A scene from "A Ghost Story." Image courtesy of A24

David Lowery on 'A Ghost Story,' the afterlife and other spooky questions

CHICAGO (RNS) — The classic image of a ghost covered in a sheet haunted filmmaker David Lowery.

It seemed so lonely and out of place. Possessed by the image, the director, known for "Pete's Dragon" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," wrote the screenplay "A Ghost Story," in theaters now.

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"A Ghost Story" unfolds slowly with limited dialogue and lingering shots. The movie follows "C," played by Casey Affleck, who — in one of the few scenes in the movie with special effects — turns away from the proverbial light and returns as the bedsheet-draped ghost to the house he shared with his wife, "M," played by Rooney Mara. She moves out, another family moves in, then another, and time marches on and loops back in a way that Christianity Today said offers "a tiny glimpse of that God’s-eye perspective."

Lowery was raised in a "very religious" Catholic family, he said, with eight brothers and sisters and a theology professor father.

"It’s not part of my life in a major way today, but having been so steeped in that tradition for so long, there's no way I can make a movie and not have it play some part in the stories that I'm telling, especially when the stories deal with issues of mortality and the afterlife," he said.

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And when ghosts are invoked, questions about the meaning of life and what happens after we die take viewers into the realm of religion and spirituality.

Lowery discussed those questions and the continuing appeal of ghost stories at last month's Chicago premiere of "A Ghost Story." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What captures our imaginations about ghosts?

On a very primal level, people enjoy being scared, and so there's a long-standing tradition of going to the movies or reading scary stories because it's fun to be scared.

But behind that enjoyment of fear lies a desire on our part as human beings to engage with various existential dilemmas, with various fears that I think are pretty universal across humanity. I think that ghosts are particularly well-suited out of all the monsters and creatures from the horror genre to explore those fears because they are projections of ourselves, and those projections are reflecting back at us from an idea of existence that we can't quite understand or grasp.

We can use ghosts to confront and deal with all sorts of fears that we have about our own mortality and our own existence, and so they're very useful in that way.

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There’s something spiritual about what’s seen and unseen. Can you talk about making seen unseen things?

Right now, I'm in Chicago, and my wife is back in Texas. I think about the fact that she is doing something there right now, and yet that house and the things that are in it are so far away from my current reality, all I can do is imagine it and have faith that it's happening because I can't see it in front of me. I spend a lot of time thinking about that and about all the things happening around us that I am not privy to because I have my own bubble that I live inside of, and my ego only goes so far.

In terms of this story, there's that old chestnut about how we all wish we could be voyeurs at our own funerals, and I think that’s a profound idea. I think it's probably something that everyone has thought about from time to time. That desire to be part of something we no longer are a part of is purely an extension of our ego. Not to say there's no compassion mixed in there, but largely it's our ego wanting to live beyond that realm we've left.

There’s a scene in the movie where a man is holding forth on what he thinks is the meaning of life. You've summed up his argument as basically “live each day like it’s your last.” Does that reflect your own beliefs? Is that what you wanted to leave viewers with?

I think it’s a good start. I think indeed we should live each day as if it's our last. I don't think that is the only way we should live. I think there's more to it than that. I think there’s mystery there that we need to pursue. There are questions we should keep asking.

Actor Rooney Mara, right, in scene from "A Ghost Story."  Image courtesy of A24

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There’s a recurring theme of people leaving hidden messages. What does that say about what we leave behind and how we want to be remembered?

There's something beautiful about the fact M is painting a message into the wall, knowing full well that no one will ever find it. Maybe C will find it. Maybe she’s hoping his ghost will pick it out of the wall, but that’s doubtful.

So she’s leaving something of herself behind so she can feel that she belongs there and she’s taken a little piece of it with her and leaving a little bit of herself behind, and that piece will always be there. That’s something that I take great comfort in myself. Knowing that I've been in a place and left some sort of impact there is satisfying to me. It makes me feel connected to the world, and it makes me feel at peace with my movement through time and space.

I also feel that it's important to be able to let go of those things and walk out of a room and not look back and be OK with it. And so at the end of the movie, when the ghost is able to look at this thing that he has been trying to gain access to, the physical attachment that he's been holding onto is no longer there, and he's able to move on.

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  1. “And when ghosts are invoked, questions about the meaning of life and what happens after we die take viewers into the realm of religion and spirituality.”

    And folklore, silliness, mythology, improbability, spiritism, fear, speculation, dead religions, and wishful thinking.

    But who’s counting?

  2. I’m pretty sure that ghosts are generally not a consideration from the scriptural viewpoint. The only “ghost” story I recall from the bible involves the prophet Samuel, and I’ve read two interpretations of the circumstance involving the witch of Endor and King Saul in that case. 1#: The ghost was Samuel’s and in this single circumstance God allowed a departed human spirit to return to admonish and chastise Saul. Which is why the witch reacted with such alarm; she was used to calling up demonic spirits and flipped out when she realized that the spirit was actually Samuel.
    2#: The “ghost” was a demon impersonating Samuel, with however, essentially the same message. I ain’t about to limit God and His own prerogatives. While always consistent, He is not bound by human considerations of His acts. I do think your gotquestions link answers the normative pattern well.

  3. it is interesting in the account referred to that Saul is not the one who “saw” the “ghost” of “Samuel”, but the witch, who was not even supposed to have been alive – at least by GOD’s Law…. What she “saw” she described to Saul and from the description she gave, Saul identified “Samuel.”

    The Bible is clear that the dead are “conscious of nothing at all” and that “inquiring of the dead” is something that is “detestable” to the God of the Bible – at least that’s what HE says….. as it is “inquiring of demons,” fallen angels bent on deception, and not “ghosts.”

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