I think that the reason that Americans take such an ambiguous stance with ghosts and hauntings is that we don’t have a long standing history with them.
There are many, many cultures in the world where people have been working with the dead in one form or another for thousands of years. Relatively speaking, American culture as most people would recognize it is completely new. We’re still working with other people’s scripts, so to speak. We have the memories of the cultures that we pull from but we still don’t really have anything to point at yet that’s ‘ours.’ The closest thing I can think of is the practice of the drive through funeral home. We’re getting there-and I would even argue that it’s getting stronger, but we’re still not there yet. There’s not much that we can point at and call purely American without it actually being Polish or Irish or Japanese. Maybe some day.
The point that I’m getting at is two fold: one, that our media doesn’t really know how to work with ghosts yet which is why a lot of American ghost films are not that effective because we’re still not terribly familiar with the tropes yet, and b, that foreign media seems to frighten American viewers as much as it does because it is both somehow more honest and more developed.
When you take a film like Shutter (the original Thai version, not the American remake) part of the reason that the film is effective for American audiences is admittedly the Western lens of the viewer. Our death culture looks nothing like this, so we see something that is both admittedly terrifying just because it’s scary as all hell, and terrifying because it’s so foreign to us. We’re looking at a completely different set of cultural understandings and we wonder what it is that we’re overlooking.
Note that what I’m not trying to get at is the audience exoticfying the material, though that’s certain a risk with foreign media of any form. It’s just that we’re dealing with such unfamiliar waters in a nation that has so completely sanitized death that most the closest most people are going to come to it is a 30 minute visit to the funeral home once or twice a year, if we’re lucky. Americans are notoriously bad with death and Shutter is a film that takes death and reminds us that it literally can follow us around. And we have to wonder if this is actually going on, but the language is so different from ours that we wouldn’t understand it if we had to.
We wonder as Americans what it is that we’re missing. And the interesting thing about it is, this is a function that occurs even within our own media. I really don’t know what mainstream pop culture would do with, say, Pagan death rites when it still doesn’t seem to know how to think about Catholic rites; the Catholic rite of exorcism and Mass are still exoticfied in American culture and arguably that’s a lot closer to home than Thai death practices.
Interestingly, there’s something about this film that has really struck a cord across cultures. The movie’s been remade multiple times, including in Thailand, and across a wide range of countries. The Americans, unsurprisingly, have gotten in on the act and while that version could be entertaining in its own right is a little too sanitized for my tastes.