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Filming the Elegy: Elegiac Horror in A Ghost Story

“The virtual survival of the dead can be actualized, but is this not at the price of our existence, which becomes virtual in turn? Is it the dead who belong to us, or we who belong to the dead? And, do we love them against the living, or for and with life?”
-Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image

I. Figuring A Ghost Story as Elegy

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) complicates the horror genre through the elegy, particularly elegy in an American context in which this genre of poetic mourning takes on issues of collective loss and belonging. From beginning to end, A Ghost Story weaves a cinematic fantasy of the elegy: the recovery of a lost poem; a poem that is never revealed on screen, but that has the power to console even the dead themselves. In the film, a ghost, called C (Casey Affleck), haunts his former home outside of Dallas, Texas, painfully witnessing his wife’s mourning and eventual consolation, but also the place’s nineteenth-century Anglo-American settlement, present-day multiculturalism, and future urbanization. A Ghost Story underscores the elegy’s political stakes in a contemporary American context, an ideological tension between “being left behind” and “leaving others behind” on the scale of individual bereavement and also the collective loss of place and identity (Cavitch 32). This tension in A Ghost Story occurs through the film’s engagement with the history of Manifest Destiny in the American West and the film’s move to preemptively elegize the loss of a rural white Texan identity. I argue that A Ghost Story’s adaptation of the elegy suggests that elegy, though a lyric genre, is equally as at home in narrative film as it is in documentaries and experimental cinema, genres which have been more thoroughly studied through the lens of elegy (Coates 588, Moore 85). A Ghost Story creates a fantasy of the elegy as able to console the dead and shows the potentially destructive nature of this fantasy for the living. C’s ghost travels backward and forward in time but remains unable to leave the place he last called home, that is, until the film’s final scene, where he reads a poem his wife, M (Rooney Mara), wrote and left behind after his death.

A Ghost Story’s final scene uses not an elegy as such, an individual poem, but the concept of elegiac consolation to free its title character from his temporal loop and static tie to place. The audience never sees or hears M’s poem that consoles C’s ghost, but only witnesses the poem’s ability to liberate the ghost, emphasizing the act of consolation over the poem itself. In the final scene of A Ghost Story, C’s ghost, caught in a temporal loop, watches his beloved M finally leave the home they shared in a point of view shot that shows his past ghostly self powerlessly watching her leave. In a tracking shot, C’s ghost pulls out a slip of paper from a crevice in the home’s wall. In the film’s opening sequence, M describes this text as a “little rhyme or poem” that she writes wherever she lives to record “things to remember about living in that house or what I liked about it” and leaves hidden in the house “so there would be a piece of me there waiting” (Lowery). As C’s ghost pulls the note out from its hiding place, the house’s door swings open, letting in a stream of natural light. We toggle between a point-of-view shot from the ghost’s perspective and watching the ghost unfurl the poem; in the last moment, we are denied access to the text itself. To retain its power, the poetic text remains in a purely imagined state for the viewer, implying, perhaps that no actual elegy could achieve this beyond-the-grave consolation. After the ghost reads the poem his beloved M wrote on the slip of paper, he crumples to the floor, leaving behind only a sheet with eye holes (see Figure 1). The final scene of A Ghost Story gestures towards a fantasy of what poetry can do; it suggests that elegiac consolation can reach even the dead themselves as C’s ghost is freed from his temporal loop and static connection to the house. 

Filming the Elegy: Elegiac Horror in A Ghost Story 
Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: After reading M’s poem, the ghost, C, becomes a sheet on the ground.

