Let it be known, that of all the types of horror out there, ghost films are the ones that really get to me and leave me looking over my shoulder more than any of the others. Its odd, because I’m not a believer, but a well done ghost story really shakes me. That said, they are very hard to come by, particularly in the modern horror landscape which is saturated with vampires, zombies and found footage (oh my!) and the days of the ghost story seem far behind us. However, is that the fault of the industry, or do ghost stories just not do it for audiences anymore?
I get a kick out of shows like Most Haunted because more often than not its some very excitable people shouting at things in the dark. I’ve tried countless times to hear the voices on the tapes and see things in the orbs on photographs, but it never works for me. Sorry, but not scary. Some of the stories on things like My Ghost Story that use reconstructions are far more entertaining and yes, a few times I’ve got chills from it. The site Science of Ghosts is somewhere I’ve spent a lot of time and some photographs work well to provide that feeling of unease.
The preceeding photograph was used briefly in the fantastic and terrifying play, Ghost Stories (written by Jeremy Dyson of The League of Gentlemen and Funland and Andy Nyman of Severance and Dead Set). Last I heard the play was meant to be touring the UK, so I’m not going to say too much about it as its essential to go without knowing the secrets. Essentially, its a portmanteau horror in which a parapsychologist interviews people about their ghost sightings and experiences. While not a film, it manages to be an engaging and scary in a modern setting. If theatre can do this, then why not film?
The largest mainstream modern horror is the Paranormal Activity franchise. The three films (with a fourth on the way) have done well as because they follow the found-footage formula they are cheap to make, but people go to see them in droves. Now, your mileage may vary, but I find myself very bored by them. The films seem to consist of long periods of near-silence and then a loud noise or a door slamming with little else in between. I’m a fan of a slow-burn, but slow-burn doesn’t mean there should be huge gaps where nothing happens. Of course, between the films there is an ongoing story that likely explains why all this is happening, but I’m just too bored to really pay attention and engage with it. I’m willing to argue that a large part of that is the settings used in the film. Night vision cameras in modern homes just don’t have the fear factor of an old gothic mansion. Maybe that is why it doesn’t work for me.
Another big hit was Insidious (a film I wasn’t kind to when reviewing) that seems to go to the other end of the spectrum. In Insidious you can barely move for a jump scare and the packing in of them all dilutes it somewhat. Here the more conventional use of dark shadows is used, making it feel at times like a more classic ghost story, including the theme of grief as a constant stream throughout. Of course, then along come the ghost hunters to just totally ruin it.
One of my favourite film/TV ghost stories is Crooked House (penned by Mark Gatiss) and I would urge people to seek it out. It manages to balance the modern and period parts of the story and updates its scares throughout. Its a great piece of work and its such a shame that relatively few people know about it, as compared to things like Insidious and Paranormal Activity. A French film called The Village of Shadows also manages to transition from a historical setting into a tense present day and again, is worthy of far more attention, bravely bucking the trend of ultra-violent French films.
A recent success is that of The Woman in Black which has broken records for British horror films. It carries all the hallmarks of a great ghost story (without mentioning it being a Hammer film) by being in a period setting and having the themes of grief and vengeance present in many ghost stories. The story has been through almost every medium – the book, the television drama, the West End theatre show and now the big budget Hammer production. I quite liked The Woman in Black film, with the exception of the ending, which really didn’t fit with the message of uncurable vengeance throughout the film. It is effective though and its success means a sequel is on the way. Apparently the sequel is to be set 40 years after the events of the first film. Time will tell if the story will be as effective a little further on in history.
OK, that’s a pretty long and rambly blog. If you have anything you’d like to add then please feel free to leave a comment, either here on on my Twitter. Thanks for reading!