This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Every now and again in movies and TV, a ghost will turn up somewhere entirely unexpected. You’ll be watching a gritty drama, a straightforward sitcom, or an action-packed movie and suddenly – a ghost! Nine times out of 10, the apparition is not actually the spirit of a dead character walking the earth, but a hallucination, a visual illustration of a living character’s state of mind, a dramatic device, or a dream, like the infamous storyline in Grey’s Anatomy season five in which Izzy not only saw but actually had sex with her dead fiancé, which turned out to be caused by a brain tumor.
Period dramas sometimes use them to revisit characters that history unfortunately required them to kill off – the final episode of classic drama I, Claudius, for example, saw several characters return as the aged emperor struggled to stay awake in the senate (Caligula expressing his shock at not being the Messiah after all) while The Tudors brought back three of Henry VIII’s wives to take a break from haunting the stately homes of England and haunt Henry himself.
Whatever the scientific explanation for their presence, the appearance of a dead character once again wandering around in front of the camera makes that character, essentially, a ghost. And no matter how logical and sensible the explanation, the appearance of a ghost in an otherwise non-horror series can be odd, unsettling, and even a bit spooky.
So here, we’ve gathered together some of our favorite examples of unexpected ghosts in film and TV. We’ve excluded all outright fantasy and any other speculative fiction series in which ghosts are an established part of the universe (like the Force ghosts in Star Wars). We have included some science fiction universes in which ghosts, as entities with no logical explanation, would not be expected to appear.
Scrubs – “My Screw Up”
Ghost: Ben SullivanSeen by: Dr Cox
This is a classic example of using a “ghost” as a way to show the audience what a living character is thinking and feeling, combined with an equally classic “he’s not really there” twist as the ghost character had appeared to be still alive and well up until the reveal. Whereas Grey’s Anatomy’s ghost-in-the-mind was not one of their more popular storylines, “My Screw Up” is one of Scrubs’ most critically adored episodes.
A lot of this comes down to the sheer shock of the reveal. If you know you’re watching a ghost story, discovering any particular character has been dead all along is not that shocking (though it can be tragically horrifying). But if you think you’re watching a hospital-set sitcom, you simply don’t expect a beloved recurring character to suddenly turn out to be dead. JD’s heartbreaking question to Dr. Cox (“Where do you think we are?”) reveals the depth of Cox’s denial and pain and delivers a punch in the gut to the audience they won’t soon forget.
Mamma Mia 2
Ghost: Donna (Meryl Streep incarnation)Seen by: Sophie
Meryl Streep appeared on promotional materials for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, so her appearance towards the end of the film wasn’t exactly a surprise. What was an interesting choice was that she didn’t appear in a flashback, as we might have expected. Not only had Lily James appeared as young Donna in flashbacks throughout the film, but we never got to see any of Donna and Pierce Brosnan’s Sam’s tragically brief marriage. Instead, she appears at her grandson’s christening to share a moment in the present with her daughter. Whether her spirit is really there or this is Sophie’s imagination is up to the audience to decide.
The West Wing – “Two Cathedrals”
Ghost: Mrs LandinghamSeen by: President Bartlet
“Two Cathedrals” is not just the best episode of The West Wing, it’s one of the best episodes of television full stop. A story of grief and guilt and redemption, it’s The West Wing’s finest hour, but it is something of a surprise when the ghost of Mrs. Landingham pops up towards the end. Everything about the dramatic sequence has been set up earlier in the episode – the storm that rages outside has come unusually far north and there’s a draft that causes doors to blow open in the Oval Office if the right sequence is open at the same time. Bartlet has already yelled at God (who, obviously, did not make a personal appearance) in the National Cathedral, so chatting to his late secretary in the Oval Office isn’t too much of a stretch. Mrs. Landingham was killed suddenly and unexpectedly offscreen, so this scene gives both Bartlet and the viewer the chance to say goodbye that they were denied in the previous episode.
Peaky Blinders – Series five
Ghost: Grace ShelbySeen by: Tommy Shelby
Tommy Shelby’s state of mind is clearly fragile throughout season 5 of Peaky Blinders, as he continues to grieve for his late wife Grace during his not especially happy marriage to Lizzie, and fears for the lives of his children, all while dealing with PTSD and depression. Several times across the six episodes, he sees and speaks with Grace, who seems to appear to comfort him.
This isn’t the first time Peaky Blinders has hinted at a touch of the supernatural – Grace was shot dead while wearing a cursed necklace, and Polly has a remarkable knack for predicting pregnancies, not to mention dreaming of her daughter’s death. Grace’s ghost seems more likely to be in Tommy’s head, but it’s not impossible to imagine it’s really her spirit – though if so, her increasing insistence on Tommy coming home to her as the episodes go on is rather sinister.
Downton Abbey – “Christmas at Downton”
Ghost: Lavinia SwiresSeen by: Anna and Daisy
The unexpected appearance of Lavinia Swires’ ghost in Downton Abbey’s first Christmas special is all the stranger because, unlike most of the other entries on this list, it can’t easily be explained away as a hallucination or dream. Granted, unlike the other examples, we don’t actually see Lavinia and she isn’t firmly identified, but it seems unlikely that any other ghost would be telling Anna and Daisy via Oujia board “May they be happy,” just as her former fiancé Matthew is about to propose to Mary. Both women swear they aren’t pushing the planchette and more importantly, neither have any reason to do so.
