Ageing, Immortals and Ghosts
“Time is a great healer but a poor beautician.”
Refusing to Get Old
In Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical tale GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, the land of Luggnagg have humans called Struldbrugg who are born seemingly normal, but are in fact immortal. They do not die, but the catch is they continue to age. And in this satire Swift mercilessly depicts the evils of immortality without the benefits of eternal youth.
In many Time Tales, even for those who are given extra years or apparent eternal youth, it rarely lasts in actuality. In SHE: A HISTORY OF ADVENTURE by Henry Rider Haggard published in 1887, Ayesha finds immortality in The Pillar of Fire but when ‘She’ steps into it for a second time, the Spirit of Life in the fire rejects Ayesha and she quickly returns to her true age of over 2,000 years. And moisturiser can’t do anything about those wrinkles. In a similar vein, there’s that famous painting in the attic in Oscar Wilde’s A PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY, published three years after SHE: A HISTORY OF ADVENTURE in 1890.
In these stories, Time, or at least the ravages it wreaks on the human body, is held back or suspended. Body Supplanting Tales go even further by expanding the human lifespan beyond what Nature and Time allows into another physical body. But extending Life and escaping Death is cheating Time. And Father Time and his ever present companion the Grim Reaper doesn’t like that. In SELF/LESS, a human being who is slowly dying pays a great deal of money to take over the body of another who is willing to sell it to help his family. A similar body takeover plot can be found in John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS. But the span of your life should not be taken from another’s. The two films end very differently, but the moral of both is, Don’t be greedy for Life, for what makes it special is its limitation. And that’s why those immortal Greek gods in Olympia in a way envied human beings, for if you are immortal you cannot possibly understand the precious and precarious nature of life that is what makes it so special.
But there is, of course, something to compensate us when we grow old. And that is memory. TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN is set when it was written, that is in the 1950s, and features a lonely boy, Tom, who is sent away to the house of his uncle and aunt. One night he hears the clock strike thirteen and on going outside, Tom discovers a sunlit garden of the Victorian Age and in it a young girl called Hatty. At the end of the tale Tom can no longer find the garden and in looking for it makes a bit of a commotion. When, the next morning, Tom is told to apologise to Mrs Bartholomew their elderly neighbour for making such a disturbance, but it turns out Mrs Bartholomew is Hatty, or at least Hatty when she was young, for every night she has been dreaming of her childhood and Tom has somehow been inside those dreams. It’s possible to argue that this isn’t really a Time Travel story, but who cares. TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN has charm and compassion. Two lonely people brought together in Time in the eternal beauty of a garden.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
“Time is the fire in which we burn.”
The Quest for Immortality
Most Time Tales accept the realities of mortality. In GROUNDHOG DAY, for example, Phil (Bill Murray), fails to keep the vagrant he befriends alive – “He was just old. It was just his time”, says the medic at the hospital.
Time Tales often see those who seek immortality as dangerous. A popular DOCTOR WHO story that deals with this very issue is The Five Doctors. Lord President Borusa seeks immortality in The Tomb of Rassilon but foolishly doesn’t understand the warning writing that states that ‘to lose is to win and he who wins shall lose’. Rassilon offers Borusa his ring as the key and means to immortality, but when donning the ring, Borusa disappears, only to quickly reappear as a living stone that is part of Rassilon’s tomb. Borusa now will live forever within the stone of the tomb, alongside all the others who foolishly sought out immortality. Yes, the tomb foretold immortality, yet it was also a warning and those who ignored it must you pay the cost.
Then there is the M.R. James short story Lost Hearts, a macabre tale of Mr Abney who seeks immortality by removing the hearts of children. Thankfully, as with most of Monty’s tales, there is a supernatural element, and when the life of an orphan boy is threatened, the ghosts of those who previously lost their hearts haunt and kill Mr Abney. And good for them. Immortality is not for us humans, seems to be the message of these Time Tales, just as it was not for Gilgamesh in that most ancient of all myths.
