Vol 1, Num 4 :: 2002.10.25 — 2002.11.07
Most of us are not very good at celebrating the Day of the Dead. We are much more comfortable singing Martin Luther hymns or giving out candy on Halloween than commemorating those who have passed on.
In an attempt to learn about our relationship to the dead, I’ve written four short exploratory essays on ghosts. In the first, I establish the necessary conditions for witnessing ghosts as demonstrated in the film, Bringing out the Dead. Next, I examine prominent ghost sightings in two of Shakespeare’s more popular plays. The third essay attempts to briefly summarize the ghostly nature of books. And the fourth essay takes up the theme of memory in Scripture and the unique role of our own Holy Ghost.
Bringing Out the Dead
In Bringing out the Dead, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is a burnt-out paramedic haunted by the ghost of a girl who died during his watch. This specter appears on the street corners and in the faces of others as Frank drives his ambulance recklessly around Hell’s Kitchen. Though the girl is the primary phantom in Frank’s life, he is haunted every night by the memories of people he lost as he travels all too familiar streets in this New York City neighborhood.
Frank’s occupation requires him to respond to the call of medical emergencies, but his true vocation is to act as witness to humanity on the edge. Just as Frank’s ambulance speeds through the night at a pace that could mean quick help to the sick or swift death to the drivers, so all the people in Hell’s Kitchen ride on the sharp side of a razor, not knowing when they’ll fall off or on which side. Whether they are straddling the border between sanity and insanity, safety and danger, love and hate, life and death, human beings in Frank’s world are perpetually in an in-between place.
Being able to detect this disturbing characteristic of in-between-ness in others makes Frank an ideal observer of spirits. According to spectrological research, phantoms often appear as a result of extremely violent murders, suicides or accidents and are stuck in a state of unrest. Experts of the paranormal explain that ghosts haunt because they are haunted themselves. As entities hovering in a state between life and death, ghosts appear as beings that no longer be. Frank is equipped to recognize ghosts precisely because he himself is stuck in a state of unrest; and as a paramedic called to life-or-death emergencies, he is often the one standing between life and death for the inhabitants of Hell’s Kitchen.
In Bringing out the Dead, the gray sagging skin beneath Frank’s sleepless eyes speaks to the immense burden of bearing witness to this particular state of in-between-ness. Frank would like to shut his eyes but this would betray the girl whose phantom insists on being remembered. Frank longs to find someone to take this burden from him, but a good witness of ghosts is hard to find.