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Thursday, 6 December 2012

On Ghost Stories

Over the past couple of weeks, I have enjoyed watching the BBC's adaptation of 'The Secret of Crickley Hall'. Among the vampires, werewolves, zombies and occasional fairies which prowl the airwaves and the the cinema screens at the moment, 'Crickley Hall' gave us a (cliché alert) haunting example of how powerful a traditional ghost story can be.

I have never really been a big fan of horror; my religious upbringing meant that I avoided it until my late teens, and my days as a popcorn shuffler at the Odeon didn't leave me with a great impression of the genre. Perhaps when I reached it I was too old to be impressed by jump-scares and fake blood. Perhaps when I lost my faith, evil spirits ceased to be scary. I jumped and the hair on my neck stood on end, but when the credits rolled and the lights came on, any lingering phantoms were vanished. I am, of course, dredging the bottom of a genre which has produced some great stories, but when I worked at the cinema, these seemed rare.

This made me wonder why 'Crickley Hall' had such an effect on me, why the atmosphere it created clung to me like broken spider webs, why now, almost a week after it ended, I am still thinking about it. I think I have an answer. This was not just another story of a family staying in a haunted house. The ghostly children and the spectral man with the cane were not just an excuse for spine-tingle moments and jump scares, they were a bridge between two more powerful stories: the story of a mother who lost a child and needed closure, and that of a failed attempt to save a group of vulnerable children from mistreatment. On their own, these stories would risk falling into sentimentalism, but tied together like this, they create a pervasive eeriness.

I realised then that a ghost story should be sad. For a ghost to be worth our suspended disbelief, two things are necessary: a death, and a reason for the deceased to linger. A successful ghost story should remind us of our own mortality, and of those forces which may be more powerful than death, whether it be fear, hatred or impossible love. Too many Hollywood ghost stories put the emphasis on the surface scares and leave the ghost's motivation as an afterthought. The spirit in the rickety house on the hill wants to kill the pretty young couple because... she was tortured... or something. If you have a character who was tortured to death but you're glossing over that to focus on the usual vindictive spirit chicanery, you're telling the wrong story.

All this thinking about ghost stories has whetted my appetite, and Christmas is (for some reason) the perfect time for them. Watch this space...

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