The quest for immortality can sometimes involve mind transfer from one body to another, as in such films as SELF/LESS and John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS starring Rock Hudson. FREEJACK (1992) also has a plot where time travelling ‘Bonejackers’ take bodies from the past to allow wealthy people to escape death by a mind transfer.
In SWIDGERS, the Time Adventure book series, there are those who William comes across who seek an immortality of sorts. But Granny, William’s friend and early Mentor, is wise and tells William that nothing can stop the advancement of Time. In the story, these men live in a kind of time ‘bubble’, but events on the outside world would eventually have brought an end to their existence. Anyway, it never gets that far for those who seek immortally, act foolishly and ultimately bring about their own end.
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.”
“The only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever.”
In Time Tales the search for Eternal Youth is rarely seen as a good thing. TIME TRAP is the bizarre tale of a cave in which lies The Fountain of Youth (more a murky pool, actually), but the various caverns protect these special waters by slowing down time as you approach The Fountain. The cave then acts as an entrapment of sorts, and at it centre it looks like a room in Madam Tussauds with dozens of historical figures all moving at the pace of sleeping snail. An eternal youth of a kind is achieved, but at a seemingly endless slow speed.
But what if you don’t need magical waters? Suppose you are born immortal. In HIGHLANDER (1986), Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is a Scottish swordsman of the sixteenth century who, when in battle, discovers he cannot die. His villagers believe him to be of the devil and so he is banished. MacLeod then meets Ramirez, who is another like himself, and Ramirez teaches MacLeod that the only way to kill another immortal is to take his head with a sword.
MacLeod journeys through time at the same pace as everyone else. The difference is for him is that everyone he loves eventually dies. And this is painful for him to see, so he decides to abandon the possibility of love. In 1990s New York, however, he meets Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) who put his predicament well. “You know what’s weird?” she says, “Most people are afraid to die. That’s not your problem. You’re afraid to live.” Immortals such as Connor MacLeod may have a more varied diet than their counterpart, the undead vampire, but ultimately they are often as equally unalive.
ETERNALS is a 2021 American superhero movie from the Marvel Comics stable. It was directed by Chloé Zhao, who, with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, also wrote the screenplay. The Eternals are an immortal alien race who have emerged from hiding after thousands of years in order to protect the Earth from their ancient counterparts, the Deviants. Like many in the Marvel cannon, ETERNALS is a movie that is aware of story traditions and there are a number of intertextual references to legends and folktales both ancient and modern, such as the myths of Peter Pan, Icarus, Troy, Star Wars and Gilgamesh. The plot itself is essentially a team mission scenario and like many team mission tales there is a betrayal at its heart. It turns out that the true purpose of the Eternals wasn’t to protect Earth as such, but rather to increase its population ready for the Celestials to harvest humans at the time of ‘Emergence’. The Eternals were inadvertently protecting planet Earth to be used for human farming. But many among the Eternals had grown quite fond of the place and as a result fought back against the devouring Celestials.
Other stories with immortals or an immortality theme are THE OLD GUARD, DEADPOOL, THE FOUNTAIN, plus of course Captain Jack in DOCTOR WHO. Sometimes they operate with a Time Tale, and sometimes not, but either way, they are worth mentioning in the context of Time.
“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world is immortal.”
“Of all ghosts the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.”
Are Ghosts Time Travellers?
In Christopher Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS, written somewhere around 1592/3, Faustus, at the request of the Emperor, asks Mephostophilis to summon characters from the classical world:
EMPEROR: Then, Faustus, as thou late didst promise us,
We would behold that famous conqueror,
Great Alexander, and his paramour,
In their true shapes and state majestical,
That we may wonder at their excellence.
FAUSTUS: Your majesty shall see them presently.—
And, with a solemn noise of trumpets’ sound,
Present before this royal Emperor
Great Alexander and his beauteous paramour.
MEPHOSTOPHILIS: Faustus, I will.
