Saturday, February 05, 2005


The ghost stories that have made the biggest impression on me over the last decade or so (Sixth Sense, The Others, Haunted amongst others) are tales where the writer aims to mislead the audience about who is alive and who is dead. All three of these examples maintained their camouflage well right up to the end. This is a great way of constructing a thriller because it doesn't get you bogged down too much in the metaphysics, so sceptics can end up fairly entertained too.

was perhaps the best of all such films, because in the end the supernatural becomes superfluous - Hitchcock milked the form of the ghost story for all the suspense he can get, then delivered an ending that can be almost completely interpreted "rationally". Almost completely, because the turn of events remains quite spooky and fatalistic.

Taichi Yamada's Strangers is an interesting variation - a literally haunting representation of the loneliness of urban apartment dewellers which I can readily identify with right now. The author just about avoids falling into the same trap as several recent spooky stories (such as The Eye) where the suspense built up in the first half is squandered once the true nature and vocation of the supernatural threat is revealed.

At the end of the novel the characters agree that their minds probably weren't quite right, but as readers we are pretty sure there were real ghosts involved. Their principal 'victim', a 47 year old divorcee called Harada, had even conducted a bit of empirical research along the way by asking the apparitions of his parents to teach him a card game he knew he didn't know how to play!

Yamada is quite half-hearted about disguising his dead people. In one particular case Harada doesn't twig until the last few pages, but the reader would have to be fairly dense not to be on to this individual from quite early in the story.

The ghosts in Strangers are not especially spectral. The couple that look exactly like Harada's parents did when they died some 40 years previously appear to have moved with the times and are able to go to restaurants and interact with serving staff. There's only one instance of someone actually seeing through one of these apparitions and I rather thought this was an example of Yamada lacking the imagination to find another way to kick off the final act.

Perhaps the main reason why Asian ghosts are so fashionable these days is their basic ambivalence. In the European tradition (seen at its most kitsch in Ghost) the deceased have a simple bi-polar moral status - either they head towards the white light or those little black fingers start dragging them down! Japan's religiosity is a mix of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism (Can't resist another pair of AA Gill quotes here: "Modern Japanese people get born Shinto, married Christian, buried Buddhist and work Mazda." and "If religions were cars, Shinto would be a wheelbarrow.") and while spirits can be evil or good, Yamada takes the line that even apparently benign ghosts take a ghoulish toll on the living.

I DON'T believe in ghosts. At least I don't interpret them in exactly the way that my popular culture does. There are a number of reasons however why I think that paranormal phenomena should be the subject of an open mind, but not, as Richard Dawkins would say, a mind so open that the brain falls out.
  • Perhaps this is more of a hunch than a belief, but I have reached the conclusion that events 5 minutes ago, 50 years ago and 5000 years ago are equidistant from the present moment. Whatever Time is, it has no spacial geography.
  • I'm with Everett and Deutsch on Quantum Theory. Only a multiplicity of realities makes sense of the evidence.
  • At the particle level experimental evidence (the 'split beam/single photon experinment') apparently indicates the likelihood that matter can pass between these different realities.

So for these reasons I walk around with my brain hanging halfway out.

Personal immortality either in pain or bliss seems remarkably unlikely, but the idea that this very spot in spacetime is connected imperceptively to a billion others, and that some of these might just be more connected for, shall we say, aesthetic or contextual reasons, is an interesting notion that I'm not yet ready to surrender.

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