Ghost stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Worlds Beyond


Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Worlds Beyond’ (10 September to 28 November 2021) brings together a selection of films drawing on more than a century of cinematic spectres. Curated by the Australian Cinémathèque, the program mixes iconic Hollywood hauntings with eerie, ethereal encounters and tales of love so powerful they spill into otherworldly realms.

By its very nature, cinema is a medium of ghosts. It is a forum through which audiences can experience the presence of those from another time; a plane on which even the long dead can reach the living. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that depictions of ghosts and spirits have spread across a multitude of genres, styles and forms throughout the history of the moving image. ‘Ghost Stories’ is a showcase for the depth and dynamism of ghosts as a narrative metaphor — for grief, for obsession, for hidden pasts and unfinished business — alongside those stories that take their phantasms far more literally.


Production still from The Ghost and Mrs Muir 1947 / Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz / Image courtesy: The Walt Disney Company (Australia) / One of cinema’s most beloved romances, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir blends fantasy and reality in a wistful love story that continues to resonate with contemporary audiences.
Production still from Portrait of Jennie 1948 / Director: William Dieterle / Image courtesy: National Film and Sound Archive / This love story focuses on a struggling artist as he gradually falls in love with Jennie, a strange young woman he meets in Central Park, as she seems to mature before his eyes, he slowly comes to realize that his muse is the restless spirit of a long-dead woman.

Given the glee with which the pioneers of cinema took to the possibilities of rudimentary special effects, such as shuffling chairs, disappearing bodies and endlessly attempting to hoodwink their audiences with their newfangled tools, the early years of film-making can seem positively beset by poltergeists. This technical trickery would soon give way to more substantive engagements with ghosts as characters and drivers of plot, something that had been widespread in theatre and literature for centuries. Key cinematic language, such as the translucence of apparitions, and the gothic foreboding of haunted spaces, also became established during the silent era.

When sound was introduced to film, it led to an even greater spread of ghosts across a variety of genres. While horror movies were the primary dwellings of malevolent spirits, the aftermath of World War Two caused audiences to seek comfort in stories of life after death and unending romances, such as in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs Muir 1947 (illustrated) and William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie 1948 (illustrated). Over time, ghosts took on darker and more psychologically tormented implications, with films like The Shining 1980, and the Australian Lake Mungo 2008, which explores the powerful reverberations of a family member’s death.

Production still from Spiritual Kung Fu 1978 / Director: Lo Wei / Image courtesy: Fortune Star Media / An early starring role for Jackie Chan, Spiritual Kung Fu follows Yi-Lang, a young martial arts student at a Shaolin temple. After an important text is stolen from the temple’s library, Yi-Lang trains under a group of unruly ghosts who teach him the lost Five Style Fists fighting techniques so that he can seek justice.
Production still from Rouge 1987 / Director: Stanley Kwan / Image courtesy: Fortune Star Media / An elegant courtesan in the 1930s begins an affair with the scion of a wealthy family, when his family objects to their relationship, the pair agree to a suicide pact.

Much of the richness of ghost cinema stems from the broad range of approaches taken by filmmakers from around the world. Japan has abundant supernatural mythology from which to draw, with Yōkai (supernatural creatures and spirits) and Yūrei (ghostlike phenomena) populating traditional Kaidan (ghost stories or folktales) and their filmic adaptations.

Ghost Stories’ also highlights a selection of mystical tales from Hong Kong, with the martial arts extravaganza Spiritual Kung Fu 1978 (illustrated), starring Jackie Chan, and Stanley Kwan’s tragic Rouge 1988 (illustrated), along with films from Thailand (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 2010) (illustrated), France (Max Ophüls’s The Tender Enemy 1936) (illustrated), India (Mani Kaul’s Duvidha 1973) and beyond.

Rob Hughes is Assistant Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA

Production still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 2010 / Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul /Image courtesy: The Match Factory / A Buddhist farmer retires to his plantation in order to quietly spend his final days, during a nocturnal dinner on the veranda, he is joined by the ghost of his late wife and by his long-lost son, who returns in the form of an ape-like ​monkey ghost.
Production still from The Tender Enemy 1936 / Director: Max Ophüls / Image courtesy: National Film and Sound Archive / The Tender Enemy is a metaphysical comedic romance, centered on the lavish engagement party of a young woman that’s being held in a mansion behind the gates of a grand estate. She’s engaged to a rich and stuffy man but she’s in love with an intrepid young pilot, and the young woman’s late father—a ghost—shows up to witness her anguish and to behold his own lost love, the young woman’s mother, his widow.

Dip into our Cinema blogs / View the ongoing Australian Cinémathèque program

QAGOMA is the only Australian art gallery with purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image. The Australian Cinémathèque at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) provides an ongoing program of film and video that you’re unlikely to see elsewhere, offering a rich and diverse experience of the moving image, showcasing the work of influential filmmakers and international cinema, rare 35mm prints, recent restorations and silent films with live musical accompaniment on the Gallery’s Wurlitzer organ originally installed in Brisbane’s Regent Theatre in November 1929.

Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings and Worlds Beyond’ is screening in the GOMA Cinemas from 10 September to 28 November 2021.

Featured image: Production still from Spirited Away 2001 / Director: Hayao Miyazaki / Image courtesy: Madman Entertainment
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