The Awakening is a welcome return to the big screen for writer Stephen Volk, self proclaimed ‘tub-thumper’ for the horror genre and the man behind the acclaimed small screen horrorshows Afterlife and Ghostwatch.
His new film (out in UK cinemas tomorrow ) was directed by Nick Murphy and is as far from the Death-by-irony gorefests which litter the horror landscape of the last ten years as can be. It is a proper character based ghost story which I enjoyed immensely and has Rebecca Hall and Dominic West investigating the supposed supernatural death of a boy at a remote boarding school.
Our conversation took place on Hallowe’en, nineteen years to the day since his celebrated and controversial TV drama Ghostwatch aired and I couldn’t begin the conversation without talking about the huge impact it has had on the depiction and popularity of the supernatural on TV.
During the conversation we wander into spoiler territory about The Awakening and The Turn of the Screw, so tred with care.
I watched Ghostwatch again today and was surprised that it still got to me. Since 1992 TV has moved on so much, and I think Ghostwatch paved the way for things like Most Haunted and the Reality Ghosthunting programmes we see…
It is great fun watching it, as I did last night at the Mayhem film festival, with an audience and I always introduce with the proviso that you have to realise that this was made for a small screen and not for a hundred and fifty people watching it on a big screen, and that it was made twenty years ago. But they had a great time watching and I think the passing of time has been kind to it in some ways in that a lot of the people watching it weren’t even born when it was made, and it has a mythology around it. There was laughter but it was kind laughter, because it was getting under their skin a little which is always fun to see.
It quickly became a Hallowe’en tradition for me and a group of friends watching in video and looking in the shadows for any new sightings of Pipes. Nothing has come close to it since, possibly because of the reaction to the programme and no-one has attempted to make anything like it since, I doubt you could make Ghostwatch today.
No, it’s often that someone says, or a producer says to me ‘Would you do it again?’ and I think you wouldn’t. The climate of TV now is that if you were to do it then you’d do it as a reality TV show, you wouldn’t go to the bother of writing the damn thing and getting actors and making it into a drama. If you did do it as a drama what would it be commenting on? It would be like making a parody of something that was beyond parody, I mean Ghosthunting with Coronation Street, or everything with Yvette Fielding in… I was astonished when I saw a lecture by Ciarán O’Keeffe who used to be the resident skeptic on Most Haunted and he gave a talk on how paranormal reality TV started in the 80s and I was astonished at how many of these show are out there now, people with their metal detectors and night vision cameras. It seems anyone with a camcorder now can make one of these shows, though I would like to think that Ghostwatch was the first to use the night vision camera for sinister effect, before then I’d only seen it in footage from the First Gulf War.
Looking at the Hallowe’en releases in the cinema we’ve got Paranormal Activity 3 and there are some very strong similarities to Ghostwatch with the two young girls about the same age and the shadows in the bedroom on lights out…
I haven’t seen any footage from it but I did get an email from Lesley Manning, the director of Ghostwatch, saying ‘Have you seen this! It’s awfully like Ghostwatch…’ I don’t even know what the premise of the film is…
It’s going back to the 80s to the two sisters as young girls and tells how the haunting began. The advertising plays heavily on the image, very similar to an earlier scene in Ghostwatch with the two girls in their bedroom and an eerie shadow cast on the wall between them.
Well, of course they could have got that imagery from some of the stills from the Enfield poltergeist, and there’s only so many ways you can shoot that to be innocuous and scary. But it’s the innocuous nature of it which makes it scary. I would be interested to see the film, but I keep thinking that the camcorder approach to filming hauntings must be running out of steam but it seems to be that new people come along and breathe new life into it so maybe it’s a sub-genre that’s here to stay?
A horror story has the ability to be told in many ways and from Ghostwatch almost twenty years ago to now when you have people with HD cameras built into their phones so you combine that with the domestic setting then you have something…
When I was doing Ghostwatch I was very conscious that I was trying to find in televisual terms the equivalent of someone saying, as they often do at the start of ghost stories, ‘Please believe me,’ or ‘this really happened…’ and of course it’s the documentary technique. Pointing a camera at someone and asking them questions is the equivalent of what you read in a ghost story on the page, and I think that has become the new language of authenticity. Another benchmark for me, but of the opposite sort, was What Lies Beneath – that ghost story with Harrison Ford, I thought that did almost everything wrong. It had the big stars, immaculate photography and it felt like a big Hollywood blockbuster and all those things mitigated against it being scary. That, for me, was the end of that kind of big budget scarefest. You couldn’t do something with those big stars in it and make it as creepy as these films which come under the radar.
Do you think the audiences are more savvy now?
