It’s been years since I last watched Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. The film was released at a time when “twist” endings were all the rage (thank you, M. Night Shyamalan), due to the success of The Sixth Sense two years earlier. Much like that film, The Others relies on the concept of a ghost not realizing that it is dead. In this case, however, we’re dealing with an entire family of ghosts. And not only are they unaware of their deaths, the twist here is that they’re the ones being haunted–by the living family that moves into their home. “There is something in this house which is not at rest,” Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, says. She does not yet understand that it is herself, and her children. An enjoyable if predictable film, The Others does touch upon a few interesting ideas.
Since we are viewing events through the unreliable lens of Grace’s POV, Mrs. Mills, the children’s new nanny, is set up as the villain early on in the film. Mrs. Mills’ true role, as psychopomp, is hinted at in a shot of her ascending the staircase, toward a soft light above her. I was reminded of the scene in the excellent film Jacob’s Ladder (to which The Others is in no way comparable, but a couple of elements apply to this post), where one of Jacob’s psychopomps, his dead son, leads Jacob up a staircase and into the light. Grace, still in darkness, is not ready to make that journey. Mrs. Mills is a practical woman who is clearly concerned about the effect Grace’s behavior has on her children. She has little patience for both Grace’s continued outbursts and the charade she, Mr. Tuttle, and Lydia must put on while waiting for Grace to come to terms with her family’s deaths, and eventually takes matters into her own hands. By the end of The Others Mrs. Mills’ purpose is clear; having been through death herself, she has returned to the house she loved to guide the deceased family into their afterlife.
Grace herself is strong-willed, sanctimonious, and holds a religiously-informed worldview that divides everything into strictly black-and-white terms. Backed into a corner when Anne questions her about the arbitrary nature of “goodies” and “baddies,” she silences her daughter rather than admit that she does not have an answer. The limbo in which she finds herself could be interpreted, from a biblical standpoint and certainly from her own beliefs, as a punishment for her arrogance. “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” says Jesus in Mark 10:14-16. Convinced that she is a “godly” woman, for whom her interpretation of Christianity holds all the answers, it is not until the end of the film that Grace admits she is no wiser than her young daughter. She has been humbled in the face of her existence as a ghost, which disproves her assertion that such things cannot exist because “The Lord would not allow it.” “The Lord” seems quite willing to prove her wrong. Now that Grace has accepted her lack of knowledge about so many things, perhaps she is at last on the path toward redemption.
The fog barrier surrounding the house represents not only the division between life and death, but the mental barrier that Grace has erected to protect herself from the reality of her situation. Limbo, a divine punishment with which she often threatens her children, is a construct of her own making. When Grace finally remembers that she murdered her children and killed herself, when they accept the fact, with Mrs. Mills’ assistance, that they are all ghosts, the fog lifts–literally and metaphorically. Sunlight is illumination, and illumination is knowledge. Daylight streams in through the windows. Freed from the darkness of their mother’s denial and from the attachment to their mortal bodies, the children find that light no longer hurts them. Meister Eckhart, the Christian mystic quoted in Jacob’s Ladder by Jacob’s chiropractor (his other psychopomp), can also be applied to the Stewart family: “‘The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you….They’re freeing your soul.'”
Jacob’s Ladder. Dir. Adrian Lyne. Perf. Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Pena, Danny Aiello. Artisan, 1990. DVD.
The Others. Dir. Alejandro Amenábar. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston. Dimension, 2001. DVD.