The 2017 film, A Ghost Story, is a remarkable meditation on death and loss that somehow manages to make those themes appear fresh and alive. The primary conceit that facilitates this is the decision to keep the main character (who dies early on) draped in a white sheet for the remainder of the film. On the face of it a rather banal move, but somehow the film dodges any kitsch horror associations and instead becomes a profound deliberation on the nature of haunting and its relation to place.
After the introductory set up establishing a young creative couple planning to move home, the husband is killed in a car accident. The camera lingers on his body lying on a trolley in the hospital covered with a white sheet. The still scene seems to endure for too long but then the body sits up. From this point on the ghost becomes the central character and he is forever covered in the white sheet with two mournful eyeholes the only concession to expressiveness.
He returns directly to the family home and becomes a mute witness to his partner’s candid mourning. He seems still wedded to her even after death. But when she sells the house and moves out it becomes apparent that he is actually wedded to the home that was his last residence, although ‘imprisoned in’ might be a better description of the state he finds himself in. As other residents arrive and leave, the ghost is stuck in a grim limbo unable to communicate with them except by way of unpleasant hauntings. One exception to this is another ghost who is trapped in her own neighbouring house. The two spectres sometimes gaze at each other and ‘chat’, their conversation appearing as subtitles. Ultimately, the land is redeveloped and a high-rise commercial complex with something of a Blade Runner feel is built on the site of the ghost’s former home. Still trapped there and evidently frustrated beyond comprehension, he throws himself from the top of the building.
But, being already dead, he is unable to commit suicide. Instead he finds himself back at the initial staking out of the ground by a pioneer family at the site that would later become his home. And, in a temporal circularity, he ends up watching himself and his wife move in and he becomes the source of the haunting noises that they heard in the first part of the film.
One of the reasons why A Ghost Story works so effectively is that it deploys numerous non-naturalistic techniques that serve to heighten the eeriness of the situation. Amongst these, the aspect ratio is a highly unusual 4:3 with rounded corners, drawing attention to the film’s frame. Additionally, the aforementioned subtitling of the ghosts’ conversations and the very long, still shots both tend to create a very stylised aesthetic but this stylisation helps to contextualise and so provoke empathy for the ghost’s situation rather than acting as an alienating device. The weirdness of the film’s aesthetic perfectly matches and amplifies the weirdness of the character’s posthumous predicament.
Taking into account the stylised, non-naturalistic look of the film, its themes of time and the imprisonment of place, and the silent, hooded ghost character, there are many points of similarity between A Ghost Story and Samuel Beckett’s late play, Quad.
Quad, a television play broadcast in 1981, is a typically non-naturalistic Beckett play. In fact, the formal, ritualistic elements of the play predominate to such an extent that its performance can appear more like some esoteric ceremony than a play.
In Quad, four characters each wearing a differently coloured hooded robe, are seen from above walking around the stage in set, predetermined directions. The stage directions are very strict and describe the exact movement of each actor as they symmetrically trace patterns around and across the stage. Each actor is accompanied on stage by a distinct percussive noise which appears and disappears with them. This part of the play is known as Quad I. The next part, which might conventionally be thought of as Act 2, is known as Quad II. It follows after a brief intermission which Beckett thinks of as spanning 100 000 years. Here the actors move more slowly and the percussion has disappeared completely. Their robes seem to have faded to grey and the overall effect suggests that this pointless ceremony has been going on continually for aeons with only the entropic dissolution of the universe to slow it down.
Watching Quad, it is possible to throw around any number of interpretations but among the most fundamental must be that it is enacting the movement of the drive. Certainly, Beckett seems keen to avoid any humanising characteristics. The characters are literally distinguished by colour coding and a rhythmic beat. To the extent that they represent human beings at all it would seem that they embody a limbic, instinctual level of being that is pre-linguistic. As an embodiment of the death drive, each appears to lack individual volition, instead expressing pure movement through formal, immutable channels. There is no content as such to their being, just pure movement.
Like our posthumous hero in A Ghost Story, these characters are similarly trapped within a set space, moving without purpose or individual autonomy. They are trapped within a physical zone of movement just as the ghost is trapped within his home, and there appears to be no extraneous purpose to their lives beyond mere existence. In both works, the characters subsist in their strange behaviour through apparently vast swathes of time. Certainly, their experience of time seems to be such as would greatly exceed any normal human experience of time, to the extent that they take on a non-human character becoming spectral or archetypal figures. There is something thoroughly unnatural in their persistent existence beyond the natural limit of death. In this way, both of these works manage to signpost something that is really ghostly and horrific. That is, the way in which something non-human seems to live within the human; something that was here before us and that will endure beyond us, yet which is not synonymous with us. This animating principle eludes conceptual understanding yet is the engine of our being. It haunts our waking consciousness and sometimes – as in the works discussed here – it can find its reflection in sensitive works of art.