Problem of the Day: Has Martin Scorsese made a Ghost Story? And if so, What am I going to do about it?


So I was up early this morning having slept restlessly after watching the end of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ last night (no spoilers – suffice it to say that fans of Richard Dawkins and Thomas Merton may find themselves both satisfied; I certainly was).  Cylons colonised my repose (for some reason the early models, one of whose bosses is depicted above, were the stuff of my childhood nightmares), but I managed to avoid the bad dream I might otherwise have had when I was younger and less apt to resist imagining the imminent doom of the planet.  I have a sensitive constitution, as they say.  Which segues neatly into the reason for this post: why I am about to let you, dear reader, down.

Over at The Film Talk, my genial co-host and I are busy as usual in TFT Central, grafting away at the plans for Episode 98, which will – must – feature ‘This is It’ (and if you heard our preview at the end of Episode 97 you’ll know just how much we’re looking forward to that particular endeavor, although early reviews are surprisingly good), and ‘Paranormal Activity’, (image below) the once-every-ten-years-straight-outta-the-gate-micro-budget-huge-audience-scare-the-life-from-you-neo-Blair-Witch-Project, cleverly marketed with midnight screenings before opening wide wide WIDE.  It will be unavoidable for the next few weeks.

paranormal activity

And here’s the problem:

I hate scary movies.

I spent the better part of ‘The Sixth Sense’ (and, yes, before you jump in, there was a better part – and we tend to like Shyamalan round here, no matter how unpopular it makes us) employing the time-honored tactic of removing my glasses and staring at my left foot, thereby reducing the height that I would be propelled out of my seat when whatever Mr S wanted to frighten me with appeared on screen.

exorcism emily

I got as far as being picked up by my friend Alex and half-way to the theatre before I decided that I couldn’t go through with our previous arrangement to see ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’; I was sure it would be an ordeal.  (Note to the snark police: I mean for good reasons; I’m told the movie’s not bad at all.)

I even found my viewing of ‘The Black Hole’ at Escapism last week to be problematic – Maximillian Schell made me jump on more than one occasion, and the final sequence in which he is possessed by the spirit of his pet robot to rule over Hades is just about as much as my resolution can take.

So, to the presenting issue:

Jett wants us to review ‘Paranormal Activity’ this week.  I can’t face seeing it.  I think I can address the ethical question by carrying out one of our patented q&a reviews; and I’ll devote some serious attention to thinking ’em up; but I just don’t think I can sustain the emotional assault course of watching the movie.

This isn’t just for reasons of psycho-spiritual balance, although I do tend to think that there’s enough struggle in most days to make me less than apt to subject myself to more for entertainment’s sake.  And I’m not averse to horror films per se – ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Shining’, ‘Quiz Show‘ (trust me – it’s a horror movie about the potential collapse of a man’s soul) each find their way into my roster of re-watchable movies, most of the time.  No, I guess my resistance to ‘Paranormal Activity’ resides in a combination of the emotional terrain questions I’ve just raised, and the fact that it seems this apparently very accomplished film chooses to present the mystery of spirit as a threat.  We’ve mentioned on the show before that no less a philosophical artist than Stanley Kubrick considered the tale of Jack Torrance, the hotel, and the tricycle to be ‘an optimistic story’, because, he said, any story that posits the existence of an afterlife for human beings must therefore include hope.  Fair point, Stanley, even though I think he was slightly joking.  Of course, ‘The Shining’ doesn’t exactly present its vision in an optimistic way.  Nor, I’m told, does ‘Paranormal Activity’.  [SPOILER BELOW THE PICTURE]

wings of desire

We see a young couple killed by ghosts.  It’s supposed to thrill us.  Next week, we will watch angels try to save humans from their selfishness in ‘Wings of Desire‘.  It will feel transcendent to watch it again.  It will thrill me.  And I don’t think I’ll have missed anything by not seeing ‘Paranormal Activity’.

Now, I’ve read that Orin Peli, the director of ‘Paranormal Activity’ used to be afraid of ghosts, and that he made the movie as an attempt at catharthsis.  Good for him.  I’m pretty sure, however, that it wouldn’t be cathartic for me.

So here are my five questions to you – I’d appreciate any advice you can give:

Can any of you convince me to see ‘Paranormal Activity’ before we record on Friday morning?

What is the purpose of horror fiction?

Does horror on film create, reduce, nurture, or ignore horror in real life?

Is it a good thing to pay to be frightened?

And, given that Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ looks like a serial killer/scary mental institution/murderous-rage-from-beyond-the-grave film, is there any advice you can offer to help me prepare for the inevitable repeat of my pre-emptive angst when that movie is released next year?


