For some reason, ghosts scare the living shit out of me. I don’t really know why, either. In most cases, restless spirits are not even a danger to the people they’re haunting. They just want revenge on the third party who wronged them. But give me a good haunted house movie, even with the most harmless of ghosts, and I will creep myself right the fuck out. This should not be a newsflash to anyone over the age of nine, but ghosts are not real. Yet they seem like they could be, and it’s that extra layer of plausibility that gives haunted house movies a level of verisimilitude that most other horror subgenres lack. Ghosts are by definition invisible and intangible, so it’s no wonder they are more difficult to find than, say, a giant radiation-breathing lizard monster. The stories are usually couched in the intimate settings of home, and the best haunted house films have a lived-in quality to both arena and character.
Ghost stories also share genre markings with noir. Hauntings spring from the kinds of sordid tales world-weary detectives like to plumb, and oftentimes, when a noir story ostensibly ends, a ghost story begins. That connection is readily apparent in this week’s Now Fear This entry, 1980’s The Changeling. This film should break the muddy and arbitrary rule of my feature, namely that the films I review be largely forgotten. The Changeling was a critical darling of its time, taking home the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture. For whatever reason, it never pops up on lists of good ghost movies, getting bumped for flashier fare like Poltergeist or The Sixth Sense. Unlike those others,The Changeling has a timeless, classic feel, building slowly with a sense of pervasive dread.
The film is about a haunting and as the protagonist attempts to discover the source, he learns something extremely disturbing about the former inhabitants of the house. Anyone familiar with the legend of the changeling (the earthly fairy kind, not the iron-fisted leaders of the Dominion), probably can already guess the big reveal of the mystery. That shouldn’t impact the enjoyment, because the film is more about mood than plot anyway. The reveal is even more shocking now than it probably was at the time, because of the ridiculous tyranny of handwringers at the MPAA currently demanding that nothing in pop culture be even remotely troubling. The reveal is one of those scenes whose impact hasn’t been diluted by hundreds of Saw knock-offs, the kind of thing that gets to the core of what we are as a species.
I’ll get back to that later. The film opens with composer John Russell (George C. Scott) enjoying a snowy vacation in upstate New York. Everything is fantastic, but this is a horror movie, and so he gets to watch his wife and daughter get killed in a car accident. We pick up four months later, and John is trying to put his life back together. Scott wisely underplays every scene, giving the impression of a man who knows that if he breaks even slightly, he will crumble utterly. His subdued performance suggests that three people died in the accident rather than two, but the world was too cruel to take him along with his loved ones.
The haunted house in question is an overgrown manor that flirts with the great problem of many modern ghost films, namely that the house is far too large and creepy to feel real. The fear in horror is that of immediacy, and the more the filmmakers divorce the threat from modern life, the harder they must work to ground the movie. This is why classics like Alien give the heroes recognizable modern flourishes like baseball caps and pet cats, even though the likelihood of either existing that far in the future is slight. The mansion in The Changeling is too large to be relatable, but the director wisely introduces it in a series of echoey tracking shots, placing the audience within the dusty walls.
Tragedy is often used to link the victims and perpetrators of hauntings, the idea being that a brush with death can open a person’s mind to the unknown or draw a connection between worlds. In this case, the link is embodied in a ball that once belonged to John’s daughter Cathy that he keeps close as a sad reminder. The ghost uses the ball to reach out to John, however what comes off as a playful overture from a living person can be downright unnerving coming from a murder victim seventy years dead. The fascinating thing about the ghost is that at times it seems to have a consciousness motivating it to communicate and at other times it mindlessly re-enacts its demise. This has always been a tantalizing aspect of ghost fiction: what does a human being lose in death that makes a haunting the most effective mode of communication? Something clearly gets scrambled during or after death, or otherwise a haunting would consist of a couple polite notes pinned to the refrigerator.
John deals with pounding sounds at specific hours, apparitions in the upstairs bathroom, and faucets turning on spontaneously before a broken window leads him to a secret room. This is another wonderful trope in ghost movies, an eerie little detail adding to the surreality of a haunting: the room that is visible from the outside but hidden from the inside. Finding a child-sized wheelchair and other creepy, dust-covered memorabilia from the turn of the century, John begins his investigation in earnest. The creepiest accent is a music box that plays the tune John has spent the last several days apparently writing. Medium scenes are de rigueur in haunted house films, and The Changeling is no exception. The medium is refreshingly underplayed, acting as though she were in a constant low-grade trance, asking her questions in a dreamy monotone, while her pencil scratches violently over paper. As John discovers sepulchral whispers on the recording of the seance, we get the shocking scene I alluded to earlier.
As John grows closer to the venal truth of the crime, the ghost loses its patience. The investigation seems to strengthen and paradoxically anger the spirit. It begins merely wanting attention, then justice, then actively needing it, and finally angrily demanding it, forcing our hero to play a dangerous game, the stakes of which keep rising out of his control. And like all good noir stories, the ultimate villain is a powerful man with an awful secret.
Grounded by Scott’s subtle performance, bolstered with a solid story, and filled with eerie menace, The Changeling deserves to stand next to other classic cinematic ghost stories. The real tragedy is that the only people who suffer are the innocents.