Existential Dread in “A Ghost Story” and “The Night House” [Double Trouble]
The greatest and most universal experience is death. And we are all afraid of dying, in our own way. Whether it’s full-fledged thanatophobia or just a slight dull thump, we all carry this weight of existential fear with us in our daily lives. In David Basseyit’s A ghost story, that fear hovers around every frame, as loose and suffocating as a man in a white sheet with black holes for his eyes. After dying in a car accident, a man named C (Casey Affleck) chooses not to enter a magical portal to the afterlife, so he is doomed to wander aimlessly on earth. His widow, a woman named M (Rooney Mara), tries to move on and find a purpose.
David Brucknerit’s The night house also features death, but analyzed through a very different lens. Death and decay are found in Beth (Rebecca room) inability to mobilize after the suicide of her husband Owen. The end-of-semester exams seem frivolous and unimportant. The days no longer have meaning. And the nights seem endless. She also grapples with her own chained demons, which eventually drives her to the edge of the precipice, her body oscillating between succumbing to it and conquering it. Death is inevitable for all of us, and these two films are masterclasses in dissecting existence as it was, is, and will be. Maybe Beth is right and there really is nothing. Nothing after you, or me, or this plane of existence.
Lowery started writing A ghost story on a whim, following an argument with his wife. “I was thinking about my own attachment to physical spaces,” he said. mentioned in conversation with Soon. Physical spaces, like her childhood home, are intrinsically linked to early notions and awareness of identity. You can feel totally at ease, when walking through your memories, for example, or reliving an upbringing can be a moment of great trauma. Through his own real-life experiences, the image of a ghost appeared in the frame. Instead of extracting a translucent specter, or bound by rattling chains, Lowery opted for a man in a sheet. He took on the classic cartoon image of a ghost, something “understood to be funny or charming or sweet or naive and [instilled] with some degree of severity. I still want to acknowledge that it’s a goofy image, but I like the idea of giving it some emotional weight…”
Ghosts in popular culture, and especially in literature, serve a very specific purpose. In a trial for Lit Hub, author Amy Shearn observes, “A ghost in a story can provide information that living characters don’t have access to, so it’s no wonder that spirits have apparated in Western literature.” movies like carnival of souls (1962) and The haunting (1963) to recent offerings such as His house (2020) and La Llorona (2019), the film has historically used ghost images to speak directly to the human condition.
A ghost can look like deteriorating mental health or unresolved childhood trauma, or perhaps it can relay buried secrets and sacrifices made decades ago. Or it can also be related to our collective sense of space and time. Later in her essay, Shearn correlates a deep and vivid knowledge of spaces, particularly in relation to her own work. His novel, invisible citydissects the bustling metropolis of New York as “a great haunted house – in particular, how the spaces we live in, from rented rooms to teeming cities, bear the imprint of those who have come before us”.
by Lowery A ghost story fully immersed in these ideas. C returns home after the accident, detached like a voyeur from his past, present and future lives. It all plays back like homemade video footage. Audiences see the world they once knew fade away in time, and things get recycled with new players living their own lives before time takes them as well. The frames look more cracked, yellowed and tired than before. Once vibrant, life is now dull and gray and devoid of electricity. In the film’s most startling scene, C watches M devour an entire pie by herself. She has just returned from her funeral and the emptiness of the house swallows her almost whole. The camera settles into this scene, to an uncomfortable degree, dragging you into a swirling mass of death, grief and loneliness. M quivers through a wave of human emotion in four and a half minutes. C appears in the background, unable to move or reach out.
It’s the best representation of what it’s like to die 一 or live and barely survive 一 in a movie.
Time speeds up around C like a children’s flipbook. The vignettes pop and sizzle, an experience that further draws the viewer away from the story. But this is the alarming point. By themselves, the moments mean nothing, but it’s the bigger picture, our entire lives, that has tremendous significance. M returns to his normal life. She goes to work. She goes out again. And finally, she packs up her things and leaves the house for good. As she walks away, C can be seen staring from the front bay window – a heartbreaking threshold that begins its loop of wallowing in present sadness waiting all eternity for its return. Just like a neighboring ghost, who has long since forgotten his life and his former love, this transitory state is only a weight of paper until acceptance.
