Spoiler warning: This article openly discusses the full plot of “The Others.”
It’s been said many times that every love story is a ghost story (an axiom often credited to the late David Foster Wallace, but one that also boasts its own curious afterlife), and the pop art of the 21st century would seem to suggest that the opposite is also true.
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The rise of “elevated horror,” the traumafication of genre narratives, and the ever-increasing role that supernatural forces appear to be playing in arthouse fare (e.g. “A Ghost Story,” “Personal Shopper,” and Andrew Haigh’s upcoming “All of Us Strangers”) have combined to recenter the heartsick longing — romantic or otherwise — that has always haunted tales of grief and loss, even if only from the shadows or in the subtext. These days, a movie or TV show about ghosts is less likely to scare you than it is to make you cry, and the ones that manage to do both tend to rely on the former as a means of accomplishing the latter; look no further than the work of Mike Flanagan, whose popular Netflix miniseries resonate for the raw emotionality they mine from the mere residue of feelings left behind by classic authors like Shirley Jackson and Henry James (perhaps it’s telling that the most poignant of these miniseries is “Midnight Mass,” the only one that Flanagan didn’t adapt from pre-existing material).
And yet, to identify love as the lodestar of these ghost stories would be to overlook the reason why they’re all ghost stories to begin with, and also to overlook the film which articulates that reason better than any other. Bridging the gap between James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and Flanagan’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” remains one the greatest and most instructive movies of its kind because it shows that denial is the real ectoplasm that binds ghost stories together, and love just the most satisfying conduit through which it might be made flesh.
It’s human nature to be haunted by what we don’t understand, just as it’s human nature to make sense of those mysteries — to stabilize what Amenábar has described as “the vertigo of the unknown.” The great project of someone’s life might be the pursuit of a sustainable balance between doubt and conviction, or fear and security; most people will construct and/or cling to whatever answers might spare them from the mortal horror of being hounded by certain questions. To that end, it’s no coincidence that many of the most unsettling ghost stories ever told revolve around characters who refuse to accept that they’re in one to begin with, as no other genre is so fundamentally dependent upon the power of denial. Likewise, no other genre is so determined to erode it.
Released during the dog days of summer 2001, Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” so lucidly speaks to the power of denial that it tends to make other movies — ghost stories and grounded dramas alike — seem as if they’re pretending to commune with it through a Ouija board. A gothic fable about a severe and strictly religious woman named Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) who’s still waiting for her husband to return home from World War II and rejoin her at the sprawling Jersey estate they share with their two photosensitive children on the Channel Islands, Amenábar’s film is a multi-tiered and somewhat Möbius strip-like story that begins and ends with the greatest denial of all: the denial of death.
Drawing on his own Catholic upbringing (first in Chile before Pinochet, and then in Spain after his family relocated to Europe), the writer-director initially frames that denial in ecclesiastical terms, as the movie opens with a comforting reference to the Book of Genesis that gives way to a primal scream. But as young Anne and Nicholas grow increasingly afraid of an eternity spent in the Children’s Limbo, it isn’t long before the floating tundra of fog that surrounds their house thickens into a visual metaphor for the reality their mother can’t — or refuses to — see behind the veil of her biblical worldview.
Grace’s denial of death stems directly from her denial of life, which her beloved children denied from her in a certain respect before she denied it from them in another. Once an aspiring dancer and still a radiant woman (one whose name evokes the most glamorous movie stars of her time, and whose beauty Amenábar instructed cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe to accentuate after the first dailies revealed that Kidman had been lit like someone who thought she couldn’t be seen), Grace was forced to seclude herself in darkness when she discovered that her kids were allergic to light.
That seclusion only became harder to sustain once Grace’s husband was called off to war (she insists he’s still alive, even though the fighting is over and there’s been no sign of him), abandoning her to a crepuscular purgatory that she would often have to navigate by feel — and by faith in her own ability to intuit the difference between people and shadows. Her vivid dreams of the stage were violently replaced by the dim reality of closed window shades and candle-lit hallways, as she was left to construct and uphold a world for her children that might justify the specter-like smallness of their place in it.
Amenábar builds towards Anne and Nicholas’ introduction as if they were a pair of monsters in the attic, allowing their reveal to become the first turn of the screw in a film that finds a variety of gripping ways to tighten the air between its occasional horror setpieces. With only the briefest of exceptions, however, “The Others” strictly adheres to the classical wisdom that what we don’t see is often scarier than what we do — that terror is seeded on screen, but takes root in the imagination.
At the same time, the children’s condition allows Amenábar to invert how that dynamic tends to play out, as darkness becomes a refuge, and the sun a deadly threat; a fitting switch for a story about a woman whose greatest fear is seeing the truth of her own situation. And while that fear is rendered tragically eternal by the fatal choice Grace makes just before the film begins, there’s reason to suspect that her “out of sight, out of mind” mentality was also key to her survival during the war, when the Channel Islands were the only Nazi-occupied British territories, and this Aryan single mother was presumably forced to accommodate the same men her husband was busy fighting in France.
