Ghost Stories of Disney and Spiritual Stories of Star Wars

by Todd King, contributing writer
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Some Disney Ghost Stories

Around Halloween (I know it's already passed, but still) I always watch Ichabod and Mr. Toad to get swept into the mood of ghost stories. I believe the sequence where Ichabod is chased by the Headless Horseman is a masterclass of cinematic storytelling. The atmosphere and pacing of that scene—from the slow trot into the forest, to the buildup of anticipation, to the heart-pounding and hysterical pursuit—is nearly perfect.

It never ceases to carry me away into its action, where I'm a little bit scared and quite a bit amused at Ichabod's worsening predicament. I believe many Disney fans feel the same way and even so, I think the film is underrated these days. Regardless, this movie and the original story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, are classic ghost stories. Be sure to read MousePlanet's own Jim Korkis's Halloween article, "Disney Goes to Hell for Halloween" about other spooky cartoons. One lesson from this story is to not let fear, or superstition, get the better of you.

This year I included Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl in my household's Halloween festivities. It's a great movie to watch anytime of year but it also serves as another great ghost story. It is even self-aware of this idea when Captain Barbossa reveals his true undead nature, saying to Elizabeth, "Best start believing in ghost stories Miss Turner. You're in one!"

The entire crew is cursed as well, revealed by moonlight that they are actually damned to be in a skeletal form. It reminds us of the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Disney parks that begins with caves and grottos depicting the fate of cursed pirates before they "come to life" later in the ride. Even though we are entertained by the seemingly fun-loving swashbucklers, we see how their greed and violence either leads to death or to a cursed life.

In the movie, although Jack Sparrow is very much alive, his character teeters between good and evil with such charisma we cannot remove our attention from him—but his self-centeredness always puts into question whether he cares more about himself or about life around him. In a sense, he's half-dead but constantly picks up the cues on the value of life, but not always retaining them. He only feels truly alive while on the sea as a captain. He learns later that it's no good alone.

Another viewing of Pixar's Coco—which I would consider a ghost story as well—takes another look at the bridge between life and death. Miguel inadvertantly crosses over to the land of the dead where he meets his relatives and ancestors in skeletal form. Though they are spirits, the skeletal visage is a connection to their bodies; they are not completely separated from the land of the living.

What keeps this connection to the living is memory. Their living decendents keep their memories alive and therefore they can remain in the realm of the afterlife. Memory is powerful and is the bridge to immortality. There is not so much mourning for the dead, but more of a celebration that the dead are still with us, as long as the memory of them does not fade. Death should not separate us from the bonds of love and family. Those bonds can change even after death. It changed for the better in the case of Hector and worse in the case of Ernesto. In the end, the family is reunited and the truth revealed.

Don't think I would leave out the Haunted Mansion—the ride, not the movie. It is my favorite Disney attraction and of course it has many ghosts and stories to talk about. Too many to talk about here, so maybe another day. I did want to mention the ride because it abounds with characteristics of traditional ghost stories. The mansion itself does not really espouse a particular story and so guests can make up their own stories about its deceased inhabitants. I'd like to think that all the frivolity going on with those spirits is just their way of passing time in the afterlife at a place where they all accept each other. Happy haunts indeed.

Some Star Wars Spirit Stories

I talk about these Disney films now because of Halloween, the Day of the Dead, the season of fall, and the coming winter, the moods conjured by this time of year, and the fact that we don't have a Star Wars movie coming out this December. That's the first time in three years. There was The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi in previous Christmases (Solo was in May) but the next movie isn't until Christmas 2019.

That will be the currently untitled Episode IX, the supposed last film of the primary saga. Without it, I've been tending to look back on all the previous films for my Star Wars fix and with this season, I consider how Star Wars depicts its spirituality and its realms of life and death. With similar ideas to the films above: there are spirits, there is violence and death, there are half-dead characters (Darth Vader, General Grievous), and there are values and changes in memory. I don't see Star Wars as any set of ghost stories in a traditional sense but much of the theme of the saga deals with similar ideas contained in ghosts stories.

