Movie actors on the screen are ghosts.  They pretend to be someone they are not; they live and move in a world that doesn’t exist. When an actor dies whose films we have enjoyed, we feel a certain sense of loss as though we had known that person. While of course we have known only the character that actor played.

I have always been intrigued by movies, by the sense of combined reality and unreality, and sometimes the speculation “What if those characters in that movie really were alive in some alternate dimension?”  I tried to express that in a short story I wrote called “A Life in Pictures” published in 2017 in my collection of short stories called Edge of Reality. It’s not quite, but almost, a ghost story.

The 1944 film, The Uninvited, is a ghost story. A nicely photographed and very  atmospheric haunted-house story. The bonus track of the DVD includes a great  essay by Michael Almereyda, in which he discusses the film and the actors, but he ranges beyond that, elaborating on why, for him, movies are a ‘shared dream.’ That description seems right to me, since while we are watching the film, we—and the phantoms on the screen—both inhabit a non-existent dream world. Virginia Woolf noted that when viewing a movie we experience simultaneously being present and not being present.

The Uninvited,is subtle, but smoothly ominous, and although made in 1944, it doesn’t seem dated. Dorothy Macardle, author of the 1941 book, Uneasy Freehold, on which the movie was based, uses the familiar trope that the ghost of someone who dies in a certain place, will sometimes stay attached to that place, haunting it.

Gail Russell, the young star who plays Stella Meredith in The Uninvited, was certainly haunted in real life. Haunted by lack of self-confidence, stage fright, and nervousness. While still in her teens, she started drinking to combat this nervousness, and in the end, alcohol took her life.

She had limited acting skills, but her looks got her roles in a few films through the 1950s. She was married to actor Guy Madison for a few years, but after they divorced, she lived a more and more solitary life (as is often the way with alcohol addiction.) She died alone in 1961, at age thirty-six. Hollywood legend has it that she phoned a Los Angeles radio station and asked that they play “Stella by Starlight” on the night she died.

“Stella by Starlight” is a romantic and haunting tune written for the film by veteran movie music composer Victor Young. Several years later, lyrics were added and it became a soft jazz standard, covered by many singers in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Though Dorothy Macardle wrote bits of fiction her whole life, she was primarily a political activist, very active in the early twentieth century Irish independence movement. Her family was well-to-do, but her crusading for Irish freedoms and women’s rights earned her a prison sentence from 1922 to 1923. In prison she wrote about the appalling prison conditions she experienced, and she wrote fiction.

Though they remained lifelong friends, Macardle felt Eamon de Valera, the political leader of the movement for Irish independence had betrayed the movement in his constitution of 1917 by restricting the freedom of women, under the guise of ‘protecting’ women so they could be mothers. Macardle spent ten years writing a thousand-page book about the Irish struggle for independence. Ironically, it is now largely forgotten, while her haunted-house novel, The Uninvited, written when she was fifty-three years old, is not.

During the world wars, Macardle lived in London working to help children displaced from the chaos in Europe. Among her writings from this period, she wrote observation about children traumatized by losing their homes and their parents. She felt conventional therapy could not help them. In fact, she believed there was nothing that could help these children fully overcome the emotional damage and the resultant lack of affection they suffered from being orphaned.

From those observations, Macardle drew her belief that idolizing women, especially mothers, turned motherhood into a duty, not the relationship of true affection it should be. This is why Mary Meredith, Stella’s mother in the movie, is portrayed as beautiful but cold, not truly loving Stella, but having only duty as the basis of her feigned affection.

It is her father’s mistress, the model, Carmel, who truly loves the child Stella. (and, SPOILER ALERT! Carmel turns out to be the biological mother of Stella).

By the end of the film, we can see why the story needed two very different ghosts. The film has some bits of rather forced humor, but a solid happy ending (better than the book, which seems to forget Pamela).

Despite its convoluted storyline, the movie works its subtle, shadowy magic very well. It is considered one of the best ghost stories ever filmed; an opinion I share.

Today when we watch the movie and see nineteen year old Gail Russell portraying Stella Meredith, forever young, forever beautiful, unchanging – we are watching a ghost.

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