GHOST STORIES – When Revelation Undercuts Execution

Spoilers ahead for the 2017 film Ghost Stories, as well as a handful other films that share its big twist.

I can’t remember the last time a plot twist in a short story, film, television series or novel truly startled me. Surely some “unpredictable” twist must have had an impact on me in recent years, but I can’t think of one at the moment. I’ve enjoyed–even loved–plenty of other movies that featured a twist, but the twist is rarely near the top of the reasons why most stories stand out to me. That leads me to believe that the plot twist, one of the most deliciously irresistible devices available in any writer’s toolbox, is mildly overrated. Not bad, just not the thing that ought to be the most important element of a story in most cases.

I recently revisited a film that featured a twist that I found underwhelming, 2017’s Ghost Stories. Based on a well-regarded play of the same name, Ghost Stories received plenty of critical praise as it made its rounds through the festival circuit. While its twist was never discussed in effusive terms, it was sold as a positive point pretty consistently. Not to be the arbitrary contrarian, as I did like the film, but I actually think the twist is easily the weakest element of the movie.

The premise of the film is that a famous supernatural skeptic meets with his idol in the same field of skepticism (who mysteriously vanished years earlier), and is tasked with investigating three cases that the older, more famous skeptic claims he couldn’t disprove. This setup is revealed to be at least a little bit flawed fairly early on, as our protagonist, Professor Phillip Goodman, isn’t actively “investigating” these cases at all,  just interviewing people who tell him a story about supernatural experience they had. “Disproving” an anecdote that is founded on an unscientific belief is sort of a redundancy. If you met with a scientist and told them to disprove your story of the time you fought beside Thor in an enchanted forest where you helped him defeat the Loch Ness Monster, said scientist’s entire counterargument might be, “No you didn’t.” Given this hole in the core idea of the story, you might expect that there’s  more at play here than meets the eye, and you’d be right. But that “more” isn’t particularly interesting; certainly not as interesting as the simple trio of stories Professor Goodman hears about.

Let’s cut to bone here: the stories told to Goodman are in-universe proven fictional only because they’re manifestations of a locked-in mind. In the end, we’re let in on a secret that the movie hasn’t led us to, despite the breadcrumbs dotted throughout: Professor Goodman is dead, and all of these stories–as well as the encounter with his idol–are basically products of his not-quite-dying dreams and nightmares, born in part from a regretful incident from his youth.

It’s an ending that has shown up in movies in some fashion or another since at least as far back as Carnival of Souls, and is perhaps more famously the big reveal of the film Jacob’s Ladder. Smaller and/or lesser-known works such as Dead End, Sublime or the Ryan Gosling vehicle Stay also feature this revelation, and that’s just a handful of stories where the dying dream or some variant turns out to be the big twist. I think it’s such a popular go-to because it’s an easy way to “explain”–or, more accurately, write-off–the inexplicable. That’s also why it’s my second-least favorite “surprise” explanation of any mystery behind “Aliens did it.”

Of course, in some cases it actually works well. In Jacob’s Ladder, for instance, it’s actually a key component of the story, not something that just makes everything that came before it pointless. Carnival of Souls gets grandfathered into good graces, being one of the earliest film examples of such a twist. Also, it legitimately tries to present what the lead goes through as being dreamlike–not, merely, “strange”–before the reveal. Other, lesser examples appear to deploy this twist in order to write themselves out of a corner, or to give themselves a “Get Away With Anything, Who Cares, It’s a Dream” writing pass before they type the first letter on page one.

I find it much more satisfying if a supernatural story just settles on the idea that some of what it has presented can’t be explained. Here’s a fun fact: we still don’t 100% understand the biological requirement of sleep. It’s something every human and animal does, and we understand that deleterious health effects result from failing to get enough sleep, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about it. And if scientists are comfortable stating they still completely understand something as natural and universal as sleep, I’m comfortable with a writer presenting the idea that something preternatural can’t be completely understood and explained. Or even 2% understood and explained. Ghost Stories would have had a more gratifying conclusion if it went that route, rather than trying to wedge in an overused “explanation” that just diminishes the value of everything that precedes it.

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Fortunately, Ghost Stories’ ending isn’t ruinous. All that precedes it does still hold considerable value, mostly because of the craftsmanship on display when each story builds toward its most frightening element. It’s a lavish exercise in building suspense and tension, injecting levity that can then be used against the audience to magnify the scares, playing with expectations and marrying various types of visual effects to add optical spice to a nightmarish moment. The stories themselves aren’t all that interesting on paper: a night watchman encounters a ghost, a young man has a run-in with the Devil, another man deals with a poltergeist alone in his house. Those summaries aren’t missing any vital details really. But the performances and filmmaking make them all more compelling than they have any right to be. It’s actually quite remarkable.

The final sequence actually is interesting on paper, however, at least up until the moment of the big reveal. When our protagonist returns to his mentor to sort of state the obvious, that none of these anecdotal accounts are even on the “disprovable” spectrum, the world around him begins to fracture and deteriorate in earnest. Whereas the stories were starting to wear on him and make him hallucinate before, this final confrontation sends him hurtling through a reality without consistency or logic. It’s the first and only dreamlike sequence in the film, and it’s glorious. Then it leads him to the scene of a personal failure that has plagued him since boyhood and it’s a truly harrowing scene, brief as it is. And then the nightmare returns, giggling madly as it drags him, weeping and pleading, down a white hall, toward something he seems to have suffered through more than once before. Something he dreads immensely. We feel it. It’s disturbing and engrossing and pulse-hastening…

And then it turns out to be a fucking hospital bed. And as the staff come in and out of the room we see that they all have the faces of people from the story. Various things around his actual real world environment informed everything that happened for the previous 90-plus-minutes. None of that was real, you see, which, of course it wasn’t. It’s a horror film about ghosts and haunted houses and shit, not They Will Never Grow Old. I don’t need the loose ends tied up if it means securing them with an old, reused twist tie that doesn’t have the strength to keep them all together anyway. I’d rather see the lead get dragged through a door that leads into a colorfully warped version of outer space for no reason other than to keep the visual feast going, and then just roll credits, than see the movie conclude with a “realistic” explanation that’s actually just a more grounded brand of speculation.

In other words, I’d rather see the actual ending of Mandy than an ending where it turns out Nic Cage was just suffering a dying hallucination the whole time. I’d even rather Ghost Stories had cut itself short while the character is still being dragged down the hallway–just cut to black, Sopranos finale style–than see the denouement it delivered, which undercut its potential to be a minor classic.