Fear is the Path of the Dark Side

Ghost stories often play on our fears. We are afraid of the unknown, afraid of what could harm us, and afraid to lose what we have. In an interview for Time Magazine from April 26, 1999, before the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Bill Moyers discusses fear in Star Wars with George Lucas:

Bill Moyers: What emotion do you feel when you look at Darth Maul?

George Lucas: Fear. You wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley. But he's not repulsive.

Moyers: Is the emotion you wanted from him different from the emotion you wanted from Darth Vader?

Lucas: It's essentially the same, just in a different kind of way. Darth Vader was half machine, half man, and that's where he has lost a lot of his humanity. This one [Maul] is all human… he's the evil within us.

Moyers: Do you know yet what, in a future episode, is going to transform Anakin Skywalker to the dark side?

Lucas: Yes, I know what that is. The groundwork has been laid in this episode. The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion—of not thinking of yourself all the time.

The fear of letting things go is a persistent theme in Star Wars. This fear often leads characters into rash actions like Luke rushing to his aunt and uncle's aid even though he would have been killed by the Stormtroopers if he hadn't been too late. When he rushed to save his friends on Bespin, he fell into a trap and nearly get killed again. He didn't want to lose those people he loved, but his fear got the best of him and he went headlong into danger that didn't end well.

Perhaps Luke remembered these instances when he was called into action in The Last Jedi and refused to rush in and fight the entire First Order himself.

"Greed can be a powerful ally," said Qui-Gon Jinn in his cagey manner. He did not seem to be espousing a good trait for a Jedi, particularly when greed led others to the dark side. He means to use it as an advantage against the greedy in order to help the good guys. But greed itself, as Lucas puts it, is a worse sin. We have seen that the buccaneers from the Pirates of the Caribbean know a thing or two about greed; we have also seen where that leads.

For Luke's father, it is ultimately Anakin's fear of losing Padme, and to save her at all costs, that is his undoing. The film frames this desire as a form of greed; he wants to keep her for his own happiness. He took it so far that he killed many Jedi, young and old, in order to gain the power he believed he needed to save her.

At the same time, however, this fear almost always came from a place of love, even if slightly misplaced. Luke and Anakin loved those they were trying to save because they were part of their lives as friends or as family. Basically the entire mythos of Star Wars is about the dynamics of a family through the ages, but it's also about what it means to be a hero.

Moyers: So while Star Wars is about cosmic, galactic epic struggles, it's at heart about a family?

Lucas: And a hero. Most myths center on a hero, and it's about how you conduct yourself as you go through the hero's journey, which in all classical myth takes the form of a voyage of transformation by trials and revelations. You must let go of your past and must embrace your future and figure out what path you're going to go down.

These are words from George Lucas from 1999 and they still ring true all the way to 2017's The Last Jedi. Star Wars stories were clearly about choices, about choosing your destiny. Yoda said to Anakin, "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate." Later, Darth Vader says to Luke, "You have controlled your fear. Now release your anger. Only your hatred can destroy me." But as Yoda said, that just leds to suffering. That is the very kind of suffering Kylo Ren experiences in The Last Jedi. He did release his hatred on his father Han Solo, killing him, and it tore Kylo Ren's soul apart; even his master Supreme Leader Snoke realized it. The words of Yoda ring true throughout the entire saga and the charcters' choices lead them down many paths.

Like George Lucas before him, Yoda says we must let go those things we fear to lose. The Jedi at the time believed attachment removes the focus of your life. Qui-Gon Jinn said to little Anakin, "Your focus determines your reality." Anakin would later focus on an attachment: his attachment to Padme. Not only could he not let go of what he feared to lose, he knew he was about to lose her for real because his visions were showing the future—they warned him about the death of his mother which he was unable to prevent. Like some ghost stories and horror movies, we fear our nightmares coming true.

Anakin did seek the help of Yoda and the Jedi about this fear in Revenge of the Sith but they didn't give him the answers he wanted. He wanted to save Padme and sensed that the power of the Force could do that. But the Jedi were against using powers to interfere with a percieved natural course of life, but all the while participating in the fighting of a war and using their powers not just for "knowledge and defense" anymore. This seeming hypocricy troubled Anakin and he received advice elsewhere.

