What Lies Beneath Ghost Stories

Has our once-fearless writer Joe Queenan finally watched one too many-ghost stories, or is he really being haunted by the freakish ghouls from What Lies Beneath, Stir of Echoes, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow and The Haunting. We're not sure, but we know he won't be taking any more pot shots at Patrick Swayze.

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Not long ago, an English magazine asked me to write a story about the spare of ghost movies that have appeared in the past year and a half. I did not actually write the story, because the money was insulting, but I did spend roughly 15 minutes thinking about the subject. In the end, I realized that What Lies Beneath, The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes, Sleepy Hollow, The Haunting and a number of lesser films all had one thing in common: each dealt with the exploits of recalcitrant dead people who could not possibly go to their eternal resting place until they had tied up all the loose ends here on planet Earth.

Whether it was the drowned coed prompting Michelle Pfeiffer to avenge her murder in What Lies Beneath, or the Headless Horseman hoping to be reunited with his severed noggin in Sleepy Hollow, or the dead girl with proof of who poisoned her in The Sixth Sense, or the dead children in The Haunting struggling to get Liam Neeson to stop looking at Catherine Zeta-Jones's butt long enough to avenge them, or the raped, suffocated teen in Kevin Bacon's house seeking to bring her killers to justice in Stir of Echoes, all these movies were animated by the same thesis--redemption was only possible through retribution. The circle had to be closed.

In each of these cases, the filmmaker sought to depict a world where life was invested with some larger meaning and death was not random, demeaning, pointless, or, for that matter, final. It struck me as odd that anyone living and working in Los Angeles could possibly subscribe to such an Anne of Green Gablesian philosophy, particularly after the untimely, capricious, undignified demises of River Phoenix, Nicole Brown Simpson and Sonny Bono--not to mention the Holocaust, the rape of Bosnia and the recent mass murders in Rwanda--but I wrote nothing about it at the time because, as I have already indicated, the money was just not there.

Moreover, I did not find the subject especially interesting. Ultimately, it seemed to me that the psychocultural underpinnings of these movies were all exactly the same: Baby Boomers, now turning 50 in droves, simply could not accept the fact that death was, for most people, a meaningless event. So, to make themselves feel better about the Grim Reaper's impending arrival. Boomers were demanding movies describing a world where nobody went to his final resting place until all the scores were settled. In short, a world where nobody just up and died the way they did in the old days, because that would be such a... bummer.

The preceding should make clear that while I do believe in Catherine Zeta-Jones I do not believe in ghosts. I do not believe in ghosts because I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and although Catholics believe in angels, archangels, demons, succubi, witches, wraiths, sorcerers and all manner of wolves in sheep's clothing, we do not believe in ghosts. Ghosts are a bone we threw to the Protestants. But late one night, while I was sitting in the family room watching ESPN, the door inexplicably burst open, the lights shut off and the room turned extremely cold. Pulling myself up to shut the door, I happened to catch a fleeting glimpse of a vaguely human figure in the mirror. At first I thought it must be my daughter, but my daughter does not have blue skin and revolting, Medusa-like hair. Besides, she was sleeping at a friend's. When the gruesome specter did not reap-pear, I decided it was probably an optical illusion brought on by watching too many reruns of "Behind the Musk," so I went to bed.

The next day, I woke up to find the bathtub filled to overflowing. No sooner had I turned off the faucet than I heard the sound of the glass from a treasured family photograph smashing to pieces in the bedroom. Then the computer in the den suddenly started switching on and off again and lights all over the house began flickering. These bizarre events, coupled with the unsettling spectral appearance of the previous evening, were, of course, remarkably like the weird experiences Michelle Pfeiffer had undergone in What Lies Beneath.

I reacted by doing something Michelle Pfeiffer does not do in What Lies Beneath--I began to spend huge amounts of time out of the house. As long as I was not actually in the house itself, I did not see the macabre apparition. But eventually I had to go back to mop up all the water that had spilled out of the bathtub. And then I began to see the hideous creature again for a fraction of a second at a time. Sadly, I never really got a very good look at it, but from time to time, I could hear the creature whisper something barely audible, and what it seemed to be whispering was the word "ghost."