Though elegies often mourn the loss of an individual life, I take my lead from Max Cavitch in suggesting that in an American context the elegy takes on issues of collective survival and national identity. Alongside my analysis of A Ghost Story, I draw examples from two contemporary American elegies, Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” and Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy for the Native Guard.” These poems also navigate genre, place, and temporality in service of bridging personal and collective loss. By reading A Ghost Story as elegy, I also mean to suggest that the elegy’s particular grappling with collectivity, time, place, and genre in an American context can cooperate with the horror genre. Elegy in contemporary American poetry is a genre that, as Jahan Ramazani writes, is always “evolving, hybridizing, self‐subverting” (24). As the horror film evolves to connect with new genres and concerns, so too does the elegy. My reading of A Ghost Story, then, disrupts many of the prevailing views of elegy’s relationship with narrative film by emphasizing adaptive collaboration–rather than opposition–between lyric and narrative modes of expression whether cinematic or literary.

II. Critical Crossings: Elegy as a Genre Across Media

Critical discussion of the elegy on screen often reinforces oppositions between the concerns of elegy as a lyric genre and narrative film. My reading of A Ghost Story disrupts many of the prevailing views of elegy’s relationship with narrative film. These discussions of how elegy as a poetic genre appears in film have been limited. There has been only a small amount of scholarship that explicitly engages the question of how elegy appears on screen, how the genre encounters film forms and shifts in relation to them and how the elegy encounters a medium with its own history and theoretical preoccupations. For instance, Paul Coates constructs his idea of elegy on screen by creating boundaries for the genre, discussing what he believes the cinematic elegy is and is not and, in doing so, generalizes about film’s medium specificity, narrative temporality, and the affects appropriate to grief.

Coates argues that film’s immediacy resists his conception of elegy as a genre that looks towards the past to create closure (585). These ideas are based on debatable characterizations of elegy as a genre and film as a medium. For Coates, mourning and elegizing are both acts of distancing the self from a painful emotion through “formal[ities]” to “render it bearable with the solemnizing stiffness of a rod to lean on” (588). One may deduce that Coates considers elegy—“a stiff rod to lean on”—to be therapeutic in its rigidity. In this conception, elegy alleviates or wards off powerful negative effects associated with grief, such as anger at the injustice of death and resentment towards the dead for their departure.

This notion of the elegy on screen and on the page as necessarily creating closure appears outmoded when viewed in a contemporary context. Instead, recent theorists of modern and contemporary elegy have characterized the genre’s mourning as “unresolved, violent, and ambivalent” (Ramazani 4). The grief expressed in elegies contemporary with the films in Coates’ canon—rather than the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century British elegies that Coates uses as his model of the elegy in poetry, namely, Milton’s “Lycidas” (1637) and Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1750) —is often skeptical of institutional mourning and potential resolution. The modern and contemporary elegy, in fact, so resists closure that the term “anti-elegy” is often used by critics to name the contemporary elegist’s skepticism or outright rejection of the form as offering consolation (Spargo 416). It is this “ambivalent ” contemporary elegy, which looks forward toward consolation, but also backwards towards the horrific and potentially unresolvable aspects of mourning that A Ghost Story embodies (Ramazani 4).

Recent critics of the elegy, whether taking a skeptical stance or reparative embrace towards the genre’s ability to console, identify consolation and closure as the crux of the genre (Zeiger 18). Melissa Zeiger, in her research on AIDS and breast cancer elegies, suggests that feminist and queer elegy explicitly rejects such closure and consolation as women and gay men poets become “no longer simply figures in elegy or figments of masculine poetic imagining” (18). Still, even very recent scholars, like Diana Fuss who emphasizes the genre’s reparative potential, refusing to turn away from its potential to console (albeit imperfectly) identifies a common ethical dilemma in the anti-elegy and the “consolation” elegy. As Fuss argues, elegies that seek to console and “anti-elegies” with a more vexed and iconoclastic stance towards mourning stem from a similar impulse for ethical memorialization, whether that is bringing the dead “beloved” into an act of mourning or honoring their “radical alterity” by refusing to inscribe them within “the violence of interiorization, the fiction of individual memory” (Fuss 108). Thus, neither of these elegiac stances closes the door on the dead for the sake of the living as Coates’s sense of the elegy’s affective purpose suggests.

