Today’s subject: the merits of ghosts, monsters, and various other scary movie staples.
On Christmas we try to feel fondly for our fellow man, on Valentine’s Day we try to pretend that we love the one we’re with, and on Halloween we reckon with the fact that we are all going to die. An important part of that reckoning is, and always has been, ghost stories. But this is a mistake, says one of our editors, because, and I quote: “ghost stories suck.” Writer Eric Stolze will now hold him to account for his overheated take, and together they’ll try to figure out what makes for a good ghost, a good ghost movie, and a good scary movie more generally.
Eric: So first things first: what’s your beef with ghost stories?
Dan: I don’t hate ghosts, I swear! But I was reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting at Hill House recently (which is a real classic in the genre), and she just has to do so much work to make things even the least bit frightening. And the more I thought about it, the more sense that made. Ghosts can’t touch us, by their very definition, and it’s tough to scare people if you can’t threaten them with bodily harm.
Eric: Well, you have to sift through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat in any genre—and especially so with horror of any kind—but ghost stories are actually the breed that seems easiest to defend, because, as you say: they require more work. Compared to movies about chainsaw-wielding maniacs, it’s the higher road. That makes a lot of ghost stories experiments in what to reveal and what to obscure about the entity and its victims. And even when the experiment fails that failure tends to be interesting.
I root for ghost stories to work because they’re the purest form of horror, and if we lose sleep over a ghost movie (via, say, Jennifer Kent’s exceptional Babadook) then we’ve really experienced some effective art.
Daniel: Yeah, I don’t at all dispute that there are some great movies that take on the challenge that ghosts present, but my point is just that those movies tend to succeed only to the extent that they remove actual ghosts from the picture. Bad ghost movies have ghosts that show up and say “boo” immediately and over and over again (in that way they’re like bad horror movies, I suppose). Good ghost movies have ghosts that remain obscure to the end; they remain suspenseful about the reality of the ghost, and thus save their boo to the end (The Sixth Sense, The Others). And the best ghost movies aren’t ghost movies at all; instead, they’re about being haunted by the actual dead (Vertigo, Rebecca). And with something like The Babadook, that one’s interesting because it’s a kind of monster-demon-ghost hybrid kind of thing. And that’s often the case. There’s a ton of overlap here, naturally. And my condemnation is aimed more at the idea of scaring—rather than haunting—with non-physical beings. Haunt or go home, I say.
Like, here’s the GOAT ghost, for my money.
Eric: Rebecca‘s a great ghost story, it’s true, especially if we think of ghosts as a weaponized absence. But if your beef with ghosts is that they aren’t scary, I have to ask: is it possible that someone could be scared by Rebecca?
Daniel: I don’t think that ghost stories necessarily need to be scary; I just think it’s wrongheaded to try and make scary movies that focus on ghosts. When it comes to the kinds of movies that do ghosts best, those are more about haunting people than they are about bumping anyone’s goose.
Eric: I actually really like when a story tries to scare us with its ghost because a ghost’s greatest weapon is the fallibility of our own brains. That’s the reason why The Shining is still so effective all these years later.
Daniel: Yeah, I agree that ghost stories tend to be more profound when they take that more metaphorical tack. With The Shining, there’s so much in that movie that is terrifying, and most of it is external to ghosts, but it’s absolutely true that the ghost-inspired madness at its core is a particularly haunting phenomenon.
Eric: That ghost bartender, Lloyd, always stood out to me because he was so unassuming.
Daniel: Yes! I love a shabby demon.
Eric: Oh absolutely. And speaking of shabbiness, here’s another great example, from Ghost, the scene where Swayze’s ghost has to learn how to interact with the material world from a “Subway Ghost”:
As a kid, I can tell you, that ghost’s rage was very identifiable and very terrifying.
Daniel: (I would 100% read a book/watch a sitcom about subway ghosts, btw.) But so the fear here is of identification with the ghost, if I’m understanding you?
Eric: Yes, you called it. An angry man screaming in your face, seemingly unhinged, is terrifying; empathizing with that raving madman is even scarier.
Daniel: Right. Yes. These are all good ghosts! And they mostly avoid the fate of relying on boos to have their effect.
… PS: Boo!
Daniel: But wait. Be honest with me: Are you matching me provocation for provocation, or are ghost movies ACTUALLY your favorite scary movie genre?
Eric: Well, not necessarily, but as a subset I think they tend to be the most reliable and wide-ranging horror genre. The Sixth Sense isn’t one of my favorite scary movies, but between the opening and the famous twist there are some legitimately scary set pieces young Cole has to brave, and those moments really linger.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s a movie that I’ve been thinking about. And I agree: it has those The Ring and The Shining–style bits of horrific imagery, but it also manages to save its one big boo for the end.
Eric: Yeah, The Ring is a great boo precisely because of its inevitability. Not only do you know it’s coming, you have an entire week’s notice. (Like when family comes to visit for the holidays.)
Daniel: The Ring is another one where the power of the imagery really does set it apart. But for me, the scariest movies are the ones that are the most realistic. The Vanishing, for instance, or Zodiac.
Eric: That’s fair, but of course it depends on definitions of “real.” I think the kind of person who’s really susceptible to ghost stories is the kind who has inexplicable “ghost stories” in their own lives or personal histories.
Daniel: Yes, my definition of “real” does not include ghosts, admittedly.
Eric: My hometown is basically a map of ghost stories from throughout the years, for example, and while I couldn’t exactly lead a TED Talk on the supernatural, I’ve seen enough odd stuff growing up there that it certainly leaves the book open.
Daniel: WHERE IS YOUR HOMETOWN. (BESIDES IN HELL.)
Eric: Alton, Illinois! Self-declared most haunted town in America.
Daniel: Ha, okay. And yeah, I do get that to some extent. I used to lose my mind over the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. (And as an adult I have not revisited them, and not by accident.) And every Halloween I find my wife crying under a blanket at some point because she’s read the Jezebel ghost stories.
Eric: Those are all great examples! Most essentially, a ghost is something that you don’t want but that doesn’t want you either; it’s inexplicable yet unavoidable; and it tends to either get its way or stick around under conditional terms that compromise you, so you either have to live with it forever or live less long. It’s a tough bargain either way.
Daniel: Well said. And now I’m off to try the latest entry in the genre, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.
(Postscript: Pretty Thing was pretty, pretty…extremely terrifying. Good lord OK yes literal ghosts can be scary, too. I give up.) FL