The Spiritualist

Author: Brian McDonald
Genre: Thriller/Horror
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 6
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

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In 1923, a priest and a man who sees ghosts try to stop an army of German ghosts killed in World War I.


Chicago, 1923. A new mother discovers to her horror that her baby boy begins cursing at her in French and smoking cigarettes. The local priest, FATHER O’LEARY, attempts to exorcise the demon, but he fails. O’Leary thinks, perhaps, it’s something different from demonic possession. He seeks out a man called BIXBY, who’s agreeable, although a little odd. He speaks to somebody O’Leary can’t see — he claims it’s his wife, but when O’Lear mentions his understanding that Bixby’s wife has passed away, Bixby becomes angry. O’Leary and Bixby go to the mother’s house, where Bixby explains it isn’t demonic possession — he’s possessed by his previous incarnation, a Frenchman from the 1600s. Bixby has a calm conversation with the baby/Frenchman, makes the spirit realize he’s dead. The spirit soon dissipates.

O’Leary accompanies Bixby on another haunting case. He explains that many spirits simply don’t realize they’re dead. When you make them realize it, they will go away. He shoots the ghost with a gun, and the ghost disappears. He explains that, since they don’t know they’re dead, doing violence to them — such as shooting — works just as well. A few days later, O’Leary learns that ghost sightings have been seen all over Western Europe, but adding insult to injury — there is a report of a ghost killing a living person. Bixby refuses to believe it, but his ghost wife convinces him that it’s true and they need his help in Europe. Reluctantly, he leaves her to go with O’Leary to Europe.

In London, they first go to Scotland Yard, where the Desk Sergeant sends them away. Bixby is intercepted by SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, a man interested in spiritualists like Bixby. Doyle vouches for Bixby and insists that he can help. Doyle has borrowed some evidence from a ghost killing in Bristol, and they first take it to a psychic medium. She turns out to be a fraud. They next visit a girl in a mental hospital, and she’s the real deal — touching a cup allows the ghost to take possession of her. Bixby and O’Leary learn this ghost was a German soldier who died in the war. He tells them the war isn’t over, that killing them will only make them stronger. Bixby believes the numerous ghost sightings are all German soldiers, intending to rise up and win the war.

Bixby and O’Leary go to France and investigate a battlefield in the countryside. In the village, a man has been shot by a ghost soldier. Bixby probes the dead man and finds inside him not a bullet, but a gooey substance — ectoplasm. The ghosts are shooting ghost-bullets, which means they have a limitless supply. O’Leary speaks at the funeral of the dead man, while Bixby translates it into French. Meanwhile, in Munich, living German soldiers want to maintain control over the ghost forces. A menacing man, GENERAL BERNHEIMER, commits suicide during a party, believing he’ll rise as the ghost to lead the German forces and ensure nobody convinces them they’re dead. This works, and the ghost of Bernheimer rides a spectral horse through Paris, leading an entire ghost army.

Awakened by the noise, Bixby and O’Leary see the soldiers marching through Paris. O’Leary confronts Bernheimer, who explains they want to finish the war. Bixby tells Bernheimer he’s dead, then attempts to prove it to him by shooting at him several times. It has no effect, which stuns Bixby and O’Leary. In response, Bernheimer slashes Bixby across the chest with a ghost saber. O’Leary gets Bixby to a hospital. When he’s patched up, they’re met by another medium, a MADEMOISELLE DELAUNAY. She feels Bixby’s wound and insists “ghost dancers” are coming. Disappointed, Bixby thinks she’s wasted their time — he actually thinks she’s referring to his wife, with whom he dances frequently.

Bernheimer’s pleased that word of the ghost troops has spread all over the world. He explains to his troops that they are indeed dead, but the important thing they must remember is that because they are already dead, they cannot be killed again — they shouldn’t fear any human weapons. O’Leary and Bixby decide to blow off a little steam by getting drunk. While intoxicated, Bixby has a realization — Delaunay wasn’t talking about his wife, she was talking about the Indian ghost dance ritual. He explains it to O’Leary: they believed that, in doing this ghost dance, all the dead Indians would return and their numbers would overwhelm the white man, forcing them to leave. Bixby realizes that the Germans have performed the ghost dance — this is why their ghosts won’t leave. Meanwhile, the German ghost soldiers wreak havoc on London. When the French hear of this, Paris is a mess — everyone wants to leave, including Bixby. O’Leary tries to convince him to stay but can’t; Bixby’s a coward. On his way to the boat, Parisians are struggling to get on, but officials will only allow ticketed passengers. This includes a mother and father whose child has no ticket. Reluctantly, Bixby gives the child his ticket, then returns to O’Leary.

As French soldiers prepare for battle, O’Leary blesses them. Bixby tells O’Leary he’s realized something — he believes the ghosts’ ectoplasm can hurt them because people believe it can. He hypnotizes O’Leary into believing he cannot be injured, then forces a reluctant O’Leary to do the same to him. Knowing that this will work, they spend hours hypnotizing each French soldier so that they will not be hurt. The ghost army approaches on the horizon. There are thousands of them, from all time periods. The French fire on them. Some of the ghost soldiers do fall. They’re chastised by Bernheimer, who screams that they cannot be hurt. The Germans fire back, the true test of Bixby’s hypnosis — which doesn’t work. The ectoplasm still kills men; they just can’t feel the pain.

