Ghost Stories' Main Themes
Like any movie with a good twist ending, Ghost Stories is worth watching at least twice, in order to pick up on all of the clues that were dropped along the way. Speaking to Directors Notes at the London Film Festival last year, Nyman explained that the key to creating tension in a film is "trying to communicate to the audience either verbally or visually that something is wrong." While Goodman's journey does have the veneer of reality, it also features a gradual build-up of hints that something is not quite right. Why, for example, is Tony Matthews alone sitting in a pub where no one appears to be working? Why do Simon Rifkind's parents stand silently in the kitchen, and fail to respond to him when he calls to them? Why doesn't Goodman call the police or an ambulance after Mike Priddle abruptly shoots himself in the head?
Goodman is heavily invested in his mantra that "The brain sees what it wants to see," but he's also deeply invested in the idea that only other people are fooled by their brains, and that he is gifted with a rare ability to see things rationally and clearly. Because of this, he never questions the nature of his reality; when he sees strange things happening, he dismisses them as his mind playing tricks on him - thereby missing the biggest trick of all.
On a broader level, the three cases that Goodman investigates are each a manifestation of something that he feels guilty about: Tony's story is about his regrets for not spending more time with his catatonic father; Simon's story, which is infused with Simon's panic about lying to his father about having a driving license, is about Goodman's guilt over never telling anyone about Callahan's death; and Mike's story is about Goodman's regret over throwing all his effort into his career and never having children.
It's also no accident that the film's characters are almost exclusively male, as one of Ghost Stories' broader themes is, as Nyman puts it, "that suffocating male bulls--t and the different versions that takes and how crippling it is." Each of the men that Goodman speaks to struggles in some way to talk about what happened to them: Tony is hostile and responds aggressively to even the simplest questions; Simon is socially awkward and stuttering; and Mike speaks in a flippant manner about incredibly sensitive issues, like his desire to become a father and the fertility problems he and his wife went through. The reveal that Goodman has attempted to kill himself is the culmination of the movie's deeper message about how men's struggle to articulate their feelings can be hugely damaging. Nyman elaborates:
"If you look at male suicide rates, it’s horrific, it’s insane, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying the inability for men to open up, the inability to talk about their feelings, the inability to properly analyse what it is to be a man, it’s insane. This isn’t a film which is entirely about that but that’s certainly at its beating heart for sure and that’s something we hope people talk about."
The Clues Along the Way
On top of the broader emotions of guilt that drive Goodman's fantasy world in Ghost Stories, there are also plenty of details taken from his hospital surroundings that become incorporated into the story. To name just a few:
- The nine numbers chalked on the wall of the tunnel appear in various places throughout the movie.
- Tony Matthews' daughter Marnie suffering from locked-in syndrome is, of course, a projection of Goodman's own locked-in condition.
- There's another hint about Goodman suffering from locked-in syndrome when he has a vision of a ghostly version of himself locked inside his car.
- Tony telling Goodman that "professor" is the term for people who perform Punch and Judy shows is influenced by Dr. Priddle jokingly uttering Punch's catchphrase, "That's the way to do it!" when talking abut the best way to commit suicide.
- On a related note, Dr. Priddle saying the best way to commit suicide is a shotgun in the mouth is manifested in Goodman's mind by Priddle doing just that.
- The ghost girl in the yellow dress who accosts Tony and the doll in the yellow dress in Priddle's home are both inspired by the doll in Goodman's hospital room.
- Simon Rifkind's irritation over his surname being mispronounced is included as a detail in Simon's "ghost story."
- The little ghost girl putting her finger in Tony's mouth and Callahan's ghost putting his finger in Goodman's mouth are both references to the hospital breathing tube.
- The incident that killed Callahan is referenced multiple times: the pub that Goodman finds Tony in is called The 10th Number, and in Simon Rifkind's house Goodman sees a photo of the tunnel with himself and the two bullies, and wipes away dust to find Callahan in the picture as well.
- The interview that Tony listens to on the radio in his story also plays on the radio in Goodman's hospital room.
- The dripping sound that Priddle hears in his house during his ghost story is actually the sound of water dripping in the tunnel.
- The character of Charles Cameron is taken from Dr. Priddle mentioning that he just spoke on the phone with "Charlie Cameron."
- The bird that flies into the window of the hospital room is recurring motif throughout the movie (for example, the bird that startles Tony during his story, and the dead bird skeleton seen in the same tale).
Let us know what you thought of Ghost Stories' ending - and any other interesting details you spotted - in the comments!