For the visual effects artist, there are few challenges more blood-curdling than that of putting ghosts on the screen. Why is it so scary a task? Because there’s a powerful argument to say you shouldn’t see the ghosts at all.
Take The Haunting. In the original 1963 version of this classic ghost story (adapted from Shirley Jackson’s seminal novel The Haunting of Hill House), there’s not a spirit in sight. Nevertheless, thanks to a clever screenplay by Nelson Gidding and masterful direction by Robert Wise, the film is terrifying. Restless camerawork, sharp editing and sound design, plus a light scattering of practical special effects (a bedroom door buckles as an unseen presence presses against it; a spiral staircase closes up like a telescope) all crank up the tension to snapping point.
Now consider the 1999 remake, with its full-frame phantoms and in-your-face ectoplasm. A whole host of ghostly goings-on play out right before your eyes, leaving nothing to the imagination. The result is an overblown mess that’s distinctly short on scares. Which version do I prefer?
I think you can guess.
One of the first ghosts to materialise on the silver screen appeared in The Mistletoe Bough. In this 1904 adaptation of a traditional tale, an unfortunate bride accidentally locks herself in a trunk during a game of hide-and-seek on her wedding day. Years later, the trunk is opened and her skeletal remains are discovered.
Towards the end of Percy Stowe’s nine-minute film, the distraught groom has a close encounter with the ghost of his dead bride, who promptly fades to nothing in his embrace. The camera trick responsible for this effect should be transparent (pun intended) to anyone with a working knowledge of lap dissolves. What’s startling is how effective the illusion remains even after 110 years.
Stowe’s disappearing bride established a golden rule for movie ghosts: they look just like ordinary people, until some critical juncture in the narrative where they fade from view. Pick any film from Topper to The Fog and you’ll find the rule applies (with a few exceptions, of course).
Then, in the 1980s, filmmakers began to explore more fully the ghostly potential of visual effects. Remember all those wispy wraiths from Ghostbusters, Poltergeist and Raiders of the Lost Ark? They were all the result of clever composites, artful animation, and that thing I call the “silk-in-a-cloud-tank” look. Nor had the old lap dissolve illusion been forgotten, just refined with films like Ghost, for which ILM combined on-set motion control with some neat optical wipes to create the illusion that poor old Sam Wheat really was on another astral plane.
But is seeing the ghost ever truly scary? If real horror is psychological, isn’t it always more effective to use other cinematic tricks like editing and sound to give your audience the heebie-jeebies? Until recently, my answer has always been, “Yes! Less is most definitely more!” But one filmmaker has convinced me that sometimes it really is good to see dead people. His name is Guillermo del Toro.
Take The Devil’s Backbone. I first watched this stunning film on my own at home, late at night, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. Not only does del Toro’s heartbreaking tale hit all the classic ghost story beats, it also serves up one of cinema’s most memorable spooks in the form of Santi, the drowned boy. Santi’s unsettling appearance – a concoction of cracked porcelain skin, animal eyes and barely-seen bones, all enveloped in a drifting miasma of mote-filled blood and water – is a subtle combination of make-up by DDT, and digital enhancement and animation by Telson.
A few years later, Del Toro was executive producer on Andrés Muschietti’s Mama. With its uneven pacing, the film’s not as polished a piece as The Devil’s Backbone, but it too delivers an unforgettable spectre in the form of the titular Mama, a twitching, deformed phantom with a tragic past.
The character of Mama was brought to life by French contortionist Javier Botet, who’s seven feet tall and suffers from a connective tissue disorder called Marfan syndrome, which allows him to move his body in extraordinary ways. Botet’s performance was enhanced by DDT’s prosthetics and digitally manipulated by Toronto-based Mr. X Inc. under the supervision of Aaron Weintraub.
Santi and Mama are both examples of ghosts that couldn’t have been put on screen before the modern age of visual effects. While solidly driven by actors’ performances, they rely on digital delicacy and finesse to bring them to life. Uh, I mean death. Ghosts are fragile things, you see, and just one wrong breath can collapse them into a cloud of vapour.
They also represent two very different approaches to visualising the spirit world. While Santi is centred and still, Mama is the embodiment of chaos. Yet my reaction to both these ghosts was the same. Their appearance raised my heart rate and brought me out in gooseflesh. And the visual effects did what every good illusion should do.
They made me believe my eyes.
In Curt Siodmak’s 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain, the protagonist Dr Cory resists the mind-mangling influence of the disembodied cerebellum by reciting the following tongue-twister:
He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts
So how about you? Do you insist on seeing the ghosts? Do you like your spooks screeching into the camera lens in all their ghastly, gory glory? Or should the spirits remain resolutely off-screen? And just what does a ghost look like anyway? A mangled animatronic corpse? Your favourite actor dusted lightly with talcum powder? Or an undulating combination of cloth and fluid sims deep-comped into a mist-shrouded graveyard?
Everyone has a favourite phantom. What’s yours?