This article contains Talk to Me spoilers.
In the new paranormal pop culture film Talk To Me, which opens on July 28, a group of Australian teens discover a new kind of high in communing with the dead, by briefly allowing possession of their bodies via an embalmed hand of mysterious origin that serves as a gateway. There are rules to be followed with the spirit communication, and when those are broken, the character Mia (Sophie Wilde) learns the dead are not content with a temporary pass into the realm of the living.
Directed by Danny and Michael Philippou, the A24 film shifts the teen horror setting from slumber parties filled with Blood Mary dares and Ouija board dabbling to high school parties filled with booze, and, well, boos—all documented by social media. Meanwhile the film examines the lingering wound that is Mia’s grief over her mother’s lethal overdose, and the extent to which she seeks to reconnect with her. But communicating with the dead can have a price, and the film ends on one of the bitterest and most harrowing visions of the afterlife ever put to screen, raising as many questions as it answers as Mia meets her final fate.
Although Talk to Me is an original story, it pays homage to cinematic tropes, and real-world rituals, culminating in a finale that warrants further examination.
The rules for getting a rush from a ghost in this movie include lighting a candle, grasping the embalmed hand (which is adorned with writing), and stating the invocations of “Talk to me” and “I let you in.” As ringleader Hayley (Zoe Terakes) explains, the possession session that follows can only last for 90 seconds, then the candle must be blown out, and the hand released. If it goes beyond that time, the spirits will attempt to reside in the host’s body, as young Riley (Joe Bird) discovers.
These rules echo so-called “Ouija-stitions” associated with talking boards. Similar to Talk To Me’s hand, physical interaction with a planchette has remained popular for centuries. When attempting to communicate with a spirit, a board user invites a spirit forward, but it is recommended to say “Goodbye” before removing one’s hands. Otherwise, the link to the other side remains open, according to superstition. This is what happens with Riley. When a violent spirit(s) enters his body and begins smashing his head against the table, the 90-second limit is not only exceeded, but amidst the chaos, the candle is not blown out, and the link isn’t severed.
Similarly, the use of the candle in the conjuring ritual with the hand evokes urban myths like that of Bloody Mary. Although the precise rules of the legend vary—insofar as how many times to chant “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror, what exactly to say, and which character/entity might appear in the looking glass—the use of a candle is consistently present in the legend.
Additionally, Talk To Me emphasizes that a spirit has to be invited in, which is something Catholic exorcists tend to believe is likewise necessary for demonic possession. Again, there are variations as to what an invitation might entail—living a life of sin or using Tarot cards could count, for example—the oppressed person typically opens the door to evil somehow.
The Afterlife Is Hell
Talk To Me has a nihilistic take on the afterlife. It refreshingly eschews well-tread tropes of ghosts in a Christian-esque Heaven and Hell, as well as the popular Hollywood bait-and-switch formula of starting with a haunting before shifting to a demon. In fact, the one devoutly religious character Daniel (Otis Dhanji) is shown as being exceptionally vulnerable to the powers of the spirits even when playing by the rules, and he is never shown calling upon his faith for protection.
Instead of paradise for the pious, and damnation for the wicked, the film suggests that when humans shuffle off their mortal coil, they are all doomed to the same infinite limbo of torment. A black empty abyss without sight or reason. The afterlife sucks big time and wreaks havoc on one’s spectral complexion based on the boils and blotchy skin most of the ghosts have.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dead are pretty pissed off, and want to do whatever they can to return to the land of the living, hence the need for the 90-second rule lest they stick around. Even within the limited time frame, the spirits who possess the living appear to enjoy the physical realm by singing, licking their lips, and acting really horny.
But how effective is the 90-second cutoff? The character Cole (Ari McCarthy), whose brother Duckett (Sunny Johnson) stabs him before taking his own life, says the spirits eventually tire within the body of the living, and will be expelled. However, that contradicts what happened with what occurred to his brother, and appears to be taking place with Riley.
Both boys, under the possession of the spirits, inflict violence upon themselves and demonstrate a healthy amount of strength while doing so. Plus, the ghosts of Mia’s mother Rhea (Alexandria Steffensen) and the old woman appear to only become stronger, able to physically interact with the earthly realm, and invade dreams. And they are haunting Mia who wasn’t even the person who was possessed for more than 90 seconds.
So the rules might be less defined than the characters of the movie think, which play into the strengths of the film. The paranormal is by definition, not currently explained by science, and the supernatural exists beyond the laws of science itself. So the unknown is truly unknown regardless of what rules humans try to apply to it. Considering the characters don’t even know the origin of the hand—possibly once belonging to a powerful medium—it’s reasonable that the rules themselves have morphed over time, much like legends do. Further, the teenagers are getting buzzed and baked while playing with the hand for a cheap high without much consideration of the forces at work, and with only a basic regard for the ritualistic guardrails that they think they do know.
Which begs the question, what do the dead really want anyhow?
