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LOS ANGELES – PRESENT DAY – 1979
Ask someone this question and the first answer is usually no. Then a pause, a reconsideration. The second answer, usually, is yes.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
It is spring, I am nineteen years old, and have been asking this question for weeks. Friends, family, classmates, the boys at the photo lab, the waitresses at the all-night diners, and Vicky, a pal who studies biochemistry and who secretly thinks she might be psychic. Kids and adults, neighbours and strangers, and each response is the same: denial, followed by wait – there was this one time… Then, almost shyly, a ghost story.
INT. CENTRAL LIBRARY, SUB-BASEMENT – 1977
Ghost-hunter, paranormal researcher and documentarian Hans Holzer is author of more than one hundred books, and the downtown Los Angeles library has most of them. Ghosts I’ve Met. The Great British Ghost Hunt. Houses of Horror. Holzer believes that ghosts are the spirits of people who are unaware that they’ve died; who are, in his own words, ‘confused as to their real status’. The subject is otherworldly, but the writing style is breezy and conversational, and each of the case histories is an alleged true story. True or false, they’re what I need right now. I’m seventeen, my mother is dying, and I am full of questions.
Holzer’s investigations follow a set format. He and a spiritual medium (always a woman – we’ll call her Sybil) arrive at the scene of a haunting, usually a house. Holzer knows the particulars of the case (related to him by nervous occupants) but Sybil is entirely ignorant, thus ensuring the integrity of the investigation. Entering into a trance state, Sybil makes contact with the ghost and relays the spirit’s story – and through her Holzer then gently explains that time has moved on, and that earthly concerns may now be left behind. On receiving this news the departed spirit is usually relieved and cooperative, and passes peaceably to ‘the other side’, ushered in by Holzer, the paranormal doorman.
With a teenager’s zeal I devour the Holzer books, and read well beyond him into Victorian spiritualism, table tipping, ectoplasmic events, photography of the supernatural. Vicky acquires an Ouija board, and a growing group of friends spend long afternoons in darkened rooms, deciphering poorly spelled messages from Beyond the Veil.
My mildly alarmed father responds to this trend by giving me his old Bell and Howell wind-up movie camera for my eighteenth birthday. It’s a thing of beauty: grey cast-metal in rounded, 1930s lines. It’s small enough to fit into my two cupped hands, heavy as prophecy. It’s a gift to take my mind away from death and Mother’s illness, to get me out of the house and into the fresh air – and it works. My friends and I begin making short films, and Hans Holzer and his ghosts are soon forgotten.
BACK TO PRESENT – 1979
But two years later I am collecting ghost stories again, this time with a purpose. My father’s camera has led to a community college cinematography class, and an assignment: make a documentary film. Do it on something you know a lot about, the teacher urges.
Now I’m pursuing two phantoms. The first is a ghostly star for my documentary. And the second? By choosing film as a career, I’m embarking on the life my father wanted, but never got to have.
LOS ANGELES – 1923-1939 – CONTINUOUS
Born in 1907, Donald is only a few years younger than California’s film industry, and has watched it move from strength to strength with the admiring awe of a younger sibling. Each Saturday he and his sister tingle with horror or shout with laughter as Lon Chaney swings from the bell ropes of Notre Dame, Harold Lloyd dangles from the hands of a skyscraper’s clock, John Barrymore transforms into the murderous Mr Hyde, and an animated Felix the Cat redefines gravity, logic and reality.
For Donald the stories behind the studio walls are as enticing as those on the screen. His mother’s monthly Motion Picture Magazine tells of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks racing by horseback down Hollywood Boulevard to settle a dinner tab; Gloria Swanson sweeping from her train amid brass bands, flanked by police motorcycles; Clara Bow, the ‘It Girl’, giving millions of girls and women (sister included) the courage to defy their parents, shorten their skirts and bob their hair. A stunning new invention, air conditioning, thwarts the sapping heat of summer. Picture palaces grow ever more flamboyant, styled French baroque, Ranchero Spanish, black-lacquer Chinese and Egyptian, complete with sphynxes. It’s clear that something old and tired is being left behind. Life is gaining momentum, and film is one of the forces driving the change.
