Folklorist Mikel J. Koven has written about something he calls the “folklore fallacy” in horror films, which he defines as “the indiscriminate inclusion of any and all forms of ‘folklore’ into the film’s diegetic mix.”  In other words, filmmakers often skim the surface of real-world folklore, gather together everything that seems “folky,” and throw it on in there because, you know. Hollywood.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (and I suspect Koven would agree). In our book The Folkloresque we address this issue from a different perspective, trying to understand why filmmakers (and authors, and game designers) use these elements in this way. It’s certainly a logical decision, in a genre that deals with ghosts, to draw on real-world traditions of ghosts (or whatever). But on the other hand, when people aren’t careful, they end up saying silly things like “the Celtic goddess” and depicting “Celtic” celebrations in a way that the average viewer might assume has some basis in reality. So the issue is not one of respect for the source material, per se; rather it’s about the kind of authority with which we tend to invest the medium of film. This is the point Koven makes in his analysis of The Wicker Man, a goofy-ass movie to be sure, and one that makes uncritical use of all kinds of nominally “Celtic” stuff.
Hmm, how can I connect all that to the movie review I’m supposed to be doing…? Let’s see… Wicker Man… Wicker Man… Koven’s talking about the original, but of course we’re all familiar with the hilariously amazing Nic Cage remake. And guess what! Nic Cage is also in Pay the Ghost! Brilliant!
In this film, Nic Cage plays Mike Lawford, a professor (of English?) at an unnamed-but-probably-Columbia university in New York. He’s struggling to balance family obligations with the unreasonable workload placed on tenure-track faculty (hah!). Finally, on Halloween, he gets notice that his department has granted him tenure, but the good news is spoiled when his son Charlie disappears from a local street festival.
Of course, the audience knows that Charlie was in fact abducted by some sort of evil spirit. Naturally Mike’s wife Kristen blames him, and they separate. Jump to a year later, and Mike’s living alone in a crummy apartment, trying to piece together the mystery of his son’s disappearance. He eventually concludes, after some Weird Stuff Happens, that Charlie’s disappearance was supernatural in nature, and sets out to convince his estranged wife of this fact.
Perhaps surprisingly, the movie starts off pretty well. It sets itself up as a slow-moving supernatural thriller, with the added bonus of Nic Cage doing whatever it is that Nic Cage does. Kristen is played by Sarah Wayne Callies, perhaps best known as Lori from The Walking Dead, and she gives probably the film’s best performance as a desperate, grieving mother. Some minor plot holes aside, it looks at the outset like another quiet creeper in the vein of The Woman in Black, heavily focused on the idea of parenthood (and, later, maternity in particular) and the fears that often accompany it.
Things fall apart about midway through, when we start to see more of the ghost, and all kinds of random “Celtic” elements start popping up. Kristen sees a Razor scooter move by itself and decides instantaneously that Mike was right about Charlie’s supernatural abduction. Mike determines that a lot of other children have gone missing on Halloween, and unlike kids abducted on most other days of the year, these kids have mostly remained missing. So Mike finds the address of another kid who went missing and tracks down the father, now a grieving junky, who confirms that his child spouted some nonsense about “paying the ghost” before disappearing–just like Charlie did. Research!
This thinnest of leads having panned out, and with Kristen now back on his side, Mike eventually learns (research again!) that the ghost who took his son is the spirit of an Irish settler in New York who was burned as a witch because of course. Her children were also burned, for some reason, and now she kidnaps kids every Halloween to, you know, get back at those guys who died three hundred years ago (ghost logic).
The discovery of the “Celtic” connection was facilitated by Kristen, who, briefly possessed by Charlie’s spirit, carved a “Celtic” symbol on her own arm. (Apparently writing on paper would have been too banal.) This prompts a brief research (!) sequence, where Mike’s professor pal helps them uncover the truth of the Irish woman’s fate and blah blah blah. It went off the rails here, see. Just, ugh. They learn of a community of Irish Americans who still celebrate Samhain according to the “Celtic tradition,” and off they go because of course they do.
