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Movie Review: Ghost

Reviewed by Protopresbyter David Cownie

Directed by Tony Goldwyn. Starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg (1990).

Webmaster Note: Although this film is almost ten years old, Fr. David kindly agreed to review it for the Orthodox Christian Information Center because it was such a "hit" movie, and entirely about one couple's experience with death and the future life. It was a huge box office draw and is still talked about today. His excellent observations can certainly be applied to many other movies since then... 

"Ghost" is a very engaging film. It presents a view of the after-life which is a mixture of fact and fancy. When compared to the Orthodox understanding of what happens to a soul when separated from the body, there are a number of elements in the film which are accurate and a number which are false. These elements in and of themselves pose no great problem for a believer. What is problematic is the overall thrust of the film.

Here we are confronted by a complete absence of the concept of virtue. There are "good" people and "bad" people. When "bad" people die, like murderers and embezzlers, their souls come out of their bodies and within seconds horrible dark shapes ooze up from the ground with growls and snarls and convey the hapless wretch screaming to the nether regions. This is, in fact, an accurate and wholly Orthodox approach. There are dozens of accounts in the stories of the Desert Fathers and various lives of Saints which support this. So even in the 1990’s, it is possible to truthfully depict the fate of an evil person. The problem lies with how we define a "good" one.

In the film, the hero is murdered in tragic circumstances. After being shot in a struggle with a mugger, he suddenly finds himself outside himself looking at his girlfriend holding his bloody and dying body. The shock and disbelief are properly portrayed as is the fact of him being there watching himself die. This experience of coming out of the body has been well documented at all periods of Church history up to the present time. We see a beam of light open, and then close for the hero, Sam, leaving him stranded here on earth. He finds other souls in the same circumstance throughout the city as he moves through the story. What we do not understand is what makes Sam so much better than the other unfortunates who were dragged to Hell. After all, he and his girlfriend were cohabiting. They were both engaged in material pursuits which had no reference to God. They were quintessential "yuppies" of this generation who sought and were obtaining material success while completely ignoring their souls. They did not seek to harm anybody, nor did they seek to serve anyone—even one another. They were simply "nice" people. The problem with "nice" is that it is a very long way from "good."

Herein lies the real problem of this film. Niceness is the measure of virtue rather than virtue itself. It is my guess that the screenwriter would be hard-pressed to define virtue. After all, there really was no reason this couple couldn’t have been married. It had nothing to do with the plot, nor would it have in any way weakened the bond between the couple and their pain at separation. In fact, having the couple happily married would have only made those bonds stronger and the emotional power of the film greater. Instead, the writer decided to denigrate marriage by equating the selfish "love" of a cohabiting couple with the truly spiritual bond made in deeply committed marriage. This was dishonest and is harmful for teen-age viewers, who are struggling with their passions and only looking for any excuse to act on them. This film encourages such destructive behavior by confusing genuine love with the selfish fulfillment of one’s passions.

Another problem with the film is the promotion of spiritism and mediumism. The medium of the film, played by Whoopi Goldberg, is portrayed honestly enough as a sham and a fake. Most mediums are. She and her sisters call on Jesus as most mediums do. However, sometimes they are surprised, even as this character is, when "somebody" actually shows up. [For a more complete study of spiritism, I suggest that the reader consult Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, by Father Seraphim Rose.] Who that "somebody" is is the real question. According to the Orthodox Church, human souls are not left to wander aimlessly in this plane. For one thing, it is dangerous, because this realm belongs to the demons. When a person dies who is not completely evil, the soul is escorted by angels during the three days or so that it remains here before the funeral to protect it from demonic attack. In the film, a light shines down and then recedes, leaving Sam to wander haplessly throughout the city. There are no angels or guides to help him, only other stranded souls who have a little more experience. But demons never seem to be around at all, except to drag people away. Sam is allowed to speak to the medium and she hears what he says. This is a confirmation of spiritism which misleads the audience into believing human souls speak to and through mediums instead of demons. But a spiritist’s seance is a place where the demons regularly gather and have fun with the unfortunates who submit to them. The film even demonstrates spirit possession of the medium, but again falsely claiming the "spirits" to be human souls instead of demons. This sort of misinformation can only confuse and delude people into believing the spiritist gospel, especially the young.

But the saddest part of this film lies in the complete ignorance of spiritual life found in the bereaved girl. In the film, she actually says, "I don’t believe in an after-life." This is sadly a very realistically drawn character for this age. Because of the failure of all of the mainline American churches in Christianity to present a coherent and factual construct of what happens after death, many millions of people in this culture share this poor character’s dilemma. The absence of prayer and consolation for the bereaved found in this film is all the sadder because of this lack of information. There is absolutely no assurance being given of that Living Hope for which all believers order their lives in such a way as to prepare their souls for death. Such preparation is not even considered in many cases. Funerals are often antiseptic affairs which deny both the presence of the deceased and the power of prayer. Prayer for the dead has been so completely extinguished from this society by Protestant influence, that even believers are often left feeling empty and are denied the comfort that prayer for the Dead gives the human soul.

One of the most powerful components of the Orthodox faith is the revelation of the continuity of life after departing from the body. All of the various memorials and services offered up for the deceased give the bereaved a direct connection to the next world and serve to remind us all of the interconnectedness of the spirit world with our own. Two hundred years of rationalism have effectively removed any official acknowledgment of the spirit world from this society. Spiritism and other so-called "New Age" ideas have moved in to fill the spiritual void which resulted from the suppression of the Orthodox understanding of death and dying. The emptiness of the girl in this film was a tragic portrait of the vapid help offered by the Christian churches in these times. One can fault Hollywood for distorting such ideas as death and dying and the spirit world. But the real fault lies with the modern leaders of Christianity as a whole for leaving this topic so completely ignored.