Ghost Kisses: A Queer Reading of “Casper” (1995)
Ah, October. The spookiest — and best — month of the year. For many, it is a time of Autumnal joy. Leaves a-falling, sweaters a-sweatering, pumpkin spices a-spicing. Not to mention Halloween!
Halloween in all its weirdness is often dubbed the “Gay Christmas.” The reasons for this are myriad. Samantha Allen, writing for The Kernel around this time last year, argued that Halloween and queerness go hand in hand due to the holiday’s reliance on campy fun which all people are welcome to partake of. She says,
“Halloween is the one night a year when all people, regardless of sexual orientation, participate in the campiness that characterizes so much of queer culture.”
There’s something about Halloween which is marginal and weird. It exists on the periphery of society — much like queer people. It also allows people the opportunity for transgression in a society which is in many ways anti- anything other than that which is considered normative. As journalist Michael Rowe puts it,
“Halloween is a euphoric celebration of costume, illusion, freedom and abandon that tumbles into November like the best Saturday night ever. A glorious time of transformation of every kind — male into female, vanilla into leather, frumpy into glamorous and more. Much more. Boys can be witches.”
And what better way to celebrate Halloween than with a good old fashioned queer reading of a ghostly classic? I’m talking about Casper (Brad Silberling, 1995), the live action adaptation of everyone’s favourite friendly little ghost. That’s right — Casper is a queer ghost movie.
The link between queer subjectivity and horror films is one which has been discussed in quite some depth since probably the dawn of the monster movie itself. The most famous scholarly work on this topic is Harry Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (1997). He traces the connection between the horror movie monster and queer subjectivity back to the process of “othering.”
Benshoff effectively chronicals how social constructions of the gay male correspond to monstrous characters throughout history, from Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) to Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1991). It’s the analogous qualities of these films — that the monsters within are somehow illustrative of queer experience — which many LGBT viewers find themselves embracing time and again. After all, we all like to see ourselves in our media. Plus homoerotic subtext is just really pleasing to spot on certain occasions.
Thinking more specifically about ghosts, there’s also a queer connection we can make. Professor Ken Gelder, for instance, argues,
“It is sometimes suggested that the figure of the homosexual ‘haunts’ heterosexuality. The latter earnestly goes about exorcising the former from its domain, even though the achievement of its self-definition depends upon the homosexual’s unceasing presence.”
What this means is that the definition of “hetero” depends on the presence of “homo” in order to exist, and ghostliness is one way that we can make sense of this relationship. “Homo” is therefore ever lurking in the shadows, a queer phantom haunting normativity.
So how can we think about Casper as a queer ghost movie? As a family-friendly adventure of fun and laughs and obnoxious bodily humor, it perhaps isn’t in the same vein as some of the films mentioned earlier. And I’m not saying either that it was made as a gay movie, although the queer undercurrents can certainly tell us something about how queerness might have been thought of in mid-1990s popular culture.
Based on the Harvey Comics character, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Casper stars a teenage Christina Ricci as Kat Harvey, daughter of wacky psychologist to the dead, Dr James Harvey (Bill Pullman). Dr Harvey is called to Friendship, Maine by a greedy old bitch called Carrigan Crittenden and her sniveling, emasculated assistant Dibs in order to aid the ghosts who are haunting the Whipstaff Manor (which she has just inherited) to pass over to the other side so that she can look for the treasure that’s hidden somewhere in the building.
The production of the film is suitably campy and the villainous characters are completely over the top. Cathy Moriarty as Carrigan is nigh unbearable. The saving grace is probably Christina Ricci, who is generally delightgul in anything. The film received mixed reviews and currently has a score of 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Casper feels like it should be a Tim Burton movie, but it’s not. That said, it is a classic. And the special effects actually hold up after all this time, although I’m still confused by the general aesthetic of the ghosts. Why do they look so weird? Why do some ghosts wear clothes and others are naked?