Because I do not believe in ghosts, I was reluctant to accept the possibility that my nocturnal visitor could actually be a spirit from beyond the grave. I preferred to think that she was a figment of my imagination, possibly induced by experiences going way back in the '60s which we do not need to go into here. Finally, when it all became too much to bear, I broached the subject to a friend, who listened patiently, and then offered this analysis: For whatever reason, Michelle Pfeiffer's riveting performance in What Lies Beneath had made such a huge impression on me that it had literally seized control of my personality, and I had now developed a deep desire to become Pfeiffer's doppelganger, her secret sharer, her psychic cousin, perhaps even her alter ego.

I politely told my friend that he was an imbecile. Although I had always admired Michelle Pfeiffer's work, if my personality were ever going to be seized by a movie character, it would be Val Kilmer in Tombstone or Martin Short in Three Amigos!

That night, at three o'clock in the morning, I found myself standing at my front door in my pajamas, summoned from my slumber by the dark forces of the Unseen World. Like Pfeiffer, I was all set to dive into the lake not far from my house and start looking for clues to how that blue-skinned girl became a rotting corpse. Suddenly, the lights went out, the room turned impossibly cold and the specter of an extremely dead young woman appeared before my very eyes. This time, I could see her features quite clearly.

She looked exactly like the dead babe in What Lies Beneath.

"Ghost," she croaked.

"Yeah, I know you're a ghost," I replied bravely. "And I know you were murdered, and you want me to sic the police on the guy who did it. But I've got to explain something to you, honey--that was only a movie."

The hideous young woman shook her head then slowly vanished into the ether. But as she disappeared into the void, I distinctly heard her make one final remark: "Ghost."

I stopped using the computer, stopped taking baths and stopped going anywhere near the lakes in my neighborhood. It worked for a while. A few days later, though, I missed my stop in Tarrytown, New York and had to get off at the next station: picturesque Sleepy Hollow. As it was a very pleasant evening, I decided to walk home. Between the station, perched on the banks of the Hudson, and my house, perched on a hill above the Hudson (a location I could never have afforded if I relied on English magazines for a living), is the bridge on which the Headless Horseman is said to have terrified the hapless Ichabod Crane. Now, four years ago this village was still known as North Tarrytown. Then, in a craven attempt to boost real estate prices, the more affluent members of the community banded together and held a plebiscite seeking to change the village's name to the twee, lamentable Sleepy Hollow, in honor of 19th century author Washington Irving, who had conferred that name on this very village in his famous legend. The referendum was an overwhelming success, not unlike Hitler's mid-1950s rearmament referendum. Ever since the name change, I had gone out of my way to ridicule the people of Sleepy Hollow whenever the opportunity presented itself. Hence, I was not terribly popular with them.

These thoughts were much with me as I crossed the bridge that night, chuckling once again at the fathomless hokiness of the upwardly vulgar. Suddenly, a figure reared up in front of me. It appeared to be a horse carrying a headless man.

"Ghost!" hissed the thing, which sounded vaguely like Christopher Walken. Seeing that there was no point in trying to outrun a mounted demon, I attempted to make small talk.

"If this has anything to do with finding your missing head..."

"Ghost!" cackled the apparition.

"Or if you're upset about all those wisecracks I've been making about the town's new name..."

Again, the creature cackled "Ghost." Then be was gone.

From that point on, things went downhill. I couldn't go near the upstairs bathtub without having the dead girl appear at my side. Then I began experiencing an insatiable thirst for orange juice, combined with an urge to dig holes in my basement, just like Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes. Meanwhile, it was impossible to sleep at night because of the bloodcurdling keening of tiny children that always seemed to be emanating from the walls between my room and my daughter's. The voices sounded exactly like those that torment Lili Taylor throughout The Haunting, the voices of butchered children who cannot go to their eternal resting place until their killer is destroyed.

A rational man, I tried to come up with a plausible explanation for all these disturbing phenomena. The appearance of the Headless Horseman might have been a hallucination triggered by guilt about incessantly ridiculing my neighbors in Sleepy Hollow, The sudden door openings could be the result of shoddy hinge work by the builders. My unprecedented appetite for orange juice could be the result of a latent vitamin deficiency. And the whiny little voices coming through the walls could have been the Backstreet Boys.

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