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Empathy for the Living & the Dead

A look at The Civil Dead and Jethica

An idea most frequently associated with Roger Ebert is the description of films as empathy machines. In 2005 he gave a speech outside the Chicago Theater, when a plaque was being dedicated to him, where he said: “We are all born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, and how we were raised. We are kind of stuck inside that package, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people, and find out what makes them tick, and what they care about. For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”

Now I would push Roger a little on that last line, but only in the sense that it’s not films that make us empathic - we already are unavoidably so by nature - but a film can do an effective job of enlivening our empathy or guiding it in new directions. Exactly how empathy functions is a contentious issue, but there are features of empathy that have been well-established for a long while now. Notably, our empathy is most readily activated by that which resembles ourselves in some way, and this impulse is surprisingly broad in its application. If you’ve ever put a pair of googly eyes on something, then you know firsthand how readily we can anthropomorphize basically anything in the world. It’s this same principle that does a lot of the heavy lifting in most animated films. One wouldn’t think, for example, that you would be able to tell a compelling narrative story about abstractions like our emotions, yet Pixar’s Inside Out was able to sufficiently humanize concepts like Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness, to tell an enthralling tale. More impressively, that story also was able to say something worthwhile about the young human girl, Riley, that was experiencing those emotions, and by extension, was able to say something about the human experience in general. Almost anything can trigger our empathy, and it reveals something about us when it happens.

I say all of this as a preamble to discussing the unexpected role that I see empathy playing in two smaller films from earlier this year: The Civil Dead and Jethica. Both of these films are ghost stories of a kind, though neither is, strictly speaking, a horror film. In both cases, they are stories about people who are haunted by ghosts but are using a literal haunting to say something about being figuratively haunted. They are also both stories that take some pains to get us to sympathize with both the haunter and the haunted. To explain what I think is most interesting about this approach, forgive me for a brief digression into the history of empathy.

One of the earliest robust discussions of the mechanism of empathy occurs in Adam Smith’s 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This discussion occurs so early in the historical discourse on empathy that it precedes ‘empathy’ being coined as a term by 150 years. At the time he was writing, Smith and his contemporaries used the term ‘sympathy’ to refer to what we now call empathy. I mention all of this here because the culmination of Smith’s first introduction of what he takes sympathy to be, is his pointing out what he takes to be the furthest extreme of our natural impulse to sympathize: our inclination to sympathize with the dead.

What’s so noteworthy about our impulse to sympathize with the dead is that we’re experiencing some kind of fellow feeling with someone we know to no longer be feeling anything at all anymore and that asymmetry highlights how our empathy always says far more about us than it can ever say about whomever we are empathizing with. We can never actually know how someone else really feels, but only how we imagine we would feel in what we take their circumstances to be. Smith says this of our sympathy with the dead: “We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is the real importance of their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations.” For Smith, all of our sympathy for the dead, even our understanding of the dead, only comes to us through a prism of our being alive, and it’s very much that idea that’s at work in these two films I want to discuss.

It won’t be possible to fully explore what I want to say about The Civil Dead and Jethica without spoiling those films, particularly their endings. However, since I think not many people have seen them, I’ll begin with a rough sketch of what they’re each about, and let you know where to jump off if they sound like something you would want to check out without being spoiled. The Civil Dead is about a young photographer, Clay (Clay Tatum), who lives in an apartment in LA with his girlfriend. One day, while his girlfriend is away on a trip, Clay goes out to take pictures and runs into someone he used to be friendly with back in his hometown, Whit (Whitmer Thomas). Whit talks Clay into hanging out the rest of that day, and on through the night. Whit finally reveals to a hungover Clay the next morning that Whit has actually been dead this whole time, and is a ghost that only Clay can see and hear. The rest of the film is the two of them navigating that dynamic.

Jethica is about two women, Elena (Callie Hernandez) and Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson), who are each being haunted by the ghosts of men who forced themselves into their lives. Elena is living way out in the middle of nowhere in a trailer in the desert that belongs to her grandmother, trying to figure some things out with her life. One day she runs into an old friend of hers, Jessica, at a gas station. Elena learns that Jessica is driving cross country, seemingly on the run from something, so Elena invites Jessica to come to stay with her at the trailer as long as she needs. Jessica agrees, and once at the trailer, she confides in Elena that the reason she had left home was because of a situation with a stalker that got out of control. A guy named Kevin (Will Madden) had been following her, leaving her unhinged messages, demanding she sees him, and threatening her if she didn’t. Elena hears Jessica out, even listening to some of the messages, and tells Jessica that she’s safe now and can go take a shower and relax. While Jessica is in the shower, though, Kevin shows up outside the trailer, ranting and pacing outside, yelling for Jessica to come out. This is a little bewildering, not least of which because the trailer is truly in the middle of nowhere, nothing but flat desert to the horizon in every direction, and there’s no sign of another car out there. Kevin eventually disappears again, and Jessica brings Elena outside to show her Kevin’s body in the trunk of her car. Jessica tells Elena how Kevin had shown up at her house threatening her, and she had stabbed him in self-defense. She had fled with his body in her car, but his ghost had been haunting her ever since, continuing to stalk her even in death.

