“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there,” Swiss philosopher Pascal Mercier wrote in his 2004 novel Night Train to Lisbon. Our homes shape our identity, and leaving home can be like leaving a part of ourselves. This idea is explored in the 2017 film A Ghost Story, written and directed by American filmmaker David Lowery.
A Ghost Story is about a couple living in a house in Texas. The wife wants to move, but the husband wants to stay. One day the man is killed in a car accident and turns into a ghost. As a ghost, he stays in the house and watches his wife—who does not know he is there—grieve for several weeks. Eventually, she moves from the house, as the always wanted to. Before she leaves, she writes a note and hides it in a gap in the wall. This is something she used to do as a child. ”When I was little and we used to move all the lime, I’d write these notes, and I would fold them up really small… and I would hide them in different places so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.” The ghost stays in the house, and lives there invisibly for several years, watching other families move in and out. Eventually, the house is demolished, and a skyscraper is built instead. When that happens, the ghost leaps from the top of the skyscraper, which transports him back in time to before the house was built. He then watches his past self and wife move into the house. He relives their relationship until his past self dies and the wife moves out. As the wife moves out, the ghost sees his earlier ghost watching her leave. He manages to retrieve the note from the wall, reads it, and vanishes.
In an interview, David Lowery explained that he got the idea for the film when he and his wife argued about moving. He started writing about his own ”attachment to physical spaces.” The house where the film takes place was chosen by Lowery because of its resemblance to the first house he lived in with his wife. Lowery decided to shoot the film in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 because he thought the boxiness of the aspect ratio was thematically appropriate for the film.
The film opens with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s short story A Haunted House: ”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” Woolf’s story is, similarly to Lowery’s film, a twist on the traditional haunted house. The two pages are about a woman who hears the ghosts of a dead couple that lived in her house earlier. The ghosts are searching for something, which turns out to be ”the light in the heart,” the beating heart of the woman as she lays beside her husband.
Both A Haunted House and A Ghost Story explore people’s emotional attachment to their homes. In environmental psychology, this phenomenon is called ”place attachment.” A study made by environmental psychologist Herbert W. Schroeder in 1991 showed that a person’s attachment to a place is highly linked to the thoughts, feelings, and memories evoked by that location. Thus two different people can have severely different emotions connected to a place depending on the experiences associated with it.
In A Ghost Story, it is clear from the start that the man has a strong bond with his home. He does not want to leave, but his wife wants to. She probably does not have the same attachment to the house. When the man dies, her decision to move is probably a combination of how the grief caused by his death is projected to the house, making the house a reminder of her loss, and her loose attachment to the place in the first place. Her act of moving can also be seen as a broader act of overcoming her grief, letting go of her dead husband and moving on with her life. Whereas the man/ghost finds this very difficult.
A 2001 study made by M. Carmen Hidalgo and Bernardo Hernandez shows that social attachment is greater than physical attachment. Our attachment to people is greater than our attachment to places, and our relationship to locations is highly linked to the people we associate with that place. Thus, the house in A Ghost Story is not only a building for the ghost. It is the only thing he has left of his past life. It is the only thing he has left of his wife. The house becomes a vessel for the memories of their relationship. This is why he becomes mad at the people moving into the house and starts to throw dishes. It is as if they are invading his memories, invading his past.
The ghost literally watches his life flash before his eyes. He relives his relationship with his wife. He is unable to let go and move on. And this is not surprising, as he has literally no life to move on with. His fear of letting go is not merely a fear of forgetting but a fear of being forgotten.
In one scene in the film, a man who has moved into the house holds a drunken speech about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of existence. He talks about humanity’s need to be remembered, using art as an example of both our personal legacies and collective memories. ”We build our legacy piece by piece, and maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people. But you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.” Then his speech takes an existential turn as he starts talking about how silly our preoccupation with being remembered is in the perspective of time and the age of the universe.”Your kids are gonna die. Yours too. Yours too … They’re all gonna die, and their kids will die, and so on, and so on. And then there’s gonna be one big-one big tectonic shift. Yosemite will blow and the western plates will shift, and the oceans will rise, the mountains will fall, and 90 percent of humanity will be gone.” Then he gives a sermon on the power of art for cultural growth: ”Mankind’s on the verge of being wiped out, but it keeps going a little bit longer because someone hears someone else hum a melody in a cave and the physics of it in their ear make them feel something other than fear or hunger or hate, and mankind carries on and civilization gets back on track.” But then he goes back to his pessimistic view of the pettiness of humanity compared to the ever-expanding universe.”Everything you’ve ever strived for, everything that you and some stranger. On the other side of the planet share with some future stranger on some entirely different planet without even knowing it, everything that ever made you feel big or stand up tall, it’ll all go. Every atom in this dimension… will be pulled apart by force as simple as… And then all these shredded particles will contract again… and… the universe is gonna suck itself back into a speck too small for any of us to see.”
This speech (which constitutes most of the film’s sparse dialogue) can be seen as a drunken summary of the film’s message, namely that our worries are worth nothing in the history of the universe, that we should let go of our petty concerns and sentimental attachments. It also highlights the importance of art, which is relevant in the film as the man/ghost is a musician. After his death, his wife listens to a song he has made as a way of remembering. His music becomes a symbol, similarly to their home, of their relationship.
A Ghost Story is undoubtedly one of the most unique films of 2017, and perhaps also one of the best.