Popcorn Frights Review: The Excellent ‘Ghosts of the Void’ Examines A Relationship and Nation In Decline
When Ghosts of the Void opens Tyler and Jen are newly homeless, just recently evicted they have packed their car with what it could fit and made their way to a pawn shop to sell what they could and are now trying to find a place to park their car in their first terrifying night of housing insecurity. Act one unfolds in such a way that a casual viewer might find the exchange between Jen and Tyler should be cute and warm. Beneath the surface there is stress. There are cracks.
There is a sense of foreboding as the Torrance family drives through the mountains of Colorado at the opening of The Shining. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s music feels both futuristic and eternal, yet menacing. The camera pulls back and there is a sense of isolation in the way the car is framed. As they wind their way through the mountains they are heading toward doom; they just don’t know it yet. Lots of horror films have adopted the iconography of The Shining since its release. Probably the most frequently borrowed is that shot of the Torrance family car. Jason Miller’s Ghosts of the Void opens with the same shot and in every way earns this usage.
Unlike the Torrances, there is no cavernous hotel to retreat to for five months. Jen and Tyler are trying to find a place to park to sleep tonight while trading promises that tomorrow will be better; they will have a plan. Their language clings to a disbelieved possibility that it won’t just be better in terms of housing, but it might be better between them. Early flashbacks show the couple in happier times: laying in bed, smiling, and cuddling.
They settle on stopping in a public park on the wealthy side of town, adjacent to what they believe to be a country club. Exchanges over whether the country club has free wi-fi and fireworks underline the division between Tyler and Jen as well as how isolated they are from the experience of the rich. When Tyler comments that the fireworks might be because of a late July 4th celebration, she replies “that’s stupid.” It’s a potent moment. Is Jen saying that the months late celebration is stupid or is she taking advantage of the one moment when she can tell Tyler what he’s saying is stupid without fear of reprisal?
Jen seems quick to reassure Tyler of his value at every turn. Whenever Tyler needs the least bit of assurance, Jen is quick to offer it. In an early moment Tyler glances at a bread wrapper, while Jen is already contentedly munching on a peanut butter sandwich made from. When he announces the bread is expired, Jen wordlessly spits her mouthful into a nearby bag. She can’t offer that the bread tastes fine or that expiration dates are often overly cautious — it is safer to spit out the food than challenge Tyler’s observation.
It’s worth mentioning that Tyler is a failed writer. Stephen King often employed failed writers or blocked writers to examine masculinity, ego, and aggression. Tyler would be right at home in The Shining, Secret Window, or The Dark Half.
Flashbacks are employed to show how Tyler has used his creative outlet to punish Jen and himself, one of which features Jen curled up in his arms sharing her own creative outlet, photography, with Tyler. With the attention shifted from him he sulks and remarks “this time next year I’ll be a published writer”, a comment designed to elicit Jen reminding him that he has already had a short story collection published. In another flashback Jen isn’t effusive enough in her praise for Tyler’s first novel, so we see him become belligerent and abusive as Jen scrambles to recontextualize her words into something that will satisfy Tyler. Then lastly, in a scene where Tyler has deleted his novel and all backups in an act of creative self-harm, he wants to hurt himself in a way that he can blame Jen. Jen attempts to retrieve a draft from Tyler’s laptop and while struggling over the laptop, Tyler hits her.
Like Jack Torrance, violence bubbles at the prospect of being nurtured. Wendy offered to bring Jack dinner and read what he had written, and he became violent. Tyler reacts in the same way when Jen tries to rescue him from his own act of self-harm. For both men, they define success through isolation and to be helped is to damage their masculinity. Jen offers throughout the the film’s first two acts to listen to Tyler and engage with his feelings and he repels it at every turn.
The situation deteriorates when a homeless man leaves a note in proselytizing literature on their windshield, warning them that the area is unsafe. It’s after this that Tyler’s alcoholism comes into focus when he “takes a walk” to drink and angrily hit a fence. Jen consumes a couple of expired sleep aids but soon finds herself forcing her way through the urge to sleep because of her fear. That’s when hallucinations take hold, and Jen hears the patriotic drivel on the radio turn into a personal scathing criticism of her situation.
Soon shadowy figures emerge on the tree line around the car and Jen beckons Tyler back with the car horn. He emerges standing amongst playground equipment, petulant, telling Jen that he’s “answering her now.” Like so many millennials, Jen and Tyler don’t have children. We don’t know if they’re child free or childless but dialogue about mounting debt and Jen’s need to act in a caretaker capacity for Tyler show that even if they wanted kids, they wouldn’t have been in the cards. Tyler, like so many man children, is both spouse and child to Jen.
They find a boot applied to their car, like those used in parking enforcement and repossession — a boiling point for the tensions between them. While Tyler is trying futilely to pry the boot off, an anxious Jen nervously begins to discuss the tactics of third party bill collectors. She gushes about how they’ll go to lengths not allowed by law and she believes the bill collectors pursuing them might have put the boot on the car. In her state of fear and anxiety, talking it out is her way of dealing with it.
Tyler explodes on her. He screams at her about the possibility that she might “give herself a panic attack” instead of articulating how he feels or considering if her words were scaring him. He bounces them back into self-containment and then uses the language of therapy to control her, telling her to find her “five things.” In 2023, Jack Torrance would weaponize therapy language on Wendy in the “when I’m in here” scene instead of simply yelling at her; Tyler is a Jack Torrance for the Jonah Hill age.
When the shadowy figures emerge from the trees their masks have familiar patriotic shapes and are red, white and blue respectively. A revisited location throughout the film, with increasing urgency, is a chain-linked fence separating the public park from what Jen and Tyler to believe to be a country club. At turns, visits to the fence are sad, angry, and desperate. Their assailants use a drone to spy on them at one point, and when it comes time for their attackers to descend on them, their preferred weapon is a golf club. Miller is coding the attackers as wealthy dilettantes intentionally, where the film finds a kinship with the work of Michael Haneke or James DeMonaco: the upper class is horror.
Even if Tyler was willing to accept help, not much would be available outside of Jen. The film opens to a title card with a George Carlin quote, “The reason they call it the American Dream is that you have to be asleep to believe it.” In a flashback Jen’s mother chides her for not leaving Tyler, not because he’s abusive and the relationship is broken, but because he is a loser who doesn’t produce wealth. Her mother then chides Jen about her photography for the same reason. Talk radio and commercials form the backdrop of the film’s two first acts and they repeatedly pound patriotism and the myth of self sufficiency.
After the various acts of violence and reveals play out in the film’s third act, dawn breaks and the camera finds the chain-linked fence that Jen and Tyler found their way to throughout the film. An almost dreamy haze hangs over the shot, unlike the stark and clear night cinematography. We now see through the fence that it was a driving range at a golf course. Compounded excess. A melancholy rendition of “Hard Times Come Again No More” plays over the scene. The song is a standard of the American songbook and was written by Stephen Foster, father of “American music.” It became a standard during the Civil War and found resurgence during various labor movements and the Great Depression. But Foster? Hard times did come again for him. He flung himself from a balcony at a hotel in the Bowery and died three days later from the injuries. In his pocket was $.38 and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts.”
There is a neat symmetry to Miller’s film with both the opening and closing calling to mind tragedy in hotels but here in the middle where we live, where Jen and Tyler live, there isn’t refuge. I’ll close by adding that Jason Miller calls Ti West’s House of the Devil a primary inspiration for this. I hope that proves true in reception, because I want to follow this thoughtful voice for years.