With Ghost Stories on DVD and Blu Ray release from August 27th I wanted to explore a little about the ghosts of film. This is a subjective list and comprises of my personal favourites as well as those franchises which I’m not too big a fan of, but are too important to ignore.
The ghost story comes from a literary tradition, albeit a somewhat trivial one. Ghosts appeared mostly as elements within a wider morality tale and while some were clearly intended to be frightening, others were comedic. Most famously, Dickens brought the ghost story into A Christmas Carol and popularised a connection between Christmas and ghosts in England which developed into the production of the Ghost Stories for Christmas series on the BBC. Obviously, there’s a lot of history between these points but as I’m not a qualified historian I’d likely not do it justice. While this tradition has waned in recent years, the existing material stands as some of the most unnerving representations of ghosts within English culture. Here, I would point out that it is important to clarify the ‘Englishness’ of these stories. While Wales, Scotland and Ireland have their own ghostly goings-on, it is usually the English (particularly white and male) stories which make it to the screen. Due to this English-ness, ghosts are found in memories of colonialism and find their grounding in class.
Welsh ghost lore is interesting in terms of where the stories are found. Due to the Industrial Revolution occupying the time and energy of the majority of South Wales, one has to look to more rural areas of Mid and North Wales to find tales passed down. While there is some evidence of Druidic and Pagan activity in the South which lends itself well to ghost stories, the fast expansion of towns has made it so that the majority of monuments have long been moved. Wales also has it’s own kinds of phenomena, my favourite being the tolaeth which acts as a premonition of someone’s impending death. Still, it remains that the majority of British ghost stories, film and television come from predominantly English writers and middle to upper class contexts.
The presentation of the ghost story has changed immeasurably. Older productions sought to replicate the tradition of ghost stories being told by one person to a group of friends and family around a campfire, with the performance of the reader responsible for creating the scares. However, ‘trick’ cinema was soon experimenting with methods of representing spectres and other unwordly creatures, which contributed to the ability to show ghosts as physical elements capable of interaction with actors. This meant that filmmakers had a choice between using suggestion or something more concrete. The following films vary between these two options.
This will contain spoilers, so if you see a heading of a film you have not seen, probably best to skip past it.
Dead of Night (1945)
The anthology film seems to be experiencing something of a resurgence lately – The ABCs of Death franchise, Tales of Halloween and the forthcoming The Field Guide to Evil are all breathing new life into the format. The horror anthology is synonymous with Amicus studios, who during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s brought in a large number of genre icons to fill stories based on old DC Comics. Dead of Night provides a strong foundation for those films and despite it’s advanced age, it has held up well, featuring a cleverly executed and rather unpleasant conclusion.
M R James Adaptations
It would be difficult for me to complete this article without paying reference to M R James. Perhaps the most famous male English writer of the ghost story, there is a reason his collections are rarely out of print. Despite the stuffy and insular concerns (James has admitted that he found little in foreign ghost stories, but blamed his own ignorance for this) I’ve always found them to be very affecting. In a December 1929 essay from The Bookman, James outlined a number of elements which contributed to the successful ghost story which are worth outlining here.
First, he put forward that ‘blatancy ruins’ the ghost story and sought stories that were more reticient. Second, he suggested that sex should not be brought into the story – terming it a ‘fatal mistake’. Of course, it is worth considering that James was notoriously conservative about sex and remained a bachelor for the duration of his life. Some have pointed to the ‘homosexual panic’ (characters rarely make physical contact) of his work as a hint toward his sexuality. Whatever the background reason for the isolation in his work, I’ve always found that this adds a certain mood and adds to the tension, particularly in filmed adaptations, which will be explored further shortly.
Despite James’ desire to not be too blatant, he also asserts that the story should not be ‘mild and drab’ and that there should be some element of terror created. This perhaps should be obvious, but it is understandably a difficult balance when trying not to be too blatant. He also suggests that there should not be too much blood involved. Lastly, he suggests that the best authors: ‘can make us envisage a definite time and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail’ but that ‘we do not want to see the bones of their theory about the supernatural’. Again, this idea ties into to his earlier one of reticence – nothing is scary if it is too thoroughly explained.
