Spectral Economy and the Non-Human: Reading ‘The Nest’, a Ghostless Ghost Film
By Arka Chattopadhyay
In Specters of Marx (1994), Jacques Derrida develops a political theory of the Marxian spectrality of capital in its global circulation. The Shakespearean echoes of the phantom’s inverted pursuit becomes crucial to this spectral trajectory of capitalist circulation. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost invites Hamlet to follow him, in effect, it is the spectre that follows him (See Derrida 9-10). Following the ghost means being followed by the ghost. This reversibility is key to the way capital circulates. Capital invites us to follow it and as we do, it follows us. This spectral reversibility creates a double-movement in which time involutes between the past and the future. For Derrida, the movement that chains use-value with exchange-value of commodity is spectral (Derrida 186). The “enigmatic”, “mystical” nature of exchange-value makes it spectral. Derrida’s identification of spectrality with capital offers a semantic and heuristic expansion of the ghost as a trope. How does his thesis of a spectral political economy help us understand horror cinema? We will seek an answer by way of a particular film analysis. But let us first define the ghost. In Derridean terms, ghost is an ontological absence made present through haunting but haunting is not presence. The ghost is a form of non-presence. It’s a form of absence in repetition that haunts a hegemonic structure by creating “a habitation without proper inhabiting” (Derrida 20). Is the ghost human or does it swing between the human and the non-human in its oscillation between presence and absence? This is a question we will go on to address.
What is a ghost film? A film that has a ghost or ghosts in the plural! Is such a film always a horror film? The likes of Casper (1995) or the cute ghost archetypes would say no! Ghosts are not the only things that horrify us! If a film can horrify its viewers, it’s a horror film! And yet without any supernatural element (ghosts, demons, spectres, zombies, vampires or even creatures), we hardly seem to use the appellation ‘horror film’ for films that horrify us with political violence or brutal crimes! Given the difference between the ghost as a cinematic trope and horror as a filmic genre, we can well imagine horror films without ghosts (consider the slasher genre) and ghost films without horror. The genre-bending of horror films has had an exciting history of late. Though I cannot recount it within the scope of this short article that seeks to read a new horror film which uses the ghost as an empty signifier, in recent times in both India and abroad, we have witnessed a plasticization of the horror genre in which it has incorporated socio-political critique.
With the 2017 Get Out or Us (2019), directed by Jordan Peele that used the genre to mount a satire on American racism or the Hindi-language OTT film Chhori (2021), directed by Vishal Furia that utilized the genre to point toward the sad and inhuman reality of female feticide in India, we are now well and truly prepared for a horror film in which the ghost is not a spirit but a socio-political malaise. These films allegorize the ghost as a symptom of disorder in the society or the polity. What about a film that becomes ghost cinema by making the ghost absent? If there is no ghost, could we call it a ghost film at the first place? A film without a ghost can still be a horror film if it evokes the affect of horror, a typical example being the found-footage classic, Blair Witch project (1999), but can a ghostless film be called a ghost film? If the film posits the ghost as an allegorical empty lining without putting a very specific allegorical meaning in that void, it remains without a ghost but it has created a ghostly space where the ghost could be, but it isn’t! The Nest (2020) written, directed and produced by Sean Durkin, conjures the ghost through its conspicuous absence. It spectralizes the ghost as an empty frame of symbolic meaning (read capital) and though the film resists codifying this frame in any all too particular allegorical sense, there is a gesture toward political economy, especially globalization’s de-regulation of financial economy. Hence our Derridean lens.
Set in the 1980s, The Nest makes us think about shifting homes between America and England as a crypt-like space of haunting. What haunts the nest is no phantom but an aspirational economic life of alterity. The ambitious Rory O’ Hara (Jude Law) returns to Britain on the lookout for a new life with his blonde American wife, Allison (Cary Coon) and two kids— a daughter from her previous relationship, Samantha, and a son from the current one, Benjamin. Britain is on the brink of a global de-regulation of economy and Rory comes back to his previous employer, hoping to execute it for the company and reap rich dividends. Their new nest is a Gothic castle in Surrey and Rory buys a black horse (Richmond) to appease his somewhat reluctant wife. As they stumble through their fresh start with fake social interactions and a lonely vacuous existence, the mansion shows iconic horror signs of lights going on and off and doors, opening without human presence. The family space registers cracks as the husband cannot realize his American Dream in England and their condition becomes near bankrupt. The teenage daughter develops her distance from the family, the son gets bullied in school and turns violent. The conjugal relation between Rory and Allison becomes increasingly strained. Their fights draw the attention of the kids. Losing her grip on the family, Allison blames the spooky house as she cries out: “you are all strangers to me right now, all of you.”
Allison wants to shift to another place. But, as the deals don’t work out, owing to Rory’s boss’s unwillingness to participate in de-regulation that means he has to sell off the company, they cannot afford a shift. One fine day, Richmond, the grand black horse, suddenly collapses when Allison is riding it and dies in minutes from a mysterious malady. The horse is picked up by an earthmoving machine and buried in the ground in a slow distant shot that captures its suspended body, dropping into the hole in the ground. When Rory comes back late after an unannounced, failed attempt to reconnect with his mother and gets to know about the horse’s death, the only thing that interests him is how to get its price back by getting a vet’s medical certificate. He accuses the seller of selling him a faulty product and blames Allison for burying it without getting a usable certificate for the cause of death. Allison is revolted by Rory’s crassness that reduces the animal to a commodity, i.e., its exchange value. In her fight with Rory she connects the horse’s death with the “poisonous” house. She says, the house is “horrible” and “no one is the same here” hinting at humans, becoming ghosts through self-alienation in the house. Though, there is no spirit in the house, the human beings, living in it are the ghosts. The animal body in all its haunting blackness is the other corporeal site of the spectral in the film. It’s a reversal of the spectral exchange-value, contra Derrida.