I think it’s harder work to put George Clooney in a film and say ‘This is going to be a ghost story’ because the ghost story genre demands that you try and reject it. No other genre, comedy, western, war films, demand that you reject it, while supernatural films demand so much of your irrationality and your rationality fights that even though there’s an artifice going on. So at every conceivable moment you want to not get scared, to not get involved. It’s self protection and yet what you’re going in for is the exact opposite of that and maybe it’s the tension between the two which makes the experience so rewarding in the end. There’s a complex and banal kind of psychology going on which is that you have a jump moment, everyone in the cinema laughs as an expulsion of the tension you feel.
In The Awakening Rebecca Hall’s character could be seen as symbolising that rationality as she is initially resistant to being drawn into the mystery of the film.
The character who has doubt is very important in a ghost story. If people accept what’s happening to them then you have not a ghost story but a fantasy so something like Blithe Spirit or Randall and Hopkirk. Yes, there are ghosts there but there’s no threat. You don’t grapple with the nature of what we’re seeing. Because you always want your characters to go on a journey, the person who tries to dismiss the ghost is always the most interesting, especially if they have intelligence and perhaps scientific knowledge and can bring that rational thinking to challenge what’s happening, rather than some dumb eighteen year old kid who wanders into a haunted house, screams and runs out being chased.
The film is a very different type of horror film given the last ten years of Hollywood horror, not least the post First World War setting…
That was something it became, rather than something it began as, but Nick [Murphy] really developed the emotional landscape of that time but at the beginning it was set in the 1880s. I was teaching some screenwriters and a film I discussed was The Innocents and how I loved that there was always this sense of the uncanny because you always questioned the reliability of the narrator , was she neurotic, was it all going on in her head? And what struck me watching was at the end of the second act Flora, the little girl, is sent away and I wondered what happened to Flora when she grows up? So the first version of The Awakening was a sequel to The Turn of the Screw and it was about Flora grown up, who becomes Florence – so there’s still a connection there in the name – and she becomes a ghost-hunter, but a debunking ghost-hunter and she’s blanked out the memory of Quint and Miss Jessell. So, she busts seances because she believes in rationality and science and the process of the story was her returning to Bly, the house in The Turn of the Screw, which is now a school and she confronts the older Miss Jessell.
Why did it change?
The BBC felt we couldn’t do a straight sequel because only people who had read The Turn of the Screw would get it, so I changed the back story, though it had echoes of the idea, to a young girl and a benevolent maid who dies and becomes the ghost which she revisits. It was all about recovered memories, ghosts as recovered of denied memory. I had an image, you know like in The Piano with the bonneted women, I had an image of a bonneted woman floating around the inside of a school. I took a guess at how old Flora would be and set it in the 1880s and as it deals with repressed memory and repressed sexuality there’s a very Freudian element – all buttoned up, their clothes and the way they spoke. It was all about repression and finding the reality. But a lot of things changed, the main thing was that they wanted to update it to the 1920s as they thought it would appeal to the audience and that in setting it post war it made sense in terms of spiritualism. Certainly the 20s was when Arthur Conan Doyle made his pilgrimages, preaching about spiritualism. So it went through about fifteen or so drafts, from a sequel to The Turn of the Screw to a film about grief and loss post following the war.
And Florence or Flora remains the centre.
It was still this character who was essentially based on Houdini who, as well as being a fantastic escapologist and magician, used to debunk mediums and it was always claimed by the medium community that secretly he was desperate to believe in the afterlife and it always intrigues me about any kind of extremist is whether they’re afraid of the opposite of what their agenda signifies. So there’s that element but also the idea that ghosts can give some kind of closure on the past.
It’s fascinating to think there’s a version of the film linked to The Turn of the Screw, I’m almost sorry you didn’t make that version…
Well, there’s also a version which I set in Paris and had Florence as a nurse and a young Sigmund Freud who is a doctor at Salpêtrière hospital and the story she tells is in a flashback. At that stage I called it The Interpretation of Ghosts which is still a reference in the film. That was the title of the screenplay for most of its life and then when the setting was changed it lost its Freudian repression so it didn’t feel right.
But the characters are still what drives the story forward rather than the mystery.
I really believe that it’s all about the characters – it’s about who sees the ghost rather than the ghost itself. John Carpenter always says that horror is about the internal projecting into the external, that horror visualises what is in the mind. There was a Telegraph interview with Rebecca Hall and the journalists said something along the lines that taking a part in a genre film wasn’t the best career move and I thought ‘Bloody cheek…’ I’m a real tub-thumper for the genre but I’ve never thought that it needs to be less than intelligent and the person who proved that to me many years ago was Nigel Kneale. Two outstanding films which have affected my work are The Stone Tapes and Quatermass and the Pit. The intelligence there is so lively and not po-faced. The way he uses technology in a supernatural story and the way he incorporates characters in a way that they are not dumb but the story is nevertheless exciting.
The Awakening is out in the UK tomorrow. Read our review here.