3 responses to “Problem of the Day: Has Martin Scorsese made a Ghost Story? And if so, What am I going to do about it?

  1. G: I must kick this off by telling you that I’m reading “How Movies Helped Save My Soul” and, in order to save time and face and turn a dissertation into a bumper sticker for you, I love and hate it. Well done you.

    As for convincing you to see ‘Paranormal Activity’, I suppose I would appeal to your natural curiosity, for I suspect within any cine-phile a deep one. I might also throw at you an old line that my parents have always been fond of: it’s your job (am I right?) And, to throw a more admirable spin on this argument, there are those of us who trust you, who count on seeing a movie first through your eyes before deciding to dismiss it. If there is enough redeeming value in it to make it worthwhile for us to put up the time and risk (to our souls!), I suspect you will be able to discern this and communicate it, for these are some of your gifts to the world.
    I probably won’t see Paranormal Activity, for several reasons. I thought Blair Witch was the nausea inducing let down of the year, and PA seems to be following in its footsteps, although with a decidedly steadier cam. And the argument on the other side is no more convincing for me, for if the movie is as scary as some have said, I will probably wind up walking out of it as I did The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not because I was scared, but because I was disturbed. I think there is a difference between thrilling and disgusting.)
    I’m not sure what the point of horror fiction is. There are many with far greater intellect who could do a few verses of this one. It depends, I suppose, as in so many other cases, on the author. Some, like the aforementioned Mr. S I suspect, intend to tell a compelling story, and since what is foreign to us almost always either scares or intrigues us (or both), the supernatural is a brilliant tool to use to tell the truth inside the story. And if you can weave it into a movie with the artistry M. Night did in ‘The Sixth Sense’, bravo.
    Some authors are just in it for the money.
    Whatever the reason, horror movies and rock ‘n roll are here to stay, as long as they stay profitable.
    Is it a good thing to pay to be scared? I guess I’ll answer that one with another one: What if we pay to be frightened because our lives have gone so far off the tracks, in the spiritual sense, that we have to replace the real thrills, the thrill of rolling up our sleeves and becoming tangibly involved in the heart-breaking, bittersweet, beautiful mess that is the world we were created to co-labor in, the thrill of risking everything we hold most dear to find what is truly valuable, the thrill that comes with turning our backs on the stuff we cling to that anesthetizes us to real suffering in order to see with eyes unfettered, with what are truly cheap thrills, those which are false and fleeting?
    As for the other matter: Martin Scorsese, Ben Kingsley, Leo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and ghosts. See, my curiosity is already stirred, but after reading and re-reading the argument I just made, I’ll be thinking twice about this one as well. Why don’t you see it and tell me what you think?

    • garethihiggins

      Jen – Thanks for this – I think the point about anesthetizing is the one that concerns me the most. Then again, as you say, Scorsese, Kingsley, don’t forget Max von Sydow…I don’t think I could avoid seeing ‘Shutter Island’ – nor do I think I can avoid feeling uncomfortable while watching it.

  2. Another good article.

    Kubrick may have been joking when he made the statement about The Shining being optimistic but I don’t think so; according to his wife, when asked whether he believed in ghosts, he replied, “Gee, I hope so!” I think he really believed this.

    And while there is some truth to it, I disagree with the assumption. I think one need only read of Nietzche’s ‘Eternal Return’ to be assured that “something” after death is not necessarily optimistic. One of Dostoevsky’s characters in Crime and Punishment Svidrigailov to Raskolnikov, “And what if there are only spiders there, or something of that sort…”

    Kubrick was great and I think he had great compassion for people as is evident in Paths of Glory. I also think that he did believe in something (as his wife said) and he searched the question out but I think he had a great fear of deluding himself or appearing primitive. There is Stephen King’s story (of which there are several versions) about how Kubrick called him one night and asked him if he believed in God. King said yes at which point Kubrick either hung up, said he didn’t agree, and one other I can’t remember – it’s all on Kubrick’s wikipedia page. King also says that Kubrick asked him if he thought ghost stories were optimistic because they imply life after death. King replied, “What about hell”, and Kubrick said he didn’t believe in hell. King might be fibbing a little here, it’s well-known he didn’t like what was done to The Shining, but I bet something along those lines happened.

    King said at some point long ago that he thought Kubrick thought too much and felt too little. I think I agree and maybe the reverse could even be said about King…

    Lastly, I’ve always wondered what Kubrick thought about Tarkovsky, certainly he’d seen his films. I think I know what Tarkovksy would have thought.