Home » Ghost Stories Relies on Jump Scares to Spice Up a Preachy, Boring Riff on Dickens

Ghost Stories Relies on Jump Scares to Spice Up a Preachy, Boring Riff on Dickens

Ghost Stories follows Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman), an atheist who has dedicated his life to debunking paranormal phenomenon. His hero, Dr. Charles Cameron, had done similar work before disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Cameron reaches out from close to the grave to give Phillip a message about life: Goodman should spend more time with his family. Also, ghosts are real and he has three cases that Goodman won’t be able to solve. 

The first section is by far the scariest. Goodman meets Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a night watchmen, in a bar. Having the principal character as a guard is excellent because it satisfies the question of why that idiot is investigating the strange noises. Tony had to because it was his job. As he creeps through the abandoned asylum, directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman pepper the audience with jump scares to great effect and strange sets. It’s knuckle bitingly scary. 

The main criticism of modern horror is that it’s only jump scares. Typically, that’s untrue. Even in big studio productions like The Conjuring, which has a ton, there are innovations and inversions. It plays games with viewers, teasing jump scares where there aren’t any and having jump scares without builds. The Conjuring uses them as a tool to elicit a shocked reaction from an audience and put them on edge for the mythology. And there is a mythology—if not a full explanation, a suggestion for why this is happening to these people at this time.

In Ghost Stories it’s only the jump scares. There’s no attempt to draw out a logic to any of the three stories other than what the viewers already believe. And what’s worse is that after the first section, it feels like the scares are being repeated. Fool me once, and I’m inoculated the second time.

The film is steeped in classic ghost story reference. It alludes to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic scary story, “Young Goodman Brown” with the Professor’s name. The film’s structure, which sees Goodman try to debunk three separate ghost stories, is a play on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

It’s inverted, so rather than three different ghosts coming to visit Goodman, he visits three people who have encountered the supernatural. A Christmas Carol has each of the ghosts try to convince Scrooge to pay his employees a living wage. In Ghost Stories, every person he talks to, starting with Cameron, finds a way to comment on how Goodman is alone in the world. They keep saying, without elaborating as to why, that Goodman should give up this whole paranormal debunking business (his life’s work) and start a family. The movie opens with a home video recording that  shows how Goodman became mostly estranged from his family. The whole thing is very preachy. 

Worse though is the other character’s insistence that career and family are at odds. It’s strange, not in the unsettling way that horror movies are supposed to be, but in the way a passenger on a crowded bus offering you life advice is strange. Dickens can be preachy because he’s addressing issues of life and death and he’s a master prose stylist. Dyson and Nyman are addressing issues that baby boomers complain about when they’re talking about how millennials are ruining everything and they’re not master filmmakers.

It’s in line with the movie’s family values message that women are only represented as crying mothers begging psychics for contact with their dead children, handicapped past the point of speaking, or dead themselves. There are so few living women in the film that viewers may wonder if it’s set in an alternate dimension where there are nearly no women in England. If it is, Ghost Stories doesn’t address the fact that only one living woman has a speaking role.  

It ends with a nonsensical twist as the frame story implodes on itself. It turns everything the viewer has seen up until that point on its head. In this case it’s most certainly not a good thing. A twist needs to be set up. Without the tracks laid, it’s just a lie. Ghost Stories starts strong before coming apart at the seams.

Director(s): Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
Writer(s): Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
Stars: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman
Release date: April 20, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Warp Films, Lionsgate
Language: English
Length: 98 minutes

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Written by Ryan C. Bradley
Ryan C. Bradley (he/him) has published work in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Dark Moon Digest, Daikaijuzine, and other venues. His first book, Saint's Blood, is available from St. Rooster Books now! You can learn more about him at: ryancbradleyblog.wordpress.com.
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