Perhaps the most famous incarnation of one of James’ stories is Night of the Demon (1957) adapted from his story Casting the Runes. While Night of the Demon is more concerned with the activities of a mysterious cult (and the showing of the demon was contested by many involved with the production), the film itself is an excellent exercise in tension. On the subject of ghosts, I’d suggest that both incarnations of Whistle and I’ll Come To You (based on the story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad) produced by the BBC offer a ghost story experience that is most effective. On a personal level Jonathan Miller’s 1968 production is incredibly effective, despite it’s relative simplicity. The scenes where Professor Parkin dreams that he is being followed across the beach by something that is mostly unseen fits all of James’ desires for subtlety. There is something suitably uncanny about the effect created by this level of isolation and the surrounding tension is escalated by the lack of human touch and interaction elsewhere. The fact that nothing touches the Professor in real-life is indication of his need to maintain distance and makes the fact that something follows him and wants to become uncomfortably close all the more disturbing.
The Neil Cross penned 2010 version of the story starring John Hurt also works for me, although does add blatancy in spades, which is perhaps no surprise considering Cross’ work in Luther and Hard Sun. Still, the atmosphere is suitably tense and it made a welcome addition to the Ghost Stories for Christmas collection. John Hurt’s ability to carry the full weight of the story comes in particularly useful and his performance really elevates the changes to the original material. In this version, the manifestation of a spectre as a metaphor for guilt comes to the fore. As this is a personal piece, I feel it necessary to point out that this was shown on Christmas Eve 2010 – the same day that my nan (last remaining grandparent) passed away. While it may seem macabre to watch a ghost story on the same day as a real death, for days before I’d watched members of my family struggle with the concept of something so final and so it really brought home the personal function that ghost stories can have.
The Haunting (1963)
Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting remains (for me at least) one of the most effective horror films. For the time it was made, the effects are incredible and the design of Hill House is perfect in its ability to play tricks on even the most hardened viewer. It is the attention to design and practical effects within the film which makes it a firm favourite. The most infamous scare where Eleanor discovers that it is not Theo holding her hand is a simple one, yet utterly terrifying and again, ties into the idea that Eleanor’s repression makes her especially susceptible to undesirable encounters with spirits. For a relatively mainstream film in the early 1960s it is also one of few films to feature an out lesbian character, in Theo, who is not only shown pretty favourably, but also lives. OK, the word is never spoken, but the subtext is almost too strong to be called subtext, so it is understandable that given the fact that she’s not instantly demonised many LGBT viewers accept her gayness without question. Jackson’s book makes it more obvious, of course. The less said about the remake, which ramps up the CGI and forgets about creating tension, the better.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’m not sure how well-regarded Stir of Echoes is in the grand-scheme of ghost films, but I personally love it. I think a lot of that is to do with the fact that this is one of the first horror films I probably saw as a pre-teen, without adults knowing that we were watching it. Due to cheap rental prices and staff who were less concerned about age ratings, it became a sleepover staple (along with Urban Legends and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). It breaks the Jamesian rule and throws in a very small sex scene, and turns up the volume and gory bits, but at it’s heart, it’s a relatively traditional story about the dead appealing for help to right a wrong. Kevin Bacon puts in a suitably sweaty and intense performance as a man who is hypnotised at a party and soon experiences visions of a girl who mysteriously disappeared months earlier. The hypnotism device is a fun one and the cinema set-up for his hypnosis is a decent way of putting the idea across visually. Throw in a creepy child with medium abilities and it’s a solid ghost story with good pacing.
