Ghost Story (1981) – I Spit on Your Town
It is easy to see why people might hate this film. After all, it is not and could never be a book by Peter Straub.
The origin story behind Straub’s novel has been extensively documented: Straub has repeatedly stated that Ghost Story was inspired by Stephen King’s early vampire novel Salem’s Lot, a tip of the hat that was later acknowledged by King in his non-fiction collection Danse Macabre where Ghost Story was written up as one of the most influential and structurally effective novels in 20th Century horror. This much we know.
For my part, Straub’s acknowledgement came as something of a surprise as Straub’s approach to fiction has always struck me as quite different to the plodding accessibility of King’s Victorian realism in which the world is just as real and fixed as the characters uncovering it. In Straub’s books, the boundary between world and character is far more mutable, its nuances coaxed into existence by structural complexities and stylistic flourishes designed to keep readers off-balance until a trap is sprung and a particular impression is lodged deep inside the reader’s vulnerable skull. Cocteau famously said that style was a way of saying very complicated things in a very simple manner and Straub is an author who is mostly in the business of using style to coax his readers into receiving certain — often wordless — impressions.
Had Ghost Story been written by Stephen King then one might have described it as the story of a group of old men who are being haunted. As the story unfolds, the men are revealed as having shared a disastrous encounter with a single woman. This encounter not only fills them with guilt, it also seems to account for a litany of emotional crises that have defined their adult lives. Assuming that both world and characters are fixed and real entities, Ghost Story is all about a haunting the grows with the passage of time, consuming not only the lives of the guilty but also the town in which they live. This is the story that John Irvin tried and failed to adapt but the result was a cinematic Ghost Story that is a lot closer to that of Peter Straub than that of Stephen King.
Ghost Story was not well received by film critics upon initial release. In fact, the only notable critic who praised Irvin’s efforts was Roger Ebert and his review wound up saying a lot more about the critic’s aesthetic limitations than the film’s aesthetic strengths:
Peter Straub’s best-selling novel Ghost Story contained all [the elements of a traditional ghost story], and so I plugged away at it for what must have been hundreds of pages before his unspeakable prose finally got to me. At least, he knows how to make a good story, if not how to tell it, and that is one way in which the book and the movie of “Ghost Story” differ. The movie is told with style. It goes without saying that style is the most important single element in every ghost story, since without it even the most ominous events disintegrate into silliness. And “Ghost Story,” perhaps aware that if characters talk too much they disperse the tension, adopts a very economical story-telling approach. Dialogue comes in short, straightforward sentences.
Fuck Peter Straub and his “unspeakable prose”! Give me short, straightforward sentences I can understand!
While I would not disagree that Irvin’s Ghost Story is a stylish film, the film’s style is conspicuously ugly and jarring as fragments of 1960s psychedelia and 1970s exploitation are scattered across vast expanses of sepia-toned Hollywood storytelling. Even the transitions between opening scenes grind like the gears of an antiquated circus truck as Irvin drags us from a group of Hollywood legends sat before a lovely roaring fire to images of rotting corpses and then on to a Ballardian skyscraper where a bout of vigorous corpse-fucking projects a screaming naked man out of a window and onto a concrete floor situated hundreds of feet below. The shifts in style and the movement from story, to flashback, to memory, to vision come so quickly and with so little warning that the film soon starts to feel like a jumble of different tones and styles. The discord is aggressive, but it does contain a deeper truth.
Straub’s Ghost Story is built around the idea of a group of old men telling each other ghost stories. Each of the ghost stories is written in a slightly different style reflecting the storyteller’s personal idiosyncrasies. While these idiosyncrasies serve to flesh out the members of Chowder Society, they also serve to create the impression that the stories the old men tell are not only different but also unconnected. The only fly in the ointment is the fact that every story concludes with the protagonist demanding the ghost’s identity and being told that “I am you”. On the basis of this recurring motif, it seems reasonable to assume that the different stories are connected and the novel ultimately reveals that they are. However, taking the ghost’s message literally, we can also infer that the ghost is a product not only of the characters’ pasts but also of their tendency to tell and re-tell ghost stories inspired by the same traumatic event. In other words, Straub’s Ghost Story is about a haunting in which the boundaries between reality, dream, individual, and group are completely compromised. All we can ever say is that there is something ugly in the world of Ghost Story and this ugliness is centred upon the members of the Chowder Society.
