Phantom Threads: Seven Ways of Looking at the Ghosts of Cinema
This article appeared in the November 2, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)
Premised on illusion and promising endless reanimation, cinema is often called the ghostliest of mediums. Ghosts are themselves cinematic in essence, automatic disruptions in space and time. Movies and ghosts both afford the possibility of life after death. Our engagement with them inevitably raises the matter of belief.
Jacques Derrida, perhaps the philosopher most responsible for the ongoing scholarly interest in ghosts, has described film as “the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms.” For the filmmaker Christian Petzold, who made a film called Ghosts (2005) and a suite of films known as the “Ghost Trilogy,” “the ghost is the figure of cinema.” As he puts it: “Cinema always tells the stories of people who do not belong anymore but who want to belong once again.” The late scholar Gilberto Perez called his first book, one of the most lucid and precise texts ever to tackle the perennial question of how movies work on their viewers, The Material Ghost (1998). The title speaks to the paradox at the heart of the medium: its indexical tether to reality and dreamlike remove from it, its simultaneous entanglement with documentary and fiction, its status as what Perez calls a “true hallucination.”
What was the cinema’s first ghost? One very early instance can be found in The House of the Devil, a three-minute film from 1896 by Georges Méliès. The hauntings here, goofy more than spooky, are essentially a series of transformations achieved through simple in-camera edits: a skeleton becomes a bat and then the devil. Méliès would go on to develop some of the practical effects—multiple exposures, superimpositions—that are still central to cinema’s vocabulary of the supernatural. Even in his primitive, late-19th-century trickery, one senses a nascent delight in the spectacle of figures materializing and vanishing before our eyes.
One could argue that the ghosts were present even earlier—at the birth of the medium, in fact. The first public screenings in Paris in 1895 and 1896 of Louis and Auguste Lumière’s actualités are mired in myth and apocrypha, replete with tales of panicked viewers fleeing trains that appeared to be bearing down on them from the screen. Some written accounts survive, including one by Maxim Gorky, who described the on-screen world as a faintly ominous “Kingdom of Shadows,” capable of inducing in its audience a kind of madness: “You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim.” One journalist extolled the new invention’s death-defying powers (André Bazin would later use the term “the mummy complex” in relation to this phenomenon). With the dawn of cinema, this early observer wrote: “Death will no longer be absolute, final. The people we have seen on the screen will be with us, moving and alive, after their deaths.” At its inception, the cinema was seen already as a repository of ghosts.
“All films are about ghosts,” a friend pointed out when I mentioned I was curating a film program on ghosts for the 2023 Thessaloniki International Film Festival. This was not a helpful remark, but it was also fundamentally true. As Jean-Luc Godard and others have noted, all films are documentaries, and one thing all films document is the past: people and places and objects that, even if not dead or gone, are no longer exactly as they were. In this sense, all films are ghost films. Some are doubly ghostly, not least the innumerable films now forever lost to neglect and time (for starters, 90 percent of those made in the silent era, by some estimates). Hervé Guibert’s notion of l’image fantôme (“the ghost image”) also comes to mind. In some of his most plangent essays, Guibert wrote of the photograph not taken, the botched or missed or only imagined photograph. Viewed in this suggestive light, cinema’s potential ghost corpus is even richer and vaster, indeed infinite.
The program I curated seeks not to trace a history of cinematic ghosts or to construct a ghost canon. It does not account for the evolution of ghost movies—their periodic surges in popularity and shifts in emphases that reflect the horrors and fears of the day. The list is not comprehensive or representative, skipping over some all-time-great ghost films, like Jack Clayton’s chilling Gothic melodrama The Innocents (1961), zeitgeist blockbusters like Ghost (1990) and The Sixth Sense (1999), and prominent postmodern interventions into the genre like Personal Shopper (2016) and A Ghost Story (2017). I am interested in the ghost not just as a figure on screen but also as a formal idea, and accordingly, the program encompasses multiple forms of ghostliness. Some of the films do not necessarily traffic in “the weird and the eerie,” to use the critic Mark Fisher’s phrase, and instead consider the ghost as a trace or remnant, an emblem of belatedness, an anachronism. Not least when used as cinematic devices, ghosts are polysemous in nature, in their capacity for allegory and their potential to activate various registers of temporal consciousness.