At eighteen, at a summer charity gala, Donald sings through a megaphone studded with lights. His clear notes, carrying through a darkness scented with night-blooming jasmine, are heard by a local radio producer and this leads to radio work, and a few small roles in plays and musicals. Though thousands are vying for their ‘big break’, Donald doesn’t want to work in radio or on the stage, and he doesn’t want to perform. It’s the work behind the celluloid scenes that draws him. Cinematographer. Editor. Art director. Producer. Talkies are usurping silent films as he lands two part-time jobs with Paramount in 1928: one as a waiter in the commissary on the studio lot, the other in the ticket office at a nearby Paramount Theatre. Starting at the bottom, working his way up.
The Wall Street panic comes a year later. Paramount cuts back, and both jobs are lost. As the financial crisis deepens and his parents edge toward bankruptcy, a citrus farmer uncle steps in. Strings are pulled; Donald gets work as a travelling salesman for a large fruit grower’s cooperative, hawking oranges and lemons to hospitals and restaurants from the coast to Chicago. As the years pass and the unemployed line up for soup and bread, Donald knows he’s lucky to have a job, any job.
Near the end of the Thirties, in a nod to his former dreams, he buys a small Bell and Howell wind-up movie camera to shoot footage of his travels from the windows of the train. He’ll work forty years, his whole career, selling citrus. His family will never be short of oranges.
EXT. LOS ANGELES – 1977
My father’s wind-up movie camera has beguiling dials and several lenses, and it is weeks before I notice the shutter lever moves in two directions. Press it down, the camera runs; press it up, it just clicks.
‘It’s taking a single frame,’ Dad says, ‘like a regular camera.’
‘Why would you use it like a regular camera?’ I ask.
He shows me. We line up pebbles on the garden path, mount the camera on a tripod. Then, frame by frame, click by click of the shutter, we move the pebbles to spell out a word: Hello. It takes the better part of an hour to do this.
‘Persistence of vision,’ Dad explains. ‘Consecutive still images, projected, are seen by our brains as continuous motion.’
When the film comes back from the developer, the clip runs only a few seconds, but it’s a revelation. Animation has made me the creator of a small, alternative world, a world where the impossible can happen. A world I can hold in my own two hands.
Knowing of the situation at home, the kindlier of the teachers at school let me submit short animated films instead of written essays. The War of 1812 and A Bicentennial History of the United States are unlikely subjects, but the films have a novelty factor, just enough factual content to satisfy the assignment, and for a while my flagging grades rally. The little camera is a fickle saviour, however. As the hours pass, frame by frame, truancy from school becomes a habit. Animation helps me deny that my mother, Marion, is dying.
EXT SCENES, CALIFORNIA AND HAWAII – 1936 to 1975 – CONTINUOUS
At twenty years old, Marion already has a history of asking uncomfortable questions. Why shouldn’t I be on the team, when I play as well as the boys? Why shouldn’t I go to university when all my brothers are going? Her brothers’ polite word for her is ‘tomboy’, a girl who camps, rides horses, and plays basketball better than they do. It never occurs to her not to make full use of her talents, just because she’s female. Her mother quietly encourages her. Go on – find out what’s possible.
Marion is bright and she’s an athlete, a powerful swimmer. Her persistence pays off. At university she swims in the state championships, and she’s seen and recruited by Duke Kahanamoku, five-time Olympic medallist and the coach of the prestigious Territory of Hawaii Swim Team, full of Olympic hopefuls.
Oahu. The air feels soft to a young woman from inland farm country, and it is scented with plumeria flowers. The sea and limitless sky are of a blue so pure it seems a reflection of heaven. Mornings, Marion works as a school teacher on a large sugarcane plantation, walking to and from the tiny schoolhouse through high, murmuring grasses. Spelling, arithmetic, games. In return, her pupils and their mothers teach her to hula, to wear hibiscus flowers in her hair, and to relish fresh, sticky pineapple. These are easy, graceful mornings.
Afternoons, she swims. A newcomer to a team of prodigious talents, this is the hardest work she’s ever done. Unlearning bad habits, every muscle and sinew now bent toward speed. After eight months, she breaks and holds one long-standing record, then another, and feels the stirrings of potential. She swims the Hawaiian Channel, and journalists start writing about her. She’s headed for the Olympics, and she’s favoured for gold.