Irvin’s Ghost Story not only reduces the cast of characters but also does away with the idea that the members of the Chowder Society are telling and re-telling stories that comment upon their shared trauma. Rather than a series of stories involving different women who turn out to be the same person, the film shows only a single story in which a man is buried alive. Though obviously relevant to the shared trauma on both a material and thematic level, this story is framed as a distraction from trauma rather than the weird form of toxic group therapy that features in the novel. Irvin’s Ghost Story does feature stories and memories but, denied the clear framing of the novel’s structure, they are impossible to distinguish from the reality of the characters’ lives.
Ghost Story’s lack of stylistic stability lends itself to a reading that emphasises the psychological and the subjective over the literal and the realistic. Yes, the rotting corpses suggest eruptions of supernatural energy into an ostensibly ‘normal’ setting but this boundary between the supernatural and the mundane is compromised by the presence of two self-consciously weird characters with access to things they could not possibly know.
The lack of clear boundary between fiction and reality is even evident in relatively mundane sequences such as the one in which a man is forced to order dinner while his date forces him to stimulate her labia majora in full view of the waiting staff.
Ghost Story’s lack of fixed style or tone makes it feel as though the film were nothing more than a series of dovetailed delusions, an impression that is also reinforced by the dream-like quality of a narrative in which cause and effect prove almost impossible to pin down.
While the idea that a horror film might choose to depict the inside of a character’s head is not exactly new, what is striking about Ghost Story is that the film invites the same scepticism about almost every scene. For example, when the film transports us back to the characters’ pasts and allows us to see a group of men collectively falling in love with a beautiful woman on a glorious summer day, we assume that we are being shown a memory that has been pickled in the brine of self-delusion and nostalgia. In truth, what we are seeing is no more or less real than the scene in the restaurant.
The film’s refusal to draw meaningful distinctions between reality and fiction pays off at the end of the second act when we are shown the characters from an entirely different point of view. Having transported us back to the youth of the Chowder Society and charmed us with lovely posed images of a beautiful young woman falling in love, the film suddenly undermines the innocence of these scenes. In effect, one member of the group manages to lure the woman into bed and so the relationship is transformed forever: This isn’t a woman flirting playfully with a group of male friends who all adore and cherish her… this is a lone woman surrounded by a group of dudes who really want to have sex with her.
The ugliness of the dynamic is revealed in a scene where the couple are lying in bed while the rest of the group sing to them through an open window. Visibly uncomfortable and aware that the introduction of sex has shifted the nature of the group dynamic, the woman shouts out of the window and asks another member of the group to drive her home.
The scene is wonderfully ambiguous as her request can be interpreted both as an attempt to keep the old dynamic alive by pretending that nothing happened and an implied commitment to start working her way around the rest of the group. The woman clearly intended the first interpretation but the members of the Chowder Society latched onto the second.
Later, the men get drunk together and begin pumping the ‘victor’ for information about his conquest. Initially reluctant to be indiscrete, the ‘victor’ eventually spills the beans and describes his conquest as a goddess. Drunk and horny, the group decide to head over to the woman’s house in the middle of the night.
The scene at the house is far more ugly and horrific than any of the film’s rotting corpses. Visibly scared, the woman tries to keep the tone light and airy while the men cackle and joke about wanting to take their turn ‘dancing with the goddess’. The dynamic is clear: She had sex with one member of the group and now they all feel entitled to their turn. The scene pulsates with a malign energy as the playful banter of the earlier scenes is recast as a threatening prelude to gang rape. While the rape never happens, the woman still winds up dead after threatening to reveal her lover’s impotence (more stories!) and so the haunting is revealed to have been a result of collective guilt, sexual obsession, and a supernatural desire for vengeance.
One of the more puzzling things about Irvin’s Ghost Story is the arrival of a much younger man who forces the old men to confront their guilt and defuse the haunting. Indeed, while the members of the Chowder Society have all spent their lives obsessing over the death of a young woman, the haunting also affects the twin sons of a Chowder Society member. Sons who never met the young woman and so could not have been responsible for her death. The film never addresses the question of why the ghost would start attacking the children of her murderers or why she killed one son but left the other unharmed. The obvious assumption would be that the ghost began attacking the children of the Chowder Society member as a way of attacking him, but what if we were to broaden our interpretation of the haunting? What if this were about more than a single woman in a single pond?
