Gothic Horror Films, Hauntings, Dark Spaces and Specters

Gothic Horror Films, Hauntings, Dark Spaces and Specters
© Photograph by Marco Eventi

Ghosts negotiate the collapse of boundaries between shared notions of reality and the occult possibilities of the beyond. They are thus productive figures through which to study altered states of mind, or the possibility of survival after death.

The early 1960s saw the release of two highly accomplished adaptations of well-known Gothic texts, both of which used the haunted house motif to explore troubled psychologies or arrested development.

Decay, as well as the supernatural forces that inhabit the vast spaces of castles or mansions, signals the descent into madness or losing of touch with reality of their main characters.

The first film, ‘The Haunting’ (Wise 1963), approaches Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (1959) with the novel’s characteristic subtlety and restraint, and powerfully showcases the links between social awkwardness and repression.

Here, the ageing and discontented Eleanor (Julie Harris) drives to Hill House in search of freedom from her family and past, particularly the turbulent relationship with her bedridden mother.

Eleanor’s psychic qualities are channelled by the mansion in a series of events that foreground her indecisive, passive nature and her sexual confusion.

The second film, ‘The Innocents’ (Clayton 1961), released two years earlier, adapts Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) and explores similar territory. Its lead, the governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), finds herself trapped between the disturbing flirtatious behaviour of one of the children in her tutelage and the possibility of the ghost of Peter Quint, a licentious valet who may have performed indiscreet sexual acts in public.

The film’s treatment of reality and/or hallucination ensures that Miss Giddens’s potentially conflicted psyche is reflected in an inconclusive denouement.

The old dark house subgenre, also popular at the time, was less interested in metaphysics or psychology than films about hauntings, but it also exploited for their fear-inducing capacities the Gothic specificities of capacious, gloomy manor houses or labyrinthine mansions with as many trapdoors and secret passages as the castles of Udolpho or Otranto.

The most habitual premise normally involves the reading of a will, an occasion at which most members of a family are present. Ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are normally explained away, in true Radcliffean fashion, through the introduction of manipulative killers or lunatics escaped from nearby asylums.

Most of the old dark house features that appeared in the 1960s were hybrid comedies: ‘What a Carve-up’ (Jackson 1961), ‘The Horror of It All’ (Fisher 1964), ‘The Ghost and Mr Chicken’ (Rafkin 1966) or the William Castle remake of ‘The Old Dark House’ (1963) all contain horror elements, but Pete Walker’s later ‘House of the Long Shadows’ (1983) exploited these to greater effect.

Its main character, a writer who thoroughly decries Gothic romances and makes a bet that he can write something as “over the top” as Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847) in 24 hours, travels to a Welsh estate that has been empty for 40 years in pursuit of the most conducive and inspirational atmosphere.

Complete with a rightful heir who has been kept locked away for decades, ‘House of the Long Shadows’ is one of the best homages to Gothic horror. Its cast boasts genre stars Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Sheila Keith, and it includes a long list of clichés (from rotting corpses to stormy nights and poisoning) and archetypal characters (from tyrannical patriarchs who mourn the death of the old order to damsels in distress).

Real historical events have also, at times, been used as the backdrop for elaborate or apocryphal Gothic reimaginings. The often ignored Gothic (Russell 1986), for instance, blended the haunted house trope with a famous episode of literary history in its fantastic recreation of the events of the summer of 1816, events which led to the writing of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819). Its opening, highly reminiscent of the ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (Whale 1935), shows Percy (Julian Sands) and Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson) joining Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) for a few days of spooky entertainment and camaraderie at the picturesque Villa Diodati in Switzerland.

Although bereft of actual ghosts, the film wears its Gothic credentials on its sleeve: Fuseli’s painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) is recreated as a bad dream, and its characters cite canonical novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) and ‘The Monk’ (1796).