What is spectral here is the static body of the dead animal that comes back in drunk Allison’s fantasy as an uncanny animate object. Allison sees the dead horse in a hallucinatory frontal shot after she abandons Rory in the middle of a sham social dinner. She was taking a break from driving and had dozed off. When her eyes open, she sees the animal gazing at her, right in front of the car but disappears the next moment. As she comes back home and inspects the buried horse in the ground, it seems to have re-surfaced, as if giving credence to what Allison envisaged. The scene with the black contours of the horse’s body, unburied in the ground and a confused Allison, parting the soil around the body awakening from its earth-burial, offers a symptomatic finale for the uncanny return of the repressed. She tries to make the dead animal breathe and has an emotional breakdown. In this present, the past returns to the future as the surfacing of the horse in Alison’s daydream merges with its physical surfacing on the ground. The intrinsic use-value of the horse-body is the site of the spectral. In opposition to Rory’s underlining of the horse’s exchange-value, we notice the bare and yet spectral materiality of the horse-body as its intrinsic economic-affective value. This reverses the Derridean thesis though the film echoes the fundamental relation Derrida sets up between ghosts and capitalist economy. The Nest ends on a reparative note for the family as Rory walks back to the castle all through the night, following the drunken Allison in the car and finally acknowledges his failure. The four members come close again on the breakfast table where the two kids have made breakfast for the family.
Let us return to the dead horse as an undead trace. It is the non-human as a ghostly absence that is far from being disembodied. As Eugenie Brinkema wonders in The Forms of the Affects (2014), “we might more broadly consider whether horror is the genre in which the body is formalized, given textual shape only to be subjected to the bare destruction of its form” (238). The ghost as an absence is formalised by the non-human body in The Nest. It is in this embodiment that its absence becomes presence via the haunting of a non-human form that creates habitation without proper inhabiting, pace Derrida. This ephemeral embodiment is on the verge of de-materialization and destruction as the dead and buried horse-body awaits dissolution in the earth. Reading William Faulkner’s story ‘The Bear’, Tony Vinci makes a comment on the animal ghost that is relevant for The Nest: “The animal-ghost expresses, in part, the social dimension of imperceptible blackness unseen by the white imagination” (65). The blackness of the horse contrasts the all-white family and even though this counterpoint is not racialized by the film, the colour code marks the spectral Otherness of the animal for Rory’s species-humanist imagination that treats it like a faulty car. As Vinci says, there is something ghost-like about the “embodied animal”: “it brings with it something that the civilized world has expunged, forgotten, or repressed and offers encounters with that which exceeds the boundaries of the human” (64).
There is no ghost in The Nest. It is the human beings, populating the nest who turn ghostly. The human subject, driven by the spectral circulation of the capital is a phantom subject for Derrida: “[h]umanity is but a collection or series of ghosts” (172) or again, “[t]hese ghosts that are commodities transform human producers into ghosts” (195). The economic dream of globalization makes ghosts out of the human beings. As Samantha tells her mother Allison, she is angry but doesn’t admit it. The human being, alienated from their own affective life is a ghost. Rory is little beyond a spectral remainder of the American Dream. On the other hand, the non-human corporeal form constructs a cryptic space for alterity vis-à-vis the human ghost. In a world of spectral capitalism that is quintessentially human, the undead non-human body offers an otherness to the ghost that runs meta to spectrality. This is a non-human ghost on the other side of capitalist spectrality in a human-made structure. It is here that the film adds a double to the Derridean framework of capitalist ghosting by installing the non-human corporeality of the dead horse as a return of the repressed uncanny. It allows us to see a dialectical tension between the capitalist ghost of the human and the non-human ghost that stands at a distance from the exchange economy. To follow the capitalist dream of globalization is to be followed (read haunted) by it. If this double-movement makes us spectral, the repressed animal body that holds a mirror to our own repressed corporeality, stages a second order of the ghost. This non-human ghost encounters and confronts the capitalist ghost in us as its demonized Other. The Nest, a ghostless ghost film, uses the spectral empty space as a speculative receptacle for the taking place of this dialectical encounter between the capitalist ghost and the animal ghost.
 We could also remember Remi Weekes’ Netflix film His House (2020) that extends the genre toward a double critique of racism and anti-refugee politics.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.
Durkin, Sean. The Nest 2020 IFC Films, 107 mins, Amazon Prime.
Brinkema, Eugenie. The Forms of the Affects Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.
Vinci, Tony M. Ghost, Android, Animal: Trauma and Literature Beyond the Human. New York and London: Routledge, 2020.
Dr. Arka Chattopadhyay is assistant professor, Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar, India. He has been published in books like Deleuze and Beckett, Knots: Post-Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film, Gerald Murnane: Another World in this One etc., and journals such as Textual Practice, Interventions, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Sound Studies and The Harold Pinter Review. He has co-edited Samuel Beckett and the Encounter of Philosophy and Literature (2013) and guest-edited the SBT/A issue Samuel Beckett and the Extensions of the Mind. (2017). Arka is the founding editor of Sanglap and a contributing editor to Harold Pinter Review. He is the author of Beckett, Lacan and the Mathematical Writing of the Real (Bloomsbury Academic UK, 2019).
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