utilised but deconstructed; one being a bulldozer suddenly crashing through the wall of the ghost’s former home. The other is a genuinely suspenseful moment when the camera dollies slowly towards the living C’s back as he senses the presence of his own ghost while he and M view the house with an estate agent. He is startled by M suddenly slamming her hands on the window from outside the house, trying to scare him. This is perhaps a simultaneous homage and subversion of the jump-scare and of the familiar horror trope of a family moving into an idyllic new home that they soon realise is haunted.

M (Rooney Mara) tries to scare C (Casey Affleck)

While the ghost is telekinetically able to make the lights flicker, he only actively haunts the family that moves in immediately after M departs. Lowery has declared that he “wanted to have a classic ghost story sequence that was similar to Poltergeist or The Haunting, and to work with a lot of traditional haunted house material” (Yepes, 2017). A montage sees him looking on hopelessly as the new family transforms his former home, and one night he stands in a wardrobe in the children’s bedroom, seemingly intending to scare them. The scene is constructed like one from a more conventional haunted house film, evoking childhood fears of monsters lurking under the bed. A thumping sound wakes up the small boy and he stares at the wardrobe door. Dissonant music plays as the handle rattles and the door slowly swings open with a creak. The small girl flees and the ghost is revealed, and Lowery does not clarify if the boy sees or only senses him as they appear to stare at each other.

The Ghost haunts the family

Later, the ghost picks up a glass of milk from the family’s dinner table and throws it to the floor while they stare in horror. Quick cuts between the ghost holding the glass and it floating in the air unaided evoke familiar scenes of poltergeists, and rapid camera movements and fast editing lend tension and a sense of panic as lights flash, he pulls plates out of the cupboards and throws them against the wall. The ghost’s rage soon fades as he stares at the wreckage. The mother (Sonia Acevedo) shields her children during the outburst, but in the aftermath resignedly picks up the pieces of broken plate and seems only weary, not frightened. The ghost watches her, head bowed, ashamed. This enactment functions as a traditional haunting scene, yet is tempered by his shame and the mother’s refusal to show fear. Interestingly, Lowery calls the ghost’s outburst a “ridiculous temper tantrum” (ibid). A sheet-ghost behaving like a child nods to the association between the costume and childishness, yet the ghost’s profound melancholy undermines this. Even through the limitations of the ghost’s silence and unexpressive face, Lowery still manages to characterise the ghost as sympathetic.

Loneliness descends on the house as he aimlessly wanders from room to room. The film is anchored to him just as he is anchored to his former home, and he is forced to watch as it is inhabited by strangers, falls into disrepair and is demolished and replaced by an enormous office block within a futuristic city. The terrible, unstoppable passage of time is undoubtedly the most frightening presence in the film and weighs the film down with a deep dread.

The ambiguity of the ghost here as a simultaneously frightening, comic and tragic figure suspended in time perhaps demonstrates Leeder’s argument that the ghost is “a powerful, versatile metaphor…signify[ing] the ways in which memory and history, whether traumatic, nostalgic, or both, linger on in the living present” (p.1). A Ghost Story seems imbued with a sense of history through Lowery’s use of the Academy ratio with vignetted corners, which he used “to tap into some degree of nostalgia, because it feels old- fashioned when you see a movie in a square aspect ratio” (Robinson, 2017). He expressed that “even though the film is ultimately about letting go of sentimentality, I wanted the images to have a sentimental quality” (ibid). This visual element complements the film’s exploration of an enduring but traumatic history, most overtly realised in the time-travel sequences. After the ghost jumps off the roof of the futuristic office block in desperation he is abruptly transported to a lush, unspoiled rural landscape. A man in period clothing hammers wooden posts into the ground, and soon his wife and daughters arrive in a wagon. Lowery has transported him not to a literal heaven, but hundreds of years into the past and a paradisal vision of America as the New World. Idyllic scenes of the family of settlers follow, but this romanticism is soon undercut by the cry of a Native American in the distance. Lowery cuts to a close-up of the ghost’s face, impassive, of course, but with his head slightly bowed, as smoke drifts across the frame. An abrupt cut to a wide reveals the outcome of the unseen attack: the family have all been killed. Lowery shows the corpse of the small girl, a close-up of the ghost staring at it, then returns to the corpse in a state of decay, returns to the ghost, then finally the girl’s skeleton. The sequence encompasses both nostalgia and trauma, as these images of a mythical American past are punctured by the reality of colonialism. Native Americans have often been presented as vengeful ghosts, as examined in Bergland’s The National Uncanny, but here, postcolonial unease is expressed via the ghost of a white man witnessing the violence his home was built upon. Is Lowery unfairly provoking sympathy with the colonists, or reminding the viewer that American soil is stolen? It’s ambiguous, but the ghost does simultaneously haunt and seems haunted by the colonial past of which he is a descendent.