Marion’s shadow self, the Olympian, will never materialize. The 1940 Games are scrapped after the outbreak of war in Europe. At loose ends, she makes a poor first marriage, has two daughters. Pearl Harbour is bombed, and she returns to the mainland where she is slowly divested of dreams. The loss of her marriage, the erosion of freedoms. This is not an easy time to be a single mother. As her girls are leaving for university, she meets and marries Donald, and has one unexpected, late-in-life daughter. She raises her, as she has all her girls, to accept no boundaries.
Fifteen years later, her walking grows unsteady. Her body is about betray her, imposing strictures she cannot begin to imagine.
INSERT: AMYOTROPHIC LATERAL SCLEROSIS
Also known as ‘Lou-Gehrig’s Disease’, ALS is a terminal illness characterised by muscle weakness, atrophy, loss of speech, loss of the ability to swallow and, finally, loss of the ability to breathe. In her mid-fifties Marion could still outswim and outrun people half her age; now eighteen months in, she’s reduced to a state of complete paralysis. Chair-bound, speechless, only her eyes capable of decisive movement. Blinking in response to a recited alphabet, she spells out single words, highly distilled versions of the mother-daughter talks that can never take place. Explore. Dream. Question. She watches from the window as her teenaged daughter plays in the garden with an old movie camera.
BACK TO PRESENT – LOS ANGELES – 1979
The collected answers to the question – Have you ever seen a ghost? – yields many possibilities for the documentary film assignment. A derelict theatre is selected: The Pasadena Playhouse, said to be haunted by the ghost of its founder, actor-director Gilmore Brown.
From the outside, the Playhouse looks like a California mission. White adobe walls, a red-clay roof, cloisters, a forecourt, a fountain. This sleepy exterior is misleading: in its heyday the Playhouse was a powerhouse, a fully formed world of theatre with multiple stages and a school of dramatic arts. Known as the ‘Star Factory’, it produced such names as Raymond Burr, Eve Arden, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. Hundreds of productions – new plays, experimental theatre, world premieres – mounted each year.
Director Gilmour Brown realised all his ambitions, pouring boundless energy into the Playhouse, enjoying decades of creative ascendency until his death in 1960. Is it any wonder he had difficulty leaving all this behind?
INT. PASADENA PLAYHOUSE – 1960
Opening night, backstage, the final moments before curtain. Places everyone! Quiet descends. The last person to leave the stage, after bestowing final approval, is Gilmore Brown. Well past the age of retirement, he’s still a tall, resplendent figure in top hat and tails. Opening night nerves prevent him from taking his seat in the audience. His habit is to remain backstage. The curtain rises, and Brown begins his first-night ritual: he paces. From the stage door to the wings. Back to the stage door. Back to the wings. Silently, over and over, back and forth, listening to the play, gauging the audience. He’ll take his seat out front after the interval, only if the play is a success.
It is just a few weeks after his death that people begin noticing things. It’s not that his ghost is a visible manifestation: more of a feeling, and the sound of footsteps, pacing that same, known route between stage door and wings. The stagehands’ reports are dismissed at first (Brown and his opening night jitters are well enough known to fuel imagination) but as the old guard moves on, as newcomers begin sensing the tall, nervous presence backstage, begin hearing disembodied footsteps, the haunting is solidified, legend.
BACK TO PRESENT – 1979
The ghost of Gilmore Brown isn’t known beyond the circle of the theatre, and this makes it perfect for documentary. These are the rules according to Hans Holzer: the less known going in, the purer the investigation.
Following Holzer’s lead, my first step is to find a spiritual medium. It’s easier than anticipated – this is California, after all – and a couple of referrals later I am in possession of a phone number. I expect my Sybil to be moody and sepulchral, but she isn’t. She’s a big, boisterous man called Bob.
‘Love to help you out,’ he booms over the phone, a voice like Jimmy Durante’s. ‘Whatcha got and when can we do this thing?’
I tell him the location, but nothing specific about the haunting. I can hear a riffling of paper as he checks a pocket diary.
‘Seances, tarot reading…’ he mutters, ‘…more seances… Ha!’ A big belly laugh comes over the wire. ‘Three weeks from this Friday? It’s Friday the 13th! Perfect. We’ll do it then.’