In defining cinematic elegy, Coates understands elegy to be recollection and film as a medium opposed to this process of looking backwards: “If the making of memories requires time for memorization, repetition, film’s refusal to set aside time for this…surely threatens personal recollection. Moreover, film’s prosthetic memory presents itself to us as a perpetual present, for all our knowledge that it has passed” (586). However, this immersive “perpetual present” quality of film has not always been seen as at odds with “personal recollection.” As the famous opening sentence to André Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” contends, “If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation” (4). Moreover, since the advent of home viewing, the immersive present-ness of film facilitates or even fabricates personal recollection as any child captured on home video can attest. The ability to rewind and pause at will, such that any frame may be frozen in place, has certainly altered film’s relation to memory.

Whether embracing the elegy’s ability to provide consolation or critiquing the genre’s consolatory urge, critics emphasize the genre’s present-ness rather than backwards gaze. Clifton Spargo in defining “anti-elegy” suggests that the bereaved becomes “a presentist” alienated from “all mournful paradigms and exemplary behaviors” to resist “stultifying institutionalized forms” of mourning” (417). Fuss, seeking to carve out a reparative niche for consolation elegies, even suggests that the medium of film is an agonistic rival to lyric poetry in its ability to resurrect the dead and make present their memory (77). For Fuss, film is “a sight and sound technology” that threatens “to revive the dead more effectively than poetry” (77). In this framing, film is not simply a sister art to lyric poetry, but one of a group of deadly (if unwitting) assassins that has effectively killed the lyric, now “a dead medium” and a “dead voice” (Fuss 77). For Fuss, however, the lyric “continues to speak and walk abroad,” like a zombie or ghost (77).

In what follows, I argue that the elegy, though fascinated by ghosts, is not a ghost; it is very much alive, in part, through its presence across media. Recent research that productively pairs elegy and narrative film suggests exactly this kind of cooperation between form, genre, and media. Emma Mason’s recent work compares the “new sincerity” in Wes Anderson’s representations of death on screen to William Wordsworth’s everyday elegies for deceased family members to discuss the religiosity in these texts’ complex relationship to consolation (230). Mason suggests the term “elegy” has actually been a catch-all for an elegiac mood found in a number of narrative and non-narrative forms since the sixteenth century in order to “to capture a reflective reaching for the lost or unattainable while haunted by an overwhelming sense of the futility of such pursuit, one that threatens the mourner with further loss and failure” (229) In this case, the relationship between elegy as a genre and elegy as a mood is capacious. The elegy as a genre of poetry begins to shape an affect even as it enters the representational means and genres of narrative film.

Peter J. Moore’s recent discussion of Arthur Jafa’s short film, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, as an elegy on screen in the era of Black Lives Matter offers a sense of the genre in a contemporary American context as it bridges individual and collective loss, which resonates with my reading of A Ghost Story. Love is the Message, The Message is Death is a seven-minute montage set to Kanye West’s song “Ultra Light Beam” and composed of archival footage of Black artists, activists, and musicians, but also police brutality and the L.A. riots. For Moore, LMMD speaks to this broader sense of collective mourning as the work of American elegy; he sees the Black Lives Matter movement itself as elegiac and the Black artists featured in the film as responding to the loss that marks Black experience in America (83). Though LMMD is experimental video art, Jafa worked as a cinematographer on major 1990s narrative films by Black auteurs like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. The film, though far from a linear narrative, presents affective movement through its choice in archival footage to structure the film. Using a technique the artist describes as Black Visual Intonation, moreover, Jafa alters frame rate and regularity to parallel Black vocal intonation that also mirrors the irregular frame rates of silent film (Jafa 267).

But Moore explicitly takes his cue from Coates, in distancing filmic elegy from narrative film, to make the case that LMMD ought to be understood as an elegy. Despite a broader definition of elegy on screen as potentially collective, Moore ultimately describes the work of elegy as “incompatible” with narrative:

In its most popular iteration, narrative cinema, film follows a causal grammar incompatible with elegy, long associated with the irregular timetable of lyric, opposes. The result is a medium that does not easily allow for the two foundations of elegy: The distancing and the looking back across great distance. According to Coates, films that stand the most chance of manifesting close ties to the elegiac are those that disrupt the temporal episteme of film (85).