Treating his protagonist’s denial like a pimple that’s only made worse and deeper by even his most delicate efforts to pop it, Amenábar wages a literal — but carefully measured — assault on Grace’s ability to remain in the dark, which creates a delicious tension between the viewer’s desire to know what’s going on and Grace’s adamant refusal to do the same. The housekeeper (Fionnula Flanagan), the gardener (Eric Sykes), and the non-verbal young maid (Elaine Cassidy) who show up uninvited simultaneously double as both enablers and secret-keepers; in hindsight, they seem to be enjoying a kind of benign amusement at Grace’s expense, as if entertained by the opportunity to cos-play as the dubious supporting characters in a horror movie. Ms. Mills, Edmund Tuttle, and the silent Lydia take care to hide the things that Grace refuses to see, but their presence only becomes truly threatening to the lady of the house when it begins to serve as un-living proof of the truth she’s trying to repress.
However, the most crucial thing these characters supply to the film is a connection to the past, and a latent reminder that it persists in spite of our inability or unwillingness to see it. You see, the help have a personal history with the estate (you know a horror movie is fun when critics want to write about the plot as if readers didn’t already know its secrets), and find themselves tasked with reminding its current owner that the house hasn’t always belonged to her, and may even already belong to someone else. As the film’s title suggests, however, Grace is suffering from a severe case of Main Character syndrome, and there’s no guarantee whether that message will get through to an egocentric rich woman whose perspective has never been challenged (“How do you know who the goodies and the baddies are?,” Nicholas asks at one point, as if his mom were the least bit qualified to answer). It’s an irony that Kidman harnesses into one of her greatest performances, that of a ghost who cannot imagine a world beyond themselves.
Oh yeah, Grace is dead. So are the children she killed in a mad fit of desolation. And her husband who died in the war. And the people working on the grounds, for that matter. In fact, the only living people in this movie are the little boy Anne befriends, the members of his family who are trying to get to the bottom of their ghost problem, and the psychic they hire to exorcize Grace’s spirit from the house.
I wish I could remember if I saw this twist coming when I saw “The Others” in theaters some 22 years ago, or — as I’d like to think — if I was so aligned with Grace’s perspective that I couldn’t entertain the notion that she had things quite so backwards. Then again, the film’s opening night audiences were especially primed to predict this exact reveal, as only two summers earlier, on that same August weekend, “The Sixth Sense” had made a version of it into the biggest cultural flashpoint of its kind since “The Crying Game.”
Amenábar was already deep in pre-production before he was able to see how M. Night Shyamalan beat him to the punch, and on the commentary track included in the Criterion Collection’s new edition of “The Others” the writer-director admits that he was stricken with fear about the similarity before his producers talked him down. He needn’t have worried. While both films build toward a similar gut-punch, and both films basically agree that spirits only see what they want to see, the ending of the “The Sixth Sense” is the clever exception to a story that otherwise relies on ghosts to identify denial, whereas the ending of “The Others” is the profound affirmation of a story that uses denial to identify its ghosts. As someone who’s always found Amenábar’s to be the more full-bodied and persuasive of these forever-bonded films, I tend to think that’s because it’s so willing to live with the vertigo of the unknown, even if its heroine isn’t.
And she isn’t so unusual for that. Sure, her unfortunate penchant for filicide makes Grace an extreme case, but “The Others” continues to haunt because its poltergeists are born from the common fact that most people will convince themselves of anything in order to make life hurt less. As Kidman frays and frazzles in reaction to the cracks in Grace’s reality, the character becomes a monument to the way that conviction — at its most unyielding and absolute — can become the ultimate form of denial. “Children who don’t tell the truth end up in limbo,” Anne recalls, and the same would appear to be true for their parents.
“Religion gives you the answers, [but] I think it’s not good to think that we have the answers,” Amenábar said in an interview two months after “The Others” came out. “That’s what I’m trying to say through this story. I would say that my position is agnosticism, and it should be the same for the characters at the end of the film. It’s not about having big answers for everything, but questioning ourselves.”
And questioning herself is one thing that Grace can simply not abide — her belief system is the scaffolding of her entire self-image, and she would rather spend eternity keeping it upright with a lie than let it crumble under the weight of the awful truth. The same ghost stories she doesn’t believe in are ultimately what give her the opportunity to do that after she’s lost hope of any other alternative, which is the last and most lasting irony of Amenábar’s masterpiece: This unsparing film about the horrors of self-deception ends by recognizing the singular comforts of its genre.
Even the scariest ghost stories offer the promise of another chapter, and even our most spine-chilling fantasies about what comes next can dilute the fear that nothing does. Anything to make the pain go away. Anything for that moment when little Nicholas, his skin exposed to the light for the first time since his death, looks at his mom with joy in his eyes and beams that it doesn’t hurt anymore. He’s only a child, but he’s already learned the last thing that he’ll ever need to know: Ghosts are only as frightening as our reasons for hoping they don’t exist.
“The Others” is now available to buy on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.
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