Though he was seeking answers, Anakin did not know he would find them from the Chancellor of the galaxy. Palpatine said that indeed through the power of the Force one could stop people from dying, a power he could not learn from a Jedi. As in many ghost stories and tall tales, a character will often meet a persona of death or of the devil to obtain their deepest desires. Palpatine plays the part of the tempter here, very much a devil.

Palpatine said that the Jedi's view of the Force was singular, dogmatic, and narrow. He told Anakin he should explore all aspects of the Force, even the dark side. Little did Anakin know that this was all the secret desire and making of Palpatine himself, but not to bring Anakin to a complete understanding of all aspects of the Force but to corrupt Anakin as a servant soley to the dark side. These are all stretches of the truth, just as the devil would do in many stories like those in the Gospels and in The Devil and Daniel Webster.

Speaking of the devil, George Lucas discusses this primeval idea of meeting the devil in an interview with Vanity Fair, February 2005, right before the release of Revenge of the Sith. See again where Lucas touches on the idea of letting go of things:

"When you get down to where we are right now in the story [Episode III] ... you basically get somebody who's going to make a pact with the Devil, and it's going to be a pact with the Devil that says, 'I want the power to save somebody from death. I want to be able to stop them from going to the river Styx, and I need to go to a god [the Jedi] for that, but the gods won't do it, so I'm going to go down to Hades and get the Dark Lord to allow me to have this power that will allow me to save the very person I want to hang on to.' You know, it's Faust. So Anakin wants that power, and that is basically a bad thing. If you're going to sell your soul to save somebody you love, that's not a good thing. That's, as we say in the film, unnatural. You have to accept the natural course of life. Of all things. Death is obviously the biggest of them all. Not only death for yourself but death for the things you care about."

Anakin was ripe to make this deal because he grew up in a confused period for the Jedi. They were peacekeepers, but they were heavily involved in a war… as generals, no less. A couple theories I've studied explore the possible reasons for the failures of the Jedi here:

  • The Jedi had lost their way over a millennium of peace and had grown complacent, or;
  • Their abilities were unknowingly clouded by the dark powers of Palpatine.

Either way, by playing into the hands of Palpatine by using the clones, joining the war, losing their focus, and by their neglectful treatment of Anakin, Palpatine was able to seduce Anakin away from the Jedi to join him and rule the galaxy with unlimited power. This is what sends the galaxy into chaos and what takes the following three movie episodes to clean up. Ghost stories often play on ideas such as these where one wrong choice unleashes unspeakable evil upon the world.

Even though Palpatine succeeded in his efforts, his entire position as Emperor and his promises to Anakin were all built on deception and lies. He manipulated the entire galaxy and even turned its population against the Jedi, falsely claming that they were trying to usurp his leadership and take over. That wasn't really true, except for that part where Mace Windu tried to kill Palpatine saying he was too dangerous to remain alive. It was a moment when Windu showed great fear. Even though he had the Dark Lord defeated and put in a defenselsess stance, he feared that the Jedi ways of defense and non-attacking would not be enough this time. That skewed conclusion by Windu was enough to convince Anakin that Palpatine was right and the Jedi were not what he thought they should be. Later he believes the Jedi are evil.

This is the same fear felt by Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi when he also nearly killed a defenseless man. Luke feared Ben Solo was already too far gone to the dark side, manipulated by Snoke, that he was too dangerous to remain alive. Yet, Luke realized this fear before he went through with the act and stayed his lightsaber, just as he had done before when he had Vader defeated and put in a defenseless stance. But this time, it was enough to convince Ben Solo that Snoke was right and Luke was not what he thought he should be. A wrong choice, on either side, can unleash bad spirits.

The prequels did not present the Jedi as we thought they should be either. Right when we first meet the Jedi in Episode I they were already adhering to some strict code where they were unwilling to adapt to something new, like the appearance of Anakin, the Chosen One. We wanted the Jedi to be "great," but as Yoda seemed to have learned much later, "wars not make one great."