While Moore’s discussion of LMMD as elegy is admirable in its expansive, interdisciplinary sense of how elegy appears in film—especially the possibilities for how the genre may grapple with collective loss in a new medium—it suffers from the quiet denigration of narrative film and its elegiac capabilities. It is telling that Moore’s chapter on LMMD and Coates’s chapter on the filmic elegy are both the only film-focused pieces in two academic collections on the elegy. The phrases “in its most popular iteration” and “causal grammar” imply that a narrative cinema is necessarily simple, even low brow. While Moore and Coates each work to create a critical space for historically marginalized voices or overlooked genres of film, their projects have the unfortunate side effect of cordoning off the form of elegy from meaningful dialogue with narrative forms and genres like horror and suspense.

Although horror and suspense exist alongside elegy in A Ghost Story, Coates suggests that these affects are antithetical to elegy, and, especially elegy on screen: “[T]he meditativeness of such elegiac moments dampens the congenital filmic immediacy: not just the immediacy of suspenseful action that has been central to so much cinema, causing the elevation of Hitchcock as its perverse patron saint, but also the one that has precipitated...cinematic language as knowing only a present tense” (588). Coates’ argument about filmic elegy resisting “immediacy” through stasis overlooks temps mort, used in multiple scenes from A Ghost Story, which unlike the freeze frame allows the filmic and narrative time to continue while the camera remains immobile (591). Temps mort, a prolonged long take, aligns the film’s time with the viewer’s experience of watching film. It is one example of a cinematic strategy that, by drawing our attention to an uncomfortable mismatch between narrative time and the film’s continuation, creates exactly the type of lengthened, suspenseful waiting, that Coates and Moore believe narrative film, and especially horror, resists. 

III. Reading A Ghost Story as Elegiac Horror

As I have suggested, interpreting A Ghost Story in relation to elegy not only helps contextualize the film’s formal experimentation, but allows the study of film, and particularly narrative film, which is less often considered in relation to poetics, to open itself to intersections with poetry through genre and form. Furthermore, this intervention of elegy into the terrain of narrative film reveals how the formal workings of elegy shape American cultural currents surrounding grief and mourning across media. I will briefly describe several generic features of the elegy according to its most recent definition by poetics scholars before reading scenes from A Ghost Story in light of these elements and the elegy’s politics in America.

Apostrophe, a poetic calling into presence of an absent person or direct address to the object world, is frequently a formal feature of the elegy (Braden and Fowler, 397-398). In A Ghost Story, this type of calling into presence occurs through Lowery’s choice of mise-en-scène: figuring C’s ghost as a sheet ghost rather than an embodied, more humanoid ghost. The sheet ghost, like an apostrophe’s attempt to call into presence an absent person or thing—think Walt Whitman’s “O, Captain! My Captain!”—does not constitute a full embodiment of C as he appeared alive. Instead, the sheet makes present his absence on screen. It aligns C’s ghost with a tradition of sheet-clad specters closer to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown than the truly terrifying ghostly presences in a film like The Shining. The sheet-ghost, whether Charlie Brown or E.T. trick-or-treating, holds a nostalgic, child-like innocence. In his essay, “Apostrophe,” Jonathan Culler begins his thorough study of the oft-overlooked poetic feature by stating that “above all they [apostrophes] are embarrassing” (158). To a cynical viewer, this innocent version of absence-made-present on screen may seem tonally discordant even “embarrassing” amid so much grief. But I believe that the sheet-ghost (like the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio as an echo of the silent film era) speaks to a bittersweet nostalgia for lost innocence. A review in Slant Magazine that states—“Even when A Ghost Story manages some striking imagery…the silly white-sheeted eye sore plopped plainly into almost every composition” (Mac)—speaks to the reviewer’s analysis of this innocence as tonally disjunctive “silly” or, in Culler’s words, an “embarrassing” visual apostrophe. By reading the sheet-ghost as a visual apostrophe, one can recontextualize many of the negative reviews of A Ghost Story that mock the sheet ghost aesthetic.

