"Ghost Town," while well written and well acted, plays with among the oldest human notions - that we can interact with dead people. Like modern TV shows starring psychics, the movie mixes in our current preoccupation with perfecting relationships.

Human beings seem to differ from other animals by wondering what happens after death.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, September 20, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Love is for the Living

"Ghost Town," while well written and well acted, plays with among the oldest human notions - that we can interact with dead people. Like modern TV shows starring psychics, the movie mixes in our current preoccupation with perfecting relationships.

Human beings seem to differ from other animals by wondering what happens after death. This has produced religion, séances, quite a few films, and James Van Praagh and Sylvia Browne (you know - the woman with the cigarette voice on the Montel Williams Show).

Audiences rely on TV psychics to divine their love lives, health, what happened to missing relatives, and - more than anything else - to make sure dead relatives aren't mad at them. This usually amounts to asking whether so-and-so knew that the questioner loved them. Sylvia or James reassures the depressed audience member, often discerning that the dead people in question are hovering nearby and can hear the professions of love themselves.

We are left to wonder what was up between the questioner and the deceased. And, of course, to imagine that if the two were together in the same room, alive, a fight would quickly break out - like at family dinners before one of them died.

Ghost Town is about a husband who cheated on his loving wife, his loving wife, and a go-between who acquires the gift of communicating with the dead. The husband (played by Greg Kinnear) harangues Ricky Gervais to tell his wife (Tea Leoni) that her new fiancée's a bum - but, really, he wants to say he's sorry for being a bum and that he loved her.

Kinnear is joined in his harassment of Gervais, playing misanthrope dentist Bertram Pincus (himself nursing a broken heart), by scores of dead people who can't leave New York City until someone communicates something critical to their survivors that will show how much they really loved them, or some such. As if you could live a whole life with someone and then, by some unfortunate accident, misplace at the last moment the one thing that would show them you really cared.

Pathetic, isn't it? But we're all suckers for this idea. As though we could redo not only our life histories, but our current behavior patterns, in one fell, magical, swoop.

Interviewed about the movie, Brit Gervais points out the parallels to Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," in that Pincus becomes a feeling human being after his experiences in the underworld. It is true - both tales are about redemption. But there is a difference. Scrooge never actually communicates with the dead or missing while observing them before he returns to life to rectify his current behavior and relationships.

It seems that Dickens (like Houdini) couldn't bring himself to actually present the dead as sentient human beings to whom we can pour our hearts out. It's good to keep in mind that love is only possible with the living - you've got plenty to do without the regrets.