What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? A moment of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber. A ghost. That’s what I am. -The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
For my first article on The Sanctified Strange, I wrote, “There are haunts hanging on pictures on these four walls that frighten and yet if these are my ghosts, I don’t ever want to be purged.” My marriage had just ended, and I was processing the loss in a house where both memory and mourning was entombed. Grief hung in my home like cobwebs from a ceiling. For the remaining months that I inhabited that property, I did not alter anything. I did not change the furniture or move a picture on the wall. The building was a mausoleum to my pain, preserving and enshrining my agony as I waited and willed for a house to become a home. I was what I did not throw away. When I eventually was able to start letting go, I decided to relocate from Mississippi to Florida, and it was under this context that I first watched David Lowery’s artful and elegaic A Ghost Story (2017).
Lowery’s film opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House which states, “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” The notion of haunting as ubiquitous is established from the beginning. As humans, we are sharing space with others, whether in the present by actively being among other people or in the past by traversing the remains of what our predecessors left behind. Rather than being presented as rare spectres from another realm, ghosts are ordinary in the film and seem to hover just beyond the edge of the frame at all times. Even the first exchange is underscored with tension as the two unnamed husband (Casey Affleck) and wife (Rooney Mara) characters are engaged in ambiguous laughter. When the husband asks why the wife is laughing, she claims it is because she is scared. Investigating further, her husband asks why and she responds by saying, “I don’t know.” Such epistemological uncertainty can be traced throughout the movie as the film comments much about perspective and point-of-view and how restricting our lives are in terms of our knowledge–about each other and about the world. Attempting to alleviate her discomfort, the husband issues a platitude by stating, “Don’t be scared.” These types of directives do little to mitigate even mild discomfort for those experiencing a sense of unease. And that is what separates A Ghost Story at the outset from other supernatural cinematic works: what in other movies would have been conveyed as an element of macabre foreshadowing only signifies a sense of discomfort and unease that will lurk throughout the film.
A building can be many things as A Ghost Story indisputably shows. What one day is a house may eventually be a church may eventually be a cemetery and may eventually be a bank. For me, in the weeks leading up to my move, my house became an auction yard. Displaying furniture and possessions on Facebook Marketplace, my keepsakes were reduced to dollars. Memories were given a currency value. Discarding relics of the past was painful but eventually healing as my tendency to hoard has long prohibited me from recovering from old wounds. Nevertheless, there is a kind of sorrow that I have over dispatching what I own as if history must be expunged, perhaps because I long for preservation and permanence. Often, I seek immortality in saving aged fiction I wrote as a teenager, keeping early drawings done by my youngest daughter Kales, or storing obsolete toys that are important because they were some of the first given to Karis. Just as frequent, however, I find perpetuity in the more obscure and random: a ticket stub to a mediocre movie, an obscure note I wrote four years ago, the wireless password to the network from the townhouse where my family lived last. Yesterday can be hard to extract.
A Ghost Story is, on multiple levels, a framed narrative. The movie ends where it begins, but it is also viewed through a frame. Lowery chose to film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, an aesthetic which augments the limitations of point-of-view and perspective. Initially, the husband asks his wife why she left all of her houses and the implication is one of the female protagonist as wanting expanded experience. Nevertheless, her restlessness and migratory nature do not occur apart from depositing artifacts of her presence. She left notes in each of the houses she lived in so that, as she tells her husband, “There would be a piece of me waiting.” Leftover letters become a symbol of the attachments we make to a place, a reminder both of where we have been and where we are going, lives that are felt as much through absence as through presence.
Disturbing the couple’s sleep in the opening act, something falls onto their piano and awakens them. Bewildered but with a sense of being on the verge of understanding, the husband and wife search the room and find nothing. The motif of the piano though will come to signify sameness and permanence as we will learn that it came with the house and will remain with the house through an exchange of owners. Music, as embodied in the piano, will also serve as the ligament which binds people through time and space. As may now be evident, what might seem like a conventional ghost story soon gives way to the domestic displacement that comes as Rooney Mara’s character is looking at houses (whether in the past or the present is uncertain as one of the film’s strengths is the looseness it has with time) and the omnipresence of tragedy to intrude on the everyday as seen through the slow pan of the camera to the crumpled deceased body of Casey Affleck in a car wreck just outside their house. Identifying the body as that of her late husband, Mara’s female protagonist has the hollowed visage so familiarly known as the first stage of the grieving process: shock. Although Mara’s character lifts the sheet to see the body, for the remainder of the film we will not see a physical person but instead follow the observations of a covered Casey Affleck. The significance of seeing the body as closure and as part of the letting go process is emphasized here and the lack of it for the audience is telling: we, like many who suffer, never receive closure or resolution. Exiting the morgue, Mara leaves us with the corpse, and Lowery gives an uncomfortable, prolonged image of the cadaver. Even in cinema, we do not like to reside in the same room with death for very long. An elongated shot that lingers over the body eventually changes to Casey Affleck’s character rising under the sheet with two holes for eyes. The traditional, sheeted ghost invokes the incorporeal, immaterial state, which operates on a literal level in the sense of provoking our fear of the loss of the body and on a figurative level in the sense of prompting us to reflect on our homeless condition this side of Heaven, cursed to be without dwelling or habitation. Our attempts to find rootedness in the present age has inherent futility precisely because we are all ghosts, flittering and flickering through time. Although our nature and our lives are fleeting, it is not because our souls take primacy over our bodies or because our senses are irrelevant; rather the opposite is the case. Paradoxically, our flesh and bones are both what gives impetus to the desire to secure permanence and the reminder that it cannot be accomplished due to remaining corruption and sin in ourselves. Due to the Fall, our bodies are condemned houses, only able to provide temporary tenancy until their eventual renovation.