If the sheet ghost is understood to function similarly to an apostrophe, demonstrating the attempt to make present the absent or animate the inanimate, then seeming a little silly is par for the course. Moreover, the genre of the horror film—its heightened use of sound, its chiaroscuro or theatrical lighting—is prone to formal exaggeration; and, indeed, laughter, a sign of enjoyment, but also embarrassment, is a common response to horror. In fact, one may even think of laughter as an affective marker of the horror genre. Jonathan Crane writes of irony in the horror film, “Ironic horror frees the genre to shift across registers, from horror to comedy and back again, without alienating or losing an audience with a taste for irrational entertainment;” thus, in horror film, a cliché, like the sheet ghost, may be both a joke and a fright-inducing form, free to shift between both registers (Crane 154). The sheet ghost, and making present the absent dead, offers a far-fetched, bordering on humorous possibility for consolation: the possibility of the elegy to console even the dead themselves, as occurs when the ghost eventually finds the “little rhyme” that M left hidden (Lowery).

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entry for elegy highlights temporality as a problem for the elegy. The authors ask a pivotal question that they do not answer, but that my investigation of A Ghost Story as elegy will speak to: “Why if elegy is ‘a process of mourning’ are so many elegies lyrics with little narrative or processional content” (Braden and Fowler 398)? The authors follow up this open-ended question with a telling critique: “Standard definitions of elegy can strain against the temporality of lyric” (Braden and Fowler 398). The temporality of the lyric is often considered as an elevation of a static, singular moment, explicitly defined against narrative progression (Cameron 240). In contrast, I have suggested that critics of the elegy that continue to create an opposition between narrative and lyric vis-à-vis temporality may say more about a competition among genres and mediums than about the modern and contemporary elegy’s relationship to narrative temporality. While it is a narrative film, A Ghost Story echoes the modern elegy’s elision of narrative progression in its scene of C’s transformation into a ghost and M’s bereaved pie-eating, with its prolonged long takes that build on a tradition of neorealistic temps mort and recursive structure.

Because writing and poetry are so intimately tied to place and spectral presence from the first few minutes of A Ghost Story, it is unsurprising that a hand-written text is the catalyst for one of the film’s prime examples of temps mort: the pie-eating scene, which culminates in cathartic purgation. The scene opens when C watches M enter the house in a long shot that aligns the ghost and the camera because of the ghost’s turned head, his distance from the door, and his proximity to the camera. Prior to the two long takes of M eating pie, we receive two shots of the ghost. The first is a sweep that aligns the camera with the ghost, but the second frames the ghost in the background as part of the mise-en-scène. The ghost’s reading of a neighbor’s note creates dramatic irony within the following scene and speaks to the ghost’s absent presence. As if to underscore a multiplicity of interpretive lenses, we both read the note with the ghost and watch M read the note before she gets the sweep to begin eating the pie. When she runs to vomit, the frame remains fixed and M does not get the sweep. While M literalizes catharsis, from its medical meaning of physical purgation by vomiting, the viewer, like the static ghost, remains un-consoled.