The Ghost watches the girl’s corpse decay

One of the most remarkable elements of A Ghost Story which distinguishes it from many of its generic fellows is that the ghost is unseen by the living. Ruffles constructs an anatomy of ghosts that maps cinematic representations in terms of opposing characteristics. He argues that the most fundamental is whether the ghost is “Veridical (objective),” or “Hallucination (subjective),” essentially “whether or not it enjoy an existence independent of the percipient’s mind” (p.55–56). A Ghost Story can be placed neatly within several of his identifiers, including “place-centred,” “purposeless” and “non-speaking,” yet one crucial area where it clearly departs from his generic mapping is that the ghost is only sensed, not seen. He emphasises the importance of “the problem of determining the reality of ghosts,” which is barely relevant here (p.57). Probably because ghosts are rarely the protagonists of ghost stories, Ruffles does not entertain the possibility that the ghost may not be seen by anyone, and in this film anxieties regarding mortality are explored not through the living’s responses to the ghost but the reverse. The ghost as a purposeless figure arguably characterises him as a character belonging to the arthouse, rather than to horror.

Bordwell proposes that art cinema is “a distinct form of film practice, possessing a definite historical existence, a set of formal conventions, and implicit viewing procedures” (p.56). He argues that despite obvious variation, “the overall functions of style and theme remain remarkably constant in the art cinema as a whole” (p.57). Having first established the fundamental grounding of classical narrative cinema, referring to goal-orientated characters, conventional visual language, and the audience’s response via their perception of verisimilitude and generic appropriateness, Bordwell demonstrates how “art cinema defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode, and especially against the cause-effect linkage of events” (ibid). He also emphasises the importance of “realistic — that is, psychologically complex characters” who “lack defined desires and goals” (p. 57–58). They not are propelled through a narrative by an objective, “hence a certain drifting episodic quality to the art film’s narrative” (p.58). He refers to “the drifting protagonist,” who might easily be repositioned as “the haunting protagonist,” and puts forward that “the art film’s thematic of la condition humaine…proceeds from its formal needs: had the characters a goal, life would no longer seem so meaningless” (ibid). With its alienated protagonist who inexplicably transcends time and space, A Ghost Story can easily be situated within these criteria. Arguably, the ghost film is particularly suited to the arthouse reinvention, as the continuation of life after death “presents intriguing alternatives to linear conceptions of time and narrative” (Leeder, p.1). However, Ruffles states that “a common reason for a ghost to haunt is because he or she…must prevail upon the living to do something,” a motive absent from this film (p.70). Bordwell also defines art cinema as being concerned with psychological reaction over action, and often features a protagonist who “shudders on the edge of breakdown” (ibid). The existential crisis that perhaps characterises arthouse protagonists is most explicitly expressed here as a vocalised fear of humanity’s inevitable doom. In the longest speech in the film, a party guest (Will Oldham) pontificates on the meaninglessness of existence within the vastness of time, envisioning a man-made apocalypse after which perhaps a few notes of Beethoven’s Symphony №9 might survive. Indeed, Lowery has discussed how his anxieties about politics and the environment inspired the film, stating that he “felt the world was on its way to ending…The film became my way of dealing with those issues” (Clarke, 2017).