Immediately we can say that Casper (who is voiced by Malachi Pearson but appears as Devon Sawa in his human form for some reason) is in many ways oppositional. He’s not like the other ghosts because he is friendly, or more specifically, he wants to make friends with humans. The other ghosts in question are three malformed ghouls called Stretch, Fatso and Stinkie. These three ghosts are rude, scary and all around not very nice. Above all, they’re aggressive — something that Casper is not — and so Casper occupies a space which is marginalized from those who already straddle the place between the living and the dead, or, even, the queer.
Some contextual information about Casper is useful here. According to Everyday Heterosexism, Casper has a history of being coded as queer in his comic book form. The author writes,
“Gay-coded, but no sissy or milquetoast, Casper is a strong-willed nonconformist, a Vietnam-Era pacifist who refuses to follow the hawkish status quo of ghost society. So strong are his principles that even when his life is in danger, he refuses to “boo” his way to safety.”
In similar ways, Casper is potentially coded as queer in the film, his soft, high-pitched voice and friendly qualities are contrasted by the assertive and somewhat more masculine vibe of the Ghostly Trio. Casper’s characteristics are presented as good qualities but in terms of how assertive masculinity is thought of in Western culture, they are perhaps non-normative.
But there’s more to it. The queer themes in the film are strong, with the central narrative arc centering on the loss of Kat’s mother and Kat and Dr Harvey’s eventual acceptance of that loss. Alongside this theme is that of self-acceptance — another element which can be considered queer. Alone at night, Casper is shown watching footage of TV personality Fred Rogers addressing his audience about issues of “fitting in.” “Most of the time,” Rogers says, “I hope you can be glad to be yourself. That’s really something to celebrate.”
The concept of “being yourself” is one which has a high currency when it comes to queer identity due to queer people’s positioning at the margins of society. The need for Casper to “be himself” therefore links to these themes. He doesn’t want to be spooky like the other ghosts, he wants to be his friendly self.
Casper subsequently sees a report about Dr Harvey, therapist to the dead. Harvey says to the camera, “You can call them ghosts, if you like, or as I prefer, the living impaired. But the bottom line is, they need help sometimes. Just like the rest of us.”
Again, the queer elements are noticeable, if a little problematic. At this point his statement almost reads as if it were spoken by a practitioner of a gay cure, particularly his use of the term “living impaired” to imply that ghosts are just like everyone else but have a sickness that makes them different. Harvey helps the dead get over their identity issues and move on, which you might say therapists who help queer people become ex-gay also do. This is one of the complexities which come about with queer readings— sometimes there are inconsistencies because culture is inconsistent, especially in its relationship to queerness.
In any case, Harvey is sympathetic towards ghosts in a way which is unlike what you would expect from people who usually encounter ghosts. And as it turns out, ghosts aren’t all that bad! Even the Ghostly Trio turn out to be kind of fun in the end.
The three unruly ghosts are possibly the most interesting feature of the film in terms of a queer reading. I mentioned that they are characterized in opposition to Casper’s queerness, but this doesn’t make them any less queer, it just makes them queer in different ways. If Casper is the quaint, quiet, soft side of camp, the Ghostly Trio is ostentatious camp to the max and this is best exemplified by Fatso.
Like Casper, who has a penchant for modifying his body and trying out different personas (at one point he turns his body muscular and pretends to be a superhero), Fatso has a love of the theatrical — for instance drag. In one scene, the Trio tricks Dr Harvey into believing he will see his ghostly wife behind a door. But the big reveal instead exhibits Fatso wearing a dress, with bloated bosom and red painted lips, and he gleefully calls to Harvey, deep voiced with his body jiggling, “My man!” and proceeds to kiss Harvey (the consent issue is unfortunately not touched upon in the film).
Fatso also briefly takes on a campy fashion-designer persona when the Trio haunts Harvey, making his pants drop and forcing him to hobble along a red carpet: “On the runway now we have Dr James Harvey wearing smashing underwear.” That said, the other two of the Trio are equally capable of campy theatrics, as illustrated by their musical performance at the end of the film.