In the chaos, Bixby and O’Leary trace loudspeaker wires to a microphone being used by a French officer. Bixby convinces him to teach them to use it. He gets on the loudspeaker and reminds the German soldiers of the futility of war and of the living people they’ve left behind that they’re hurting by not crossing over to the other side. The German soldiers are affected by this, and they dissolve — except for Bernheimer, who goes after Bixby. Bixby stands his ground, announcing that if Bernheimer kills him, Bixby will haunt him for eternity. Just as Bernheimer gallops toward him to run him through with his ghost-saber, he disappears, leaving Bixby unharmed. Back in Chicago, Bixby puts flowers on his wife’s grave, finally accepting her death.


This script is loaded with imagination, interesting ideas, and a great hook. The idea of living German soldiers “perverting a religion” — very similar to what the Nazis would do 10 years later — to raise an army of dead soldiers who can fight endlessly without dying is great. Showing that false mediums are tainting the work of those who really do have gifts, establishing some fresh and interesting “rules” to ghosts — all this stuff is really interesting and, for the most part, well done.

Where the script suffers mostly is with a logic breakdown in the third act. Here you have a known ghost army (even the most disbelieving, cynical person on the planet would have to acknowledge its validity after seeing the ghosts with their own eyes) with a distinct advantage over “normal” ghosts, in that most of them realize they’re dead and therefore cannot be killed again. They have all the advantages — they can kill living people, they can continue drawing endless numbers from past wars, and in retaliation…the living army can’t kill most of them and has a finite number of people and resources. So why, then, are French soldiers lining up and preparing to fight them as if this is a normal, everyday battle against living combatants? It seems like the type of situation where even the bravest of the brave would recognize the futility and stupidity of attempting a conventional battle with the ghost army. It seems a little more reasonable that they’d attempt it when Bixby is running around saying he can hypnotize them into not being hurt, but they’re preparing for battle before this happens.

This logic problem leads to others. It’s explained early on that ghosts are bound to certain places — perhaps where they’ve died, or where they have unfinished business. Whether or not they’re able to leave the places to which they’re bound is never clear, but it seems pretty well implied that they can’t. They’re stuck where they are until they’re expelled by a spiritualist like Bixby. So how are these ghosts breaking free? This is a problem that can easily be resolved with a throwaway line or two — perhaps Bixby expressing surprise that they aren’t bound to “haunt” places like conventional ghosts, just like they can kill unlike other ghosts.

During the battle, it becomes evident that these ghosts have teleportation capabilities. They can disappear and reappear somewhere else at will. What are the practicalities of this? Are they limited by being able to travel only small distances? It gets a little confusing as to why they’re marching along the French countryside in the distance, and then when they’re much closer they use teleportation to confuse the enemy. Why wouldn’t they just suddenly appear? To that end, why does the ghost army simply march through Paris? They go to London and attack everyone and everything in sight, then march back to Paris to attack — why not launch an attack while they’re there? Why give them the time to prepare any defense, no matter how misguided? A surprise attack might actually help the problem of France’s defense — fewer soldiers would know or believe these soldiers could be ghosts.

Finally, Bixby’s speech at the end — I personally agree with his sentiments and think it’s well-stated, but would it stop these ghost soldiers? Isn’t it possible, maybe even likely, that a majority of them would believe that fighting, not peace, will provide the best future for their living loved ones? Wouldn’t they believe that, as an unstoppable ghost army, the living Germans will never be attacked or hurt? They have an impenetrable, unkillable military force that doesn’t play by conventional rules, and they (theoretically) believe in the cause and that winning this war will provide the best future for the German people. Would Bixby’s words make them stop? It’s possible, but perhaps the conflicted nature of these soldiers needs to be explored a little bit — perhaps a few low-ranking soldiers disagreeing with Bernheimer behind his back — in order to make it believable that all these soldiers would agree.

Bixby and especially Father O’Leary aren’t all that interesting or well-defined, which is unfortunate. Part of the problem is that they know each other already. They aren’t exactly best friends, but they don’t spend a lot of time in the “getting-to-know-you” phase, which would not only allow them to learn more about each other, but allow us to learn about them. If they were introduced to each other at the beginning, rather than O’Leary already knowing Bixby, this would help. This would also generate much-needed conflict between them; nearly all of these scenes are Bixby and O’Leary together. O’Leary doesn’t know a whole lot about spiritualism, but he seems to believe in it fully. If O’Leary, having just met Bixby, were new to this world of spiritualism, new to seeing and understanding ghosts, he might be more skeptical. This would not only generate conflict but make Bixby’s explanations and stories of different cases flow a little more naturally.

Bixby has a few interesting tidbits — of course his career as a spiritualist, his own skepticism of ghost sightings, and the relationship with his dead wife — but O’Leary has almost nothing. He’s a priest, seems devout, and — what else? His penchant for whiskey is an interesting little tidbit, but he’s an Irish-Catholic priest in what was at the time one of the most corrupt cities on Earth, a city where much of the liquor bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling was run by two rival ethnic groups — Irish and Italian — with one thing in common: Catholicism. Many priests in that time, in that place, were about as corrupt as the gangsters (many actually coming from crime families for the specific purpose of bending local congregations to their will). This could lead to a lot of interesting characterization on O’Leary — is he corrupt? If so, how much? If not, does he get a lot of pressure from criminals? Is he conflicted in any way about his corruption or lack of it? O’Leary has the potential to be fascinating, but right now he’s not developed at all. Bernheimer suffers largely the same fate. It’s clear he wants to continue fighting the war, but why? Some people attribute the cause of World War I to influential war-mongers (politicians, wealthy industrialists, high-ranking military officers, etc.). Could this be Bernheimer’s interest in the continuing the war? We don’t need a lot from him — just a little something to give him some dimension.

Posted by D. B. Bates on August 23, 2006 4:20 PM