The movie Ghost (1990) is only one of umpteen movies I have seen that might have precipitated this essay, but this one is as good a place as any to start. My objection to movies of this sort is that the discovery that there is life after death on the part of the protagonist fails to make the profound difference in his thoughts and feelings that one would expect. The number of movies about life after death are far too numerous for an exhaustive survey, so only a few of the better known ones will be discussed as representative.
There are three ways in which the soul can survive the body: (1) the soul goes to a place for the departed (Heaven or Hell, for example), (2) the soul is reincarnated in another body, or (3) the soul wanders the Earth as a ghost. And for each of these ways, there are movies in which the protagonist discovers the reality of such. The perplexing thing is the way in which the protagonist that makes the discovery is remarkably unaffected, except insofar as his knowledge of life after death helps him in matters that concerned him before the discovery.
As for movies in which the protagonist discovers that the soul goes to an afterworld when the body dies, I covered this subject at length in my essay, “Heaven in the Movies.” In that essay, I noted that in the movies Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake Heaven Can Wait (1978), when the protagonist discovers that Heaven exists, he is unimpressed. All he cares about are the worldly pursuits that mattered to him when he was alive. He never takes a moment to reflect upon Eternity.
I suppose the idea is that they have believed in God and in Heaven all along, so it is no big deal to them to have the existence of God and Heaven confirmed. In other words, whereas an atheist like me might be expected to stand there in astonishment and to say to himself, upon being sent back to Earth, “I must change my life,” for ordinary people who already believe, it is no big deal. But that is a facile view of human nature. Religious people only half-believe what they hope is true, and it is this combination of half-belief and hope that constitutes the essence of faith. A religious man would be just as impressed by the discovery that Heaven exists as any atheist, and upon being sent back to Earth to continue his life, as is the case in these two movies, this new knowledge would be just as life-transforming for him as for an atheist.
In reincarnation movies, the discovery by the protagonist that he has been reincarnated leaves him similarly unimpressed. Of course, when people are reincarnated in the movies, they always manage to come back to life as white middle-class Americans in good health, never as untouchables in India who are forced to rummage around in a garbage dump to find something to eat. Be that as it may, in Chances Are (1989), all the protagonist cares about when he realizes he has been reincarnated is distancing himself from the girl he is attracted to, who was his daughter in his previous life, while hooking up with her mother, who was his wife in that previous life, but who is now old enough to be his mother. But after an angel gives him a syringe-full from the River of Lethe, he forgets that the girl is his daughter and has sex with her instead. I guess it doesn’t matter that their souls are committing incest as long as those souls inhabit genetically unrelated bodies. But the main point of all this is that the only effect the knowledge of reincarnation has on the protagonist is the way it complicates his sex life.
At this point, it might be noted that the movies I have presented as examples have all been comedies, and that I am taking things way too seriously. Now, if I had laughed while watching these movies, that would be different. But when a comedy fails to make me laugh, the absurd premises of such a movie become painfully obvious. I have heard that some people actually did think these movies were funny, however, so I guess for them, these movies worked. Perhaps the reason they were able to enjoy these movies is that they really do not believe in life after death themselves, and so they don’t expect the protagonist to take it seriously either.
Whereas movies about Heaven or reincarnation tend to be comedies, movies about ghosts tend to be taken more seriously, especially since ghosts take us into the genre of horror movies. And this brings us to the movie that started this essay, which is Ghost. In this movie, Sam (Patrick Swayze) is murdered and becomes a ghost. He realizes his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) is in danger, and thus he does his utmost to keep her from being killed as well. When he finally saves her from Carl (Tony Goldwyn) by fighting with him until Carl is accidentally killed (and dragged down to Hell by demons), he is then able to join the blessed in Heaven, his mission here on Earth having been accomplished.
At the expense of being once again admonished for taking these movies too seriously, I cannot help but wonder why he doesn’t just let Molly die so that she can join him in Heaven. I mean, if there really is a Heaven in which we dwell in eternal bliss, who needs life on Earth? Why drag out the misery of existence when the joys of Paradise await? There are good things about life, to be sure, but not even the best of life could possibly compete with the happiness that awaits.
There is one movie about ghosts, however, that has the transformative effect on a man that we would expect, and that is A Christmas Carol (1951). A greedy miser is visited by three ghosts who show him the error of his ways. Seeing his greed and selfishness from the aspect of eternity horrifies him. From then on he wants to do whatever he can to help others, to bring a little happiness to his fellow man. This is one movie about life after death that makes sense.