As written by Ruth Weller-Passman
What is the difference between a ghost and a soul that is no longer attached to a human body? Is there a difference? One fascinating answer to this question comes from Shane Acker’s film 9. Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has gone extinct and the only remaining life is manmade, this film is ripe for spiritual and supernatural analysis. This analysis will focus on the movie’s treatment of souls, ghosts, and the differences between the two.
The film’s title character, 9, is the latest of nine beings called stitchpunks created to carry on humanity’s legacy. The scientist who created these beings was previously responsible for the invention of the Fabrication Machine, an artificial intelligence designed to create new machines in its own likeness. This machine ultimately turned against its creator and launched the world into a war between man and machine. In humanity’s final hours, the repentant scientist endowed each of the stitchpunks with a piece of his own soul. In this way he hoped to preserve the soul, the part of humanity he had failed to honor in creating the purely intellectual but easily corrupted Fabrication Machine. But by fragmenting his own soul, did the scientist truly create something akin to humanity? Or did he create ghosts?
Many stories throughout the ages have explored the idea of fragmenting or damaging the soul, such as Jacob’s Ladder, Ghost Whisperer, and the Harry Potter series. It nearly always has negative ramifications. The soul is believed to be the very essence of what makes a human being human. When the soul leaves the company of its physical body, it is usually under the guise of death. Sometimes, however, the soul (or part of it) remains behind. Is a fragment of a soul automatically a ghost? If so, it could be argued that the stitchpunks are ghosts from the moment they are brought to life by part of the scientist’s soul. Yet the stitchpunks in 9, though they are fragments of the scientist’s soul, are not bound by the past. In fact, most of them are unaware of their origins. Ghosts are usually liminal; they are caught between the thresholds of life and death, past and present, time and timelessness. They are neither wholly of this world nor of the next. If the stitchpunks were truly ghosts, they might retain some fragment of the scientist’s memories. But though each of the stitchpunks retains a specific facet of the scientist’s personality, they are not mere fragments of the scientist’s memories projected onto the present. They are new life that has grown from old life. While the stitchpunks are influenced greatly by their past (and the scientist’s), they are not bound by it.
If the distinction between souls and ghosts is the freedom that souls have to build on memories and pieces of the past, where does that leave the Fabrication Machine? It represents something much more sinister and fragmented than the stitchpunks. It was brought to life by the scientist’s intellect alone, and lacks the human quality of a soul. It is the product of mankind’s eternal quest for progress, regardless of the ethical and emotional consequences. In this film, technology itself is a ghost of sorts—caught between the non-sentience of less sophisticated machinery and the terrible self-awareness of what it lacks, the Fabrication Machine begins seeking out the stitchpunks and stealing the scientist’s soul fragments from them. With the power to create a seemingly endless supply of similar robots and machines, what does the Fabrication Machine want with the scientist’s soul pieces?
At the beginning of the film, the Machine is in some sort of temporary shutdown. Its awakening is triggered when it is able to steal the first soul from one of the stitchpunks. It is as if the Machine needs some fragment of human life to exist. At first the surviving stitchpunks assume that their fallen relatives are dead. But just before his own soul is stolen, one of the surviving stitchpunks realizes, “You mustn’t destroy it! Don’t destroy it. They’re trapped. They’re trapped inside!” The Machine hasn’t just killed them: it has ripped their souls from their mortal bodies and trapped them inside itself. Only at this point do the captured stitchpunks become ghosts instead of souls. Frozen between life and death, the spirits of the stitchpunks no longer have any future. They are shadows of the past bound unwillingly to the present, and they have no power to free themselves or each other from this fate.
The film’s ultimate goal, then, is not to bring about the destruction of the Fabrication Machine, but to free the captured ghosts. Rather than simply building a trap for the Machine, 9 discovers a way to steal back the five ghosts of his relatives. This does destroy the Machine, but it does not release the ghosts from their liminal prison. That occurs during a ceremony at the end of the film. By reversing the process that the scientist used to channel pieces of his own soul, 9 is able to free the ghosts of the five trapped stitchpunks. One by one, the ghosts emerge to bid their final goodbyes. As the ghosts disappear, there is a sudden cloudburst: the first rainfall the stitchpunks have experienced. It is implied that it has not rained since humanity’s destruction. By freeing the trapped ghosts, 9 has also exorcised the ghosts of the war between man and machine.
To return to this post’s original question, then…what is the difference between a soul and a ghost? This particular film’s answer seems to be that souls have much more freedom than ghosts, even if the soul has been borrowed from another source. Souls have the opportunity to continue to grow, change, and live, while ghosts are trapped between this world and the next. The process by which the scientist gave his soul to the stitchpunks is not so different from the process the Machine used to steal their souls, after all. Yet there is a crucial difference: the Machine captured the stitchpunks’ souls to fetter them in a spectral timelessness, while the scientist willingly sacrificed his own life’s essence in order to create entirely new life. This idea is reinforced by 9’s last words in the film: “This is our world now…it’s what we make of it.” Now that they have defeated the Machine and released the ghosts, the remaining stitchpunks have thrown off the last of the world’s ghosts too, and may enjoy the ultimate freedom of building a new life together.
9. Dir. Shane Acker. Focus Features, 2009. Film.