In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing. (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)
You probably know at least one person who reports having experienced something uncanny, or perhaps it’s happened to you. When I was little my family lived for a while in a house in Hackensack, New Jersey, in which odd things happened. There were strange noises at night and a bizarre incident involving a window shade falling out of a window where it seemingly could never have hung.
The worst business involved my sister, who was perhaps 3 years old. For months she was terrorized in her bed by what she said was a “green thing.” She recalls it flying around her room on batlike wings. One might chalk it up to night terrors, but on at least one occasion she agitatedly told my mother, in broad daylight, that she was unable to cross the room because the green thing was under the coffee table. One night during one of these episodes, feeling that there was evil in the room, my mother ordered the presence to leave in Jesus’ name. My sister reported that the thing crashed into her headboard and vanished. She never saw it again. None of this defies naturalistic explanation. My parents’ accounts and recollections may have drifted from what really happened. Two different window shades could have gotten mixed up. Children say and do inexplicable things. To my mother and sister, though, these are not satisfying accounts of their experiences and memories.
This may be a misleading point of entry into Light from Light, a ghost story that involves nothing remotely frightening or sinister, or even very dramatic. The point is that, scary or otherwise, enigmatic incidents like this are far from uncommon. Behind many such stories, doubtless, is some mundane explanation, knowable or otherwise. Is that the whole truth of all such stories? Who can claim to know such a thing?
I’m tempted to call Light from Light the first ghost story I’ve ever seen that I completely believe. There’s no whiff of horror tropes or supernatural fantasy, that is, to beg our suspension of disbelief. Characters and events are as persuasively true to life as the best of (say) filmmakers Kenneth Lonergan or Richard Linklater. Light from Light is the second feature from writer-director Paul Harrill, whose critically acclaimed 2014 film Something, Anything won admiration among Christian cinephiles for its depiction of a spiritual seeker whose journey takes her, among other destinations, to a Trappist monastery retreat after discovering that a former classmate became a monk. Light from Light is more accessible in theme and approach than Something, Anything, but it’s a work in a similarly low-key, contemplative mood, light in incident and drama, gently supported by an understated, ambient score. It’s a ghost story that is not so much about whether there is a ghost as about characters grappling with what it would mean if there were. It’s also about the lives they are living now and how past experiences shape their present and future.
Sheila (Marin Ireland) is a single mother in rural East Tennessee with a teenaged son named Owen (Josh Wiggins). She’s had a couple of uncanny experiences, including one notable incident from her youth, and may or may not have a gift of paranormal sensitivity. She works for an airport car-rental agency but has an occasional side gig as a paranormal investigator. One day she’s approached by an Episcopal priest (David Cale) on behalf of a grieving widower named Richard (Jim Gaffigan). Richard’s wife, Suzanne, was killed in a plane crash, but may not be wholly gone from the farmhouse where she grew up and where they lived together for 12 years.
The phenomena Richard reports are less dramatic than my family’s unsettling experiences in Hackensack, and certainly he isn’t terrorized by the possible haunting. “People think ghosts are scary,” Richard observes plaintively. “I think it would be wonderful if they were real.” Crucially, Richard and Suzanne’s relationship is not idealized. On the contrary, there were painful complications that emerge in the movie’s standout scene, a quiet conversation on a porch at night. (Greta Zozula’s atmospheric cinematography and precise compositions, outstanding throughout, are most striking here.) At his lowest moments, Richard confesses, he has wondered why he should go on living. This isn’t simply the voice of despair; the possible presence of Suzanne has made him wonder if he’s missed on the other side. “You can never be sure you would join her,” Sheila cautions. At least two possible ideas lie behind these words. There may be no afterlife in which to be reunited — or there may be different destinations beyond death, and suicide might close rather than open the door to reunion.
If Sheila’s words are open-ended, it may be because neither she nor Richard are churchgoers now, though both have been in the past. The title alludes to the Nicene Creed, and specifically to the theology of the Trinity and the relationship of the Father and the Son. Cale’s priest is the only actively religious character, and his most explicitly religious remark, about the Resurrected Jesus, is disappointingly heterodox. (In another scene we see him in church reciting the Collect for Purity. I’m reminded of an English Episcopal priest I met in Charlotte who contended that it was impossible to celebrate Rite One with a Southern accent.)
