When the live-action Casper was released in 1995, I was only just beginning to wonder if I was pretty. I was nine years old, and it had recently occurred to me that, just as I took pleasure in the sight of objects—lace nightgowns, my Addy doll, the floral cover of The Secret Garden—people could take pleasure in looking at each other. And so I began to look.
It was easy to adapt to the process of objectification, if not to understand it—that would come later. When I first watched Casper, I knew that Eric Idle was not attractive, while Christina Ricci and Cathy Moriarty were. All grown men registered as “dad” to me, so Bill Pullman was confusing—and then, of course, there was Devon Sawa, Casper’s fleshly embodiment. Sawa, unlike Ricci and Moriarty, was attractive in a way that seemed to imply action. Blonde-haired, rosy-lipped, with eyes like a Van Gogh sky, Devon Sawa perplexed me with his storybook beauty. I wanted something from him, and I didn’t know what it was.
Sawa’s walloping impact on young female viewers of Casper is entirely disproportionate to his screen time. We pass most of the film with Casper-as-ghost: a bulbous little spirit who vaguely resembles transparent sperm. We learn that Casper (voiced by Malachi Pearson) died sometime in childhood and has languished in his family’s mansion ever since, lonely for companionship. His three uncles, who, for reasons unbeknownst to us, also haunt the mansion, have bullied their nephew into behaving as their Cinderella. Otherwise indifferent to his presence, they are no balm for Casper’s melancholy.
Enter Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman) and, of course, his daughter Kat (Christina Ricci). Dr. Harvey, a therapist for ghosts, has been tasked with helping the spirits fulfill their unfinished business so that they will vacate the house. Having lost his own wife, Dr. Harvey barely bothers to hide his personal investment in the emotional welfare of the spirit world—and Kat knows this. She regards his efforts as fruitless attempts to make contact with her mother, she rolls her wide eyes, and she scowls like a porcelain doll dressed for a Nirvana concert. Naturally, she does not believe in ghosts and, naturally, her views are amended within an hour of moving into Casper’s mansion.
The romantic logic of the film allows Casper, who presumably perished before his balls dropped, to nonetheless nurture an ardent affection for Kat. In fact, he’s impressively forthright for a four-fingered proteus, mocking the classmate who has caught Kat’s eye and—beyond all reason—begging to be her date for the middle school Halloween dance. At this point in the movie, it’s evident that Kat cannot conceive of a romantic relationship with her new companion which, frankly, seems reasonable, as he speaks with the timbre of a ten-year-old, “sleeps” at the foot of her bed like an oversized dog, and, more to the point, lacks bodily mass.
But still, the film quietly incorporates little interactions that foreshadow Kat’s physical attraction to the spirit—that is, once he inhabits adolescent Devon Sawa’s form. Soon after her arrival to the house, Kat tumbles out of a closet and directly on top of Casper—a classic “meet cute,” made easier by ghostliness. The next morning, once Casper cajoles Kat into being able to stand his presence, the two share a charged moment of familiar mutual wonderment. Shyly, Kat expresses her curiosity in the sheer vapor of Casper’s form, and in turn, he invites her to “touch” him. As Kat gently penetrates Casper’s filmy hand with her real one, she breathes, “You’re so cold.”
This is just another iteration of any romantic scene uniting people of different backgrounds. And a divide to be overcome—whether supernatural or cultural or literal, physical—is often the thrill in the first place. Kat doesn’t register her contact with Casper as arousing, but it prefigures arousal; it’s profoundly physical. Her nervousness anticipates foreign bodily sensation; she is not frightened, but rather, timid in the face of this mystifying and vulnerable gesture. “I’ve never done this before,” she tells Casper. “Can you hurt me? Can I hurt you?” And though Casper responds that he, too, has never engaged in such intimate contact with a living person, he assures Kat with a mild, “No.”
Once when I was 11, standing alone at the bus stop with my crush, he reached out his hand to softly brush my cheek. A bug had landed on it, he explained. Over the months prior, I had summoned up so many daydreams about an encounter like this. I dreamed about hand grazes, butterfly kisses—unambitious, but appropriately scaled for my physical self-knowledge at the time. And yet I shuddered at that boy’s touch, shrugging him off with a scowl. I was mortified, and even more so when the boy looked at me, pained and befuddled. In my head, I knew I’d risk malaria if it meant hours of tender bug brush-offs, but my body had revolted. I was overwhelmed by the kind warmth of fingers and shocked at the fact of the touchability of flesh.
I encountered Devon Sawa’s Casper on the cusp of this moment, at a time when I felt inchoate and uncharted, when curiosity and inconsistency seemed intertwined. On the night of the Halloween party, when Casper is granted the wish to adopt human form, he becomes what seemed impossible in the real world: a true embodiment of possibility. He was temporary, and thus a safe space for projection. We could imbue him with our romantic longings—our young idealizations of masculinity—and he would never disappoint.
The film understands that this is Sawa’s role. He slowly descends the staircase, his back facing us until he has walked on his real legs across the dancefloor, found Kat, and escorted her to its center. Only then do we see his face, just as we remark Kat’s expression upon seeing it too. She looks like we looked, watching her: compelled, full of vague recognition and bewilderment. This moment is a lonely girl’s fantasy, and Kat, scuttled from town to town by her father, is a lonely girl. I knew the type well: no one was ever looking for us, until suddenly, someone did.
Casper does not keep Kat in suspense long as to his identity. Tilting his face to hers, their mouths nearly brushing against one another, he asks, “Can I keep you?”
Kat has heard this question before; Casper whispered it in her ear several nights ago as she drifted off to sleep. It’s oddly phrased—Casper, we do not “keep” people—but it’s also exact about the longing it expresses. Casper shares Kat’s loneliness, her unarticulated and confusing desires.
And so, Kat accepts this living Casper as an extension of the one she already knows. When she embraces him, it is with the fervency of someone who’s dreamed about this. She kisses him, too, not with newly awakened attraction, but with readiness—nearly relief—that implies both physical familiarity and appeased longing. Her love had already taken form; she only needed Casper himself to do the same.
It’s a hokey and well-traveled narrative, yes, but love is that to begin with. Devon Sawa’s Casper danced with Kat before I knew heartbreak, or how men could and would wound me. But he always glimmered at the outskirts of my mind, offering the refuge of fantasy. He promised me the ludicrous: that my love story would write itself around me, that romance never waned from the apex of potential. I knew it was stupid, but I clung to it anyway—I think sometimes it might have saved me. The best lies do.
Image via Universal
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