Exegesis, Movies, Reviews

When Marnie Was There :: Review

Back in my doctrine post on Spirits, I briefly explored how ghosts work in a Terranic worldview. Well, last week I watched When Marnie Was There with my SO and was delighted to see a ghost story which echoes my ideas almost exactly. It’s a beautiful film made by Studio Ghibli: legendary animation studio. It is worth noting that I watched the film dubbed, and before anime fans crucify me, my only defense is that I have no defense and I like Studio Ghibli movies dubbed. Don’t worry, don’t worry, I won’t fight back. I prefer decapitation, but I’m also cool with a clean bullet to the brain.


Marnie in the moonlight
Anna sees Marnie in the window of the Marsh House
Anna approaching the Marsh House
Marnie comforting Anna
Hisako painting the Marsh House and meeting Anna
The Oiwas bringing Marnie to their home for the summer


When her loved ones worry about her depression, Anna Sasaki is sent to her uncle and aunt’s country home for the summer to give her a change of pace. Soon Anna discovers the Marsh House, supposedly haunted, and is entranced with it. There she meets Marnie, a mysterious girl who forms a deep friendship with Anna and asks her to keep their relationship a secret. Anna meets Hisako, who makes a hobby of painting the Marsh House, and tells Anna that it is being renovated for a new family to move into it. Anna rushes over to the house and meets Sayaka, a young girl who mistakes Anna for Marnie. The two girls get to know each other and Sayaka reveals that she found an old journal written by Marnie, and has been on a quest to learn who this Marnie is. By the end of the summer Anna learns Marnie’s story from Hisako, the woman who paints the Marsh House. Marnie is Anna’s grandmother, and many of the experiences Anna had with Marnie were echoes of Marnie’s past. The Marsh House, Anna’s memories, the journal, and dreams all came together to give Anna a relationship with her grandmother. Anna goes home with her adopted mother happy; her relationship to her roots healed.


Terranism asserts a doctrine of ghosts which are emergent. Marnie is a fantastic example of this. The ghost Anna interacts with does not exist independantly of the world; Marnie is an echo, a shared memory. The Marsh House remembers the body that lived within it. The journal remembers the thoughts put down into it. The community remembers the girl who left them behind. Anna remembers the grandmother who refused to let her be alone. At every step in the journey, Anna interacts with someone who was there. In Terranic terms, she was bundling up the threads of the Great Tapestry like they once were. She was tracing her roots.

Using this movie as a template, it is easy to see how useful the myth of ghosts can be. To search for a ghost is a means to connect to the past, to deepen roots. When you see the world as if the dead suddenly walk among you, there is a profound connection to those spirits. This is a deeper exercise than just visualizing figures walking around in a space they would have been. To find a ghost is to collaborate with the environment and other humans in an exercise of memory.

Finding a ghost is a sudden, unexpected thing. You cannot summon one up with a particular spell, because there is nothing essential about ghosts. If we understand ghosts as emergent, rather than a lingering vitalist soul, we will notice that every spirit leaves different impacts on the world, and so therefore every ghost requires unique components for their conjuring. To find a ghost is to absorb what the places and people knew, and what they would expect of the spirit if it was still around. That moment when the ghost appears can be worked for or spontaneous, but it is rarely repeatable in the same way.

A few people have died in my family, and I see their ghosts sometimes. Personally, I tend to find ghosts through scent. The smell of tiramisu, espresso, or chicken broth might make me think my nona is right around the corner. The warm, grainy smell of cigarettes might fool me into thinking my grandma is nearby. The smell of wet dog might have me turning quickly thinking my old pet will rub against my leg. The scent of old wine transports me back to my nono’s grappa celler. The fresh musk of old sweaters might conjure an image of my grandpa.

Ghosts have haunts. My family moved from our house soon after our old dog died. It was hard not to expect our pet to come trotting around a corner, or push up against our legs, or to be sleeping in the mudroom. A rhythmic banging against drywall might have us all looking to where our dog should have been wagging his tail into the wall. But then we moved, and the ghost stayed behind. The new house wasn’t haunted by our ghosts. Our roots were stretched thin.

Such an understanding of ghosts does not require the supernatural for it to be valuable. Ghosts are our roots. To find them is to understand ourselves more deeply, as Anna had done. Searching for our ghosts can be a tool against alienation, against that feeling of displacement. Just as Anna’s mental health was healed by meeting Marnie, so can we be healed by finding our ghosts. Ghosts are not outside of us, they are a part of us, as Marnie was a part of Anna. To be disconnected from them is to leave behind a part of ourselves.

When Marnie Was There is a beautiful film. I heartilly recommend it.

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