Boxing up books, movies, video games, and other personal effects while expelling other items felt like an eviction from a family that failed to form; water that was to cleanse felt excessive like when applied to a watercolor until it is washed out. Deciding what to keep and what to discard felt like the dismantling of a life. And yet it was restorative; it hurt but it did not harm. I was being exorcised from a house that I possessed like a reluctant spirit. In A Ghost Story, Lowery’s square cinematography gives the distinct feel of a character in a box, which is what has happened to the protagonist who is trapped by location, witnessing his wife’s grieving process. What soon becomes apparent is that he is not so much haunting his wife as she (and the others who will move into the house) are haunting him. He is forced to watch his wife attempt to move on all while being unable to forge connection. After his mock resurrection, the husband wanders back to the couple’s house, and there are quick cuts to the sheeted figure in various rooms of the house as day changes gradually like time-lapse photography. Accentuating the notion of transition and becoming (Casey Affleck is a ghost that is staged in various corners of the room as if he is just forgotten furniture; his transparency is emphasized by his wife and others being unable to see or touch him) is the polaroid framing; the image, like ourselves, is constantly coming into focus. Imprisonment in a location where the husband must continually feel the isolation that comes with separation from his wife reminded me of the claustrophic feeling of being confined to a house full of pain and tragedy, a place where a wife left me. The four walls of the film broke the fourth wall and spoke to me of how loss can tie us down. Just as the male protagonist in A Ghost Story cannot leave the house where he shared space with his wife so I felt unable to escape my box of tragedy.
A ghost is one in perennial exile, in a state of constant restlessness. Understood that way, the faithful are ghosts. Faithless are also ghosts though. Rooney Mara’s character was defined by a nomadic impulse but now she is stuck between her original desire to move to another house and her false guilt over betraying her dead husband’s wishes to stay. Early in her bereavement, a lady enters her house and sets down a dish. We are unsettled by the relative ease at which the woman is able to access the wife’s house and invade her personal environment until we realize her purpose is to bring a dessert. Permeability of other people into our spaces is another theme being carried throughout the movie. Later, when the female protagonist returns home, she finds the gift: a pie. People always bring pies in the early stages of someone’s grief. When Karis was first diagnosed with Krabbe, I can recall the bombardment of food only for it to illuminate the lull that would come later. We are quick to be rescuers to those in crisis, but we resist being caretakers to those in need. As the church, we also sort suffering in strange ways. No pies came during my divorce.
Perhaps the church should be acquitted some from failing to attend to the messier traumas, but, for those who are experiencing it or have experienced it will know, a divorce is a death. For Mara’s character, she sees the pie for what it is: an obligatory gesture to someone who is hurting. Casseroles comfort the one experiencing loss, or so the thinking goes. It’s naive attempt but usually a sincere one. However, the widow looks at this pie as a way to cope with her grief. Gorging herself on the dessert until she has to puke, she is numbing herself to pain and stuffing her emotions. In a painfully tedious scene, Lowery recreates the efforts we will make to avoid dealing with our distressing feelings.
As moving day approached, I panicked over not knowing what to do with a lot of my kitchenware and lawn tools. I was downsizing, going from a house for a family of five to an apartment for one. Feeling the pressure of a deadline, I knew there would not be time to sell everything, and I also realized that there was much I could not dispose. I spoke to my realtor about leaving some household appliances and items behind for the family that was moving in and she agreed, adding that it would also help me to negotiate a better closing deal. Donating my no longer needed belongings to the new family, I could not help but wonder what else, beyond the physical items themselves, would they inherit?