The most striking thing about the Chowder Society is that they are a collection of Hollywood legends playing small town patriarchs: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays the town mayor, John Houseman plays a respected lawyer, and Melvyn Douglas plays the local doctor. These men all have power in the local community and they are all bound together not only by money, friendship, and their membership of the Chowder Society but also by their collective guilt in the murder of a young woman who wanted nothing more than to be their friend. This power, along with loyalty to the other members of the group, ensures that the woman is swiftly forgotten and that nobody is ever brought to justice for her death. In fact, the group are so powerful that when the woman dies, her house remains empty. When one member of the Chowder Society happens upon someone inside the house, he tells them both that the house belongs to no one and that they are trespassing on private property while he is not. In other words, the young woman is now a non-person but everything she was and everything she owned now belongs to the Chowder Society. They consumed her.
Craig Wasson’s Don is one of the twin sons of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s local mayor. A novelist and a promising academic, he encounters the ghost when she assumes the form of the Dean’s secretary. Within seconds of glimpsing her arrival, Don is asking the woman out and she effectively throws herself at him. The affair is torrid and hugely destructive to Don’s career until he begins to notice a coolness about the young woman that prompts him to break things off. This is the last that Don hears about the young woman until he receives a call from his twin brother informing him that he just nailed his ex-girlfriend and that he now intends to marry her. The phone call is disgusting and the twin brother winds up dead not long after posing the question as to why the ghost seemed happy to let Don slip away.
My solution to the problem is to view Irvin’s Ghost Story as a problematic pseudo-feminist revenge film in the tradition of Meir Zarchi’s 1978 exploitation classic I Spit on Your Grave. I’ll quote from Roger Ebert’s infamously negative review in order to make the similarities clear:
The story of ”I Spit on Your Grave” is told with moronic simplicity. A girl goes for a vacation in the woods. She sunbathes by a river. Two men speed by in a powerboat. They harass her. Later, they tow her boat to a rendezvous with two of their buddies. They strip the girl, beat her and rape her. She escapes into the woods. They find her, beat her, and rape her again. She crawls home. They are already there, beat her some more, and rape her again.
Two weeks later, somewhat recovered the girl lures one of the men out to her house, pretends to seduce him, and hangs him. She lures out another man and castrates him, leaving him to bleed to death in a bathtub. She kills the third man with an axe and disembowels the fourth with an outboard engine. End of movie.
Rather than beating and raping the young woman in question, the Chowder Society killed her after coming dangerously close to gang-raping her. Rather than returning a couple of weeks later to hang, castrate, and dismember her attackers, the young women sticks around for several decades poisoning the men’s relationships before eventually scaring them to death.
What makes Ghost Story less obvious and immediate than I Spit on Your Grave is the way that both novel and film suggest that the ghost assumes the role of other women whilst also remaining herself. Had the ghost limited her attacks to the members of the Chowder Society then we might view the haunting as being motivated by revenge and complicated by a load of genre nonsense about being different people at different times whilst remaining the same person. However, the fact that the ghost moves outside the Chowder Society and begins punishing men who were not involved in her death suggests a political rather than a personal motivation. Indeed, if we view the Chowder Society as being representative of patriarchal power then the ghost must be understood as a force avenging all the women who have ever been exploited and cast aside by powerful men. Assuming a psychological rather than a thematic reading, the same is also true for the members of the Chowder Society… they keep seeing the ghost of that young woman in every woman they meet because – in their eyes – all women are the same, faces and names may change but a woman is a woman and a cunt is a cunt.
Don is not tormented by the ghost as he never quite manages to make the grade as a patriarch. The film establishes him as a promising young academic on a one-year contract but his encounter with the beautiful and sexually voracious Alba sends him off the deep-end and destroys his career. The members of the Chowder Society proved that they could murder a girl and rise to the top whereas Don couldn’t hold down a relationship and a steady job without completely losing focus. Don is a reminder that while all patriarchs are men, not all men are patriarchs. Patriarchy is rule by Dads and the collapse of Don’s career along with his decision to end a relationship rather than punish the woman proves that he ain’t no Dad.
The film’s ending is decidedly upbeat in that it assumes that Dads can learn from their mistakes when they are forced to confront the consequences of their actions. It even goes so far as to suggest that young men have a role in helping their fathers to realise the error of their misogynistic ways. While this feminist subtext may not have been present in Straub’s mind when he wrote the original novel, it does connect with another difference between the work of Straub and Stephen King. King is someone with a lot of affection for small town America and his novels can almost be seen as social documents from a world that will not be around for long. However, as sepia-toned as King’s vision of small town America may be, he has never had much faith in the fundamental goodness of the people whose lives have provided him with so much inspiration. King wants to see the niceness in small town America but finds only the ugly, Straub sees the ugly but realises the potential for change.