Daisy and Anna have no idea that Matthew is wandering around outside thinking of proposing to Mary. Since neither of them tell Matthew or Mary the message, the whole thing is pretty pointless – other than to randomly throw in an actual ghost into an otherwise largely non-fantastical (occasional premonitions aside) period drama.
Ghosts: Everyone who died on the Titanic, plus RoseSeen by: No one alive
The final sequence in Titanic could be a simple dream sequence – as the Keldish research ship moves away, old Rose dreams about the people they’ve left behind. But it’s equally possible to see this as the ending to the story the film has been telling. Rose is “an old lady, warm in her bed,” as Jack predicted, and after telling her story at last, she passes away and goes down to join him and the other souls in the ship below. Just don’t think too much about Rose’s late husband, poor old Mr. Calvert, up in Heaven or wherever, wondering where his wife is.
Ghosts: Maximus’ wife and sonSeen by: Maximus
Another one in the “dying character sees his relatives and joins them” category, the ending of Gladiator allows poor Maximus Decimus Meridius to do what he’s been trying to do all along and go home to his family – albeit home on a different spiritual plane, what with his actual farm having been burned and all. We could just be seeing Maximus’ dying hallucinations, or we could be seeing him joining his family in the afterlife – either way, it gives both Juba and the audience comfort to think he can go to them at last.
The Black Adder – “The Foretelling”
Ghost: King Richard IIISeen by: Prince Edmund, the Black Adder
The very first episode of Blackadder played strongly on Shakespearean tropes and themes, and that included a trio of prophesying witches and a royal ghost. Plagued with guilt and terrified that someone will find out that he chopped off King Richard’s head in the mistaken belief he was a horse thief, Edmund is even more horrified to be visited by Richard’s bloody ghost, floating head and all. Peter Cook is of course very funny as the king, but the appearance of the ghost is so ghastly it almost overshadows the comedy.
After this first episode, Blackadder restricted elements of the supernatural or science fiction to specials Blackadder’s Christmas Carol and Blackadder Back and Forth – with the exception of one completely magical escape and a nose wrinkle at the conclusion of the first series’ “Witchsmeller Pursuivant.”
Ghosts: Everyone who has died during the story (which is a lot of people)Seen by: Errr, the audience?
This one combines Titanic’s “encore for all the dead characters” idea with Mamma Mia 2’s “it’s a musical, the normal rules don’t apply” approach. In the stage show, dead characters appear in somewhat ghostly form twice. The first is a brief (and optional) appearance behind Marius as he sings “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” The end sequence, however, features dead characters in a much more substantial way, and the final number doesn’t work without them.
As Valjean dies, the ghosts of Fantine and Eponine (who hardly knew him, but nevermind) arrive to take him to Heaven, and everyone else appears on stage for one final singalong while Marius and Cosette huddle awkwardly at the front, entirely unsure whether they’re supposed to be seeing this or not. The film left the spirits out of “Empty Chairs” and sensibly substituted the bishop, who was far more important to Valjean, for Eponine at the finale, but it still had to finish this otherwise grim and grimy period musical with a rousing heavenly chorus that takes over the streets and that Marius and Cosette almost seem to hear.
Ghost: Matt KowalskiSeen by: Ryan Stone
This one is probably the most surprising of any of the “ghosts” appearances on this list. It’s not that the appearance of George Clooney’s Kowalski isn’t easily explained – Sandra Bullock’s Stone is clearly under immense stress, both physical and mental, and is either hallucinating, or imagining what her more experienced colleague might say to her. But it is the suddenness with which Clooney’s character, having sacrificed himself to save Stone earlier in the film and drifted off into space, suddenly appears at the window. For a moment, it’s almost possible to hope that he has somehow survived, while knowing that’s not really the case. He returns to advise and to spur on Stone, to save her life, and disappears again – although we’re almost certainly intended to assume it’s all in her head, his behavior is one of the closest on this list to a traditional “ghost.”
Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame
Ghost: Young Gamora, and possibly Tony StarkSeen by: Thanos, and possibly everyone at Tony’s funeral
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has included a few visions and prophecies over the years (primarily in Avengers: Age of Ultron) and the introduction of Dr. Strange brought magic into the picture. For the most part, however, it is a science fiction universe, not a fantasy one, and not one in which we expect to meet ghosts. The Soul Stone changed that, as it seems to be ruled by magic of some kind, and there’s a possibility that it traps the souls of those who die or are killed in order to retrieve it. Therefore, it is not entirely unexpected that Thanos sees the ghost of the young Gamora after he kills her to get it.
Outside of that Stone, we certainly don’t expect to see ghosts – but the hologram Tony Stark carefully prepared to be played at his funeral certainly seems to have a remarkable ability to know exactly where his daughter Morgan will be sitting…