Not content with this level of intertextuality, Gothic also plays out excerpts from ‘Fantasmagoriana’ (1818), a collection of ghost stories meant, as this filmic Byron puts it, to “conjure up [their] deepest, darkest fear[s].” The ‘Amityville Horror’ (Rosenberg 1979) is a similar and highly referential hybrid film. The true crime story of Ronald DeFeo, Jr, who murdered his whole family, is combined with a series of visitations that torment the Lutz family upon arrival at his house.

Some of the most striking paranormal moments include an indeterminate black substance bubbling up from the toilet, blood trailing down the walls and what appears to be a flying pig with red eyes.

The film’s lack of closure, as well as the absence of an actual anthropomorphic ghost, makes ‘The Amityville Horror’ one of the most open-ended haunted house narratives post-1960.

Important though they have been to the construction of the aesthetic of Gothic horror, derelict or uninhabited houses are not the only buildings susceptible to hauntings. The formidable Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980) shows that Gothic settings can successfully escape the confines of the suburban.

This film relishes panoramic pans that explore the uncanny nature of the building and its surroundings, but also emphasises the other protagonists of the story: the ghosts themselves. In fact, there is often little distinction made between the portrayal of ghosts — potential hallucinations — and the visions of the relapsing alcoholic father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). Often, as in the bar scene, the film only tacitly points out the actual physical absence of these apparitions by showing Jack talking to an empty room. Such scenes evince another change in spectral narratives in the second half of the twentieth-century: the development of more physical, almost tangible, ghostly manifestations.

William Castle’s ‘13 Ghosts’ (1960), for instance, features ethereal earthbound spirits, but makes a point of giving them a more “real” purchase on reality by suggesting that they can be captured and collected.

The Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Sixth Sense’ (Shyamalan 1999) would even go so far as to explore the narrative possibilities of having the ghostly nature of its main character hidden to both intradiegetic characters and viewers alike. As in ‘The Others’ (Amenábar 2001), this can only be achieved if the ghost is made virtually unintelligible as such, and thus figured as a very real and human presence.

In other cases, such as that of the recently rebooted Hammer studios remake of ‘The Woman in Black’ (Watkins 2012), the effect may also be achieved by having a character begin the film as human, but later turn into a ghost. Here the viewer often realises the change in planes of reality at about the same time that the spectre does. If such stylistic decisions are, to a certain extent, dictated by the script, they also point to the move toward corporeality that I trace elsewhere in this chapter, a move that has also been registered in the appearance of what we might term “digital ghosts.”

Although ‘The Stone Tape’ (Sasdy 1972) and ‘Poltergeist’ (Hooper 1982) already saw their lead supernatural presences threatening the living through tapes or television sets, contemporary ghosts have increasingly materialized through digital technology.

This has constituted both a gothicisation of new media and the use of their mediatic intricacies to tell ghost stories innovatively.

Films such as ‘FeardotCom’ (Malone 2002), ‘White Noise’ (Sax 2005) and ‘Pulse’ (Sonzero 2006) feature spectral presences filtering through radio waves or Internet websites and having a direct impact on the physical reality of the living.

These mediated hauntings have undoubtedly been influenced by 1999’s surprise J-horror hit, ‘Ringu’ (Nakata 1998), as well as its American remake ‘The Ring’ (Verbinski 2002), in which the curse of a murdered young girl is literally and figuratively “transmitted” through the watching of a specific unmarked videotape.

Where at all possible, the only ways to palliate the wrath of the angry presences in these films are either to make their stories go viral, or to let the apparitions express their pent-up rage and frustration. As such, they appropriately adapt ghosts to the twenty-first-century, and highlight the potential dangers that new communication technologies may have on human relationships.

As I have mentioned, ghost stories have also used new digital technologies for stylistic purposes. The handheld camera style and found footage premise that gave fame to the effective American woods horror ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (Myrick and Sánchez 1999) is perceptible in the recent success of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ created by Oren Peli (2007–present) series. Here, the traditional haunted house story is subverted, showing the haunting to be an affair driven by the body rather than by a specific location; it has sparked a spate of supernatural and paranormal horrors that have culminated in the mockumentary possession film ‘The Devil Inside’ (Bell 2012).