Remembering as I occasionally do my frequent youthful attendances at the theatre in the West End of London, it occurred to me to look for an audio recording I was certain I had made, committing for posterity (indeed, such an evening as this) my reflections on a particular performance. The file found, the old machine resurrected, I listened with chill horror to an altogether unfamiliar conversation, on GHOST STORIES at the Arts Theatre – which I transcribe here, for whatever it may be worth.
“The biggest problem for me was the problem of expectation. There are those pictures of audiences screaming on ‘night cam’, which gave me the impression that it would be like The Woman In Black but without the Victorian aesthetic and conventions – without, in the best and worst sense, class. And it was better than I expected.”
At this point a second voice is heard.
R: It was exactly what I expected it to be. And the people in the audience were jumping and screaming; it did what it said on the tin. It was clearly made by people who love and understand the horror genre.
D: The stories in the show are all quite moralistic tales, in the way that ghost stories often are because they try to impose meaning on the natural world, and that’s kind of what it’s about – the show. It’s about how ghost stories work.
R: But you said that didn’t really work for you, that you got bored of the lecture that breaks up the stories.
D: Not so much, I got bored by being told that that’s what it was. But actually I found that a lot of the elements within the stories themselves really worked to argue for that reading of the genre – people’s inability to shut themselves off from their situations and consciences, and being haunted in the world as well as in the mind – I found that quite compelling. And even though it was working on the basis of scaring us through stage craft and the supernatural, what it did on the whole was reinforce this point – that ghost stories explain the world in fairly traditional moral terms. The lecture gives you this so overtly, it bored me, and somewhat diminished the success of the stories.
R: But the lecture was important as a framing device. It was important to set up that the lecturer was a skeptic setting out to debunk these myths.
D: The stagecraft was great – the first two stories in particular were superbly executed. Great tension and enthralling sound design, although for me, a bit too reliant on the tropes – for you perhaps a beautiful homage to the tropes?
R: Well, I will concede that every story was essentially the same in how it was structured. After the first two stories, it was pretty clear how the third was going to pan out. Build up, build up, build up –
There’s a loud scratching noise. I cannot decipher the voice.
– relied on the same jolt tactics, which was a bit of a shame. I would have liked to see a different effect employed at some point. Perhaps a spookier, more downbeat ending for the third story. But the atmosphere was consistently pretty tense.
D: Yeah. Despite my absolute desire not to be caught on ‘scream cam’ looking like a goon, I did get into it. It works like Derren Brown. The fact that it can be quite po-faced, and a little bit ‘Channel 4 documentary’ and still get the reaction it does is impressive.
R: Well, if you know the horror genre, the portmanteau structure is obviously going to bring to mind things like Creepshow and the Ealing Studios film Dead of Night, which was a very obvious reference – in the first lecture at the beginning, a slide of the poster is even included. It also had an element of Tales From The Crypt.
D: It’s interesting that they all kind of end with that final scare, whereas more traditional ghost stories end with a chill.
R: Yeah, but the thing about M. R. James and the BBC adaptations, and that kind of thing is that, they’re a bit more elegantly structured, and have quite a chilly atmosphere, whereas this show owes more to kids telling ghost stories around a camp fire, as in, a bit messier in structure perhaps, but it’s more about bombast and getting a big reaction – it was like each story was trying to outdo the last. It was turned up to eleven. It knew its audience. I just liked how unapologetically over the top and goofy it was. It didn’t take itself too seriously.
D: This comes back to my point about expectation. The things that tend to trigger me having a good time at the theatre: character and narrative cohesion, engaging stylistic choices and engaging acting – all this was, not necessarily on show, but also perhaps not the marker to judge this by?
R: Well the characters were archetypes. And, like I said, crucially it was made by people who care about horror. There are so many dreary, cynical, horror film remakes at the moment, that it was nice to see something pretty fresh, made with care and attention and a lot of affection. They understand the language of horror, and in the case of Andy Nyman, the occult and magic. I think Jeremy Dyson’s involvement is interesting, because obviously The League of Gentlemen owes a lot to the likes of Hammer and The Wicker Man, and there were points in this show where the grotesquerie reached League proportions. The bit for example where someone –
There’s a childish kind of laughter here.
– could have come straight out of Royston Vasey.
D: The way the first story employed a –
Here a sort of warbling high pitched synth chord.
– was again a classic kind of trope …
R: But it worked. You could argue it’s lazy to go to these places, but you know what, it got a scare. They played on classic kinds of primal fears. I’m surprised there wasn’t a clown …
D: That’s the thing, primal fears. He talked about death and dying in the lecture. And that kind of annoyed me when I came out, that they didn’t actually play on that so much. They didn’t do pain and death, they went to lock-in syndrome, mental health issues and learning difficulties and that kind of boring fear of women and childbirth. And yet talking about it, I kind of see that it goes both ways. That just because a scare is a boring or distasteful cliché doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
R: I feel like the writers might have even sat down and made a checklist – what do people find scary. You say you found it a bit distasteful the way it used mental illness, but The Shining, that’s based around a man losing his marbles. You could argue Psycho trivialises schizophrenia. Childbirth – Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Alien …
D: But I wanted more Rosemary’s Baby!
R: Are you just annoyed because Ghost Stories didn’t pass the Bechdel Test?
D: The thing about Rosemary’s Baby is, the horror arises from her realising what’s happening to her. I felt that for that final episode, yet another male narrator seemed faintly ridiculous given the subject. Then again, perhaps it’s consistent with where it ends up –
A long wolf howl.
R: See at no point when watching it did it even occur to me that there were no women; I didn’t care. I think to get offended by any of it is kind of redundant. I think if you knew what you were going in for, it was impossible to be disappointed. It was done with such wit and verve, and a bit of a nod and a wink, and even though it was about freaking people out, it was quite good-natured I felt. It was a love letter to horror, and for a horror nerd, it was quite endearing and almost chummy.
D: Maybe we should just talk briefly about the effect it’s had on us in terms of how we’ve been behaving since we got out.
There’s some kind of low noise.
R: Oh god.
D: No, it’s fine, Richard, it’s fine, keep calm. Come away from the –
The recording abruptly ends. I sit in my chair, my hands shaking. I remember nothing of this conversation, even with the evidence in my ears. Reader, the only friend I have ever had with the name Richard drowned when we were ten years old. I was the last to hear his voice. And I am still – for I would swear by any book you brought me that this recording, made years later, somehow held his voice, aged appropriately; his manner, given the passage of time and maturation; but more importantly and chillingly, the ten year-old Richard J B Rose’s child-like glee in the face of horror … – D
Read our interview with Ghost Stories creators Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson.