Manifesting The Supernatural:
The Aural Aesthetics Of Ghosts In BBC Ghost Stories.
“When Monty first began to write them, with the intention of inducing a pleasing terror in his listeners, he did so as an avid and discerning reader and connoisseur of the genre, keenly aware of his precedents and of the characteristics, objectives, and limitations of the ghost story as he understood the term.” Cox on Montague Rhodes James (p.149, 1983).
Out of all of the genre possibilities open to the narratives of horror, the presence of a ghost and the event of a haunting has one of the clearest, reliant, and most effective relationships with sound. As a fictional device that has no supposed physical presence, the ghost in all forms of media has a natural affinity with a multitude of different uses of sound, ranging from simply acknowledging its presence, to questioning its source and manifestation. These aural ideas have bled out of the literature of the ghost story genre and into audio-visual media, where they can be seen and heard in the representation of a haunting; after all, this is a form that already has a relationship with sound and with music that, in certain contexts, can parallel the sense of the aural uncanny. This essay aims to dissect these audio-visual forms and analyse how they create an aural representation of a ghostly being and a supernatural happening.
It is perhaps surprising to find it a little-plundered sub-genre in film horror, with most of its effective and interesting audio-visual relationships being found in television ghost stories of the 1970s. The head of television at the British Film Institute, Dick Fiddy, suggests the following:
“They went out late at night, when television wasn’t a 24-hour experience, probably watched by the dying embers of the fire before the viewer turned in for the night; the nightmarish quality of the stories would linger as they went to bed. Such conditions can magnify the power of the pieces, adding to their creepiness and helping the tales imbed themselves within impressionable minds.” (p.14, 2012).
As Fiddy suggests, television and its ghost stories are the perfect form for the fireside scare, especially in the period when programming was limited and aural soundworlds could literally invade the home. The televisual form is the focus of this essay’s analyses of the aural representations of a haunting, with specific emphasis being given to an originally uncanonised group of single dramas shown on the BBC between 1968 and 1978, now commonly known under the banner of the BBC Ghost Stories. The works in question adapt the stories of two ghost story writers: M.R. James and Charles Dickens[i]. Earnshaw backs up Fiddy’s earlier assertion in context of James, stating “Successful M.R. James adapters recognise and accept that he is a ‘small room’ writer: his stories are written to be read (or shown) in intimate spaces with a few pleasantly frightened people present.” (p.121, 2012). James’ literary work in particular will be consistently returned to as a source of various audio-visual traits, his ideas of the haunted finding a natural fit within the audio-visual medium.
By focussing on seven of these period works, this essay aims to emphasise an almost auteur-like stance on the audio-visual representations attained by the two directors in question. Jonathan Miller, more famous for his adaptations of Shakespeare, is a key figure in spite of having only one ghost story within the series, Whistle And I’ll Come To You (1968). His film has a vast range of aural methods in representing a haunting which can fit into a variety of different areas of musical and audio-visual study. Lawrence Gordon Clark’s six films also show a mixture of layered uses of music and sound, all with strong thematic and esoteric ties to the methodology of the original writers. Both directors will be shown to be carrying on the spirit of the ghost story tradition, one which Cox sums up when discussing the development of James’ stories:
“Monty initially had just such an environment in which to develop his stories, in the gathering of friends at King’s over Christmas, that most appropriate of seasons for supernatural stories; so, in a broad sense, he was also working in a much older oral tradition of season tale-telling.” (p.149, 1983).
This essay is split into three sections that break down and analyse the different methods of creating an aural haunting, how they do this, and why, thematically, it can be read as effective and interpretative of the original texts. The first section will look at the thematic ties between the BBC Ghost Stories and the original literary works with emphasis on the audio-visual techniques that can be read as being a partial evolution of the aural reception and oral presentation methods of the original stories. This manifests in two ideas; namely a recontextualisation of the theories of the “Disembodied Voice” in audio-visual media and the use of nondiegetic musical score. The latter in particular has often been denoted as removing more “haunted” effects from the eerie images of silent cinema as Gorbman points out when discussing the roles and general effects of film music:
“6. Like magic, it was an antidote to the technology derived ‘ghostliness’ of the images.” (p.53, 1989).
In our examples, like much audio-visual horror, this will be shown to be the opposite with a variety of effects and aural representations enhancing the “ghostliness” of the image.
The second section will look at the natural diegesis of the films with particular emphasis on Miller’s adaptation of Whistle And I’ll Come To You. This consists of looking at the potential readings of different uses of rural-based soundscape and how they can effect the psychological isolation of the main characters but also how the sound of characters interacting with the natural landscape has strong ties with the literary traditions of James.
This will lead to a final chapter looking at another Jamesian trope, that of the “Inorganic Demon”; a term denoting an object imbued with supernatural aspects. Objects play a huge part in both James and Dickens, and the television adaptations of their work make explicit and varied use of the sounds of several objects in the representation of a haunting. This will be seen in a number of examples in James’ adaptation by both Miller and Clark and, more explicitly, in the latter’s adaptation of Dickens’ The Signalman (1976) which summarises aurally the ideals and paranoia over new technology with a technique referred to as the “Ghost in the Machine”.
With this range of analyses, this essay aims to show a number of aspects to the sounds of the BBC Ghost Stories. The first is the strong literary ties between the films and the original works and how this manifests in the audio-visual aesthetics. The second is how the sound used to represent the presence of the supernatural also explicitly questions the inner workings of the narrative in a way that other horror sound tropes tend to avoid. And lastly, this essay aims to critique the aural representations of ghosts in these films, in order to present a strong argument that the haunted and audio-visual media have a natural affinity with one another because of an aesthetic merging of shared ideas and traits.
[i] Two other additions to the series are in fact original stories set in the modern day. Stigmata and The Ice House are both late additions but contribute little to this essay’s arguments as their narratives are more set around rural horror than ghosts.