Screening the Supernatural

Film Journal
Forthcoming Issue

Screening the Supernatural

Guest editor:
Andrea Grunert

The Haunted Screen” is the title used both by Lotte Eisner for her famous reading of German Expressionism and Lee Kovacs for her investigation of ghost figures inspired by the literature-based Gothic tradition in film from the 1930s and 1940s to interpretations of the supernatural in productions of the 1990s. Nineteenth-century literature was preoccupied with phenomena which exist above and beyond nature and the vampire entered English literature via Byron and John Polidori, becoming especially popular a hundred years later with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Spiritual séances, most fashionable in the late nineteenth century, mingled spiritualism and spectacle, anticipating new entertainment media such as the cinema. At the intersection of reality and fiction, belief and spectacle, film appeared as a form of modern magic. Even today, digital creation has not dispossessed film of its magical aura and the power to bring to life and enchant. As a projection of thoughts, film gives visibility to the unknown and explores the unconscious. It represents everyday reality and recreates the world of dreams, creating a space in which religious belief and superstition co-exist.

This issue of Film Journal seeks to explore the various occurrences and functions of the supernatural in film. It proposes to investigate the narratives and the methods of narrative mediation, as well as questions of representation and perception. Written in different contexts and very different in style, Eisner’s and Kovacs’ books, reveal the complexity of the topic and the historical, ideological, social and aesthetic aspects at stake. Narratives of the fantastic cross spatio-temporal and generic boundaries, creating a feeling of instability through the blend of generic elements. By exploring the abyss between rationality and fantasy, films dealing with supernatural phenomena and devices recall the complexity of the viewing experience in cinema which is composed of feelings, body reactions and thoughts. As Octave Mannoni put it, the modern viewer does not believe in illusion anymore, yet, part of him/her is still captured by the suggestive power of the image and the spectacular.

Why are elements of the mystifying and supernatural so fashionable today and how is cinema able to keep this fascination alive? The mixture of spiritualism and entertainment at cinema’s roots continues to find expression in contemporary films and their updating of ghost tales under the auspices of psychological knowledge. Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (USA/UK, 2006) deals with both the “uncanny” (events which can be explained by using logic) and the “marvelous” (events which are unexplainable), two concepts described by literary theorist Tsvetan Todorov. Moreover, the mystifying elements borrowed from Gothic tradition fulfill the viewer’s wish to be entertained by unmasking the illusion at the very heart of filmmaking. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), for instance, allies the pre-cinematic world and its preoccupation with the magical with a taste for spectacular events far from everyday experience.

Occult rituals integrated in the narrative delve back to the historical roots of film while also pointing to contemporary tendencies in filmmaking. The photographic representation of ghosts often follows older forms of representation, that of fluid, transparent bodies such as they appeared in nineteenth-century occultism. From the silent film to ultra-contemporary productions, what have been the aesthetic approaches to ghosts or spirits in cinema? There are filmmakers who forgo special effects – sometimes for financial reasons – and allow ghostly visitations to be played by actors, while still filming them “realistically”. But then, what is the most realistic way to film a ghost or spirit? Questions that may be raised concern the significance of the different approaches – mise-en-scène devices for representing external reality, as opposed to ghosts and phantoms, or the images and sounds of the supernatural realm and how editing, sound effects and music score contribute to the creation of a world beyond our experience and knowledge.

The supernatural invades all genres. At the end of Allan Dwan’s The Iron Mask (1929) D’Artagnan and his Musketeer-friends are dead, but appear again as translucent, ghostly figures (an effect created by overexposure) to greet the audience. Seen from our point of view, the sequence seems to comment on the history of film, anticipating the end of the silent era by showing one stars, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., in one of his last roles. In today’s cinema, elements of the fantastic increasingly inspire film, updating generic forms and devices, in films as different as Clint Eastwood’s western Pale Rider (1985) or Bertrand Tavernier’s French-American production In the Electric Mist (2009). Horror films and science fiction tales narrate the supernatural within their own frame of conventions. Vampires, werewolves and other creatures that haunt the cinema from its beginnings have been reborn in films addressing adolescent audiences. What points in common does Polidori’s Vampire have with Edward in the Twilight Saga films? And what links Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula to its predecessors or the latest update of the figure in the US television Dracula (2013-2014)? New readings of the vampire figure have also appeared in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (USA, 1994), Byzantium (UK/Ireland, 2012) or Jim Jarmush’s Only Lovers Left Alive (UK/Germany, 2013).

Angels and demons, zombies and aliens people the realm of the supernatural. Yet, the “other”, the unknown is not only expressed by photographed or computer animated characters. It may be an invisible threat, creating constant tension, as in The Blair Witch Project (1999). Phantoms or zombies and other creatures challenging normalcy can be seen as materializations of fear, as figures of individual and social crisis. The supernatural expressed through horror film devices and the recurrence to spirits may be linked to loss, grief and death, as in two very recent productions, David Keating’s Wake Wood (Ireland/UK, 2008), the first theatrical release from Hammer Films in 30 years and Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse (Ireland, 2008). The mourner, who is unable to overcome the death of a beloved person, is haunted by visions which the cinema materializes. Trauma, inner images and sensations are brought to the surface of the film. The fantastic may be experienced as a real presence by characters facing fear, guilt and grief. Once again, occultism and psychology are blended in a filmic discourse that relies on generic devices and aesthetics (like film noir in The Eclipse). In Spellbound (1945), psychiatric experience and surrealism are brought together to depict mental images, whereas one of the recent Hammer-productions, The Woman in Black (2012), the adaptation of a successful British play written in the eighties, but set in the Edwardian era, constantly reveals the psychological meaning behind the conventions of the horror genre.

The Eclipse and The Woman in Black are only two, recent samples of a variety of films which explore encounters between everyday life and the supernatural. In so doing, they attempt to deal with the complexities of past, present and future and reveal the extent to which film is able to overcome the boundaries of time and the constraints of realism. Just as the voice of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950), the voice of a dead man, may echo the magical power of film – or its power to allow the viewer to “suspend disbelief” – so the ghost of the protagonist’s dead wife in The Eclipse is a signifier of the abolition of boundaries. At a time of interest in the occult and realms beyond rationality, it would indeed be interesting to examine how “magical” thinking is integrated in film, not only in more recent Native American, Aboriginal or Maori films (Whale Rider, Nikki Caro, NZ/Germany, 2002), but in Jim Sheridan’s In America (Ireland/UK, 2002), for example, which blends Irish folklore with voodoo and contemporary New York society.

Select bibliography

Botting, Fred. Limits of Horror: Technology, Body, Gothic. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010.
Eisner, Lotte. The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. 2nd edition. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008.
Kovacs, Lee. The Haunted Screen: Ghosts in Literature and Film. New York, McFarland, 2005.
Lafond, Frank. Cauchemars américains: fantastique et horreur dans le cinéma. Liège, Céfal, 2003.
Morgan, Jane. The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film. Chicago, University of Southern Illinois, 2002.
Richardson, Michael. Surrealism and Cinema. Oxford, Berg, 2006.
Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. London, Faber & Faber, 2004.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca, NY, Cornell UP, 1975.