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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

In Which I Maintain That Movies Have Killed the Ghost Story by Rahnia Collins

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In Which I Maintain That Movies Have Killed the Ghost Story…  
By Rahnia Collins

I’m a sucker for a ghost story…love ‘em! Give me a crumbling house on the edge of the moor with strange echoes and even stranger occurrences and I’m in. But lately I’ve come to a horrifying conclusion. Out of the creepy, abandoned nursery of my addiction has come an unwelcome spectre. It is the spectre of the ghost movie and I think it’s better and scarier than the book. I can hear you all howling now, but before you form a lynch mob on my lawn, believe me, it hurts me to say it more than it hurts you to read it. This terrible confession is being dragged from someone who is a die-hard believer in the supremacy of the book over the movie version.

Now, when I say ghost movie here, I’m not talking about a specific book to film adaptation, I’m talking about the genre in general. I often find myself feeling let down at the end of a ghost story and I started to consider why it is that I am so underwhelmed by a genre I love.  And it is here that the tedious old adage about the picture painting a thousand words comes into its own. I think the genre of film makes a more terrifying ghost story because it can convey so much, so quickly with so little. When a writer describes the eerie scene or the terrifying appearance of the ghost, it takes time and paragraphs of words which necessarily slow everything down. The filmmaker can achieve the same effect in seconds. And then there is the soundtrack. Even if I imagine scary violins in my head as I read, it does not have the same visceral effect on my insides as the cleverly executed soundtrack in a movie.  But I think it goes deeper than this.

Ghost story scholar, Jack Sullivan, refers to a Golden Age of Ghost stories which he situates roughly between the 1830s and World War I. Obviously this is the era of the Godfather of ghost stories, M.R. James. It is no accident that when we think ghost story we consider that decaying mansion on the edge of the moors or the crumbling graveyard on a windswept coast. This is the spiritual home of the ghost story. And ghost stories in print would have been terrifying at this time. Imagine a group of people gathered around a candle in a darkened parlour scaring each other silly reading ghost stories while outside fog eddies around dark streets lit only by gas lamps, and in the alleys of Whitechapel Jack the Ripper pursued his hapless victims. It makes sense doesn’t it?

We, however, live in an age of technology, of cities so bright that they can be seen from space and for us the film is king.  We are so used to the way a film can manipulate us into being terrified with special effects and the soundtrack that the same story told on the page seems anti-climactic. Consider the climatic scene in M.R.James’s Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you my lad: ‘…it became suddenly conscious of the bed he had just left, and darted towards it, and bent and felt over the pillows in a way which made Parkins shudder…what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.’ Now consider a ghost with a similar urge to frighten its victims to death, the little girl in The Ring. Cast your mind back to the climactic scene when she climbs out of the TV towards Martin Henderson’s character, Noah and we  get the briefest glimpse of her face. Bhuuhhhuh(sound of me shuddering)!

So I’m not saying that there are no good examples of the ghost story (Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, for instance), I’m saying that film has made the impact of the ghost story far more frightening and thus taken something away from the written genre. It is rare that I have been kept up at night by a ghost story.  But… I couldn’t go to the toilet in the middle of the night without the light on for weeks after I saw The Ring.

So I guess what I really want now is for Internet land to prove me wrong. What are the ghost stories that creeped you out, that stopped you sleeping, that made you sleep with the light on?  And please, no angry mobs on the front lawn, you’ll wake the baby.

[Editor's Note: You might want to try House of Leaves. Shivers.]

Rahnia Collins is an English teacher by profession, a writer by aspiration and a reader by addiction. She wishes there was some sort of grant that would fund her reading habit. Her other addictions are tea and cats. If her husband had not set a strict two cat limit she would already be a crazy cat lady. 

If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

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