This is Koven’s “folklore fallacy” in full swing, and here it is a bad thing because in this particular work it’s lazy, inaccurate, mildly ethnically insensitive, and boring. The symbol on Kristen’s arm is connected to a “Celtic goddess” whose involvement is really not clear–the villainous ghost is precisely that, the spirit of a dead human, not an unnamed inhuman spirit–and seems almost to be included as an afterthought. Not only is “Celtic” a disputed term, but the invocation of a random and unnamed “Celtic goddess” is bizarre (there were so many to choose from). And the film’s depiction of modern-day Irish Americans half-assedly enacting a poorly-understood pre-Christian tradition makes my skin crawl. (Although in fairness, when Mike starts grilling the head druidess about the goddess connection, she finally admits, “I’m just a school teacher from Bayside.” So, I guess, kudos for irony?)
The final act has Mike crossing a literal bridge to the otherworld (because of course it’s in New York), rescuing Charlie and some other abducted kids, and running back across the bridge just in time for a happy ending. By this point things have become so eye-rollingly hammy that it’s impossible to care, which is really a shame given the film’s untapped potential. Worst of all, it doesn’t even ascend to the Wicker Man‘s level of Caginess. It seems like even Nic was too bored with the script to manage his usual level of amazing lunacy.
This one is ultimately a miss, obviously. Partly it’s because of how research works. Research is really hard. It took me a lot of years of over-priced institutional learnin’ to realize how hard it actually is. I used to be primarily interested in Celtic stuff myself, and did some shoddy work with it; but finally I realized that I lacked the breadth of knowledge (history, archaeology, linguistics) and energy necessary to pursue that material. But, as Koven notes in his work on the Wicker Man, filmmakers aren’t really concerned with “anthropological verisimilitude” –i.e., accuracy. And they don’t necessarily need to be. On the other hand, a little bit more time spent on the basics would go a long way.
Also, you know, not using a ton of bland, recycled horror tropes. That would also help.
 Mikel J. Koven, Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends (Lanham, MD; Toronto; Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 34.
 Ibid, 28.
3 thoughts on “Pay the Ghost (2015): Or, the Blair Witch Wicker Man Tooth Fairy Project”
How much do you think the movie would have been improved with the addition of bees? I find he hits peak Cage when there are bees present.
Also, what you described in terms of lazy folklore-ing is how I feel about lazy Chinese speaking in movies. Like, how complicated could it be to get a dialect coach? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-native actor speak anything close to even passable Chinese.
In the same way, it shouldn’t be complicated to at least learn *something* about the culture/tradition/etc. you’re referencing when writing a script and yet so many people seem to just go with whatever they think is probably maybe a little accurate kind of. It’s like playing local legend Mad Libs.
Bees make everything better. That’s why Nic laughed so much when they put them on his head, probably.
Yeah, accuracy is rarely a concern in film, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, nitpicking about cultural details in a film about a ghost killing people is perhaps missing the point; on the other hand, people tend to credit “real-world” details in fiction more than we might expect. There’s an interesting piece by two psychologists, Prentice and Gerrig, called “Exploring the Boundary Between Fiction and Reality” where they talk about this. They argue that people are less critical toward fiction, and as a result they internalize more of its claims–something to that effect. I’ve actually written about it in an upcoming Slender Man piece–hopefully it will be out in the journal Contemporary Legend sometime this year.
For me I think it’s not so much about nitpicking the details that are glaringly incorrect and more so noticing how much more I enjoy fiction when the details have obviously been carefully tended to. I think William Gibson does an amazing job of weaving different cultural traditions into his stories in a way that feels very authentic, and I think it improves the experience so much.
And while it’s easy enough to sort of wave off a cheesy Nic flick (or others of the same ilk), they do pile up and create kind of this culturally acceptable cultural misunderstanding. Which only mildly bugs me I suppose in comparison to how it probably makes you feel.
I’d be interested to read your thoughts on Slender Man. The idea of the internet generating new creature legends is fascinating to me.