While I have discussed how the theory and form of the elegy can illuminate a few formal and affective aspects of A Ghost Story, it is also worth noting that film theory offers elegiac moments of its own that pertain to Lowery’s film. Laura Marks’ discussion of the “haptic image,” which dwells less in the sensuousness of an image’s content and more in the tactility of its form, mentions “changes of focus and distance” as one characteristic of the haptic image (187). Marks also describes the haptic image as “mournful” and suggests that, like the impossibility of fully conjuring the presence of the deceased, “haptic visuality, in its effort to touch the image, may represent the difficulty of remembering the loved one, be it a person or a homeland” (193-194). We observe this type of haptic memory and mourning in A Ghost Story when M returns home with a new love-interest; the ghost is shown in a close-up in shallow focus, such that M and her new partner are almost completely blurred, demonstrating only the vague image of their embrace. However, the next shot of the couple (after a zoom-in on the static ghost) is closer and in-focus, demonstrating, in its moment of visual distortion, the ghost’s sense of impossible return and longing, characteristic of the elegy.

This scene in which the living couple only comes into focus once the camera visually acknowledges the ghost with a zoom-in, resonates with Gilles Deleuze’s question about death’s ability to blur the line between the actual and the virtual: “The virtual survival of the dead can be actualized, but is this not at the price of our existence, which becomes virtual in turn? Is it the dead who belong to us, or we who belong to the dead” (74). This scene from A Ghost Story seems, in part, to answer Deleuze’s questions. Before acknowledging the continued existence of the dead (the ghost), the reality of the living remains virtual, out of focus. Once the dead (the ghost) has been made as present as the living couple, through the zoom, the living reassume their actuality, their focus on screen. Thus, according to the visual poetics of A Ghost Story, it is, indeed, “we who belong to the dead” (Deleuze 74).

In considering A Ghost Story as a filmic elegy, we must account for recent developments in the genre’s study that challenge the Freudian “work of mourning” model and open elegy to the political and cultural considerations of its historical moment (Sacks 1). Jahan Ramazani describes how the elegy, in the hands of twentieth century poets, exceeds what he describes as “normative” mourning (4). Ramazani does not deny that in the modern elegy there can be moments of consolation, but he suggests that these moments are vexed and often move dialectically between mourning that concludes in a sense of solace and distance from the deceased and more visceral, complex responses to death (31). In the above scene, A Ghost Story creates a dialectic between an “un-consolable” elegy and catharsis, literalized through M’s vomiting (Zeiger 25). The irony is that at this point in the film it is the dead ghost that remains “un-consolable” rather than his bereaved wife who, in fact, eventually finds a new partner.

The ghost’s journey to mourn by recovering a lost place and a poem includes many encounters with racial and linguistic otherness. The dialogue of a Tejano family who move in after M leaves the house and who the ghost terrorizes—throwing dishes off a shelf and generally wreaking havoc in their dining room—is not given subtitles when they speak Spanish. While the ghost has “been left behind” by M, it is also clear that his sense of “being left behind” and the family challenges the connection he feels to place and its significance as a repository of memory. If we take this lack of subtitles to reflect the ghost’s perspective, in his inability to understand Spanish, it is clear that in “being left behind” by M, the ghost also reacts with hostility towards people whose presence in the house threatens to occlude his connection to it. Yet, it is important to note that the next inhabitants of the house, whose presence so bothers the ghost are also people who have been historically excluded from narratives of American family life: a single, Tejano mother raising two children. The ghost goes as far as to knock over a framed portrait of the family in the house, an iconoclastic act of erasure. Similarly, when the ghost commits suicide and goes back in time on a journey to recover something of the place he lost when the house is demolished, he travels to the site of the house in the moment when it was first settled by Anglo-American colonists as a result of Western expansion and the “ideological violence” of Manifest Destiny; this moment voices its own type of exclusion and “amnesia” when Native Americans, who kill the settler family, are merely represented off-screen through a stereotypical whooping that hemorrhages the frame. The moments when A Ghost Story represents marginalized communities are fraught with tension between “being left behind” and “leaving others behind.” Max Cavitch argues that the American elegiac tradition is equally as invested in the navigation of collective and national memory as it is in grappling with loss on a personal scale. Cavitch’s conception of the elegy as a genre that not only voices an individual being “left behind”—death as an injustice for bereaved living—but cultural methods of “leaving others behind” often bearing “amnesia[s] and “ideological violence” resonates with A Ghost Story’s treatment of cultural and linguistic otherness (Cavitch 32).

