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Mary Robinette Kowal – Ghost and Beetlejuice Debate Facts of Afterlife

Ghost and Beetlejuice Debate Facts of Afterlife” width=”560″/>

Of all the landscapes in cinema, there’s one over which fantasy has almost exclusive domain: Death. What happens after we die is a subject we find ourselves eternally fascinated with, and it’s a question only a bit of surreality can hope to answer. Not surprisingly, each fantasy movie has its own theories about the afterlife. In presenting them, fantasy allows us to examine the darker and lighter sides of the human condition.

One of the more popular presentations of death is in the form of spirits who have not yet crossed over into the spirit world. Ghost (1990), for example, is the classic tale of a person who clings to the remnants of life because of unfinished business. Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) and his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) have a great relationship aside from one tiny thing: Sam won’t say “I love you.” Still, all is well until he dies. Light comes to gather him for the afterlife, but he runs. What’s interesting is that this implies that the dead have a certain amount of choice as to their fate — it’s limited, but free will still remains. Sam even learns to interact with the world, manipulating objects and possessing Whoopi Goldberg long enough to say good-bye — and, of course, “I love you.”

Compare Ghost with The Sixth Sense (1999), which also plays with the idea of unfinished business. In this case, the dead don’t seem to know of their condition, nor can they see any other dead people. They also translate into the spirit world exactly as they are at the time of death: Horrific burns? Check. Nasty head wound? Check. Without Ghost‘s kind of free will, they are stuck in a hellish existence until someone can help them resolve their business. This does not seem like a good post-death system to me. After all, who decides when the business is complete?

In Beetlejuice (1988), we get the other end of the administrative spectrum. Again, dead people have to stick around, but the rules are very clearly laid out in the Handbook for the Recently Deceased: The ghosts can’t leave their area of haunting without going into a desert world infested with sandworms; they must haunt their house for 125 years; they even have a caseworker to help them adapt to their newly dead status. The system is clear and rigid, allowing the dearly departed to somewhat enjoy their status, sometimes with a rousing round of Day-O.

The Others (2001) also deals with the co-habitation of the living and the dead. Part of what is interesting in this view of death is that time is very fluid for the dead and does not align perfectly with that of the living. The dead also cannot see the living with any more ease than the living can see the dead. Set during World War II, this movie takes advantage of the historical Spiritualist movement, and uses that as a mechanism through which the veil between worlds is parted. Up to that point, it was believed the living and the dead occupied two different worlds that only occasionally brushed.

What Dreams May Come (1998) may be one of the most visually evocative examples of death in fantasy, and one of the few to follow its ghosts entirely out of the mortal realm. Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) experiences death in three forms: He survives the death of his children and lives with their metaphoric ghosts, he is himself killed and becomes a ghost haunting his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra), and he experiences “paradise.” The guardian spirits that help him settle into his afterlife explain that each spirit decides its own fate. His wife, tortured by guilt, has chosen to create her own hell; he has chosen to bring her out of it. The fascinating thing about Chris’ dealings with death is that they become a metaphor for life. Our own perceptions of the world can trap us in a living torment as easily as Annie’s trap her in a dead one.

As different as these movies seem, they all betray the same fears: That we will leave things undone, that we will be unable to connect with anyone else. They also reveal our primal fear of the unknown. True, some present it as torture and others present it as song and dance, but when you get down to the heart of each movie, the characters are doing what people have always done: Trying to make sense of life.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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