Generic affiliations “signal to prospective viewers the type of story as well as the kind of pleasure [films] are likely to offer,” and the pleasures that horror films and art cinema provoke in their audiences are characterised very differently (Grant, 2007, p.21). For example, not only do audiences supposedly see horror films “to experience fear, to explore the outer limits of knowledge” (Gledhill, p.352). Wood argues that the concept of Otherness within the horror film “functions not simply as something external to the culture or to the self, but also as what is repressed (though never destroyed) in the self and projected outward in order to be hated and disowned,” and there is pleasure to be gained from the confrontation of repressed sexuality (p.27). Grant highlights an overall “emotional maelstrom which is the site of the horror film” (1984, xiv). Lowery joked that he has “no doubt that at some multiplex in America right now, someone is very angry that they just spent $15 and assumed they were getting a horror film,” acknowledging that A Ghost Story does not attempt to provoke any of these pleasures (Clarke, 2017). An alternative form of viewing pleasure might be gained from A Ghost Story that more closely relates to the pleasures of arthouse cinema. It is “nonclassical in that it foregrounds deviations from the classical norm,” but “these very deviations are placed, resituated as realism (in life things happen this way)” (Bordwell, p.58). “Real” life, with its episodic structure, psychologically complex characters and absence of defined goals is perhaps more closely represented by arthouse cinema, thereby arthouse cinema might provide the pleasure of acknowledgement and recognition of mundanity. As highlighted by Fowkes, fantasy genres, such as horror, are “often accused of being ‘mere’ escapism and therefore trivial,” yet the reflective nature of A Ghost Story fits Bordwell’s characterisation of art cinema as featuring “the realisation of the anguish of ordinary living, the discovery of unrelieved misery,” (p.6, p.58).

The ghost of A Ghost Story evidently occupies an uncertain, perhaps even contradictory position, and encompasses multiple identities. He is a shadow of his living self, he is a vengeful, threatening spirit, and he is a melancholic lost soul trapped in a state of purgatory who eventually frees himself in the film’s hopeful denouement. While I have examined how Lowery is knowingly reworking established generic iconography and themes, it is also worth mentioning that of all the supernatural beings familiar to audiences from horror, the ghost is the most flexible. As Ruffles highlights, ghosts tend to stray into other genres, and, ultimately, “the ghost is heterogenous because its attributes are less formalised” (p.201). It has no single archetype and it “straddles too wide a spectrum and is ultimately pressed into service in too many causes to be confined by a single shape and style” (p.202). Even the sheet-ghost, as specific as that image is, retains ambiguity. A great deal more research would need to be done to gain a more in-depth understanding of Lowery’s postmodern adopting and reforming of the ghost and the haunted house within an arthouse aesthetic. I have only analysed a handful of scenes, selected because of their overt signalling and subversion of generic conventions, yet the film remains difficult to neatly define and categorise. Can A Ghost Story’s place within the haunted house canon be disregarded in favour of the arthouse when, as Ruffles states, the ghost film can often confront “elements of transgression and melancholy [and] our fear of nothingness”? (p. 202). Lowery’s next film is Green Knight, an adaptation of the late fourteenth century Arthurian romance, and it will be fascinating to see if he continues to defy generic boundaries with a reimagining of another fantasy genre. What is certainly clear is that Lowery is speaking to universal anxieties about mortality in a way that fuses the potential of both the ghost film and the arthouse film to confront complex fears. Kovacs proposes that the enduring popularity of the ghost story signifies that it “is not merely a window into the beyond, but actually a reflection of human nature, a pathway into the mind” (p.2). The same might be said of the psychologically complex characters Bordwell identifies in arthouse cinema. This film is perhaps not a conventional ghost story, rather, it is A Ghost Story, with its own distinctive approach, that simultaneously frightens and comforts on an existential level, using that which is familiar to haunt its audience in a unique and unexpected manner.

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Images of the film obtained from A Ghost Story (2017) DVD.

Image from Le Manoir du diable (1896) obtained from: https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=mb16vp1eeYU [Accessed 8 April 2019].

Film writer, English Heritage assistant, Jane Campion champion. @laura_venning on Twitter.