Time moves fluidly for the ghost and for the wife. We see her change the bed for the first time after her husband’s death, a rite-of-passage and an act endowed with significance that suggests she is moving on. However, like the movie itself, the grieving process is nonlinear and stages that we have often thought we left, we must re-enter. Shifting through their house, Casey Affleck’s character is feeling the suffocation of alienation, and he glances through window frames looking for company. At a certain moment, he sees another ghost and seeks to communicate by saying, “Hello” wordlessly. Through captions, we see the other ghost saying, “I’m waiting for someone.” Intense helplessness and gloom suffuses the next exchange as we learn that the ghost that the husband is talking to has forgotten who he is waiting for. Could that be the fate that awaits our protagonist? Will he one day wait for so long that he no longer has memory of the person he has lost? And it is this anxiety, this dread that lies at the heart of A Ghost Story— the fear that we will one day forget the ones we love the most, or, conversely, be forgotten by the ones that we love the most.
Aggravating the agony felt by the ghost, he must be a bystander as she tries to find a new life. He can only look as he sees her try to rebuild a love life by going on her first date. In a tantrum, he reaches out to connect with her but is only able to cause books to fly off a shelf. Ironically, the book that lands and is visible is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is a book about unrecquited love. Upon studying this scene, I thought of the many frustrations that have come from trying to communicate to Karis. Traces of myself have been all that I have felt like I have been able to give her throughout our relationship. Physical presence and touch are the best words that I can give to Karis, and my separation and divorce put distance between us that cannot be remedied by wisps of visits or words that are elusive.
Interrupting the present where a book is dislodged and thrown on the floor, a flashback occurs and the two spouses are trying to understand one another, but they are at an impasse. The husband gives the wife a headset to listen to music, and the movie cuts back and forth between present and past, where Mara’s character is concentrating on the same song. The visual cohesiveness indicates the bonding nature of music. Analogous to how the wife hides notes in her old houses, deciding not to move the piano to the next house will be the husband’s way of leaving a trail, which, as will be revealed explicitly later, is the source of the marital conflict: from the start of the film the pair are on the verge of departure. Prepping the house for sale, the wife inserts a note in a crack in a threshold and paints over it. Flipping forward to the present, when the wife-turned-widow is moving out, she honors her husband by leaving the piano as she evacuates the premises. Following her exit, we get another glimpse of the malleability of time as there is a skip and a Latin American family enters. As the ghost floats through the house, he is further disconnected or defamilarized as he does not speak the language. Seldom do we consider that our time in a place is really a lease, that our rent is relatively short and that our legacies must account for those who will inhabit the same physical and emotional space as us. As alluded to before, there is a subversion taking place here; the people are haunting the ghost. A Ghost Story is a ghost story in reverse.
I’ve just returned from visiting the house I grew up in and spending the holidays with my parents, siblings, nephews, and nieces. Although I did spend a year in another house, I was a year when I moved into the property that I will think of as my childhood home. Moving through the four walls, I felt much like the ghost in Lowery’s film; everything was infused with sacredness and lineage. As the youngest, I spent time in each room of the house. In the bonus room above the garage, a dresser includes some of my old boxing trunks and medals. On the bookshelf, there are VHSes of some of the movies that evoke the most nostalgia, such as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is replete with the cover scrawled over with pen by a seven year old Trevor. Extant manuscripts of stories I wrote when I was in middle school are harbored in a desk. Everywhere you look there is a relic. Who will inherit all these things after I’m gone? At the house in Big Canoe, my parents still have the original Star Wars toys. An inclination to collect all of the old Star Wars toys in mint condition seizes me, but then another desire surpases it. These toys, with all their scratches and missing parts, are more emblematic of the past than replacements could ever be. They tell stories without omitting details.
Terrorizing the Latin American family by shattering glasses so that they believe they are being spooked by a poltergeist, the ghost successfully chases them away. As he was doing before in the movie, the ghost resumes obsessively scratching at the wall for the note his wife left. He encounters the other ghost again who is alarmed by another presence and asks, “Who’s there?” Casey Affleck’s character says, “It’s just me.” The unknown ghost says, “Oh, I thought maybe. Nevermind.” Who and what are we waiting on?
Transforming into a rave house, the site is now where parties are thrown for characters who perhaps have heard legends about the house and its supernatural activity, but nothing is made explicit. At a table, a conversation ensues where a character breaks down his worldview by speaking of polarities and espouses his beliefs best by asserting, “You do what you can to make sure you are still around after you’re gone.” Through this bit of lengthy exposition, the film is at its weakest as it speaks loudest when it whispers rather than shouts. Nevertheless, the character goes on to articulate the self-defeating nature of trying to achieve permanence or in striving for preservation. Monologuing, the character actually is promoting the truth of Ecclesiastes: our monuments are sand castles. Crumbling like those creations on the beach, the house becomes ramshackle, dilapidated, and decrepit, while the ghost is still clawing for the message, a metaphor for our quest for meaning. Tractors bulldoze the house, but the ghost is still standing, tethered to the spot where the building once was. Looking over at the other unknown ghost, Casey Affleck’s character is told, “I don’t think they’re coming.” Then, the other ghost’s sheet falls and he evaporates, which is ambiguous whether or not this is a concession of despair or a signal that the soul has moved on. The male protagonist is shackled to his former abode though. A ghost is a prisoner of the past.
