‘Ghost Stories’: Movie asks us to dig deeper into fear and ourselves

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

The above is an often paraphrased quote by German philosopher, economist, historian, and political theorist, Karl Marx. The idea behind the notion is that people, often those dealing with struggle, sometimes hold onto other-worldly thoughts and non-scientific explanations to deal with their obstacles, as opposed to facing them head on. It’s the idea that people use ideas that cannot be proven or disproven to blunt the sharp edge of pain and suffering, taking solace in the idea that there’s something greater than themselves that justifies their situation.

The new horror film Ghost Stories plays on this same idea, using the phrase “The brain sees what it wants to see” as a central theme in this anthology of creepy tales that explore fear, supernatural happenings, and ultimately the purpose of human existence. It’s a good old-fashioned campfire horror movie. If the audience is not careful, they could come away with a message that goes deeper than your run-of-the-mill scary story—although that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

This British movie is co-directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, adapted from their stage play. It stars Nyman, who plays lead character Professor Phillip Goodman. Goodman is a man who, raised in a strict, religious, and dysfunctional Jewish household, has made it his personal goal to dispel the idea of the paranormal, and expose those who claim to be psychics. He does this through his popular TV show, “Psychic Cheats,” in which he unmasks a variety of so-called mediums and ghost investigators as frauds.

Paul Whitehouse (Corpse Bride, Alice Through the Looking Glass), Alex Lawther (Goodbye Christopher Robin) and Martin Freeman (Black Panther, The Hobbit) serve in key supporting roles.

Goodman’s journey into questioning everything he’s ever believed (or rather has not believed) begins when he goes to visit his childhood hero, 1970s paranormal investigator Charles Cameron. Cameron has been missing for decades and is now living, sick and in poverty, in a van. Goodman’s fallen hero asks him to investigate three incidents of supposedly real supernatural ghost sightings. From there we are treated to three different ghost stories, Goodman faced with figuring out if everything he believed in has been a lie.

In an ever growingly desensitized world, where blood, sex, and gore are constant features on our movie screens (and increasingly in our political sector), Ghost Stories is a fresh breath of subtle horror and creepiness that allows the audience to reach deep into their own psyche to figure out what might be going bump in the night. The film uses old-school horror of dark corners, eerie music, and the unseen but feared, to play on the viewers’ imagination.

It also uses nuanced characters and light humor to go a little bit further than a shallow frightfest. Themes of xenophobia, immigration, anti-Semitism, and what faith actually does for a person, all make appearances in the movie. Those themes aren’t explicitly developed, but hints of them help to add this entry to the smarter, intellectually probing pile of horror films that we’ve seen emerge into the mainstream in the past year or so—such as Get Out.

The one drawback in the movie, perhaps purposeful, was the lack of women characters. The women in the film were often relegated to voiceless, one-dimensional, sometimes faceless, and other times vague shadows. The writers may have aimed to highlight how often women are relegated to the back when it comes to religion and superstition. One of Goodman’s main memories in the film deals with his strict religious father throwing his sister out of the family for dating an Asian man. The audience only sees this in flashbacks, and Goodman’s sister is only seen and not heard. But it’s clear the treatment of his sister is something that haunts and influences the professor’s dislike of religion.

Standout performances from Freeman and Nyman drive key points in the movie, while a delightfully morbid twist at the end makes the film resonate and entertain. Overall Ghost Stories is a quality product that asks the viewer to look inside of themselves for what they fear, and what that may relate to in their own lives. Our baggage and hangups can haunt us like ghosts or poltergeists, and Goodman’s journey is a telling example. The brain can indeed see what it wants to see—and also ignore what it chooses to. Ghost Stories dares the viewer to not ignore, but to engage with the darker parts of ourselves, and our biases, in a spine-tingling way.

Ghost Stories premiered at the London Film Festival in 2017, and was released in the UK on April 6, 2018, by Lionsgate. Its U.S. premiere is April 20.

The trailer can be seen here.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.