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Thursday, October 28, 2021

October 28, 2021: GhostStudying: Ghostly Contacts in Cinema

[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]

On quick AmericanStudies lessons from three films about contact with the afterlife.

1)      Ghost (1990): I bet you could stump a lot of movie buffs with the fact that the Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore-Whoopi Goldberg romantic thriller was the highest-grossing film of 1990, and indeed if we adjust for inflation is in the top 100 highest-grossing American films of all time. Box office isn’t a measure of quality or enduring importance, of course, but it does at least indicate a film that both reflected and influenced the cultural zeitgeist. And while that much-parodied pottery scene has lingered the most, I would argue that it’s the casting of Goldberg that’s particularly significant—Swayze and Moore as romantic leads was quite expected, but in many ways the film belongs to Goldberg’s psychic/medium character, which fundamentally shifted perceptions of the largely comic actress and won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of course the character could be located in the long and problematic tradition of the “magical negro” trope (in cinema and otherwise), but I would argue that Goldberg brings enough depth and dimension to the role to make her a meaningful and indeed central character in her own right.

2)      The Sixth Sense (1999; SPOILERS in what follows): The ghostly medium at the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s smash hit (itself the second-highest grossing film of its year and I would argue even more of a zeitgeist-changer than Ghost) couldn’t be more distinct from Goldberg’s character. Played by the preternaturally (supernaturally?) talented young Haley Joel Osment, just eleven years old when the film was released, Sixth’s Cole Sear is a profoundly troubled and sad young boy who, with the help of Bruce Willis’ equally sad and troubled child psychological Malcolm Crowe, finds a way to make peace with his ability to see and communicate with the dead. While Cole’s character is thus partly in conversation with the kinds of troubled and possessed children long featured in texts like Monday’s focus The Turn of the Screw, he’s actually revealed to be far more proactive and powerful than them, not subject to the film’s horrors so much as a hero who can respond to and even conquer them. One of many ways that Shyamalan’s wonderful film changed cultural narratives and images.

3)      The Gift (2000): This supernatural thriller might have the best pedigree of all these films: directed by horror legend Sam Raimi, written by Billy Bob Thornton (and supposedly based on his mother’s own supernatural abilities), and starring an all-star cast including Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, and Katie Holmes (as a murdered girl into whose death Blanchett’s psychic protagonist begins to gain unwanted but crucial insight). Yet it thoroughly flopped (making only $12 million at the US box office, against a $10 million budget), and so has largely disappeared from our collective cultural memory. I’m not here to rehabilitate the film, which I saw once on home video and which left virtually no impression. But I will say that in its Georgia swampland setting, The Gift does represent a minor but interesting contribution to the larger genre of Southern Gothic, and Blanchett’s tortured widow Annie Wilson is defined at least as much through her relationships and roles within that rural Southern community and society as by her titular abilities to see and communicate with the dead.

Last GhostStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?

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