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Ghosts: What Are They, and Should Catholics Watch Movies About Them?

November 5, 2020 | By

For Catholics, November begins -- literally on the 1st and 2nd of the month -- with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively. All Saints calls to mind the vast cloud of witnesses to God's grace that the Church has officially canonized as saints, and all the other souls that have achieved Heaven (even if they don't get the official title of saint). All Souls Day honors the faithful departed on the road to Heaven but still in Purgatory.

So, we spend time in November thinking about the dead, but movies love to have the dead walking around, as vampires, zombies ... or ghosts.

We checked in with Family Theater Productions producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., about whether partaking of cinematic ghostly delights is a good idea.

What does the Church teach about ghosts?

The Church does not teach about “ghosts,” per se; it teaches about Purgatory. Some souls of dead persons who do not yet see the fullness of Christ inhabit the realm of Purgatory for a time. Usually, some sudden, violent death or some unresolved sin or lack of faith temporarily keep them from Heaven.

Somehow, the word “ghost” was unofficially attributed to souls in this state, perhaps most popularized by the works of William Shakespeare. (I’ll use “ghost” as shorthand for “dead souls, not fully in Heaven” for the remainder of this interview.)

What does the Bible teach about ghosts?

It’s important to note that deceased Catholics are not stuck (no pun intended) forever in the spiritual reality of Purgatory. We can always pray for dead souls as we did on All Souls’ Day. It’s highlighted in the month of November, but it’s something we should be doing all year.

The Church refers to the beautiful story in 2 Maccabees 38-46. Some of general Judas Maccabees’ slain soldiers were found to be wearing amulets. He doesn’t despair. Judas and his men pray for their fallen brothers, making atonement for the dead hoping for their eventual freedom from their sin of idolatry.

What are the qualities needed for a great ghost movie?

The best quality to an inherently good ghost movie is to get the aforementioned theology correct and never confuse dead souls with demonic spirits.

Fallen angels/demonic spirits cause physical harm to those they come across. They’re nasty spiritual entities that almost always require an R rating if depicted in film. Ghosts/souls of dead persons merely try to call attention to themselves. They may frighten initially but are eventually harmless.

Ghost films, thus, are more family-friendly and are rated PG-13 or even PG. But don’t get too comfortable if you come across dead souls. They’re not your pet ghost. We always turn to prayer that they might see our Lord fully.

Is there a movie that best expresses the Catholic view of ghosts?

I found A Ghost Story to be phenomenal. It’s an excellent example of what makes for telling a theologically sound “catholic” story also makes for sound filmmaking.

Made for a mere $100,000, the story follows Rooney Mara’s character as she mourns the loss of her husband, played by Casey Affleck.

He shows up as a ghost covered by the white sheet that covered him at the morgue. He haunts the family home through various tenants, finally leaving when reading a note hidden by his wife. A prayer for him? Maybe.

Is there a spiritual danger in watching ghost movies?

No. Whereas one could debate whether watching films featuring demonic possession is dangerous, ghost movies are benign, as actually dead souls are benign.

Have you had a ghostly experience?

Yes, I believe I have, once. When I lived with the Jesuits during film school, I felt the presence of one and heard it speaking in a foreign language I didn’t recognize.

I talked to the Jesuit in charge of Campus Ministry, and he said that I was one of several cases on that side of campus, who were experiencing odd supernatural occurrences.

They believed it was due to a recently installed Native American sculpture on the bluff that overlooked old burial grounds. “That would explain the foreign language I didn’t recognize,” I said to myself.

What are your top five ghost movies for Catholics?

* A Ghost Story (2017): mentioned above.


* Lost (2003-2010)

Editor's Note: The ABC series about a group of plane-crash survivors stranded on a mysterious island left some viewers assuming that the survivors didn't actually survive, but spent the run of the show in a form of Purgatory, therefore being ghosts. But, later commentators, and the producers themselves, disputed that, saying they didn't die but went into some kind of parallel universe -- maybe. So, were they ghosts? One piece of advice, when executive producer J.J. Abrams is involved with a show, don't look for answers, only more questions.

This might help (but maybe not):


* Hamlet (1948):


Coco (2017)


* A Christmas Carol (the 1951 feature film, starring Alistair Sim, and the 1984 TV version, starring George C. Scott)

Editor's Note: The three Christmas "ghosts" in Dickens' classic tale -- Past, Present and Future, or Yet-to-Come -- aren't really ghosts, but some kind of spirits. But Jacob Marley's ghost is definitely a ghost, because, as Dickens wrote:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.


Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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