A few lines later the stage directions then say:
Sennet. Enter at one the EMPEROR ALEXANDER, at the other, DARIUS. They meet. DARIUS is thrown down; ALEXANDER kills him, takes off his crown, and, offering to go out, his PARAMOUR meets him. He embraces her, and sets DARIUS’ crown upon her head; and, coming back, both salute the EMPEROR, who, leaving his state, offers to embrace them; which FAUSTUS seeing, suddenly stays him. Then trumpets cease, and music sounds.
Towards the end of the play even Helen of Troy makes an appearance – “was that the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” – but even she cannot make Faustus “immoral with a kiss”, for now the game is up. But leaving the problems of Faustus aside, could it be argued that Helen of Troy one of the first ever time travellers? Well, there’s no concrete evidence of course that Helen was even a real person, the Trojan War, even if based on some sort of conflict across the Mediterranean Sea, was probably more artistic invention than history. As for the time travelling nature of these characters it’s important to note that they are not ‘real’. The manifestations conjured up are spirits in the shapes Alexander, Daruis and Helen in what is essentially an Elizabethan theatrical dumb show. And that’s a important distinction.
The great writer of supernatural stories in the Edwardian world was M.R. James. Many of his tales feature a repressed academic digging around – often literally – in the past. An object of some sort – be it a crown, binoculars, an ash tree, an ancient manuscript, a mezzotint – releases some kind of supernatural force from the past. And it’s often as not from a disturbing past that would prefer to remain hidden and undisturbed. Further, this spirit of the past is not beyond inflecting harm and even death on those who would agitate it. Odd then that M.R. James was by profession a medieval scholar. Or perhaps it’s not really odd an all, for all historians understand that the past never stops haunting the present.
But what of Ghosts themselves? Are they able to jump time? Well, ghosts have quite a few things in common with Time Travellers. Like Time Travellers, they come from another world. Sometimes a lost world. Ghosts, again like Time Travellers, often bring warnings. They are harbingers of doom because they have witnessed the darker actions of society and those who live in it. Ghosts are often as well the seekers of justice and retribution, exposing wrong doing and even evil. So too sometimes are Time Travellers. Ghosts feel abandoned and lost, again not unlike those fish-out-of-water Time Travellers. Maybe there’s an unfinished project they wish to complete. Or maybe our Ghost is just lonely. And of course, like all of us, are moulded by their time, their landscape, their language and their culture.
There’s an easy way to communicate with ghosts and it’s not through a Delphic priestess, but rather the clairvoyant or spiritualist, or what we would now call the para-psychologist. And ghosts like some Time Travellers seek to defeat Death. Or at least they just haven’t ‘moved on’ yet.
The tradition in supernatural stories that ghosts are really coming back to for help is very cleverly explored in the psychological horror movie LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, written by Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The 2021 modern day Ellie seems to go back in time to Soho of the 1960s and into the body of a girl singer called Sandie. At first Ellie believes that Sandie was the victim of murder, yet ultimately it is revealed that Sandie was in fact a serial killer and her victims were the grubby, sleazy men of Soho. Not only that, but it is their ghosts who are now driving the visions she is having. So are the ghosts time travellers or not? Is it that the ghosts are bringing the past to Ellie or is she going back in time with them to witness the events that led up to their death? Or doesn’t it matter, for the logic of the supernatural set up allows both ways. But a discussion about Ghosts being like Time Travellers could perhaps go on ad finitum. Let’s just leave the similarities there for now, and acknowledge there are at least some parallels.
However, there is one film, however, where the ghost is definitely a time traveller, or at least is able to make contact with people on other timelines. HAUNTER is a Time Loop Tale where the ghost, Lisa Johnson (Aigail Breslin), and her family are all trapped in the day and the house where they were murdered. However, by communicating with the past residents and victims, Lisa is able to break the loop and in doing so, ultimately saves herself and her family. Only then of course she stops being a ghost.
“Monsters are real, ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.”