The greatest and most universal experience is death. And we’re all afraid to die, in our own way. Whether it’s full-blown thanatophobia or just a faint, dull throb, we all carry this weight of existential dread around with us in our everyday lives. In David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, this fear hangs around each frame, as loosely and suffocatingly as a man in a white sheet with black holes for eyes. After dying in a car crash, a man named C (Casey Affleck) opts not to enter a magic portal into the afterlife, so he’s damned to wander aimlessly on the earth. His widow, a woman named M (Rooney Mara), attempts to move on with her life and rediscover purpose.

David Bruckner’s The Night House features death, as well, but analyzed through a very different lens. Death and decay lies within Beth’s (Rebecca Hall) inability to mobilize after her husband Owen’s suicide. End of semester exams seem frivolous and unimportant. Days no longer have any meaning. And nights seem endless. She grapples with her own shackled demons, too, which ultimately lead her to the edge of the precipice, her body teetering between succumbing to it and conquering it. Death is inescapable for every single one of us, and these two films are masterclasses in dissecting existence as it was, is, and will be. Perhaps Beth is right and there really is nothing. Nothing after you, or me, or this plane of existence.

Lowery began writing A Ghost Story on a whim, following an argument with his wife. “I was thinking about my own attachment to physical spaces,” he mentioned in a conversation with Coming Soon. Physical spaces, like one’s childhood home, are intrinsically tied to early notions and awareness of identity. You can feel totally comfortable, as you wander back through your memories, for example, or reliving an upbringing can be a point of great trauma. Through his own real-life experiences, the image of a ghost popped into frame. Instead of extracting a translucent specter, or one bound in clanking chains, Lowery opted for a man in a sheet. He took the classic, cartoon image of a ghost, something “understood to be funny or charming or sweet or naïve and [instilled] it with some degree of gravity. I still want to acknowledge that it’s a goofy image, but I like the idea of giving some emotional heft…”

Ghosts in popular culture, and especially in literature, serve a very particular purpose. In an essay for Lit Hub, author Amy Shearn observes, “A ghost in a story can deliver information living characters lack access to, so it’s no wonder spirits have apparated throughout Western literature.” From films like Carnival of Souls (1962) and The Haunting (1963) to such recent offerings as His House (2020) and La Llorona (2019), film has historically utilized ghost imagery to speak directly to the human condition.

existential dread ghost story

‘A Ghost Story’

A ghost can resemble one’s deteriorating mental health or unaddressed childhood trauma, or perhaps it can relay buried secrets and sacrifices made decades ago. Or it can also relate to our collective sense of space and time. Later in her essay, Shearn correlates a deep, lively well of knowledge with spaces, particularly in regard to her own work. Her novel, Unseen City, dissects the bustling New York metropolis as “one big haunted house—particularly, how the spaces in which we live, from rented rooms to teeming cities, hold the imprint of those that came before.”

Lowery’s A Ghost Story immerses completely in these ideas. C returns home after the crash, detached as a voyeur to his past, present, and future lives. All of it replays like home-made video footage. The audience sees the world he once knew fade in time, and things recycle with new players living their own lives before time takes them, too. The frames seem more cracked and yellowed and tired than they were before. Once vibrant, life is now sad and gray and devoid of electricity. In the film’s most startling scene, C watches on as M scarfs down an entire pie by herself. She has just returned from his funeral, and the house’s emptiness nearly swallows her whole. The camera settles upon this scene, to an uncomfortable degree, dragging you into a swirling mass of death, grief, and loneliness. M trembles through a rush of human emotion in four and a half minutes. C looms in the background, unable to move or reach out.

It’s the single best representation of what it’s like to die 一 or to live on, and barely survive 一 in film.

Time speeds up around C like a children’s flipbook. Vignettes pop and sizzle, an experience that further distances even the viewer from the story. But that’s the alarming point. On their own, moments mean nothing, but it’s the larger picture, our entire lives, that has tremendous significance. M wades back into her normal life. She goes to work. She dates again. And eventually she packs up her belongings and leaves the house for good. As she drives away, C can be seen squarely gazing from the front bay window 一 a harrowing threshold that begins his loop from wallowing in present sadness to waiting for all of eternity for her return. Much like a neighboring ghost, who has long forgotten their life and former love, this transitory state is just a paper weight until acceptance.