And then there’s the Kat and Casper relationship. A possible reading of this relationship would suggest that the film fulfils the Hollywood tradition of the heterosexual union. According to Wikipedia, Casper is “infatuated” with Kat. Actually, he may be infatuated, but I think this infatuation stems from his longing for friendship. Kat is clearly not interested in him in romantic terms. Call me crazy, but I actually have my suspicions that Kat has a thing for her school rival Amber Whitmire — not least as expressed by an incredibly jarring scene in which Kat escapes from the closet in which her father locked her to protect her from the ghosts, only for Fatso to push her back in, proclaiming “Hey boys, we’ve got a closet case here!”
What helps to characterize the relationship as queer is the eventual kiss at the end of the film. Casper, having demonstrated his nobility by allowing the newly deceased Dr Harvey to become living once again by using Casper’s father’s resurrection machine (yeah the plot gets a bit convoluted at this point), is turned human by none other than Kat’s mother’s ghost/angelic presence as a reward (but only until 10pm). Human Casper dances with Kat at the school Halloween dance, which is taking place at Whipstaff because the narrative demanded it to be so. But when Kat and Casper kiss, Casper is already turning into a ghost.
Kisses with the ghosts have thus far been transgressive. The first kiss takes place when Fatso in drag kisses Dr Harvey on the face. Later on, Harvey, depressed and drunk, kisses each of the ghosts on the lips as an expression of drunken friendship. These kisses are not necessarily romantic or sexual but do take on transgressive connotations, largely because the characters in question have all been coded as male, or indeed as men in drag. Actually, the fact that the ghosts don’t appear to be human at all is noteworthy and adds an extra element of non-normativity to these moments. So because ghost kisses have so far been framed as being in some way transgressive, who is to say that the union between Kat and Casper is normative just because they share a kiss?
Their relationship can therefore be conceived of in non-normative terms, especially considering the Hollywood tradition. Friendship itself can be in many ways challenging in films, particularly that between a male and a female character, who are usually destined to be together romantically.
And what of Dr Harvey and his wife, Amelia? As we know, Amelia returns in ghostly form (or more accurately, angelic form, because the film couldn’t just be satisfied leaving it at ghosts) to reward Casper for his kindness. She also shows up to tell Dr Harvey that she never had any unfinished business because he and Kat loved her so much. In other words, ghosts only remain ghosts if they aren’t sufficiently loved. In this case it would be heterosexual love. But the resolution of the film is about acceptance of loss and letting go, and thus heterosexual love floats away into the night when Amelia finally bids farewell. The film’s only explicit heterosexual love is sent off into the ether. The queer haunting has eclipsed normativity. Sounds preposterous? Maybe, but that’s part of the joy of Film Studies.
There are lots of other issues going on in Casper. For instance, the film is predictably white-centric and its reliance on fatness (in the form of Fatso) as a source of humor is also problematic. This could equally be the case for humorous moments which are coded as gay in order to elicit laughter.
Queer reading is an often celebrated pastime of consumers of cultural products from all kinds of backgrounds. It can help us make sense of media which are seemingly relentless in their heteronormativity. It can be a little tongue-in-cheeck, which I hope to have demonstrated here.
On the other hand, just because something can be read in a particular way doesn’t mean it has to be. That is to say that “optional” readings are just that — optional. So there’s always the possibility for people, wilfully or not, to just blatantly ignore any queer subtleties in favor of heteronormative sentiments. (Plus, it’s nice to actually see queer people being overtly represented every once in a while. )
That said, queer readings can be a lot of fun, as I hope you’ve discovered from this post. So this Halloween, whether you’re getting dressed up or watching your favourite scary movie, keep the spirit of queerness in mind and enjoy yourself.
Allen, Samantha. 2014. “How Halloween became the gay Christmas.” The Kernel. October 26.
Benshoff, Harry M. 1997. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Gelder, Ken. “Introduction to Part Sex.” In The Horror Reader, edited by Ken Gelder. London: Routledge.
Rowe, Michael. 2012. “Communing Queerly With the Dead.” Huffpost Gay Voices. October 31.
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