Likewise The Last Jedi did not present Luke as we thought he should be. We wanted him to be "great" and wipe out all evil with his Force powers that should've grown to a level of complete mastery by now. But we find it isn't quite that simple and he began to tell Rey of the past failings of the Jedi and that keeping the same code that they had followed—which had allowed for the rise of the Empire—could not solve the new problems facing the galaxy now. He thought it would be better if the Jedi were not involved. And yet, at the end, he proclaimed that he would not be the last Jedi. He believed, and Yoda too in the form of a Force ghost, that Rey could both continue the ways of the Jedi and bring them to a new and better reality. The ghosts of the past still instruct us in the present.

Force Ghosts are more than just about Memory

Obi-Wan was with Luke even moments after he died on the Death Star in Star Wars. Later he appeared as a distant vision on Hoth. Not long after that he was as visible as a live person when Luke was on Dagobah with Yoda. It seemed Luke was able to see Kenobi better the more he became in tune with the Force. Obi-Wan learned from his former master, Qui-Gon Jinn, how to return from the netherworld of the Force and commune with living Jedi.

Obi-Wan used that knowledge against Darth Vader, knowing that if the Sith Lord killed him, he would still be able to be with and to help Luke. But even in that state of semi-death, Obi-Wan maintained the secret of Luke's parentage from him in hopes that Luke would not be snared by his emotions and simply destroy Vader and the Emperor—probably in an attempt for Luke to fulfill the prophecy that Anakin had refused.

Once again, the plan to try and override Luke's attachments, as they had attmpted with Anakin, failed. It was the old code of the Jedi still at work, something Luke found difficult to accept. Vader told Luke the truth and so their confrontation then changed and became all about their relationship instead of being about their enmity.

Luke may have had no memory of his father from childhood, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was once a great man. Everyone was trying to forget Anakin Skywalker incluing Obi-Wan and Owen and Beru who raised Luke on Tatooine. Like the idea from Coco, they hoped that forgetting him, destroying his memory, would contribute to Vader's destruction. Later, Leia confessed she had memories of her mother being beautiful, kind, yet sad, even though Leia couldn't have known her mother because of Padme's death after childbirth.

The Force was with them though and made connections to their parents possible by some cosmic memory. The goodness of the parents were passed on to their children, as well as the powers of the Force. We are familiar with good and bad traits that are passed down by heredity, but in this fiction, the bond to the twins' parents was special because of the mystical powers of the Force that was with both Luke and Leia. The memories were like ghosts—they were gone, but not completely.

After Vader had been redeemed, Anakin himself appeared as a Force Ghost alongside Yoda and Obi-Wan. His presence as a spirit confirmed his redemption. That didn't stop his grandson, Kylo Ren, from trying commune with him. But Kylo Ren had it wrong. He wasn't speaking with the real redeemed spirit of Anakin, he was trying to speak to an empty shell—the mask of Vader—believing it to represent the true nature of his bloodline.

He had no real memory of Vader but believed through the Force he could commune with the Dark Lord. But it was false. Just as Anakin had ceased to be himself when he became Darth Vader, that identity was destroyed and he returned as Anakin Skywalker. There was no longer any Vader, so Kylo Ren was believing in a lie—probably due to the goading of Snoke.

The latest ghost in Star Wars was Yoda in The Last Jedi who appeared to Luke as he was about to burn the ancient tree that contained the sacred Jedi texts. Yoda, always the teacher, still was trying to show Luke the path of the Jedi to let go of attachments. Luke couldn't bring himself to destroy the tree, so Yoda did it for him. A Force ghost like Yoda could have a strong influence on the living. Luke had to let the past die, even though the past cannot truly die as long as there is memory. Luke knows this and later says that no one is truly gone. It will live if it is remembered.

That is why Rey took the ancient Jedi texts with her in order to not let the past die completely and furthermore, to let the past, even ancient past, live now and even guide her further on. If the Jedi order was not fit to continue in its current state, then it must start again, from the beginning, and see to it that it doesn't lose its way again. Rey seems to be taking it all back to its origins, to its beginnings, and hopefully to its truer, pure form. And Luke showed her the way to start which was to get the Jedi back to their original purpose of using the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

Rumor has it Luke will appear as a Force Ghost in Episode IX and I think that would be a perfect way to put a capstone on the saga and help Rey start a new and perhaps better order of Jedi. But fear and hate will always muck up even the best laid plans.