I know that Ghostwatch is not technically a film, but it features some of the best ghost moments in any media. That, and the furore it caused upon broadcast on Halloween night in 1992 makes it more than deserving of a place within this. Drawing on the British awareness of media spectacles like the Enfield haunting, Ghostwatch featured a ‘live’ investigation of a haunting within a family. Written by Stephen Volk and originally intended as a longer series, Ghostwatch is now infamous in terms of British television. Despite the fact that the BBC had placed a Screen One banner at the outset of the show, the ‘as-real’ presentation of the show caused uproar, to the point that it has not been repeated on television in the UK. Still, it remains an excellent example of how effective playing with television conventions can be and also has a great re-watchability as not all instances of the ghost Pipes are usually spotted the first time around. What Ghostwatch does so well is escalate the happenings in such a deliberate way that you can’t help but be swept along with it. Too often ghost films can’t resist throwing in something too obvious too early on which disrupts the suspension of disbelief at the outset. Also, I’m still convinced that Craig Charles leaping out of a cupboard underneath the stairs is one of the best false scares committed to film.
Japanese horror (often termed J-Horror for brevity) has been massively successful, spawning long franchises both in Japan and in American remake form. Of course, the most famous of these is Ringu (1998) and for good reason. Ringu is still perhaps the most effective film within this wider format and the image of Sadako crawling out of the television is now iconic horror imagery. I still feel that the 2002 American remake dulls the effect of the same scene by placing it in a more open space and it cannot match the claustrophobia and unexpectedness of the original version. The presentation of the video tape is also excellent, with it’s disjointed and strange imagery setting the scene well for the relentless pursuit of victims that Sadako undertakes.
Other J-Horror hits are also effective, particularly the ghost of the young boy in Ju-on: The Grudge (2002). J-Horror functions almost as a subgenre of it’s own with the patterns being well-worn, culturally relevant, but more importantly very scary. Concerned primarily with the imprint that events leave on other objects (videotapes, houses, eyes, etc.) the subgenre offers something different to traditional Western storytelling, but has a universal appeal. While the films reached saturation point during the height of their popularity, revisiting them in isolation shows what excellent pieces of work they are and the use of more practical effects elevates them by enhancing the feeling of the uncanny (thinking again about the way the ghosts move). 2016’s Sadako vs Kayako is woven (unexpectedly for me) with comic moments as we see a battle between the two most famous characters. Adding comedy seems to acknowledge that thanks to the boom period in the late 1990s and early 2000s there is an element of fatigue with the format, but the film itself is suitably good fun, even if it lacks the fear factor of its predecessors.
Page, Stage and Screen – The Woman in Black
The Woman in Black is perhaps the best example of the elasticity of the ghost story, appearing first as a novel, then a play, a television adaptation and finally, a big-budget film version. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see the play, but its longevity in London’s West End speaks to its enduring popularity. Similarly, Susan Hill’s novel is a mainstay of English literature GCSE curriculums meaning that new minds are finding it all the time. The 1989 television adaptation penned by Nigel Kneale (responsible for some of the best British horror television) stays true to the downbeat ending that the novel has and is packed with scary moments. The 2012 film version under the resurrected Hammer Horror brand is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps better known as Daniel Radcliffe’s first big role following the end of the Harry Potter franchise the film unfortunately sacrifices tension for increasingly loud noises and worst of all, gives a relatively happy ending (in the grand scheme of things). Still, the film proved that ghosts are still big business across mediums.
Speaking of big business, even though I am not a fan of Insidious, it would not be right to leave it out of a discussion of ghost stories. It has certainly set the standard expectations for modern supernatural films. From my perspective, there is too much reliance on loud noises which disperse any tension too often, but they are exceptionally popular. Through studio confidence in director/writer team James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the series has also spawned into The Conjuring franchise, complete with further spin-offs and additions, mainly surrounding the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren in their pursuit of cursed objects and other hauntings. While Insidious prefers to refer to its inhabitants as entities, their behaviour is distinctly ghostly. The films have now set something of a formula which too often feels like it is copied and pasted for other films to replicate the success but there is still the potential for some crowd-pleasing, creepy moments.