The chronological arrest and play in A Ghost Story dovetails with the film’s emphasis on vacant spaces. The first instance of temps mort, for instance, occurs when the ghost rises from C’s body. In this three minute and nineteen-second-long take, there is over a minute of stasis; the viewer looks, in a long shot through a doorway, at C’s sheet-covered corpse. This long take literalizes the notion of temps mort and speaks to the kind of “idle period and empty space” Deleuze describes in relation to Michelangelo Antonioni’s films (7). While A Ghost Story may not seem like a neorealist film, given the supernatural presence at its center, it also contains the “any-space-whatever” or “disconnected space” that Deleuze discusses in regard to Antonioni (8). This kind of “disconnected space” appears in the cut between a long shot of the ghost standing in the rubble of his once home and, in the next shot, the ghost in a close-up against a concrete wall (see Figure 2). Deleuze’s description of the “any-space-whatever” of neorealist film as “deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses, wasteground, cities in the course of demolition or reconstruction” is particularly pertinent in discussion of twentieth and twenty-first century elegy when the genre moves towards problematizing collective recollection through place (Deleuze 8).

Filming the Elegy: Elegiac Horror in A Ghost Story 
Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: C, the ghost, in his former home, now a demolished “any-space-whatever.”

Robert Lowell’s elegy, “For the Union Dead,” written in memoriam to Robert Gould Shaw—the leader of the 54th regiment (a group of Black soldiers fighting for the union during the Civil War)—opens with what could easily be described as an “any-space-whatever” of its own:

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry (63).

In this poem, Lowell more than memorializes Shaw, a public figure, who, though from a similar Boston Brahmin background to Lowell, is part of collective rather than personal memory. In fact, Boston Common contains a monument to Shaw and the 54th regiment, concretizing them as part of public history and collective memory. Lowell begins the poem, which from its title elegizes a historical moment, with a once-peopled and public structure standing vacant. The “aquarium,” a place particularly for viewing an otherwise unseen world below the surface, is empty. The closest we may now come to its former glory, viewing the undersea world, the past, is to look at the inorganic, “bronze weathervane cod.” As in A Ghost Story’s frustrated attempt to navigate Texas’s history of Anglo-American settlement—a scene opening with the state’s natural beauty at twilight—and troubled relationship with the state’s Mexican roots and multicultural present, Lowell uses the specificity of place to contrast Shaw and a memorialized past with the immemorial present: “There are no statues for the last war here; / on Boylston street, a commercial photograph / shows Hiroshima boiling” (63). For the speaker of Lowell’s poem, television in the Civil Rights era may, like the aquarium, provide only mediated and ephemeral access to the other: “When I crouch to my television set / the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” (63). Lowell in "For the Union Dead," like Lowery's work in A Ghost Story, represents his speaker's feeling of "being left behind," and, in doing so, demonstrates a cultural disconnect (Cavitch 32). This cultural disconnect between the speaker, his landscape, and the 1960s Civil Rights era and school integration is rendered in images that appear uncanny if not horrific. The image “a Sahara of snow” transforms the typical chilly and blank snowbanks of a Boston winter, the makings of a pastoral image like Bruegel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow, into an uncanny oxymoron in which the extreme heat of the Sahara Desert takes the place of cold. Meanwhile, the simile “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” creates a disembodied, arguably dehumanized, sense of the Black children on screen, making the newsreel footage on TV appear more akin to a ghostly floating “balloon” than an embodied other.