Their house is demolished years, even decades, later. Time ruthlessly advances and what was or could be falls back into the earth as dust. A new generation is rising from its ashes; in this case, a towering neon cityscape. And again, C wanders and wanders and wanders. He wanders so far, he takes time back to the very beginning of things. And still he waits. He waits for the first civilizations to take the land on which his home was built, and until they die the most gruesome deaths. And new families germinate in their place. And finally, Ghost C watches C and M enter the house, plant roots, and then decay. It is only by discovering an M note once left in the crack of the living room door that he finds the light. In an instant, even his ghostly form flies away, and he’s gone, gone, gone.
Maybe there really is nothing.
The night house also knocks you down with this possibility. Besides the themes of the film, suicide and depression, which I written here, death presents itself as an unshakable fixed element, pressing a weak “nothing” in the mind of the spectator. Just days after Beth’s husband, Owen, commits suicide, she returns to her classwork to enter the final grades for the semester. As she dozes off at her desk, a parent of a college student named Hunter requests a quick meeting to discuss her son’s latest presentation. This scene, in particular, instills the idea that really nothing matters 一 “He took a boat out on the lake. He took a handgun that I didn’t even know we had. And ‘pow !’ right in the mouth. So which Hunter got which mark on which high school optional speech class assignment really doesn’t matter to me right now.
An overwhelming pressure of nothingness pushes Beth forward. Such inconsequential moments burn like hot wax on the surface of the sun. None of that really matters at the end of the day, and all you have left is nothing. When writing the screenplay, the screenwriters Ben Collins and Luc Piotrowski was inspired by the ever-present state of grief of a character in hellraiser, rearranging the components for a completely different genre. But the heart rate is exactly the same. “Characters find themselves in unique emotional situations. If the horror doesn’t appear in the story, that’s what makes it interesting. The reality of their emotional space interacts with elements of gender,” Collins offered in interview with Script Mag.
Beth’s emotional space is made up of two parts grief, one part anger, and one part her own melancholy. Mixed together, it manifests through a spooky ghost story. Owen’s ghost, or rather a shell of his mental illness, haunts her. His evenings spent getting drunk on wine and listening to records are interrupted by a supernatural presence. In her grief, Beth firmly believes this is her beloved, but as she goes through each step, uncovering a potential series of murders in the process, she loses her grip on life and living in the present.
It all really starts when she reads Owen’s suicide note aloud. Over the course of a few glasses, she whips up the crumbled note. “You were right. There is nothing. Nothing is after you. You are safe now,” she says through parted lips. Her friends are surprised by these words. not what they mean. It was only later, in conversation with her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), she reveals that she once had a near-death experience and felt like she was floating outside of her body. “Afterwards, when everyone was asking me when they found out, like, ‘How was it? What did you see?’ I didn’t want to disappoint them. So, I’d be like, ‘I don’t know. . I don’t remember. Owen was the only person I spoke to. There’s nothing.”
The idea that there is nothing after life is terrifying. And the idea that our lives really don’t make sense in the grand scheme of things is also terrifying. In the final moments of the film, as she holds a gun to her mouth, Beth is unafraid of this nothing. She kisses him. She commits to it almost entirely, willing to end her own life to reclaim a part of herself. Her friend Claire pulls her out at the last moment, and nothing disappears as quickly as it appeared. The memories we create and the people we meet will inevitably fade away, but we can always cherish them while we have them. Even if all this means nothing.
It keeps me awake most nights. Between the talk on Film Twitter and the general scroll of fate, I find myself more anxious than ever. Fortunately, A ghost story and The night house are vital cathartic valves that we can activate to release this fear and perhaps rediscover the purpose and meaning of reliving. If you’re craving relief, or perhaps want to wallow in your existential dread (which is perfectly valid, especially given recent headlines), there’s no better-suited dual feature for 2022.
Double Trouble is a recurring chronicle that combines two horror films, past or present, based on one theme, style or story.