The characters believe the spirits wish to exist within the land of the living, and can maintain control of their host if contact with the hand—and the candle remains lit—continues beyond the 90 seconds. This idea that the dead want what the living have is not new to fiction, or paranormal theory. But do they really want to remain in their living host? If so, why would they so violently injure Riley and murder Duckett, as opposed to staying in their bodies and keeping things on the down low? Further, when Mia experiences the reverse possession with the spectral girl in the hospital, she sees Riley’s soul restrained and tortured, seemingly devoured by a whole host of ghosts.
Rather than wanting another ride on the mortal merry-go-round, it appears that the dead get an initial high off possessing the living at the same time that the living are experiencing a buzz from the possession. But the real payoff is the chance to, to quote Evil Dead II, “swallow your soul.”
There must have been something especially tasty about Riley (and Duckett), then. When Mia is initially possessed, the spirit immediately takes an interest in him. Presumably it’s because he’s younger, and more innocent than the rest. This speaks to the tradition of the virgin sacrifice, and the perversion of purity.
By keeping Riley’s body weak, the inhabiting spirits can feed on him with the final feast occurring upon his death. After all, while Mia thinks the way to save Riley is by closing the gateway, it’s the ghosts that continue to encourage her just to kill the kid. That includes her mother Rhea, who may not be as reliable as her daughter wants to believe.
Ghosts Don’t Lie, But Demons Do
There is a recurring trope among paranormal pop culture that the dead cannot lie. Demons? For sure. Those lying liar pants on fire will constantly manipulate and deceive, but even the ghost of a bad person is compelled to tell the truth.Talk To Me plays with this audience expectation. At one point, the spirit inhabiting Daniel seems to speak truth to Jade (Alexandra Jensen), when it tells her the boy is revolted by her touch. When Rhea possesses Riley, she tells Mia how proud she is of her daughter, and expresses regret over the way she died. Both of these moments feel sincere, but are they?
Rhea, while in ghostly freeform, likewise tells her daughter that Mia’s dad Max (Marcus Johnson) is lying about her suicide, and the note she left behind. Rhea is also the one who tries to convince Mia to kill Riley, because she says that’s the only way the boy’s soul can be freed. Plus, the other spirits inhabiting Riley appear to taunt both Jade and Mia, nearly daring them to kill the boy.
Instead of being truth-tellers, the ghosts in the film manipulate through lies. It is strongly suggested that Rhea is lying to Mia about her own death in an effort to turn her daughter against her father. Then another spirit poses as Max and attacks Mia, which leads to her inadvertently stabbing her real father in the neck with a pair of scissors.
Basically, the spirits are doing anything to clean up on the soul collecting. And perhaps aside from the hospital girl ghost—who is the only confirmed spirit that doesn’t appear as a rotted corpse—there are no benevolent haunts in this world. Though the film avoids establishing any notion of Heaven or Hell, there is effectively no distinction between these ghosts and the classic depiction of demons.
Giving Up the Ghost of Addiction
In the beginning of the film, Mia is honoring the second anniversary of Rhea’s death, and it is implied she has become withdrawn from her father Max. Meanwhile Jade’s mother Sue (Miranda Otto) suspects Mia of drug use. Although the girl claims she only tried pot one time, one could surmise that maybe this suspicion is connected to Rhea and her death (and potential substance abuse and/or depression). Additionally, earlier in the film, Mia references a nightmare about looking into a mirror and not seeing her own reflection. Even before she communes with the dead, Mia is haunted by the death and legacy of her mother, and she is moving through her own home like a ghost. She finds life with Jade’s family, but then that is shattered once her mother returns.
Ultimately, at the end of the film, Mia is about to sacrifice Riley to set him free from tormenting spirits by pushing his wheelchair into careening traffic. But in an ambiguous shot, the audience instead witnesses Mia crashing into oncoming cars, and dying on the pavement. It remains unclear if Jade pushed Mia, or the girl took her life as an offering to the spirits in exchange for Riley (or perhaps she just couldn’t live with the feeling of her mother’s spirit guiding her hand toward murder). After waking from her shattered body, Mia immediately pursues Jade, Sue, and the healed Riley, as well as her own father Max, running through the hospital before confronting a mirror and not seeing her reflection—a nightmare foreshadowed earlier.
In the final moments, Mia is surrounded by darkness before walking towards a pinprick of light in the distance. The cruel joke here is Instead of “going into the light” to meet a happy afterlife, as she approaches, it’s confirmed she is herself a ghost, connecting with a new group of young people who have the embalmed hand, asking her to “talk to me.”
In a biting way, the ending speaks to the specters of depression and suicide, and how they continue to haunt families, with the potential to turn the living into ghosts. Mia feared becoming like her mother and therefore distanced herself from her father, and yet in order to fit in with peers who thought she was a buzz kill, she began partaking in a different kind of vice at parties (possession). Afterward, a cycle of abuse or a type of addiction occurs with Mia meeting a similar fate to her mother.
It’s almost as if this was the path Mia was destined to follow.