This is a reprint of an article I wrote in 2010. Hope you enjoy it!
Post Mortem Photography: Sentimental Keepsake or Creepy Reminder?
How many of us have rifled through shoeboxes and envelopes of dusty old family photos?
Imagine coming across a lavish scene of your ancestors decked out in their Sunday best, only to realize upon scrutiny that in the photo they are, in fact, deceased.
Such a discovery is made in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, and it becomes a major plot point that carries the story through to its electrifying ending.
About The Others
In The Others, Grace Stewart lives with her two children who are awaiting word of the whereabouts of patriarch Charles, who is MIA in World War II.
The children, Anne and Nicholas, suffer from a strange affliction – they are allergic to light – so that heavy linens are draped over every window, and when moving about the house, no door must be opened without the previous one being closed first.
Immediately, viewers are immersed in the epitome of the creepy, fog-enshrouded English manor house which becomes even more foreboding when the family is forced to live by candlelight even in the daylight hours.
With the tone of the movie set, the tale begins, taking on an uneasy tone immediately when the help arrives.
Mrs. Mills, played by the always striking Fionnula Flanagan (whom I thoroughly enjoyed in this, as well as her turn as Eloise Hawking in LOST or matriarch Rose Caffee in Brotherhood), Mr. Tuttle and the mute maid Lydia arrive, and there is something decidedly different about them.
When Nicole Kidman discovers a photo album (or Book of the Dead) in the attic, the true nature of the tale is revealed, whether Grace knows it or not.
As Mrs. Mills says matter-of-factly, “Sometimes the world of the dead gets mixed up with the world of the living” – and later on we find out just how right she is.
Memento Mori: Remember Your Mortality
The Victorian Era already had an air of the macabre before the advent of post mortem photography.
But what may seem as a grim practice to us was, back then, one of the only ways families were able to preserve memories of their loved ones, especially babies, for whom this may be the only photo families would have due to high infant mortality rates throughout the early nineteenth century.
Memento Mori, or post mortem photographs, were just that: photos taken of the deceased. Grace’s discovery is a display of three different styles which were used in this arcane practice, and they illustrate how families not only captured when their loved ones died but also a reminder of how they lived.
“The Eternal Sleep” sees the subject of the photo laid out to look as though they are peacefully sleeping.
Other photos show relatives of the deceased posed alongside the deceased themselves, making for particularly solemn photographs especially when young children are sitting (and often holding) their dead siblings.
Photos can also be found of deceased propped up in special frames and sitting up in chairs.
These are not images that capture whispy orbs that may or may not be spirits, depending on one’s believability in such.
There is no question about these photos. They are unflinching, abrupt and bring one face to face with his or her own mortality, and in The Others, they serve an important purpose.
Ancient tribes have long held the idea that photographs steal the soul. Maybe that is why Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle and Lydia have a difficult time leaving the house.
A thought posed by Mrs. Mills herself when Grace comments on how she finds the practice of post mortem photography particularly macabre, Mrs. Mills offers, “In the last century, I believe they took photographs of the dead in the hopes that their souls would go on living through the portraits.”
In this case, that very thing happens. Granted, the three are buried on the land and they also died in the house, but perhaps the fact that these post mortem photos exist are like a beacon keeping them tethered to this world instead of passing on.
Otherwise, why would they want to remain in a place where a mother would take a pillow and smother her two children in the middle of the night?
Not Just A Dream
I liked that the big reveal (that Grace and her two kids were ghosts, too) didn’t just seem tacked on the end of the film in an “it was all a dream” kind of way.
When the tables are turned and Nicholas’ “ghost” Victor is revealed as the “real boy” and the Stewart family are, in fact, the true ghosts haunting this house, one feels for them and their desperate attempt to stay together in this place that contains them.
However, why, if the family is dead, were they not depicted in a post mortem photo in the album?
My thought? It is enough that Grace eventually remembers what she did to her children; when Anne and Nicholas remember that “Mummy went mad” (even if they do not remember why until the very end of the film).
There were subtle clues before that – the gravestones (first cleverly hidden by piles of leaves before Mr. Tuttle “brings them to light” later). The missing curtains, which force Grace to realize that her children are not photosensitive. But for all of these gestures used to make Grace understand, the catalyst comes when she discovers the photo of her servants, each dressed in black, their eyes sealed shut, and Grace is forced to finally accept (and in her case – remember) that she is no longer of this earth.
So, while post mortem photos may seem like a macabre way to remember one’s relatives long after they are gone, and Mrs. Tuttle’s comments that “Grief over the death of loved ones can cause people to do the strangest things”, the photos can also remind us that, as Lord Byron wrote, we have lived, we have loved, and have done so not in vain. That something within us shall go on after we retire.
In The Others, it is more than just the simple lilting of voices claiming, “This house is ours.” Their souls, with the help of these mementos (which can be considered either creepy or sentimental depending on the individual viewer), do go on living.
Linkage that might pique your interest:
* The Thanatos Archive – Post Mortem Photography
* The Lord Byron poem I mentioned (in brief) at the end
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire:
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their softened spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.