Alongside these “any-space-whatever[s],” A Ghost Story also uses film form to emphasize pastoral imagery. Pastoral imagery is, arguably, one of the most recognizable features of not only English elegy from Milton’s “Lycidas,” but the American tradition, from the first line of Walt Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” to contemporary American elegy in Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy for the Native Guards:” “We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead” (44). A Ghost Story’s first shot after the ghost leaves the hospital is a medium shot, high angle of the ghost’s sheet trailing on bright green grass, followed by an extreme long shot, and an even longer extreme long shot of the ghost crossing a meadow as the sun sets (see Figure 3). The diminishing scale of the ghost in the organic world—before his presence is re-emphasized in a long shot and medium shot before reaching his once home—points to the dead as subsumed by their landscape, diminishing their importance in the human world. The ghost, as his scale in the frame decreases, becomes barely identifiable as inorganic within the natural landscape. However, the establishing shot of the house (C’s old home), which the ghost walks into, resumes the narrative.

Filming the Elegy: Elegiac Horror in A Ghost Story 
Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: C, the ghost, crosses a field at sunset to return home.

In this vein, A Ghost Story’s use of the pastoral is akin to contemporary elegy like Trethewey’s “Elegy for the Native Guards,” in which the poet undercuts the opening pastoral line by recontextualizing nature as full of inorganic objects and noise: “We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead / trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare” (44). Trethewey’s elegy, memorializing Louisiana’s 2nd regiment “Native Guard,” Black union soldiers, for whom no monument existed at the time of writing (unlike their confederate adversaries), moves into the territory of horror with the mention of bones in the last stanza. This mention of the final stage of decomposition, a skeleton, brings the “Native Guard” into embodiment, more than “the fort” only a “half reminder of the men who served there,” using a triple rhyme that uncannily breaks the poem’s formal pattern with its series of repetitions: “All the grave markers, all the grave markers, all the crude headstones—/ water lost. Now fish dart among their bones. / And we listen for what the waves intone” (44). In this sense, not only is the “Native Guard” without a memorial or physical memory, but their remains become “bones” and an unseen part of pastoral the landscape as “fish dart among” them. But unlike A Ghost Story’s preemptive mourning for a white and rural Texan masculinity—underscored in scenes like the ghost’s haunting of the Tejana family and his apparent nostalgia for the days of Anglo-American settlement—Trethewey’s elegy culminates in a call to listen for an unheard past, the heroism of Louisiana’s Native Guard, for whom no monument existed; Trethewey looks to nature for a call to remember democratically rather than let go. While the titular character in A Ghost Story ultimately disappears entirely in the film’s final scene, perhaps the ultimate consolation in the American elegiac tradition—whether on screen or on the page—is absorption into the natural world. It is, however, the more fraught task of the living to remember the dead equitably.

IV. Conclusion

I have highlighted how A Ghost Story resonates with thematic and formal elements of the contemporary American elegy to illuminate, more broadly, how the elegy has been inscribed within horror. These elegiac features within A Ghost Story include its relationship to absence and presence, its temps mort, its pastoral and vacant spaces, and its sense of individual grief as necessarily social and political. I also mean to complicate divisions between narrative and lyric, mourning and the macabre, which, I believe, have become ingrained in our ways of understanding the genres of horror and elegy respectively.

David Lowery’s oeuvre following A Ghost StoryThe Old Man and the Gun (2018) and The Green Knight (2021)—deals with the fact of death from the perspective of the living and similarly complicates genres: the Western and the chivalric romance. The Old Man and the Gun brings together the genres of the Western and the heist film with a tangible awareness of pursuing joy and pleasure before the inevitability of death, an overtone of carpe diem. By casting Robert Redford (one of the Western’s most paradigmatic actors as “the Sundance Kid”) as a septuagenarian bank-robber who happens to live across from a cemetery, the film takes an elegiac tone towards the genre of the Western itself, even putting Redford on a horse in silhouette against a twilight sky as sirens blare before his capture. The Green Knight adapts the chivalric romance to create a fable about the immorality of seeking to outwit the inevitability of death, employing a large temporal leap (a flashforward into a potentially dark future) to convey its ethos of accepting mortality. In each case, Lowey’s later oeuvre blends genres—cinematic and literary—to consider ethical issues around death, perhaps inspired by the elegiac horror of A Ghost Story.

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