Bob will bring a half dozen friends, mediums and psychics. The investigative team will also include a few of my own people: aspirant paranormals, like my friend Ken, who is ‘into’ pyramids, Nan, who fancies her hand at dowsing rods, and Vicky, my maybe-psychic biochemist.
INSERT: LOS ANGELES – 1979
It’s an era of urban dereliction. Old theatres and picture palaces are closed or crumbling, two or three to a block along Broadway. They’re probably all haunted – if only by the shades of their former elegance. They are the flickering reflections of an opulent past. City dwellers’ flights to the suburbs, the closure of the tramlines, business decamping in search of cheap land and parking – all this has turned southern California’s most powerful city into a ghost town, domain of the marginalised, the homeless, the addicted.
Holzer maintains that there are ghosts all around us, all the time. But not all ghosts are hauntings, and not all hauntings are ghosts. Things fade that once seemed certain. The city’s vitality. Donald’s career in film. Marion’s Olympic gold, even her ability to walk and speak. Gone. Dozens of untrodden pathways, and none of them lead to now.
And some things that appear to be real, like a collection of pebbles capable of spelling the word Hello, never actually exist.
INT. FAMILY HOME, LOS ANGELES – 1977
In the early days of Mother’s illness, I ask my father a question.
Will she get well again?
His first answer is no, and there can be no reconsideration, no revision. It’s the only answer Donald can give. Marion’s decline is visible week on week, like time-lapse photography, a human body in freefall atrophy. Two years in, she’s having difficulty even breathing.
On her final morning, the machine that clears the fluid from her lungs isn’t working well. I am on the stair landing with our dog, listening anxiously to the familiar rasp of suction. Downstairs my father switches the machine off, crosses the room and dials the phone.
Two years has put us on a first name basis with the doctor. Dad’s anxious voice as he explains what’s happening, then silence as he listens. He sighs.
‘We’ll be here. We’re not going anywhere.’
The ambulance is coming. Her care has gone beyond our abilities. Leaving home, being tended by strangers, is what Mother dreads most. I’m sitting now, and hugging the dog so hard she whimpers. Dad crosses back to the sick chair.
‘Marion.’ His voice is the only sound in the house, and it cracks when he speaks again. ‘Marion?’
I am not in the room when she dies. And yet, a few seconds later, she is with me for the briefest moment before she makes her escape. The only way I can see this is as film. A viewpoint shifted, once-removed, and she is my camera.
INT. MODEST HALLWAY/STAIRS – EARLY MORNING
The camera starts at ground level. It lifts, rising through shadow. We see the dark legs of Grandmother’s mahogany table, a cloisonne vase, framed photographs of family. We ascend with the stairs, taking in the sinuous curve of wooden bannister. At the landing, the camera slows, framing a seventeen-year-old girl. The girl is crying, her arms wrapped around the neck of her dog – but sensing something, she turns and looks directly into the lens. The camera slows, keeping the girl in frame, but the upward movement is inevitable. With gathering speed, the viewpoint tilts swiftly upward, melts through the ceiling, passes into a pale sky.
FADE TO WHITE.
BACK TO PRESENT – 1979
The group that gathers in the dark forecourt of the Playhouse on the night of Friday the 13th of April number a camera-woman and nine ghost-hunters, all signed off with permission to find whatever might be there.
Bob, bearded, genial and built like a linebacker, has brought five psychic friends. They are relaxed and friendly, wearing open collars and corduroy, and they look like visiting academics at a conference. My friends and I, by contrast, look like central-casting lunatics. Ken’s got a pyramid in his afro and is swinging another one on a chain. Nan’s ‘dowsing rods’ began their day in her closet as coat hangers. I am wearing an excessive amount of equipment: a Bolex 16mm camera, movie lights and sound-recorder, all shoulder-mounted, powered by heavy batteries garlanded around my waist, like a deep-sea diver’s belt. Vicky is carrying a thin package of unexposed film pressed between her palms. This is a Victorian-era technique: the film is meant to record the image ‘channelled’ through the receptiveness of the person holding it.
Vicky is the odd one out in this company: the others believe, while she, the scientist, doubts. But she’s excited, and more than willing to push the boundaries. With her long dark hair and pale face, holding the film flat between her palms, she looks like an extra-terrestrial nun.
