Since its first publication in 1983, Susan Hill’s Gothic chiller The Woman in Black has been terrorising audiences, from teenagers studying the novel in English lessons to horror aficionados like Mark Kermode, who wrote a chapter on the novel for his PhD in horror fiction. Its reputation has been subsequently enhanced by the long-running stage play, which left the author of this piece so scared, he had to be prised from his chair with a crowbar.
The most recent incarnation of The Woman in Black (our review HERE) was released in cinemas on February 10th, with the backing of the reformed Hammer brand and the star power of Daniel Radcliffe in his first proper post-Potter role. It joins a ream of recent ghost stories to make it to our screens, including The Others, The Orphanage and The Awakening. What explains this resurgence for old-fashioned horror of creaks, shadows and suggestion? And is this resurgence a good thing for horror cinema?
The Thinking Man’s Horror Movie?
One theory which is often trotted out is that ghost stories are deemed to be somehow more intelligent and grown-up than their gorier cousins. Because they rely on the generation of suspense, withholding the monster rather than showing it, they are closer to the suspense thriller traditions embodied by Alfred Hitchcock. The line between horror and thriller is a fine one, with both genres often relying on dark secrets and chilling twists, and much ink has been spilled over whether films like The Birds, Marnie and even Psycho should be classified as thrillers rather than horror movies.
Hitchcock himself had a rather low opinion of conventional horror. When interviewed in 1964, he was asked whether he would ever make a horror movie, in the mould of Frankenstein: he responded, “No, because it’s too easy.” This comment highlights a more spiteful explanation for the popularity of ghost stories: they are an excuse for so-called ‘smart’ directors to have their cake and eat it, to make something that appears to be a horror film so they can be down with the fans, but which is actually nothing more than a satirical play-thing. Hitchcock said in the same interview that Psycho was designed to be “tongue-in-cheek”: he found the storyline “amusing” and was disappointed that so many who saw it didn’t ‘get the joke’.
Similar arguments have been made with regard to other directors – particularly the likes of Stanley Kubrick who preferred to dabble in different genres. Kubrick’s version of The Shining drastically departed from Stephen King’s novel, to such an extent that King made his own version for TV in the 1990s to set the record straight. To this day there is an on-going debate about whether or not The Shining is a genuine horror movie, or a film whose unusual execution (read: lack of scares) actually shows contempt for the genre. Protagonists of the latter view say Kubrick’s liberties with the novel indicate a feeling of pretentiousness: he felt he was above the genre, and that the overtly metaphorical gore of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker was adolescent and meaningless.
Reaction and Over-Reaction
While the jury is still out over The Shining (and knowing Kubrick, will be out for some time), the argument that surrounds it is a classic case of over-reaction. Kubrick had a history of departing from the source material in his films – Dr. Strangelove, his game-changing black comedy, was based on the deadly serious Peter George novel Red Alert. Kubrick was a horror fan, listing his admiration for Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and An American Werewolf in London. He even organised private screenings of Eraserhead to give the crew on The Shining a better idea of what he wanted.
There is, however, something in the theory of ghost stories being a reaction to the more overt aspect of horror. It was only a few years ago that the wave of so-called ‘torture porn’ reached its apogee (so to speak) with Captivity, an utterly sickening excuse of a film from Roland Joffé, the man behind The Mission and The Killing Fields, who really should know better. The likes of A Serbian Film and the Human Centipede series have left audiences reeling for something a little less gross, and ghost stories provide a welcome antidote to blood and guts.
But like most things in horror, we should remember that this trend is nothing new. It’s hard to put James Whale’s Frankenstein in the same camp as Scanners and Hellraiser, but that’s how it must have seemed to Val Lewton when he rocked up in Hollywood in the 1940s. Lewton, who gave Robert Wise his first break, maintained that the greatest fear was the fear of the unknown, and set about proving it through the likes of Ghost Ship and The Curse of the Cat-People. And of course, the theory also works in reverse, with Cronenberg’s plastic reality and John Carpenter’s The Thing going against the convention of not showing the monster. Clive Barker once went on record as saying: “I hate that school of filmmaking where for the first hour you see a foot, for the second hour you see a hand, and then you finally see the monster for five seconds before it gets blown up by an atom bomb.”
Dealing with Grief
We can accept that the popularity of ghost stories will wax and wane according to overall trends in horror filmmaking. But the question that is why people pay to see ghostly films in the first place – in other words, what causes these trends?
Perhaps the wittiest explanation lies in the (brief) pre-production talks between King and Kubrick on The Shining. When interviewed in 2006, King recalled receiving a phone call from Kubrick at 7am. He answered the phone, and Kubrick came right to the point: “Hi. Stanley Kubrick here. I actually think that stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?” King, still half-asleep, asked him what he meant; he answered: “Well, supernatural fiction, ghost stories, all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death. If we survive death, that’s optimistic, isn’t it?” King said to Kubrick: “What about hell?”. There was a long pause, and then Kubrick said: “I don’t believe in hell.”
Ghost stories, like any other kind of horror, are a way of experiencing negative emotions like fear, despair and panic, within a controlled environment wherein the viewer cannot be harmed. Being scared by something fictional or imaginary (however realistic the film, it is only a film) reassures us that we can withstand the real dark forces within our world, whether they are ‘out there’ (the monster, the enemy) or within ourselves. Even if a film has a pessimistic ending, we prove something to ourselves by getting through it, so that when we emerge from the darkness of the cinema, we can handle fear and despair better than we otherwise would have done. This is something that Hitchcock knew all too well. He frequently used the analogy of people going on a rollercoaster or a haunted house ride: people are scared while the ride is going on, but they always giggle when it’s over.
If you want to be more specific, you need only look at the content of ghost stories. Most of the great ghost stories involve the disappearance or death of a family member, usually a child. The English tradition within ghost stories is rooted in two works: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (filmed as The Haunting by Robert Wise) and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which inspired everything from The Innocents to Don’t Look Now. The idea of loved ones having a presence in our lives after death can be seen as a burden, a threat, or a source of comfort. Ghost stories are a way of coming to terms with grief and loss – and some of them, like The Orphanage, have endings which are somehow uplifting.
Will Horror Eat Itself?
Having established why ghost stories are back in cinemas now, and why people continue to embrace them, only one question remains: is it a good thing? Should we worry about the horror genre repeating itself, returning to the deep well of English ghost stories, just as the 1990s wave of vampire movies wanted to recapture the sexualised nature of the original Hammer?
The short answer is: no. The long answer is: not really. Horror cinema is by its very nature cannibalistic: it reuses its own imagery in a self-aware fashion, whether it’s Frankenstein’s square head and bolt, Dracula’s cape or Leatherface’s chainsaw. If you want a comprehensive guide to this phenomenon, look no further than Kermode’s article, ‘Horror Will Eat Itself’, written at the back end of the first 3 Scream films.
The ‘not really’ comes from the fact that the genre will always need to reinvent itself, bit by bit, to find a new audience. Horror will not survive by re-treading old ground for its own sake: it requires people of intelligence who love and understand the genre to come in and move things on. To draw a fair comparison, look as the Joker in The Dark Knight: we recognise the imagery from an earlier incarnation, but there is something new on the surface to scare us all over again.
Having Hammer and ghost stories back in cinemas is to be welcomed, as both an antidote to ‘torture porn’ and a welcome phase in and of itself. The Woman in Black may not be ground-breaking in its subject or its attempts to scare you, but it is a welcome reminder of the cathartic power of horror movies. And if ghost stories aren’t your bag, then don’t worry – the next Clive Barker could be just around the corner.