I noticed The Woman in Black 2 is out on DVD the other day, whilst shopping in Sainsbury’s. I went to see the first Daniel Radcliffe film three years ago, instantly forgetting almost everything about it– the same goes for the famed book the film was based on. I picked it up at the local bookshop, after seeing the film, read it and forgot it, remembering only that it wasn’t scary, not in the least. And a ghost story should be scary don’t you think?
Forget sitting around a log fire on Christmas Eve, when the night is dark and stormy; the best time to read a ghost story is on a lovely summer’s day, when the sun is at its highest and the sound of birdsong fills the air. A light breeze kisses your cheek, as you take a sip from an ice cold glass of something refreshing. What a good story this is, you murmur in page turning contentment, as the heat of the sun melts away that image of the undead thing making its way nearer and nearer to the lonely house on the moor. Or the sweet chirruping of that tiny bird, in a nearby tree, effortlessly drowns out the victim’s screams as he unwittingly comes across the undead thing, whilst taking up temporary residence in the lonely house on the moor.
The worst time to recall the ghost story you read that afternoon is when you’re lying in bed, at approximately 2.00 am, after waking suddenly from a deep and dreamless sleep. The house will be as quiet as that lonely mansion on the moor and you will be as alone as its occupant. There will be no bright, cheering daylight, capable of banishing all the shadows and no pleasant daytime sounds, to fill up the night time void.
Alone in the house your mind will begin to wander, as though your mind has a mind of its own. Against your will it will recall, with startling clarity, the scene where the hapless hero is temporarily lost in a dark hallway, his torch falling from his hand and rolling away with a deafening clatter; a sound that could awaken the dead – which it did.
Turning your head, towards your own now sinister hallway, will conjure all kinds of unwelcome images. Is someone standing just behind that corner wall? A not very nice someone perhaps, a someone who doesn’t look too well, who in fact looks like they may have recently shuffled off this mortal coil. Will a very old lady in black, her face partly covered, her hands crooked, begin slowly climbing the stairs intent on reaching your room? What’s going on in those empty bedrooms – are they really empty? Is that creaking sound just a bedroom door or the sound of the old hag on the stairs. Is the sound of dripping water coming from the broken tap in the kitchen, or something far less ordinary. Will the piano downstairs suddenly begin playing a haunting tune, its keys no longer in need of a player. Will the television downstairs burst into loud spontaneous life?
It doesn’t cross your mind to turn the lights on, and banish the smothering darkness, because by now that mind is paralysed with nameless fear. The thought of making any obvious movement is filled with the dread that this will make you a very large blip indeed on the scary ghosts’ radar, whereupon all hell is likely to break loose. So you lie there, in the foetal position, the covers pulled firmly over your head.
Five hours later you get up vowing to never read another ghost story again.
I’m not overstating the case (well, my case); however this scenario is much more like to happen re: the watching of a ghostly film, rather than the reading of a ghostly story. Ghost stories are mostly fine – even the most famous and iconic ones turn out to be more muted and prosaic than you were expecting. This is because they are restricted to the written word and, however great the writer, written descriptions of fear are never as vivid as the visual or aural versions: the words somehow get in the way. Take this passage from The Woman in Black where Susan Hill describes Arthur Kipps’ hearing the movement of a rocking chair coming from an empty room.
“But at my feet, the dog Spider began to whine, a thin, pitiful, frightened moan, and to back away from the door a little and press against my legs. My throat felt constricted and dry and I had begun to shiver. There was something in that room and I could not get to it, nor would I dare to, if I were able. I told myself it was a rat or a trapped bird, fallen down the chimney into the hearth and unable to get out again. But the sound was not that of some small, panic stricken creature. Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump.”
We need the actual sound of a rocking chair for this to be effective – and the only way you can do that is via film or the radio – or maybe we need a better word than the pedestrian ‘bump’. It’s clear that the ghost story really excels when it hits the big screen. Movies were made for paranormal mayhem.
If I ever find myself sleeping alone in the house, then it’s the scary movies that really get to me. As soon as darkness falls I find myself wondering why on earth I bothered to watch Paranormal Activity; what on earth possessed me (in the non-demonic sense of the word) to click on What Lies Beneath, or to think that Mama was just the kind of film guaranteed to lull me into a blissful night’s sleep. And why did I watch Oculus twice (‘cos it’s very good and so is Dr Who’s Karen Gillan) when the first time around the most compelling scenes were viewed through the slightly parted fingers of the hand covering my eyes.
Which begs the question why are tales of the supernatural so popular? Given the choice, I’d choose a ghost laden tale over any other but I can’t tell you why. This love of the macabre doesn’t extend to the rest of my very quiet and ordinary life. I will close my eyes to the latest, breaking news, violent headline. I will rapidly scroll past those shared Facebook posts re: drinking bottled water will give me breast cancer. I will attempt to block out the neighbour’s news that their best friend has something horrible and terminal, and yet I’ll willingly walk hand in hand with the writer who is intent on scaring the living daylights out of me.
The ghost story peaked during the Victorian period when death was an almost routine occurrence. Death was neither a taboo nor a stranger in the average home. All ghost stories are about death, of course; the fear of death and the fact that it’s something we all have to go through alone. Hence the protagonist in your average, period ghostly tale is usually alone, whether by choice or circumstance, and the place where ghostly contact is made tends to be pretty isolated, strengthening the disbelief felt by those on the receiving end of the ghost teller’s tale. It’s very important that no-one believes in ghosts in the beginning, particularly those who will eventually meet them, before being shown the error of their ways. If there’s a genre that’s practically defined by the element of surprise, then the ghost story is most definitely it.
But there’s also something oddly comforting about a good, old fashioned ghost story. We’re taken to the dark side but we, the reader, always get out alive. And maybe there is life after death, even if it appears to be one spent giving your living contemporaries the heebie-jeebies.
The real strength of the ghost story lies in the fact that we’re all haunted to some degree – by the ghosts of fear, regret, lost opportunity, lost love, by what could have been. Because of this inner torment there has been a shift away, in more modern times, from the monster who lurks outside, to the demons who live within. In the very best tales of terror there’s no escape from the lurking horror, it follows you wherever you go, reflecting the fact that loved ones who’ve died, or the living who cut themselves out of our lives, live on inside us. They don’t need to appear in the dead of night, or as that indistinct figure at the end of the lane. They’ve taken up permanent residence in an otherwise empty and isolated corner of the mind, surfacing in the occasional nightmare or in a vague sense of longing. This is the uncomfortable feeling that the ghost writers tap into.
That, and the knowledge that one day we’ll be the ones haunting those we left behind.