What do ghosts represent? The ghost is not merely an apparition but a returning figure, a reminder of unfinished business. Justice-seeking ghosts are among the most common type, driven to avenge or right a wrong. Just as often, it’s said that ghosts are summoned by overwhelming grief, called into being by those left behind—those for whom (in Freudian terms) the work of mourning has gone wrong, mutated into the pathology of melancholia. Cinema, to its credit, has done quite well in evoking the cultural range and specificity of ghosts. The Japanese cinema’s golden age is rife with hauntings—in Ugetsu (1953), Onibaba (1964), Kwaidan (1964), and so on—to match a local mythology densely populated with myriad species of supernatural beings (often female). The gentle spirits in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s filmography, meanwhile, reflect the confluence of Buddhist belief and animist superstition in his native Thailand.
Defined by being out of place, out of time, the ghost—whether or not strictly (un)dead—also stands for the forgotten and the abandoned, those consigned to the margins of society, living among us even if, for some, they may as well not be. In João Pedro Rodrigues’s O Fantasma (2000), the eponymous phantom is a trash collector prowling Lisbon’s nocturnal netherworld for risky, anonymous hookups, a sexual outlaw who ends the film in a literal garbage heap. Petzold’s Yella (2007) and Mati Diop’s paired films, the short Atlantiques (2009) and the feature Atlantics (2019), are pointed tales of economic migration in the guise of ghost stories. Diop’s films transpire at the water’s edge, their characters contemplating a hazardous sea journey from Senegal to Europe, the ever-present Atlantic both a path of escape and a prospective graveyard. In Yella, a woman from the former East Germany moves west for work, apparently survives a car crash, and finds herself in a glassy, late-capitalist land of the living dead.
Whatever its provenance, the ghost is an agent of ambiguity. Is seeing believing? In some of the most resonant films about hauntings, the ontological status of the ghost—its doubleness, its concurrent presence and absence—enables a productive disruption of the principles of realism. This is true of such great movies as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Mani Kaul’s Duvidha (1973), different in many ways but both aesthetically radical works in which the approach to the otherworldly goes hand in hand with a wholesale rethinking of the conventions of cinematic language. Masahiro Shinoda, speaking of his countryman Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, characterized that film’s supreme achievement as a violation of narrative cinema’s most basic rules: “You have real time and fantasy time, real space and fantasy space, completely mixed together. What Ugestu shows us is that they’re all part of a single world.”
More than a flesh-and-blood character, a ghost can bear the weight of history. The frozen corpse of a long-dead partisan from the Greek Civil War discovered at the start of Theo Angelopoulos’s The Hunters (1977) prompts a scathing reconsideration of modern Greek history. In Jim Jarmusch’s neo-western Dead Man (1995), a genre devoted to the celebration of westward expansion is recast as an interior odyssey, a hallucinatory passage into the afterlife with the world constantly closing in on its characters. There is no phantom per se in Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008)—there may not even be a dead person—but the central character, as the title suggests, is a ghost of sorts, proceeding in an oblivious trance that mirrors the denial and amnesia that characterized Argentina’s Dirty War.
The ghost can do more than symbolize the persistence of the past; cinema permits a more complex and indirect short-circuiting of time. Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987) toggles between the 1930 and the 1980s, transporting a courtesan of the past to the present to tell the story of her doomed romance with a man of a different class. The film makes a running joke of the changes that have occurred in Hong Kong in the intervening decades, though the humor barely masks a palpable anxiety surrounding the seismic event yet to happen: the looming handover, in 1997, of the British crown colony to Chinese control. Chantal Akerman’s From the East (1993), a travelogue through public and domestic spaces in Eastern Europe after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is an indelible compendium of faces and bodies—ghosts in waiting. It is also an extraordinary distillation of a cusp moment, haunted by the era just ended and the one to come; Akerman famously said she felt compelled to make it “while there’s still time.” A multipurpose metaphor, the cinematic ghost is also a time traveler. The sociologist Avery F. Gordon has claimed that the ghost is a figure not just of the past but also of the future. It reminds us that there remains, in her words, “something to be done.”
