A Psychological Angle on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

muirMrs. Muir and her ghost (public domain)

Halloween season is here, and T.V. stations are playing films they feel are relevant to this season which includes films about ghosts. There are a number of romances involving ghosts, and one that stands out for its romantic appeal and not for its ability to frighten is the 1947 classic, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Though difficult to do, to understand a film psychologically, it is necessary to picture it within the time period in which it was made. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was made in the United States in 1947. It was written two year earlier by an Irish writer, Josephine Aimee Campbell Leslie, who wrote it under the pseudonym, R. A. Dick. So the book was written in the United Kingdom, by a woman, in 1945 and made into a movie in the United States, two years later.

World War II ended in August, 1945, so the book was written the year the war ended. A Wikipedia article gives the number of military deaths from the armed forces of the UK during the war as 383,800 and of the U.S. as 407,000. There were women in the armed forces, but the great majority of these roughly 800,000 deaths were men. Many of the men, we would have to guess at the number, were married, and, so, as of August, 1945, there were hundreds of thousands of widows in the UK and U.S.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is about a young woman who is a recent widow. We are not told how she was widowed. She has a young daughter. When the film opens, this widow, Mrs. Muir, is living with her husband's overbearing mother and sisters. She has the option of living there for the rest of her life, but she chooses to leave this situation and go and find a new life. She finds a house she likes, a house by the sea, and though she comes to realize it is haunted, she buys it anyway. She and her daughter move.

The ghost is of a man who had been a crusty sea-captain. He was a man's man who had lived his life with other men, away from women, much like the soldiers who fought in WWII. He dictates his autobiography to Mrs. Muir, and its title is Blood and Swash. This suggest has been in many battles. 

So the film, in its general form, expresses the situation of many of the women who viewed it. And it wouldn't have been just war widows of the day who could have identified with Mrs. Muir. Any woman whose husband had gone away from them to fight in the war would have been able to identify: They would have spent lonely hours fantasizing about what would happen if their husband never came back.

So the problem set by the film is the desolation wives of soldiers and sailors would have felt during and after the war. It is a raw and desolate time in spite of the happiness everyone must have felt that the war was over. It was not all back to the way it was. It was, emotionally, going to be a new world. 

So the film is about, even though indirectly, about real women in a real situation. And it gives different options for how to deal with it.

The first option for one of these women is to push on and try to maintain the same life you had before the war. For Mrs. Muir, this would be to stay with her husband's mother and sisters, continue with her pre-war source of income, and so on.

The second option would be to leave this behind and start a new life in the vast unfamiliar territory of the future. This is what our heroine does. She remains Mrs. Muir and she brings her daughter with her, but she moves on. But this isn't the end of her choices. Two broad paths open before her.

The first grows from the fact that her new situation is extremely comfortable. Though gruff, the ghost likes her and helps her (she is allowed to use his book as her source of income). And his house is nice and comfortable, and it is by the sea. Many women, faced by this option, would have given in gratefully. It is not such a bad life to live on your own, in the country, by the endless sea, surrounded by your dreams. Why shouldn't we withdraw from everyone and live the rest of our live's drifting into the vast unconscious realms of external and internal nature? This is almost an ideal of many people who run up against it in their daily lives. What woman wouldn't be tempted to give into the seduction of her ghost or ghosts?

But Mrs. Muir is drawn back into the world, by, of course a dashing man. The ghost seems to love her and tries to keep her from going after this "dream." He warns her that she is naive and will probably be hurt. But, when he sees she is committed, he gives her his blessings. She has chosen this third option, of going out into the bleakness and hoping it will treat her better this time around. She will not stay with her mother-in-law or with her ghosts, raw and alone she moves again into the world.

I will not go into what happens next, because it is not relevant to our main points.

I will say that this movie made me think about how vast the effects of such things as world wars are. It is easy to think that when they're over they're over, especially if we are the victors. I was born in the middle of the war, and so I don't remember it. I remember trying to understand it when I was maybe six or seven. But, without knowing it or thinking about it, I grew up in its atmosphere. My whole generation, without being in the war, grew up in its wake. It would be following behind a giant elephant and always walking into ground with flattened vegetation without knowing there was something unusual about where you were walking. I wonder how much of the values of my friends, our goals, the meaning we sought, the questions we asked, were all within the awful remains of the emotional landscape run over by the elephant of World War II. The last century was a hell of a century: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Wow! It picked the human species up and turned it towards a wilderness.