Ghost Stories from writer/directors Andrew Nyman and Jeremy Dyson presents itself as a horror anthology in the classic style, featuring three haunting stories that are creepy, but basic. That's what you're led to believe. But in truth, it's so much more.
I stumbled across this gem while searching Hulu for something spooky to watch this Halloween. And let me tell you, I got more than I bargained for. This movie left me thinking about it and its themes for days--and let me tell you, I've got plenty of thoughts to share.
To really talk about the movie's themes and what it does so well, though, I'm going to have to go into spoilers. Only read on if you've seen the movie or don't care about spoilers. And if you haven't seen Ghost Stories, you should definitely give it a watch. Be aware that the film deals with suicide and loss of loved ones, and so will this review, so if that's triggering for you, you may want to skip both.
At first glance, the premise of Ghost Stories is pretty cliché: paranormal debunker Phillip Goodman encounters the supernatural he doesn't believe in and has to come to terms with it. The titular ghost stories are pretty by-the-numbers as well. And the twist ending--Goodman was in a coma, hallucinating, the whole time--is as overdone as they come. And yet the movie still manages to elevate itself above the many forgettable films and stories with which it shares traits. There are plenty of reasons for this, including a stellar cast and a reliance on simple, subtle scares. But I think the main theme of the movie is what really sets it apart.
It's easy to assume that the ending is a downer, that he's going to spend the rest of his life in a coma tortured by guilt over his past, but I'm not sure that's what Ghost Stories is going for. I think it's having a debate as old as people's ability to question their reality: which is better, to believe a terrible truth or a beautiful lie?
For Phillip Goodman, nothing is more important than truth. He is desperate to see the world as it really is and to show that reality to others. It's easy to see why, from the way his father's religious beliefs tore his family apart and from the influence of his mentor, Charles Cameron, who showed him that superstition was something he could break free of. And the one time he didn't tell someone the truth, that person died--and that omission haunts Goodman for years, ultimately driving him to attempt suicide.
The first scene of the movie shows us exactly how important truth and reality are to Goodman. When a fake psychic uses his "talents" to let people contact their dead relatives, Goodman exposes his methods in front of the whole audience, including a woman who believes she's talking to her son. He genuinely believes he's doing the right thing here. You can see the anger on his face as he listens in on the psychic's team feeding him information through an earpiece. It's in righteous anger that he lashes out at the psychic, confronting him publicly with his evidence. He's compassionate to the woman, even telling her "I'm sorry" as he tells her the truth. But you also see the effect this has on the woman: the camera freezes on her tear-streaked face as she begs the psychic to tell her Goodman was lying. She is broken--but she knows the truth now, and to Goodman, that's what's most important.
"We have to be so very careful what we believe in," Goodman tells his audience. To him, knowing the truth, however terrible it may be, is always better than believing a lie, even if that lie gives you hope.
The three ghost stories Goodman investigates take this theme even further, seeing what happens when other individuals believe in the supernatural (which, for the purposes of this discussion, we'll put in the category of beautiful lies). Security guard Tony Matthews encounters the ghost of a little girl who calls him "Dada," and his belief in that encounter pushes him to talk to his daughter, who is in a coma and whom he hasn't seen in ages. Matthews' priest tells Goodman that because good came from what the security guard believed, and because it was real to him, that makes it real enough. In this case, a lie that brings hope and reconciliation can be a good thing. (It's also worth noting, though, that the terror of the encounter has left Matthews on edge, even hostile when he has to talk about it).
The other two don't fare nearly as well. Teen Simon Rifkind runs into (quite literally) some kind of spirit in the woods, and his belief in that encounter and his search for the truth, for understanding, have pushed him into a mental breakdown. Stock trader Mike Priddle, while he seems carefree for most of his time onscreen, ends up committing suicide after seeing his wife's ghost and his unborn son's poltergeist. Believing in the beautiful lie of the supernatural destroyed these two lives.
Of course, none of these ghost stories really happened. They were all creations of Goodman's subconscious, cobbled together from people and details from his hospital room. But they still illustrate the debate in Goodman's mind--is the truth really better than a lie? More importantly, they contain clues that Goodman, as an investigator, can put together to reveal the truth of his reality. References to people with "locked-in syndrome", a man in scrubs, and Goodman's own blue face trapped in a car hint at his current post-suicide-attempt condition. A repeated string of numbers and a mysterious hooded figure are echoes of the tragedy that led to that suicide attempt.
What we see is the result of a brain divided. Part of Goodman can't cope with being stuck in his body or being tormented by guilt, so it creates a hallucination that offers hope--he's still mobile, still an investigator and debunker, still in control. But truth is so important to Goodman that he can't let himself hide in that beautiful lie forever, so his mind tries, subtly at first, to show him the truth. When that fails and the curtain is literally torn away, it wrecks Goodman. He sobs, he pleads, much like the woman at the beginning of the film. He is broken--but he knows the truth.
Is knowing the truth better? Many of us could ask ourselves the same question. Is it better to know the truth about that superstition, that religion, that person we love or respect, even if it shatters our world? I don't think Ghost Stories is trying to give us any clear-cut answers, but it shows both sides of the argument in a way that's chilling, creepy, and impossible to forget. And that's just good horror.
Ghost Stories is owned by Catalyst Global Media, Altitude Film Entertainment, and Warp Films.