David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ and the Horror of Existentialism

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One would think that a film lacking jump-scares, body violence, and hopeless heroines running from masked murderers, would deplete the horror within a movie. David Lowery’s 2017 supernatural drama A Ghost Story is proof that none of these elements are needed to send shivers down the spine.

This is a movie where the haunter becomes the haunted, where the paranormal ghost is wracked by time, by grief, by its own inability to move on.  For ninety-two minutes, Lowery encapsulates these dread-inducing side-effects of the human condition with a poignant, melancholic approach. The question is, how does A Ghost Story achieve its goal in creating horror whilst discarding all tropes of the typical scary movie?

From the very first moment, Lowery introduces us to the main premise of his movie: the human desire to live forever. Rooney Mara’s character starts with a brief description of the written notes and poems she used to leave behind as a child when she moved house so that there’d be ‘a piece of her there waiting’. This is a slice of information that leaves a bitter aftertaste in the mouth when, later on in the movie, Casey Affleck’s character desperately tries to reach the note that Mara leaves behind when she moves out, further linking to the theme of immortality and the inability to move on.

As there is such little dialogue within the movie, the moments of speech stand out as significant. When Will Oldham’s character, given no name except Prognosticator, gives a speech about the human condition to seek immortality, he concludes that we ‘build [our] legacy piece by piece’ to be remembered, but ‘everything that ever made you feel big or stand up small, it will all go’. Lowery’s melancholic message is clear and peppered throughout: all the pieces of ourselves that we leave behind when we die will be forgotten. It is clear that dialogue is not wasted, and as there is so little of it, the moments where characters do talk are heavy and significant in adding to the overall tone of the movie.

Here, it’s clear that Lowery’s brand of horror is grounded in existentialism rather than the terror of paranormal activities or things that go ‘boo!’ in the shadows. It is not only the script that incites despondency, but cinematography too: the image’s undersaturation adds a peaceful dullness quite like how one imagines death. Lowery’s decision to shoot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio comes with the intent to convey ‘claustrophobia’ as the ghostly character spends out all eternity ‘trapped in a box’. Lack of camera movement gives the movie a stillness that mirrors the unmoving nature of time, and the ghostly character’s inability to move on, further increasing the existential dread that Lowery so spectacularly utilises.

The editing is as quiet as the cinematography. One used to Hollywood spectacle may be apprehensive towards the sedated pacing of A Ghost Story. It reflects the stillness of death and time whilst capturing organic moments of life that are usually glossed over and ignored in Hollywood cinema – an element that allows grief to be presented in such a horrific manner. No doubt the seven-minute pie-eating scene is lacklustre to the average action-consuming-cinemagoer. However, showing the effects of loss in a pragmatic way leaves the spectator feeling like they are the one grieving, trying to fill up an emptiness left by the loss of a loved one by consuming a pie. 

Lowery’s unapologetic pacing here makes the audience feel as though they are peering into the most personal, intimate moments of the character’s life, constructing a realism that makes the terror of loss more profound. This intimacy is also experienced eight minutes in where, although the couple does nothing but fall asleep together, the realism created through the pacing causes the spectator to feel as though they are intruding on a highly private moment. This is in contrast to the impersonal quick cuts of regular Hollywood sex scenes which do not convey the real-life affinity of companionship. 

And it would be criminal to discuss the horror manufactured within A Ghost Story without mentioning the soundtrack. In a movie where so little dialogue is spoken, silence has a large impact (for example, during the scene where the couple falls asleep). Nevertheless, the film still relies heavily upon the soundtrack. Composer Daniel Heart achieves a momentous task in creating the score for A Ghost Story. He manages to capture the atmosphere of horrific existentialism in such a way that the soundtrack alone is enough to raise goosebumps.

In one of the most despairing scenes in which the phantom figure finds himself years into a dystopian future. His house turned into office blocks and the countryside view replaced by a dread-inducing urban landscape, Sciunt Se Esse Mortui (translated into English as ‘They Know They are Dead’) is played: a piece filled with haunting strings and Latin vocals that encapsulates stomach-curdling foreboding. Somehow, Daniel Heart creates a soundtrack that makes you feel like you’re dying.

If you are willing to sit through a slow-paced movie, if you are willing to subject yourself to existential terror, then you should watch A Ghost Story. Every element of its film form is beautiful: the cinematography is beautiful, the screenplay genius, the editing loaded with meaning and the soundtrack a work of art. It is a horror movie of a different sort – one that will stay in your thoughts long after the credits have rolled.

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