NIGHTMARES OF THE FUTURE: The Ghosts of War

bonus 040 - 19th July, 2020

From the previously unpublished files: my write-up on / decoding of [/ excuse to talk about Eugene Thacker and (techno)magical sight/sites] the movie, Spectral.


The film Spectral (2016) was basically immediately dismissed as a weak military sci-fi involving ghosts. It was compared unfavorably to Aliens, Black Hawk Down – it was actually pitched as Black Hawk Down meets Ghostbusters – and the Gears of Wars game franchise in reviews that completely overlook the magical aspect of the story: that it's set in the aftermath of a cosmic horror-style mad experiment.

The “ghosts” are Lovecraftian horrors released from some military lab. Only a heroic scientist can investigate it. This isn't a military sci-fi at all, it's an occult detective story!

The tension between the supernatural and the science-fictional is the dramatic engine of the film. It isn't about fighting unstoppable killer ghosts, it's about solving the mystery of their being, understanding their origins... and then shooting them with big fucking guns (BFGs).

“If the lab is the [magic] circle, then the lab experiment is the magical ritual.” ~ In The Dust Of This Planet

To help decode this I turn once again to Eugene Thacker's In The Dust Of This Planet, and use his explanation of the evolution of the magical circle in this age where we can think of “bleeding-edge science as the new occultism.”

As we walk through this movie we're going to focus on two of these ideas: (techno)magical sight and (techno)magical sites, as well as the classic magical circle as barrier from evil spirits.

Warning: this full of spiders. I mean, spoilers. Go watch it on Netflix and come back in two hours. Or take a ride with me right now.


The film starts with a soldier being killed by a Wraith-like creature. A spectral being that can only be seen with the science-fictional goggles the soldier is wearing. It's invisible to the naked eye. The hyper spectral goggles are the first (techno)magical element to the story. They grant the ability to see beyond the natural human range – to see super naturally. The goggles give the user (techno)magical sight. It is the device AS magic circle. This is a very much in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, as Eugene Thacker writes:

“With Lovecraft, we see several transformations to the magic circle. ...instead of referencing alchemy or necromancy, Lovecraft’s characters use the language of optics, physics, and the fourth dimension. There is also a second transformation to the magic circle, which is that science and technology are not just used to upgrade the magic circle – they are the magic circle... The device serves as nothing more than a nodal point from which the characters are able to “see” the extra-dimensional reality and the weird creatures that swim about them every day. ...the magic circle is used to reveal the already-existing non-separation between natural and supernatural, the “here and now” and the “beyond.” ~ In The Dust of this Planet

The vision is relayed back to the command centre. They know that something killed their soldier, something they would've been otherwise unable to see. Something they can't explain.

Premise established, the film introduces its hero. The action scientist that invented those goggles, Dr. Mark Clyne (played by James Badge Dale [Rubicon]). He works for DARPA, which means we see him scrounging in a junkyard to find a part to complete his latest prototype. His demo goes so well they want to militarize it. This does not please our hero. He wants to make prosthetics, not advance the science of death rays. Then his boss delivers his call to adventure: telling him to pack his bags, there's something up with the goggles he invented. Dr. Clyne's quest has begun.

He arrives in the capital of Moldova — that's where the solider was killed — and gets the back story: people, not just soldiers, have been dying mysteriously all over the city and they've been catching images of these spectral beings with his goggles. WTF? Command wants a logical explanation. All they have is what the locals say, that the ongoing battles have released “the ghosts of war” - the Aratare.

This is explained to him by CIA Agent, Fran Madison (played by Emily Mortimer [above]), that has been running the spec ops teams. Think of Madison as the milspec version of Scully — always looking for a logical explanation to the unexplained. She also speaks the local language and translates for the group. Those — other than being the token female in the film — are her only functions. Oh yeah, she also foreshadows the arcane nature of the film.

“The regime spent heavily on weapons research. Corruption, loose legislation. You're a military lab and want obscurity? This is a great place to work and hide.” ~ Madison

What if the ghosts of war aren't just the undead victims, or soldiers whose spirits can't find rest? What if they're the people who work – and profit – in the shadows. The arms dealers. The mad scientists....

Instead of delivering the usual cliched scientism speech, Clyne heroically embraces uncertainty as he discusses the problem with Madison and General Orland (played by Bruce Greenwood):

“Your technician's job is to find glitches, so, he sees glitches. Your job is to find the enemy, so, you see the enemy. Locals believe in spirits, so they see spirits. Everyone is biased, in one way or another. So, my answer to you right now is that we lack data to support any theory.”

He attaches a larger, more powerful hyper spectral camera to an APC and rolls out with the soldiers on a rescue mission. It does not go well. They only find one soldier, Comstock, alive and he's an incoherent mess. He'd survived hiding under a ceramic bathtub. Trapped in a room with a Wraith, Comstock was driven to near madness by the experience. Here the story develops aspects of cosmic horror: the encounter with something incomprehensible leading to insanity. It also adds another magical aspect – there's some protection from them. The ceramic tub apparently shielded him.

Nearly all the rescue party die too. The Wraith are unrelenting. Guns don't kill them. Grenades don't kill them. RPGs don't kill them. Conventional weapons are useless. They move at terrifying speeds, pass through walls and leap from great heights. The ghosts of war are death machines.

The survivors retreat to a warehouse. The film goes full supernatural. The Wraith are coming. Death seems certain. But something stops them.

The warehouse has been surrounded with a perimeter of iron filings, something the spectral beings are unable to cross. This is an example of the magic circle in its purest form in action.