In 1983, a decade before he published Specters of Marx and introduced the neologism “hauntology” to refer to the continuing presence of the past, Derrida appeared in an experimental curio by the British director Ken McMullen called Ghost Dance. (The film is not included in my program, but a suitably ghostly version circulates online.) In one sequence, Derrida, playing himself, is interviewed by Pascale Ogier, also more or less playing herself. One of Derrida’s most striking claims here is that advances in science and technology do not banish ghosts from our lives. Quite the opposite, they make them more conspicuous and perhaps even enhance their power. This would seem to be true in the case of photography, a technology whose emergence coincided with a rise in spiritualist thinking, to say nothing of the links that have been made, deathlessly, between death and photography. The photograph as a “return of the dead,” to quote Roland Barthes, is a very familiar idea—by now a cliché—although it takes on a crystalline, magical simplicity in Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), in which a photographer assigned to take a postmortem portrait finds a corpse bride briefly coming back to radiant life through his viewfinder.
In its pursuit of ghosts, cinema has kept up with leaps in technology, recognizing the spectral potential of the digital age in the likes of the Paranormal Activity series or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001), which extracts maximum dread from the mere fact of facing a computer screen. As a technological art, cinema has itself undergone its share of sea changes, many of which were perceived as existential threats, and indeed described as deaths. A special category of ghost films reflexively confronts the death of cinema itself. Found-footage collages like Peter Delpeut’s Lyrical Nitrate (1991) and Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) foreground the materiality—and mortality—of film. One of the most terrifying medium-specific horror movies emerged early in the digital era: David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), shot on an outmoded consumer-grade camera, a waking nightmare in which the grubby, low-resolution video image is prized for its literal lack of information.
And what of the cinema—not the art form but the physical space, a site of communion and reverie? Old picture palaces are excellent candidates for haunting. Edward Hopper, who painted theater interiors several times, always as scenes of melancholic isolation, knew this (one setting in Inland Empire vividly recalls Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie). The sole location of Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) is a haunted cinema: the Fu-Ho Grand in Taipei, where one last screening of King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) is unspooling to an audience that includes a few restless phantoms. The notion of moviegoing as hypnosis or trance, cherished by the Surrealists and many avant-gardists who followed, is related to that of the screening as a séance. Derrida in Ghost Dance likens the act of appearing in a film to a summoning, a tempting of the ghosts.
Can movies be ghosts? If cinemas are haunted, surely it is by the gestures and actions and narratives that have played out within, over and over. Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) depicts something like this, its two heroines stumbling every day into an old mansion where the same Gothic melodrama is unfolding in an eternal loop. The most unnerving thing about Inland Empire is that the ghost is not a figure but an altogether more abstract force: an integral part of the fiction we are watching, “something inside the story.”
One final point: I’d like to think that the death of cinema, prophesied since its birth, is still a ways off, but it has been hard for some time now to ignore the deaths of many actual cinemas, as in the widespread closures of movie houses the world over. Looking back at the once-vibrant downtown of his hometown of Recife, Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho takes on this subject and much more in his documentary Pictures of Ghosts (2023). Not many films have conveyed so movingly the spectral melancholy of cinephilia. To love movies is to live with ghosts. And in the increasingly privileged space of a cinema, one might even imagine that as we watch—alone and together, there and not there—the ghosts are us.
This essay first appeared in a publication for the 64th Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
Dennis Lim is the artistic director of the New York Film Festival and the author, most recently, of Tale of Cinema (2022).