Packed down with all of my possessions and my kids’ bikes strapped down by bungee cords to the hood of my Camry (as well as boxes and miscellany wedged in every available spot in my trunk and backseat), I moved out on July 19th. As I did so, however, I could not help but think of Lowery’s film. Who would come and inhabit my space? What emotional residue would I be leaving behind? What would they leave behind? Who would come after them? Before driving away, I took pictures of every room of the house and of the penciled in height chart on the carport walls where I had recorded my children’s growth. Before pulling away though, there was one more etching I wanted to make. I carved, “The Almys live here: 2014-2018.” Sometimes I wonder if some of me still does.
The film’s house is now a high rise and the ghost is still lurking; the irony becomes more evident as he is haunted by being unable to leave. Patrolling the perimeter of the box is a kind of metacommentary and a metatextual way of referring to how the viewer is bound by the perception and perspective of the protagonist. Disillusioned by his ensnared prospects, the ghost stands on the edge of the skyscaper and jumps, but what is dead cannot die. Reawakening in the past, we are deflated as we see that he is doomed to repeat the past, and his re-cycling through the past is synonymous to the grieving process and how survivors often have to relive past pain. As viewers, we find the ghost has gone way back as the protagonist looks upon a father and son pioneer settling on a property. There is even some thematic contact between a young girl and Rooney Mara’s wife as the little girl places a message under a rock. Tragedy is abrupt and immediate though as the whole family is slaughtered. Leaping forward, the film then shows Rooney and Casey receiving a showing of the house, and we learn that the piano has always come with the property. Overlaying the scenes of them moving in, we hear the voices of our husband and wife disputing, having a conflict over whether or not to leave. The wife asks the husband, “What is it you like about this house so much? Seriously?” The husband answers, “History?” The lilt in his voice tells us this is as much an assertion as a question as his response is filled with uncertainty. When the wife presses him to explain, he says, “Honey, we’ve got history.” The wife’s reply is terse, “Not as much as you think.” Suddenly, we realize that this is more than a move but that their conflict is a symbol of deeper divide in their marriage. Frustrated, Mara’s character says, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. We’re supposed to make decisions together. Can’t you understand that?” When the husband responds in the affirmative, the wife asks, “So why am I the only one making them?” Reluctant, Affleck’s character states, “Because I don’t want what you want.” The irony underneath this scene is that, of course, Affleck’s ghost wants to leave now but cannot.
I identified with this central emotional scene of the movie as it took me back to the conflict I had with my ex-wife before we moved into the house I left in July. In short, in 2014, I was not ready to become a homeowner, and she was. I wanted to stay in the townhouse where we were living, and she did not. I conceded and went. While working to remove myself from the house and begin again, there were times where I felt like that ghost from Lowery’s movie, damned by some cosmic irony where I could not leave a house I did not want to buy, but, simultaneously, not wanting to toss away my family residence.
As I acquiesced, so does Affleck’s character when he says, “We can go.” It is at this decisive moment that the ghost of the protagonist sits down with an angry plop on the piano, triggering the sound that the couple hears from the beginning. Doubling the ghosts, the protagonist now watches the ghost of himself looking at his wife leave all over again, which could become an infinite regress of sorrow and pain, causing there to be a Russian nesting dolls of ghosts-within-ghosts, but the protagonist is able to find the letter and move on. Whatever his wife’s message said remains mystery, but it is the story of their intertwined lives that frees him and causes the sheet to collapses to the ground in a heap of dust.
In a scene from episode two of the Netflix Original series The Haunting of Hill House, one of the main characters, Shirley, is having a funeral for a kitten. It is her first experience with death and her mother, Olivia (Carla Gugino), and father, Hugh (Timothy Hutton), are encouraging her to process all of the emotions that come with such an experience. A line from Olivia to her daughter has remained with me, “You know how when you take one of your pictures, you capture something forever just the way it is? Stories do that too. So when things, when we die, we turn into stories. So everytime someone tells one of those stories, we are still there. For them. We’re all stories in the end.”
I suppose that is our legacy: to be stories our children tell each other and their children after we are gone. The fragility of such stories, their alterability and the shortness of their lifespan, is a horror for all those not written in the storybook that the writer will open on the last day.