Bob, a born showman, spreads his arms and draws the assembly into a circle.
‘Okay folks,’ his voice echoes through leaf-strewn cloisters, ‘there’s a ghost here, and only our hostess—’ a gracious bow in my direction ‘—knows who or what it is. Your job is to find it, using whatever means you favour.’
Walkie talkies and flashlights are handed around. Bob checks his watch.
‘It’s nine pm now. Anyone finds anything, report your location. Meet back here at midnight.’
9.46pm: on the sixth floor of the drama school a medium surprises a grumpy spirit who refuses to answer questions and who brushes brusquely past her.
10.16pm: on an exterior balcony a psychic senses the rustling of a woman’s skirts, and a peal of silvery laughter.
10.51pm: Bob has a silent impression of unutterable sadness and weeping near the ticket office.
11.05pm: Nan’s dowsing rods are lively in the theatre courtyard, as are Ken’s pyramids.
At each squawk of the walkie talkie I set off in lumbering pursuit. My single, excoriating movie light blazes into the darkness and makes everyone’s eyes go squinty, like people pulled from their beds.
It’s going well, except for one thing: after two hours of filming, no one is sensing the main event, the ghost of Gilmore Brown. No one, that is, except Vicky.
I find her just outside the doors of the main theatre a few minutes before midnight. She has the box of film still faithfully pressed between her palms.
‘I’m getting an impression of sorts,’ she says, a little embarrassed.
Her eyes are fixed on the doors, but her point of focus is somewhere entirely different.
‘I keep thinking of a man in top hat and tails,’ she says, slowly. ‘Like Fred Astaire, you know? Slim. Elegant.’ Her eyes connect with mine through the square window of the camera’s viewfinder. A glancing smile, and she turns. ‘He’s over here somewhere.’
She leads us into the main theatre, down the sloping floor toward the stage. At wall of scaffolding, site of much-needed restoration work, she stops, poised, as though she’s listening. Hesitantly, she raises her joined hands toward the scaffold’s risers.
‘He’s behind all this.’ She nods, certain now. ‘Backstage.’ She pauses. ‘He’s really, really nervous. Like … pacing. Pacing like a lion.’ Vicky turns again toward the camera. ‘Is he a producer or an actor or something?’
Cut. Print it.
Vicky phones a few days later to ask if anything has shown up on the film she’d been carrying. My first answer is no. Then a reconsideration. The second answer is yes.
In the red light of the darkroom, I watch as the image materialises on paper in the developer tray: it is a very tall, semi-transparent figure, white, fading to grey at the edges, against a background of black.
It’s a photo of Gilmore Brown … and it isn’t. I’ve examined the film container Vicky was carrying, and it’s clear that the nervous energy she so accurately channelled that night made her press too hard against the box. There’s a small crack, and the photo in the tray is probably just a light leak. And yet, I know it’s Brown, if only in the metaphoric sense: Vicky, in her willingness to look beyond science, and in the excitement of discovery – has allowed a ray of light into darkness.
INT. LECTURE THEATRE – SUMMER – 1979
A young director is in the audience for the community college’s year-end film festival, hoping to hire an apprentice for a new series of children’s animated films.
‘Take her.’ The teacher points toward the booth, where I’m loading the projector. ‘She’s the only one in years to have done any of that.’
INT. WEST HOLLYWOOD STUDIO – 1989
Donald’s legacy: a decade working in film, creating things that don’t exist. Talking frogs. Dancing dinosaurs. I have complete control over this small world and all its outcomes. It’s fun, and it’s well-paid. But it isn’t enough.
I’m reading The Satanic Verses, published last year. Its author, Salman Rushdie, has all but vanished. His book opened forbidden doors; now under threat of death, he’s gone into hiding, and is the object of occasional sightings.
I read with interest as one the book’s characters defines a ghost as unfinished business.
The insular world of film is not easy to leave behind, but Marion’s legacy can’t be ignored. Explore. Dream. Question. Searching for untrodden pathways, for shadow roads into other lives and different ends. I am a nervous late-comer to this party, and it makes me smile to think that I am, yet again, in search of a ghost.
This time it’s my own. If I am fortunate, I will never quite find her.