I’ll pause here because I haven’t yet relayed anything important that isn’t already in the trailers for these two films. If either of them sounds intriguing, please check them out before reading on if the element of surprise is important to you, because each film takes these initial premises in some interesting directions. That warning given, I proceed. What The Civil Dead is interested in, in a loose sense, is what we owe others. The film is told from Clay’s point of view, but there is an interpretation of what happens that would straightforwardly paint him as the villain of this story. When we meet Clay, his girlfriend has just left town, so Clay starts running a scam out of their apartment. Posing as a realtor showing his apartment as available to rent, he holds an open house, collecting application fees from people excited to find such a large apartment available so inexpensively. When we first meet Whit, we learn that he first moved to LA to become an actor, and had reached out to Clay to try to connect with him early on, but Clay kept blowing him off. Even aware of how Clay had been ducking him, Whit is thrilled to now have someone who can see and hear him. At this point, Whit doesn’t know how long he’s been dead, but it’s been a crushingly lonely experience, being invisible, and unable to sleep, or eat, or touch anything. Just stuck existing emptily. Clay and Whit do find a brief camaraderie with one another, in large part because Whit can help Clay with his money problems. Clay wheedles his way into a high-stakes poker game run by a producer he knows, where Whit can tell Clay what cards everyone is holding during the game. At this point, the way the rest of this film could play out is a string of adventures that Clay and his ghost buddy could have, but Clay doesn’t really want that. Clay finds Whit to be too clingy. So, under the guise of arranging for them to be able to spend some quality time together away from Clay’s girlfriend, who still doesn’t know anything about their situation, Clay takes some of his poker winnings to rent a cabin in the woods for him and Whit to go hang out. They go and do even have a fun first night together, but on the second day, Clay lures Whit up into the attic of the cabin, shutting him in up there, knowing that Whit has no way to let himself back out. And the film ends with Whit yelling to Clay for help as Clay packs his car up and drives back home, the cabin slowly receding in the car’s rearview mirror.

The way our empathy is manipulated here is impressive. We can step back and look at the way that Clay probably tells this story to himself after the fact and the way this film could have been framed; Clay found himself being haunted, stalked even, by a creepy ghost he never asked for. But, he was ultimately able to outsmart the ghost, trapping it somewhere it couldn’t bother him anymore. What makes the film play out differently than that for us is that we like Whit, feeling bad for what happened to him, both in his life and death; and we kind of think Clay is a douchebag. All of our empathy is with the ghost in this case, because our understanding of what he is going through is all familiar to us as experiences from our own lives: feelings of invisibility, isolation, loneliness, and embarrassment. But even all that said, Clay never consented to being haunted, and doesn’t owe Whit companionship. Clay may be a pretty garbage person otherwise, but it gets really complicated to say what he did was wrong.

The way that Jethica plays out is almost the inverse of what happens with Clay and Whit. What we discover that Elena and Jessica have in common is that they are both haunted by men that they killed. In Elena’s case, she was driving down the road, got distracted, and hit a guy walking down the side of the road named Benny. (Andy Faulkner). After he is killed, Benny’s ghost mostly just keeps walking up and down the stretch of highway where he died, and we see Elena sometimes pick him up and talk to him, as a way to make peace with what she did. It’s only towards the end of the film that we learn it wasn’t an accident that Elena hit Benny. She happened to be distracted, and maybe she could have avoided him if she hadn’t been, but he deliberately jumped in front of her car. He was ready to end it all, and she just happened to be the one passing by. The shared theme between Elena and Jessica ends up being women whose lives were derailed by sad and selfish men, but what’s so surprising about where the film decides to go with that is how much empathy it still chooses to have for those two men. Kevin and Benny are undoubtedly the villains of the story, but after Benny absentmindedly reveals to Elena what he did, and Jessica gets Kevin to realize that what he has been doing, in both life and death, has been hurting her, the resolution to the story of the two ghosts is that they stop haunting these women, but also find a friend in one another before finally disappearing. The film doesn’t need to do that, and neither Benny nor Kevin is really owed such grace, but the empathy extended to them is still moving because we can’t help but hope that, even at our worst, such kindness might be extended to us.

Neither film does, or really even could, tell us anything definitive about death, but both stories do contextualize something important for us about how we should treat others while we’re alive. How Clay treats Whit isn’t unambiguously wrong, but we still judge him harshly for how little empathy he has for Whit, also seeing it as an extension of the general selfishness with which we already saw him treat others. Clay may not have owed Whit companionship, but it was a choice to be such a dick about it. Conversely, the care that Elena and Jessica showed Kevin and Benny was probably excessive. No one owes kindness to an abuser, but, in general, anyone willing to extend empathy to others tends to receive ours. Such is the esteem with which we hold empathy that we always prefer the one who shows too much to the one that shows too little. And that’s part of why we love films, not because they are empathy machines, but because we are, and a good film reflects that back to us.


Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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