Their home is demolished years, maybe even decades, later. Time marches mercilessly ahead, and what once was or could be falls as dust back into the earth. A new generation rises from the ashes; in this case, a towering, neon cityscape. And still, C roams and roams and roams. He roams so far, he bends time back to the very beginning of things. And again he waits. He waits until early civilizations take the land on which his home was built, and until they die the most horrific deaths. And new families sprout in their place. And eventually, ghost C watches as C and M move into the home, plant roots, and then decay. It’s only upon discovering a note M once left in the crack of the living room doorway that he finds the light. In an instant, even his ghostly form blows away, and he’s gone, gone, gone.

Perhaps there really is nothing.

The Night House bowls you over with that possibility, as well. In addition to the film’s themes of suicide and depression, which I wrote about here, death presents itself as an immovable fixture, pressing a faint “nothing” into the viewer’s mind. Mere days after Beth’s husband Owen killed himself, she returns to her classwork to enter final grades for the semester. As she nods off at her desk, a parent of a student named Hunter asks about having a quick meeting to discuss her son’s last presentation. This scene, in particular, instills the notion that truly nothing matters 一 “He took a boat out on the lake. He took a handgun that I didn’t even know that we owned. And ‘pow!’ right in the mouth. So, which Hunter got what grade on what high school elective speech class assignment really doesn’t matter to me right now.”

‘The Night House’

An overwhelming pressure of nothingness drives Beth forward. Such inconsequential moments burn up like hot wax on the surface of the sun. None of it really matters at the end of the day, and all you’re left with is nothing. In writing the script, screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski drew upon a character’s ever-present state of sorrow in Hellraiser, rearranging the components for a different genre altogether. But the heartbeat is exactly the same. “Characters find themselves in unique emotional situations. If the horror doesn’t show up in the story, that’s what makes it interesting. The reality of their emotional space interacts with genre elements,” Collins offered in an interview with Script Mag.

Beth’s emotional space is two parts grief, one part anger, and one part of her own melancholy. Blended together, it manifests through a spooky ghost story. Owen’s ghost, or rather a shell of his mental illness, haunts her. Her evenings spent getting wine drunk and listening to records are interrupted with an otherworldly presence. In her grief, Beth firmly believes it is her beloved, yet as she spirals through each stage, unraveling a potential string of murders in the process, she loses her grasp on life and living in the present.

It really all begins when she reads Owen’s suicide note aloud. Over a few drinks, she whips out the crumbled note. “You were right. There is nothing. Nothing is after you. You’re safe now,” she says through parted lips. Her friends are taken aback at those words. In the moment, she doesn’t reveal what they mean. Only later, in conversation with her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), does she reveal she once had a near-death experience and felt herself float outside of her body. “Afterward, when everyone would ask me when they found out, like, ‘What was it like? What did you see?,’ I didn’t want to disappoint them. So, I’d say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember.’ Owen was the only person I ever told. There’s nothing.”

Nothing.

The idea that there’s nothing after life is terrifying. And the idea that our lives are truly meaningless in the grand scheme of things is also terrifying. In the film’s final moments, as she holds a pistol to her mouth, Beth is unafraid of that nothing. She embraces it. She nearly commits to it entirely, willing to end her own life to reclaim a part of herself. Her friend Claire pulls her back at the last moment, and nothing vanishes as quickly as it appeared. The memories we make and the people we meet will inevitably fade into nothing, but we can still cherish them while we have them. Even if it all means nothing.

Nothing.

It keeps me up most nights. In between Film Twitter discourse and just general doom scrolling, I find myself more anxious than I have ever been. Thankfully, A Ghost Story and The Night House are vital cathartic valves we can turn on to release that dread and maybe rediscover purpose and meaning in living again. If you’re itching for relief, or perhaps you want to wallow in your existential dread (which is perfectly valid, especially considering recent headlines), there’s no double feature better suited for 2022.

Double Trouble is a recurring column that pairs up two horror films, past or present, based on theme, style, or story.

existential dread the night house

‘The Night House’



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