What does the title mean here, in a film addressed to viewers of any faith or of none? Perhaps it suggests hope and trust: a belief in the goodness of the mystery of being, of whatever is above and beyond. If not an affirmation of dogmatic Christian faith, it may hint that the confidence to which Christian faith invites us is the right attitude to have. In his review film writer and pastor Joel Mayward connects this to what the philosopher Richard Kearney calls “anatheism,” meaning belief in God “after God,” or “faith beyond faith.” This seems to me not entirely unconnected to what Joseph Ratzinger describes in Introduction to Christianity and elsewhere as the shared uncertainty of the believer and the unbeliever, the inescapable space between “Perhaps there is nothing there after all” and “Perhaps there is.”
While Richard’s relationship with Suzanne is central, the film is as much in a way about Sheila’s son Owen’s relationship with his high-school study pal Lucy (Atheena Frizzell) and his carefully thought-out reasons for not wanting to ask her to homecoming. We meet Owen and Lucy practicing class presentations on a particular country. Where Lucy’s presentation on Japan highlights the tea ceremony, Owen’s presentation on Denmark is a collection of scattered bullet points. “It’s supposed to focus on one key thing about the country,” Lucy mildly observes, but he’s having trouble narrowing it down. On his reasons for not wanting to date Lucy, Owen’s thoughts are much more focused. She is college-bound; he is not. Any dating scenario seems doomed to end in heartbreak. There’s a winsome maturity to Owen, but also, we come to see, a guarded fatalism shaped by his mother’s experiences and outlook — and not only in his romantic reserve.
Sheila is a ghost hunter in part because of a past relationship she remembers with some bitterness. “Don’t fall for someone just because they treat you nice,” she wearily cautions Lucy. “Everyone treats you nice at first. Things only matter if they last.” Here we find Harrill narrowing his focus to one key thing about his characters’ lives and journeys. Loss is an inescapable part of life. Disappointment and betrayal are possible outcomes in any potential relationship. Owen’s father is conspicuous by his absence, and Sheila alludes to other exes. Whatever else she was, Suzanne was not a perfect spouse, and now she’s gone and Richard is alone. How do we assign meaning amid impermanence, uncertainty, and human weakness and failure? Forgive me another Lewis quotation:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. … The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell. (The Four Loves)
Fear of loss can move us to guard our hearts — or to seize the moment, to risk for the sake of living and loving. A brief crisis helps to clarify for Owen what really matters, who he is and wants to be. What does Richard want? Closure, perhaps, or reassurance. Perhaps Sheila is also looking for a kind of reassurance: that her gift is real; that her mysterious experiences are meaningful; that the pursuit in which she has invested not only time and energy but in some way her sense of self is not just a waste of time.
Crucial to the film’s persuasiveness are its patience and restraint. Neither of Sheila’s odd stories stretches the bounds of credibility. In both, in fact, it’s possible to hope for (almost to expect, in a more formulaic film) more than we get — added confirmation Harrill gently denies us. A scene in which one of Sheila’s former colleagues, doing a presentation on their methods, talks about “the scientific principles we use to identify and prove” the presence of ghosts — and the technology they use (DVRs, infrared and audio recorders, etc.) — helps to clarify the difference between the film’s method and the investigators’. Sheila sets up monitoring equipment throughout Richard’s house and proceeds methodically, moving from room to room recording on her iPhone, addressing the emptiness: “If you are here and would like to communicate, let yourself be known.”
Empirical methods are highly effective at settling some kinds of questions — questions, to be clear, that are good to have answered. Can such methods ever “identify and prove” (note the pedantic overemphasis on that last word) the presence of ghosts? Cameras can show us what happens wherever the camera is pointing. They can’t tell us what happens somewhere else, or after the camera is turned off. Nor can they necessarily tell us why everything happens. If there is a ghost, and if it is Suzanne, are monitoring equipment and neutral invitations to “let yourself be known” the best way to facilitate an encounter? Does that bear any resemblance to how we would reach out to anyone else?
If we accept that Suzanne is (or even may be) here at all — not just that she is “there,” that her spirit survives, but that she is here, with us — then wouldn’t any encounter turn on the same trust and openness as any meeting of hearts and minds? And would the same apply, perhaps, to God?
Silence, reflection, the search for meaning, the interior life: These are among the hallmarks of Paul Harrill’s work.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.