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Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife

Some recent research turned up a book title that I found helpful, Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife by Tom Ruffles (McFarland, 2004). The back cover of the book describes Ruffles as a teacher in communication skills and film studies in the United Kingdom, but the promotional materials from the publisher indicate another interesting facet of the author’s background in that he is described as “a long-time member of the Society for Psychical Research.” This background compliments some of Ruffles’ analysis and commentary, which will be mentioned in the review below.

Ghost Images takes a historical perspective in its analysis of apparitions in film. It begins with a consideration of various “visual precursors,” which includes the depictions of a port-mortem state symbolized by things like skeletons, and the Dance of Death. To my surprise, Georges Méliès is mentioned in this regard, demonstrating that his other work in filmmaking is not as well known as his science fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Ruffles also discusses mirrors, magic lanterns, phantasmagoria, and spirit photography as important precursors and influences. In regards to the latter, Ruffles also makes the connection between spirit photography and the rise of Spiritualism, as well as the boost given to the photographic practice with the American Civil War. Ruffles suggests that the mass death in connection with this war may have also provided “the industry a momentum similar to that the First World War gave to Spiritualism (and German’s Expressionist films) and the Second World War to film ghosts.” As another piece of the ghostly visual precursors to film ghosts, the author discusses ghosts in theater. He then concludes that, “[b]y the time moving pictures came to be developed, there was already a rich tradition of depictions of the Afterlife on which to draw.”

As the book’s historical analysis continues it looks at ghosts in silent cinema, and once again Georges Méliès is mentioned. He is first in a list of figures, and as a significant presence whose work in “trick film” is considered pioneering and which is understood as “part of the stage-magic tradition.”

Discussion then moves to a thematic consideration of cinematic ghosts. Here Ruffles identifies various categories through which ghosts have been depicted. This includes thirteen categories, some of which overlap, such as veridical, crisis, genuine haunting, place-centered, seen by all present, consciousness present, supplying information, purposeful, hostile, transparent, interacting with the environment, speaking, and communicating directly. The author then considers each of the categories in turn, with examples provided from select films that exemplify the category under discussion. Interestingly in this section, Ruffles notes that ghost in films were not a major facet of cinematic expression outside the U.S. “Only in the United States, with its relatively minor involvement in the First World War, insulation from the horrors of mass bereavement and more advanced film industry, did the cinematic ghost flourish.” From this reviewer’s perspective this facet is curious. It would seem more intuitive that the cinematic depiction of ghosts would find its greatest expression in those countries which experienced the greatest loss of life and national trauma, thus allowing the ghosts of cinema to provide a cathartic expression as well as hopes for an afterlife. In this section Ruffles also considers various types of ghosts that will be familiar to modern moviegoers, including ghosts who cannot rest, ghosts who console the living and dispense sage advice, ghosts with unfinished business, ghost lovers, as well as ghosts with no awareness of their death, and the haunted house.

An important dimension in this section, and to the book overall, comes from Ruffles’ background in psychical research. Here the author includes a lengthy discussion of depictions of parapsychologists, mediumship, and near-death experiences, as well as more traditional religious categories such as angels, and heaven and hell. This section of the book not only provides material for reflection on ghost cinema which includes these items, but also ideas for broader reflection on the growing popularity of the paranormal in popular culture.

Ghost Images concludes with a chapter devoted to case studies of select films of the author’s choosing, including A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Shining (1980), and Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Although the author chose a more narrow focus to his cinematic exploration, the book would have been strengthened with an analysis of ghost films produced from perspectives other than American or British such as Mexican and Spanish directors like Guillermo del Toro and Alejandor Amenabar, or those which find their source material in Asian ghost story traditions. These films have a following in America, and have been influential in the development of American conceptions of the ghost. Thus, a broader scope to the analysis would have been helpful.

Surprisingly, Ghost Images does not reflect on how the American national trauma of 9/11 might have impacted the depictions of ghosts on screen. The box office success of paranormal entity films are certainly an indicator of the country’s continued fascination with the paranormal, and the possibility of ghosts. It would have made for an interesting analysis had the author speculated as to what place they may have in the national psyche in a post-9/11 environment where apocalyptic fears are high, and reminders of our mortality are played out in a continuous media cycle.

Given the importance of this topic as a contribution to film studies, and horror films in particular, I hope this book is updated and expanded. Its consideration of ghosts and the afterlife are an important facet of cinema past and present, and one with important connections to the paranormal in popular culture and religious studies as well. Those interested in exploring these topics would due well to secure a copy of this volume for their library.

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