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The Invisible Ghost

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Amnesia has long been a staple in the plots of soap operas and movies such as "The Invisible Ghost," a 1941 film in which good-guy Charles Kessler (played by Bela Lugosi) lapses into a daze and commits murder whenever he catches a glimpse of the wife who abandoned him for another man years ago. Is he seeing a ghost? No—the car accident that killed her lover as they absconded has left her with her own case of amnesia and the kindly gardener has been secretly taking care of her. Sounds implausible? You might be surprised to learn what this week's podcast reveals about how emotional or physical trauma can affect memory.

This movie is a gem for fans of inappropriate responses. First, we learn that Kestler and his daughter, Virginia (Polly Ann Young), stay in their house despite a string of yet-to-be-solved murders. Then Polly's fiancé, Ralph (John McGuire), is executed for the murders. It seems that Virginia would be a little mopey after this, but she's as perky as ever, giving us the sense that when her fiancé's twin brother appears to uncover the truth, it's as if nobody died at all. (But it's her dad who's the crazy one.)

Dr. Clarence Muse furnishes the film's most refreshing performance. Some viewers will doubtless find his portrayal of Evans, the Kestler's butler, to be richer and more fun to watch than even Lugosi's befuddled Kessler. It's unfortunately rare for a mainstream 1940s film to provide screen time for an African-American actor to play more than a stereotyped caricature. Though Muse's performance as a house manager includes serving dinner for Lugosi and a little mugging for the camera, it also allows viewers to glimpse some of the range of an actor whose talent enlivened what might have otherwise been a stock character role.

But Muse was more than an actor who appeared in 150-plus movies. In 1911, he earned a degree in International Law from the Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania. He also played and composed music, produced the film "The Custard Nine" (1921) and co-wrote the screenplay for "Way Down South" with none other than the literary giant Langston Hughes. In "Broken Strings" (1939), he plays a classical violinist in conflict with the son who prefers swing music. His film career ended with an appearance in "The Black Stallion," when he died just days before its release in 1979.

The Science

Erin Bigler

Dr. Erin BiglerNeuropsychologist Erin Bigler of Brigham Young University discusses brain function, perception and the film “The Invisible Ghost.”


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Neuroscience Program - University of Utah

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