Most ghost stories play on our belief, however subconscious, that the spirit world really does exist, and some films in this genre are more determined to prove the existence of ghosts than others. For some Christians, this is reason enough to avoid such films altogether, but others, like myself, would argue that it is still possible to find something of value in supernatural thrillers, even when they don't conform to a specifically biblical view of the afterlife. The Sixth Sense, for example, works perfectly well as a parable about the power of trust and love to overcome fear and shame, and if writer-director M. Night Shyamalan really does believe that it is possible for little boys to communicate with the dead, he thankfully does not stress this point too strongly within the film itself. Other films, however, seem to have more explicit agendas in mind, and White Noise fits squarely within this category.
The film—which has been promoted among fans of the paranormal with the same kind of enthusiasm that some Christians have for end-times movies—begins and ends with title cards that tell us some of the alleged facts regarding Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP. Apparently Thomas Edison thought it should be possible to construct a device delicate enough to detect the personalities of those souls that have passed on to the other side; however, according to those who believe in EVP, it may be that our radios and TV sets are already picking up signals from the dead without being specially designed to do so.
That's the premise, and if White Noise were just another earnest independent film pushing bad science and bad spirituality on its audience—like What the Bleep Do We Know?—it would be a numbing bore. But the film has its surprises. For one thing, it is genuinely scary, and one of the most chilling, frightening flicks I've seen in years. For another, it ends on a note that is not as rah-rah for the supernatural as you might expect.
But first, the story. Michael Keaton (who, between Beetlejuice and Jack Frost, knows a thing or two about ghosts) plays Jonathan Rivers, a happily-married architect whose wife, Anna (Chandra West), leaves the house one day and never comes back. But then funny things begin to happen, and always at 2:30 in the morning. On that first night, his clock stops and the radio starts blasting. On another night, he is woken by a knock on the door from the police. And on another night, a message arrives on his phone.
It turns out Anna is dead, and soon Jonathan finds he is being followed by a man, Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), who asks if Jonathan would like to hear a message from Anna's spirit. Jonathan rejects the offer at first, but eventually decides to visit Raymond's home, which is full of videotapes, audiotapes, and journals in which he has indexed the various messages he has received from the dead, all of which are hidden in the otherwise random static picked up by his antennae. Jonathan is also introduced to Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), a woman who has already made contact with her own loved one through Raymond's help, and who now says she comes to Raymond's place all the time because "it's addictive."
That's the first sign right there, that obsession with EVP might not be an entirely healthy thing. Jonathan soon becomes an "addict" of sorts himself, surrounding himself with video screens and digital editing equipment so that he can bank messages from the dead and replay them when necessary—and while he apparently receives signals that enable him to see accidents before they happen, and thus to rescue innocent people, he also attracts the attention of much more shadowy forces, who threaten to wreak some havoc.
White Noise thus includes an element of extreme caution that is missing from a number of recent ghost movies. The Sixth Sense, for example, suggests that ghosts are only scary until you give them a chance to explain themselves; but White Noise acknowledges that there are some spirits that have no ambition beyond causing as much damage as they can. The film never uses the word "demon," but it does suggest that those who open themselves up to this sort of phenomenon are exposing themselves to as much harm as good.
The appeal of something like EVP lies, paradoxically, in its promise that the world is both more orderly and less mechanical than we expect; concepts like EVP suggest that all the apparently random and meaningless sights and sounds that surround us are actually full of personality and intentionality, while at the same time, they introduce an element of unpredictability to what we might have thought were boring and predictable natural laws. The quest for glimpses of personhood within the static of the airwaves is really not that far removed from the search for personhood in the world of matter, here and now.
Concepts like EVP also play on our knowledge that there are, indeed, some forces that are invisible. If we can believe in electronic transmissions and radio waves even though we do not see them directly, then of course, this film says, it is possible to believe in a spiritual realm, too. Christians can affirm such thinking to a point, even as we express caution around the merging of science and spirituality, and the way such ideas can expose us to spiritual elements that are not clearly from God.
Directed by Geoffrey Sax, here making his first feature film after a lifetime of TV work, from a script by Niall Johnson, White Noise is not an especially stylish film. It doesn't have the wall-to-wall gothic look or feel that most ghost stories seem to have, and it doesn't seem to have the creative and symbolically significant color scheme of, say, The Sixth Sense. In addition, some of its filmic devices seem a little hokey for a movie that is apparently trying to persuade us that EVP is a real phenomenon. But the film is quite successful as a fright machine in its own right, and, in its search for spiritual realities beyond this life, it may even be useful as a theological conversation piece—and that has to count for something.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Raymond says, "I don't contact the dead. The dead contact me." Do you think he is being honest when he says this? Why do you think he keeps all his electronic equipment open to signals from the spirit world? Is there a moral difference between initiating contact and merely receiving it?
- If the spirits of the dead do contact us, what should we do? The Catholic and Orthodox traditions include stories of saints appearing to people after they died, and Protestant Bible translator J.B. Phillips even claimed to have been visited by the spirit of C. S. Lewis. What do you make of stories like these?
- Why do you think people might look to machines to make contact with the dead? Does an air of "science" make the spiritual world more acceptable to the modern mind?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
White Noise is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language. It's a scary film all about ghosts and spirits, some of them harmful, so parents might not want their children to see this film unless they are prepared to discuss it afterwards.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/13/05
If the spooky theories that inspired the premise for White Noise have any credibility, you may soon be able to pay extra to pick up voices of the dead on your satellite dish. Sounds hokey—but apparently this new thriller, starring Michael Keaton (Batman, Jackie Brown) as an architect whose wife disappears, is convincing enough to keep the viewers biting their nails and jumping out of their seats.
According to religious press critics, it might also be enough to provoke some meaningful discussion about life after death.
"If White Noise were just another earnest independent film pushing bad science and bad spirituality on its audience—like What the Bleep Do We Know?—it would be a numbing bore," writes Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "But the film has its surprises. For one thing, it is genuinely scary, and one of the most chilling, frightening flicks I've seen in years. For another, it ends on a note that is not as rah-rah for the supernatural as you might expect. In its search for spiritual realities beyond this life, it may even be useful as a theological conversation piece—and that has to count for something."
"It's impossible to follow any reasonable trail to the big revelation," writes Bob Smithouser (Plugged In), "which is an incoherent marriage of supernatural shenanigans and serial-killer shtick. Some of the violence is disturbing. But perhaps the bigger issue for Christian families is Hollywood's ongoing fascination with Sixth Sense-style chat sessions … that seek answers from the dearly departed."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says it's "disappointing simply because it doesn't generate the anxiety or scares that one expects from the genre. [Director Geoffrey] Sax seems to think that showing the snowy, electrically charged static screens of a TV or computer monitor provides us with the expectation that something is about to happen. He must have forgotten that one's first response to static is pretty much universal—annoyance. Although White Noise isn't much of a film it does provide us with an opportunity to consider what the Scriptures tell us about communicating with the dead."
Mainstream critics are writing it off as just a bunch of genre-thriller noise.from Film Forum, 01/20/05
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The story is as insubstantial as its spectral spooks. Director Geoffrey Sax tries to distract viewers with hokey horror sequences that are more silly than scary and migraine-inducing sound effects of static interference from snowy TV screens (thus, the title). It is a shame that Sax didn't time the static blasts to cover up the corny dialogue. The unwieldy script makes almost no sense at all."
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