Would YOU knock at that door…?
There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned ghost story for cheap thrills. A skilled one can send the most uncomfortably delightful shivers up your spine, and have you hiding behind a sofa cushion like a twelve-year-old again. Everyone loves them. The ghost story is surely one of the oldest, most primitive forms of story-telling. Our Neanderthal ancestors, with their low brows and excessive body hair, must have gathered around the campfire at night and told stories about spirits to explain away the strange lights in the sky, and the howling and screeching sounds out in the dark forest. And as a race, we’ve been fascinated by them ever since. Religion created the concept of the “soul,” opening up endless possibilities for stories about lost souls, wandering souls, souls detained in this world due to “unfinished business.” The Victorians were fascinated with Spiritualism – séances, bringing back or communicating with the dead. Upturned glasses on Ouija boards were designed to give grieving people a little comfort, and the frauds that posed as “mediums” a little more money in their pockets. Writers of ghost stories became immensely popular in the early Twentieth Century, churning out page upon page of cheap, pulpy ghost stories. (For some of the best, try reading M. R. James – if you can handle it!).
Even nowadays, ghost stories seem to be hard-wired into our neural systems; as children we like nothing better than getting a mild fright from tales of spirits and demons. The thought of the boogeyman provokes both shrieks and giggles. I remember that on Brownie camps. My favourite bit was always when we were all cocooned into a tent late at night, shining torches in our own faces (I’m still not quite sure why we did that!), and scaring each other into screaming with grim tales of creepy whispers in the dark, a chilly draught coming from nowhere, haunted houses on stormy nights, with paintings that have eyes that follow you, people that look like people, but actually aren’t there at all. And the all-time classic Halloween costume has got to be throwing a sheet over your head and cutting eye-holes in it – just hopefully not with one of your Mum’s best tablecloths.
It is true that, throughout history, we have always been fascinated with other subjects of horror stories as well. These include Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, the abominable snowman, werewolves – going further back, Beowulf killed the monster Grendel (and its mum, for that matter), Jason fought a hydra for the golden fleece, the doors of Hell were guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog (much like Hagrid’s Fluffy!), and Hercules killed flesh-eating birds. But, over the last century, we seem to have developed a taste for much more human-based horrors. The majority of big horror films are about serial killers, like the Scream series, the seven Saw films, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to name but a few. And then there’s the zombie craze that has been dominating the last ten years or so – Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, for example – all rooted in George A. Romero’s decades and decades of zombie apocalypse films. Even vampires, a subject that has lately dominated our screens in the form of Twilight and True Blood, are an essentially human, fleshy monster.
So this begs the question: what has happened to ghost stories? While it’s true that ghosts and demons have spent their fair share of time on the silver screen, they don’t seem to have sparked the 21st Century imagination quite as well as their embodied and gory counterparts in other types of horror. They are either classy, “arty” films, like The Others, or simply not scary, like Paranormal Activity. Ghosts are often supporting roles – like in Being Human, in which the main focus of fear most definitely lies with the vampires.
Having said this, it is wonderful to see the recent and ongoing success of the book, long-running play, and now film of The Woman in Black. Having seen the play twice – once when sat in the stalls, which was completely terrifying, and had me twitchily hiding behind my coat most of the time – needless to say, I was extremely excited about the film. And it did deliver. Mostly. I’m easily scared, but even so, it had me and most of my friends thoroughly on edge, and nervous about walking home, even through the well-lit streets of Durham. We kept peering into doorways and windows, half-believing we would see a disturbingly emaciated and shrouded woman there.
I personally love ghost stories, and so I sincerely hope that the success of this film is a harbinger of things to come – a shift towards the creepy tension and shock tactics of ghosts and ghouls to scare us in popular culture, rather than the explicit blood and guts of zombie and murder films. But then, perhaps I’m just a bit squeamish when it comes to horror. Of course, its success is more likely due to a strategic release combined with clever advertising. By emphasizing its “period drama” type of set, it has been clearly marketed towards teenage girls, and it has been released around Valentine’s Day, making it perfect prey for the couples’ brigade. The spooky house and sudden screams are surely a perfect excuse for grasping the arm of the person next to you. Or rather, in my case, it was my housemate – and the ghosts made her grip so tight, my elbow bruised.