Giving Up The Ghost
by Chiron O'Keefe
I had a sneaking suspicion October was close when I switched off the air conditioner and nudged up the heater. Sure enough, yesterday rain danced in while a chilly wind puffed autumn leaves into the air. Brrr…. When I cracked open my door, the crisp scent of Fall reminded me of one of my October traditions. Ghost Stories!
First… Cue up The Movie.
Second… Turn down the lights.
Third… Pour a steaming mug of cocoa or perhaps a deliciously dark glass of cabernet.
Fourth… Grab a fuzzy blanket to cuddle under.
Finally… Snatch up the remote with a trembling hand and hit play.
Let the screaming begin!
Now, let me own up to My Big Embarrassing Confession. I am a true 'horror-movie' wimp. That's right. I've never seen Halloween (numbers 1-67) or Friday the Umpteenth. After the terrifying night that I viewed The Night of The Living Dead at Age Ten, I swore off all zombie films (well-except of course for Shaun of The Dead, but who could resist that?). However, one genre I still adore is The Ghost Story.
Still, I'm old-fashioned. I prefer psychological inference to buckets of blood. Barring that, spine-tingling laughs tickle my fancy, that is, provided no limbs are ripped off in the process.
My love for ghosts began as a toddler, with a sweet cartoon starring the unforgettable
Casper the Friendly Ghost.
I so adored this amiable, floating blob of ectoplasm that when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was instant: "I want to be a ghost!" A friendly one, I'm assuming.
Most of my earliest movies were caught years after the release on our little black & white television (which may explain my fondness for classic movies too!). My grandpa though loved the drive-in theater, so when lucky enough to fly cross-country for a visit, I basked in the original Big Screen from the comfort of his car. That's where I caught a silly movie called, The Spirit is Willing.
Directed by William Castle, who scored hits with star Vincent Price in both The Tingler and The House on Haunted Hill, the 1968 flick was a strange mix of comedy horror. A couple and their teenage son rent a seaside house in New England which turns out to be haunted by three ghosts. Silly but fun, the movie fueled my already over-active imagination.
Back home, (and back to squinting at the tiny screen on the black & white television), I caught a hilariously goofy movie I still adore today: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.
Released in 1966, this delightful film stars Don Knotts as Luther Heggs, aspiring reporter for his local newspaper. Unfortunately his temperament is more suited to type-setting than reporting but hope springs eternal. When the twenty-year anniversary for the famous murder-suicide at the old Simmons mansion rolls around, Luther is maneuvered into agreeing to spend the night in the spooky old house. What a hoot! Naturally, Luther's shaking, quaking self is subjected to chilling screams, a trap-door, and the ominous rendition of organ music, the keys stained with blood from the murderer now played by a ghostly hand. All of the events leading to Luther discovering the lovely portrait of the original victim, now with blood trails from the garden shears stabbed in her throat!
Of course, there's mystery and mayhem, giggles and guffaws from the wacky 'paranormal' society ladies who Absolutely Believe and the skeptical reporter (the handsome rival for the affections of the heroine that Luther pines for) who dismisses the whole thing. Naturally, there's more than meets the eye and nothing is as it seems. This light-hearted movie is a true Halloween treat for families.
Another tame yet engaging ghost story is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Adapted for television in 1968, the original 1947 movie is wonderful. Starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, the movie is set in 1900 when a young widow moves into a haunted cottage by the sea. Instead of fearing, she welcomes the ghost and forms a unique bond with the deceased Captain Gregg.
Mixing light suspense, romance, drama and fantasy, the flick also touches on women's roles in society. When the heroine, for example, authors a seafaring book and offers it to a publisher, it's assumed to be fluff. Women's literature is not highly regarded at the time. When the book appeals, it's then thought the true author is most likely her husband. The story is much deeper than the premise first suggests. It's been many years since I've enjoyed this flick and now I'm thinking it's time to add it to my queue.
Hopefully the appetizers have helped work up an appetite for a truly satisfying ghost story. For now I present the main dish with not one but two tasty entrees.
We'll start with the lighter dish and finish with a dash of terror. First, The Uninvited. Produced in 1944, this movie is a classic ghost story. Just enough chills to make you wonder and an intriguing story to keep you entertained. The plot goes like this.
A brother, Ray Milland, and sister, Ruth Hussey, stumble upon an abandoned seaside house on the English coast. The sister is immediately enchanted by the mansion, though strangely enough, her little dog, Bobby, is terrified of the upstairs and flees in short order. They decide to buy the gothic house and within short order Strange Happenings Occur.
The story weaves romance and some comedy but the main focus is the ghost which at times seems benevolent and even loving, and other times truly menacing. There's a séance, a terrible secret, and the potential of driving the daughter (whose mother apparently died in the house) to a suicidal plunge over the requisite high and dangerous cliff.
This one gives enough of a chill to warrant a satisfying shiver so turn down the lights and prepare to wonder what indeed goes bump in the night.
For me the all-time best ghost story is still The Haunting. My fondness for spell-binding movies that keep you guessing is revealed with more recent favorites like The Sixth Sense and
The original movie, The Haunting, proves definitively that gratuitous violence isn't a necessary ingredient for a truly scary experience. Based on the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the 1963 movie stars the amazing Claire Bloom and Julie Harris as participants in a study of an haunted house.
Dr. John Marway is conducting research to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts. Hill House, with its lurid history of violence, insanity and gruesome death, is the perfect laboratory for his experiment. He sends out invitations to a small group, of which only two respond, a clairvoyant named Theodore (Julie Harris), and a sad, insecure spinster, Eleanor, (Claire Bloom) who seizes the opportunity to escape her boring and oppressive existence at her married sister's home. Being the unmarried daughter, Eleanor was forced to be the caretaker of their elderly, invalid mother whose death haunts her conscience.
An elderly woman also died at Hill House, while her young nurse frolicked with a male companion. Eleanor's empathic and psychic potential is magnified by her identification with the guilt and fear surrounding the old lady's death.
This movie is truly a nail-biter. Hailed as one of the true classic ghost stories, even those who don't blink at the 'buckets of blood' movies swear they jumped out of their seats at least once. Claire Bloom embodies the anguished soul of Eleanor so completely, the scene where she comforts Theo (I won't reveal the twist) will most certainly freak you out.
It Begins: Dr. John Markway: [voice-over] An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there... walked alone.
Now, tell me, as we creep up to All Hallows' Eve, are there any ghost stories that haunt your nights? Do share!
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