“...the magic circle maintains a basic function, which is to govern the boundary between the natural and the supernatural, be it in terms of acting as a protective barrier, or in terms of evoking the supernatural from the safety inside the circle.” ~ In The Dust Of This Planet

Two young children are found hiding in the warehouse. It was their father who'd constructed the barrier. He'd worked at Masarov, a power plant where the Aratare first appeared. Something, it seems, went terribly wrong there. If this is a cosmic horror story, or the aftermath of one, Masarov would be the magical site — the location where a magical ritual had taken place — where the known thresholds of reality where broken and something incompressible crossed over.

“Instead of serving as a gateway or portal to other dimensions – a function still very much within the traditional magic circle – Lovecraft’s characters construct a magic circle whose function is the dissolving of the boundary between the natural and supernatural, the four-dimensional and the other-dimensional...” ~ In The Dust Of This Planet

If this isn't a magical quest then why does our hero find a map of the next level when searching a corpse?

Knowing that iron filings affect the Wraith offers a way to at least effect an escape. Which is good, because the Wraith have found a way over the barrier and into the warehouse. Iron-filled IEDs are fashioned from material in the warehouse – Dr Clyne, it seems, is quite the MacGyver – and the small party of survivors tries to now meet up with their rescuers coming to extract them.

All their goggles were wrecked earlier, the team have lost their (techno)magical sight. Dr Clyne rejigs the hyper spectral camera to project – becoming a kind of supernatural searchlight and gives instructions for the incoming extraction team to do the same. A dramatic supernatural battle takes place. The searchlight breaks. The horror becomes being unable to see what's coming for them...

The tanks arrive just in time, outfitted with the searchlights – they've regained their (techno)magical sight! More fighting... Clyne has his biggest moment of action, shattering a belt/bandolier full of iron-filled capsules to create a barrier as the Wraith close in on them. They get flown out by chopper, ending up hiding out with the locals in some huge old bunker with huge steel doors and concrete. This is apparently sufficient to keep out the Wraith. It's the last safe place in the city. General Orland arrives with the remnants of the US Forces. Their base was overrun by the Wraith. Things seem... dire.

Dr Clyne gets more information from the daughter, and just as the soldiers are all “srsly wtf ” he puts it all together. In a flash of inspiration, the film phase shifts from being a supernatural horror to become a straight up science-fiction action/drama. He explains the previously inexplicable in one long science-speak info dump:

“I know what they are. We think we're seeing things. We think it can't be real, but it kills. So, it is real. It's something. It's not light, it's not shadow, or some trick of the mind. Pass through walls, check. Outside the visible spectrum, check. Kills to the touch, check. Comstock? He was under a ceramic bathtub, is that right? Tank armor. It couldn't pass through tank armor. M1 Abrams tank armor, that's ceramic plating everywhere. It cannot pass through ceramic. You know what that means? It means this stuff isn't natural. Someone made it. It's man-made... You have solid, liquid, gas. Lava can turn into rock. Ice can turn into water. Metals can melt. These are natural states. But there are unnatural states. Artificial states, man-made states. Condensate. Bose-Einstein condensate. A state of matter that was predicted by Nath Bose and Albert Einstein. It has some very unusual properties. It can be slowed down by iron filings. It cannot pass through ceramic, but it can pass through walls. It's so cold it will kill you instantly on contact. It can do everything we've been seeing here. To create Bose-Einstein condensate, you need power, and you need a lot of it. Masarov. The power plant.”

Now that they have a working theory — that the supernatural has been made normal, the genie put in a container of reason — they can fight back. Dr Clyne goes into ultimate MacGyver mode, constructing Wraith-killing BFGs out of household parts. The soldiers suit up looking like true sci-fi supersoliders. The quest is nearly at end, it's just a matter of storming the castle and defeating the evil wizards or whatever lies within. The team set off to Masarov.

What they don't find inside the (techno)magical site, Masarov is the evil wizards / mad scientists / weapons researchers responsible. No, they've ghosted.

What they do find is an abandonded (techno)magical sight where something didn't go terribly wrong, it went incredibly right! Madison and Clyne discover a supersoldier production line. It's been scanning people, printing them out of Bose-Einstein condensate — slice-by-slice — and assembling the result into Wraith.

The Wraith are (techno)magical aetheric entities made by super science. They're the avatars of the dead. Soulless creatures. Connected to corpses wired into some mechanism of control that the film then avoids having to explain by having Madison only able to translate part of its control panel.

And that's the core mystery solved: the real monsters aren't eldritch beings from a higher plane, they're us!

The sci-fi action continues. The super'd soldiers shoot the Wraith with their BFGs. Clyne and Madison dismantle the Wraith-control-mechanism. The formerly supernatural conflict is over. Conventional war can resume.

This is the real horror. The film is an uncritical endorsement of Western interventionism: military adventurism in service of the neoliberal agenda. Naturally they're going to use every weapon at their disposal for the Greater Good. Clyne comes from DARPA after all*, home of sci-fi super weapons. The military are going to disassemble the Wraith Creator, figure out how it works, then use it in the next region the Empire decides it needs to control ^H^H^H^H^H^H^H “save.”

That's the movie folks. Waaaay more to it than “shit Gears of War vs Ghosts” in my opinion, if you have eyes to see.


* FACTUAL NOTE: DARPA is an agency that commissions weapons from contractors in partnership with branches of the US Military. They don't actually build them in-house. Would you like to know more? Read The Pentagon's Brain by Annie Jacobsen for starters.