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Ghosts in Jojo Rabbit and Parasite

Rachit Raj

Beyond their basic idea of an afterlife, ghosts are essentially beings that humans look as the “other”. They exist so that we can confirm and re-confirm ourselves as those who are living. We present them as a mortifying entity, ghastly visual imagery, to further push them away from our reality. We turn them into myths, complicate their patterns by giving them superhuman characteristics, all because we want ghosts to be away from us. Yet we do not mind their existence; in fact, we want them to exist. But not too close to us.

In Taika Waititi’s World War II satire Jojo Rabbit and Bong Joon-Ho’s penetrative Parasite, this idea of ghosts plays an interesting role. It stands as an invisible wall between characters, designed not only to heighten the narrative tension but to also show how the idea of ghosts is by nature a discriminatory one.

In Jojo Rabbit the ghost appears from within the wall, almost mirroring the numerous literary and cinematic representations of the unknown evil finding a hiding spot in the silent walls of a home or a hotel. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a self-proclaimed Nazi living in Germany during the peak of the Second World War. He is growing up on state-defined hate against Jews. As a young boy, he believes the absurd lies he is told and even befriends an imaginary, childlike version of Adolf Hitler who he calls his best friend.

Jews for him are an unbelievable reality and to have a confrontation with one, his biggest fear. So for him to find that a young Jewish girl is living in his home secretly is the worst nightmare of his life. Waiti designs this brilliantly. It begins with Jojo hearing sounds from upstairs; finally realizing the sound is coming from within the wall of his mother’s bedroom. Petrified, he interrogates further and finds the harrowing eyes of a girl staring at him.

A film that is essentially a satire on the madness that ensued in Nazi Germany, Jojo Rabbit here plays with the genre of horror films and their recurring inability to look at the unknown as anything beyond how Jojo looks at this girl in his first encounter with her. She is the stranger he does not feel comfortable around, a Jew he has been trained to hate. He does not ask her name. He does not want to. She is simply a ghost for him — an unwanted guest.

From that point on Waititi systematically breaks all the myths that are repeated and romanticized in horror movies. The “girl in the attic” as Adolf calls her, becomes a lot more than an unknown, scary thing that lives behind the walls. Waititi hinges the human core of his film on the relationship that Jojo shares with this girl, which eventually makes him realize that he is, after all, not a Nazi, and Jews are not necessarily bad people.

What it also does is demystify all the lies that the girl feeds Jojo as he talks to her for the research of his book on Jews, called Yoohoo Jew. She tells him lies that he wants to hear. Lies that we want to believe about the “other”, often giving them supernatural powers. As Jojo begins to know the girl, all those mythical absurdities turn into a familiar sense of realism. The girl is real. Not a ghost. Or maybe, the ghost was never unreal. It was simply a word, an idea, that hid our sense of superiority over someone else. A word coined to derive fear, so that the innate sense of hate that otherwise runs mad within us can be kept in check.

In Bong Joong-Ho’s dark comedy Parasite, the idea of a ghost is again used to demonstrate the logic and necessity behind the idea of division. Unlike in Jojo Rabbit, though, where the idea hides behind Jojo’s hate for a certain group of people, in Parasite the idea of ghosts finds its oxygen in a common practice of humans refusing to accept those below them as humans.

Much like in Waititi’s film, the one who sees the “ghost” here is the youngest member of the family. A little boy who sees two unfamiliar eyes surfacing into his reality from the darkness, forever etching that fear of the unknown in his mind, is as oblivious to the reality breathing beneath the perfectly tiled floor of his home as his parents. Those eyes haunt him and in extension the entire Park family, forcing them to go out on that day — the little boy’s birthday — every ear. It is their way of forgetting that ghosts exist. Their way of denying that there is anything else that can be tangibly true other than their privileged life.

Bong Joong-Ho takes his film on a completely mysterious maze of the unknown in the second hour of the film, where the said ghost is given a face and identity which becomes the audience’s road to understanding the other side of the story. However, unlike Jojo Rabbit, characters in Parasite who perceive the presence of a ghost around them do not lead the journey of humanizing them. Ho seems to be suggesting that “ghosts” are an inseparable part of this this layered structure of society. It needs to exist as a social, racial “other” so that the rest can be assured of their identity as a human. Their appearance as ghosts — taking over the house, lurking around to hear things not intended for them — is what keeps the society running. Their presence, and often their fear, holding everything humanly together.

Ho, in the climax of Parasite, does something interesting with the idea of ghosts that he establishes earlier in the movie. The “ghost” reappears out of its hiding space, so to say, and enters the world of the living. He is violent and vengeful. He turns a birthday party into a crime scene, and Ho captures this scene of mayhem as chaotically as the Park family feels at this moment. There is blood everywhere. People are stabbed, even killed, and yet the ghost remains an inhuman entity for the Park family.

In the death of that one “ghost”, the Park family thinks that their house is free of parasites now. But there is a new parasite, a new ghost that lurks around the house in the absence of the Park family now. There is no running away from the ghost, and in leaving the members of the Park family unaware of the ghost, let alone on a path of understanding it, Bong Joon-Ho leaves them hopeless and vulnerable, unlike Jojo who is a better version of himself when the end credits roll in Jojo Rabbit.

The idea of ghosts as the unknown “other” in both these films holds great importance in uncovering the brilliance of the writing at display here. Waititi reimagines the “girl in the attic” as simply someone belonging to a race who are repeatedly abused and disrespected, forcing them to find solace in the darkness that breaths behind the walls. Bong Joong-Ho interprets ghosts as an inevitable part of our reality. In his reimagining of humans as parasites and the Park family perceiving an underprivileged man as a ghost, Ho builds a relationship between the self and the other that feeds off each other. There are no ghosts in the absence of a human, and there is no assurance of humans in the absence of a juxtaposing presence of a ghost that compliments life by establishing its divorced posthumous identity.

Jojo Rabbit streaming on Disney+Hotstar.

Parasite streaming on Amazon Prime.

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