Dearest Sister (2016)
Director Mattie Do is recognised as the first female horror Lao filmmaker. Her first feature Chantaly is an excellent ghost story and deserves mention, but I think Dearest Sister shows a big development and an interesting entry into the supernatural genre. Despite taking place in a cultural context which is likely to be a departure for most watching, Dearest Sister establishes itself very well. The real skill in Dearest Sister is the seamless introduction of the ‘lottery ghosts’. In the same way that James asserts that we should not know all the workings of the supernatural being within the work, the ghosts and visions within Do’s work arrive fully formed and without explanation. As the film does not concern itself with explaining or fully exploring this phenomenon the film can better explore the class and social mobility fears which drive the story. It is a story driven by women and social concerns of Laos, yet the story has a universal appeal. It is perhaps more gentle in terms of horror in that it does not rely on any of the traditional jump scares or gore, but presents an increasingly tense, claustrophobic chiller which is emphasised by the vulnerability of central character Ana, who is increasingly reliant on her cousin Nok for her care after the loss of her sight. Ana’s loss of sight works with the film’s reluctance to show too much, preferring to keep the focus on the atmosphere and mistrust developing between the pair.
Ghost Stories (2017)
Lastly, I’ve made no secret of my sheer love for Ghost Stories, so I’ll continue that in greater depth here. I first saw the theatre show in the January 2011 and fell utterly in love with the escalated feeling of fear I felt from watching amazing and frightening things happen directly in front of me. One of my favourite memories of the show is turning to look at my friend during the show and seeing that he was practically lying down in his seat, utterly transfixed and terrified. Alongside the frights and some genuinely unpleasant inferences within the show, it was also incredibly funny, allowing the theatre’s nervous laughter to provide some levity. It is also hard to describe how much fun it is to really let loose and engage in a few screams with the scares. Such behaviour is unacceptable in traditional cinema settings, but the show encouraged the audience to be absorbed in the performance to the point of direct interaction. Furthermore, the staging meant that one section of the audience often saw part of an apparition before another section did, meaning that a gasp from the back of the room could create a new scare for the rest of the audience unintended by the production itself.
I saw the theatre show a total of three times by the end of its run, so you can imagine I was thrilled to hear that a film was being made. However, due to my love of the show I had concerns that the change in medium could change the material to the point where it was unrecognisable from the original form. These fears were unfounded as creators Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson appeared to maintain the majority of control by taking on both writing and directing duties. The resultant film is a triumph which takes everything that made the show such an engaging watch and puts it on screen, even maintaining the element of magic of seemingly impossible things happening in real-time through practical magician’s effects. In a long tradition of British ghost stories it centres on a stuffy skeptic, but through the experiences of three believers it is a pacier affair than those films which wait for the skeptic to see anything before showing the audience. Still, Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman) provides a good grounding for what is essentially an anthology film with much to offer in terms of rewatchability.
It does tend toward loud noises more than older films it takes its influence from, but this is likely because it seeks to place itself amongst current films and understands that audiences want that jump scare. This is in keeping with the stage show’s feeling of a ghost train and does contribute to the overall atmosphere of the film. Furthermore, the bigger jumps are well-earned and are only after extended sequences of building tension in other ways. Furthermore, the film understands that some of the audience are already aware of it’s narrative from the show and works hard to subvert a few of those expectations without changing the direction too much. The shadow of James’ isolation looms heavy over the film and explores traditional ghostly themes of guilt, shame and identity while turning up the volume.
Ghost Stories is released on Blu Ray and DVD in the UK on August 27th 2018.
As this (admittedly limited and personal) list suggests, the ghost story has the ability to provide scares in various forms, utilising sound, visuals and also deeper concepts like guilt, identity and cultural and social issues. This, and the flexibility of ghosts to be in different forms and therefore evolve with available technology to present in new ways means there are limitless ways they can be used within horror and wider genres. While the current mainstream trend for ghost films is to over-utilise the noisy jump scare, the independent scene is full of new and innovative stories involving the spirit world. The ability of the ghost to cross cultural and social barriers also allow for the exploration of world cinema, rather than grounding itself in one setting.
Let me know your favourite ghost films in the comments, or on Twitter!