The Aural Aesthetics of Ghosts in BBC Ghost Stories – Part 2 (The Disembodied Voice).

Part 1.

The Aural-Thematic Ties In BBC Ghost Stories.

“He first began to write the ghost stories for which he is now famous in late 1892 or early 1893 while he was a fellow of King’s.  They were composed initially to be read aloud in his college rooms as a Christmas treat for his friends.”-  Oliver (p.15, 2012).

When looking at the source material for every single adaptation within the BBC Ghost Story For Christmas slot, they all have something in common; their original form, despite being literary, was explicitly one developed in an oral storytelling tradition.  These stories were all read out aloud, or at least composed to be read out, building on a strong tradition of telling ghost stories around the fireside.  This no doubt affected how they were originally conceived and put together but it also has a clear range of traceable effects on their eventual interpretations in new media.

Of course, with most of the adaptations being from work by M.R. James, it could be said that this was to be expected.  James started writing his stories, quite specifically so that they could be performed at the Cambridge Chit-Chat Society; a festive meeting of the upper class intellectuals of Cambridge University for a variety of more trivial and relaxed activities.  Rigby highlights the natural cross-over that this emphasis on form allowed when discussing James’ contemporary, Algernon Blackwood, and his use of the medium of television:

“MR James made no secret of the fact that many of his stories originated as fireside recitations, staged for the benefit of his pupils at Cambridge and, later, Eton.  Taking advantage of modern technology , James’ contemporary Algernon Blackwood became a popular radio voice on the BBC’s Empire Programme, subsequently turning into an unlikely TV personality in his role as the corporation’s sepulchral ‘Ghost Man’.” (p.28, 2012).

It is unsurprising then to find most James adaptations within this medium too.  Even when discussing the effectiveness of James’ prose alone, Ramsey Campbell cannot help but find a cinematic example to compare them with, drawing links with the effective, sound induced jump-scares of Val Lewton’s films:

“It’s clear by now that James achieves his effects purely through his prose; the selection of language, the pacing of sentences, the timing of the images.  It might therefore seem difficult if not impossible for the cinema to replicate its effects.  The first film to bare some affinity in terms of subtly and suggestiveness are the Val Lewton productions for RKO in the forties; think of the swimming pool scene in Cat People where it’s never quite clear what we’re seeing or, perhaps more crucially, what we’re hearing.” (2012).

James’ writing naturally evokes cinematic effects, working in a dynamically parallel fashion as will be seen in this section’s analyses.  It is in this oral tradition where there is an argument for the forming of future sound practices in the BBC Ghost Stories; that by writing these stories with the knowledge that they would be read out, they were imbued with all sorts of different narrative patterns, language use, and specific genre gestures so as to implant a number of aural ideas for future generations of readers and directors to engage with.

 The “Disembodied Voice” As A Psychological Tool.

Coming from a literary tradition of oral recitation, James’ ghost stories naturally flitted between the outer diegetic reality of the characters within the story and their perceived inner worlds.  Many of James’ stories were told in a way that made them appear to have been passed on to the reader/writer under the veil of a truthful narrative, which had been an aesthetic trait of the ghost story since Victorian literature:

“The relationship between veridical phenomena and imagined ghosts was a complex one.  Fiction, for example, often posed as fact, and a range of narrative strategies was deployed to reinforce the masquerade.” –  Cox (xvi, 1991).

The illusion of this realist crossover allows for audio-visual adaptations to emphasise and bring out the discrepancy between truth and fiction.  Audio-visual media has a very natural relationship with this blurring, switching between aural perspectives with ease and with confidence that the viewer will not be confused as to what they are hearing (or occasionally the opposite if the director desires).  In adaptations of James, this relationship can be presented as a natural evolution from its spoken origins and as an essential questioning of the representation of ghosts and their psychological effects.  It also perhaps explains why the stories have fitted so well into the medium of television as Campbell argues, stating: “However, television has been responsible for most of the filming of James; perhaps the intimacy of the domestic medium seems more suited to tales that their author used to read aloud.” (p.1, 2012).

This psychology is never more apparent in M.R. James adaptations than in Jonathan Miller’s take on Whistle and I’ll Come To You.  Based on James’ “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You M’Lad“, Miller’s film streamlines the narrative to focus on its main protagonist, Professor Parkins (Michael Hordern), who comes across a mysterious whistle whilst on a walking holiday in East Anglia.  His own academic curiosity leads him to blow on the whistle which summons up a ghostly creature who gives him nightmares before invading the adjacent bed of his hotel room.  In spite of being quite a fixed narrative, Miller is extremely ambiguous about his ghost, using a number of aural techniques that would be the first of many examples of what can be classed as fugues on ideas of the “Disembodied Voice”.

The very description of the “Disembodied Voice” already brings to mind that of supernatural images; after all, many ghosts that are purported to be seen in reality, are in fact heard rather than visually perceived.  Easterbrook, when discussing Clark’s filmmaking, argues that:

“Visually he followed the ‘less is more’ approach; a golden rule of horror film and literature which enables the viewer, guided via a discreet hand of the director, to create their own powerful sense of unease and immersion, whilst actually seeing very little overt or frightening imagery on screen.” (p.8, 2012).

The “Disembodied Voice” can potentially be the idea of “less is more” taken to the very extreme.  In the original literature, the phenomena was often simply described, allowing the receiver to interpret the voice internally, therefore still allowing it to be disembodied.  The same technique fits naturally into audio-visual media, only this time allowing the phenomena to be defined aesthetically and fully.  This technique is used throughout a number of the BBC Ghost Stories but Miller’s is more interesting as it relates the idea of a haunting to the personal, psychological state of the main character.  Chion has written extensively about this “acousmêtre” – a perfect descriptive fit to many of our examples – and his outlines of its powers share a surprising resemblance to the power of James’ ghosts, perhaps explaining why it is such a common occurrence in the BBC Ghost Stories:

“Fiction films tend to grant three powers and one gift to the acousmêtre, to the voice that speaks over the image but is also forever on the verge of appearing in it.  First, the acousmêtre has the power of seeing all; second, the power of omniscience, and third, the omnipotence to act on the situation.  Let us add that in many cases there is also a gift of ubiquity – the acousmêtre seems to able to be anywhere he or she wishes.” (p.130, 1994).

Whilst James’ ghosts often move out of this role and eventually do appear in the image, the likeness between the voiceover traits that Chion is discussing and the fictional ghost’s aural persona is comfortably amalgamated.  Miller’s adaptation opens with a nondiegetic voiceover.  This is nondiegetic in both its aesthetic position outside of the film and in the contents of the dialogue as it is acting as an introduction for M.R. James as a writer rather than an introduction to the drama.  This again relates to the practice of oral delivery;  it is not difficult to believe that the play that follows this voiceover is the visual equivalent of a retelling, perhaps by the same voice that opens the film.  The voice may simply be setting the scene for the relaying of the narrative to its own personal audience, one albeit that the viewer never sees.

As a character, Parkins also presents an intriguing aural problem.  He is a bored individual but also distant and mumbling, constantly chattering away quietly to himself even when other people speak to him.  His dialogue becomes increasingly random as the film progresses, especially in the intonation of his language.  Though this makes him incredibly enjoyable as a character to watch onscreen, there is more to this aural precedent than is often clear.  As he becomes increasingly more haunted, Miller moves the diegetic position of his voice to one that is inward, almost in a metadiegetic sense.  Miller uses this ambiguity exceptionally well when creating the mental state of his haunted character.

Whilst recounting the inscription on the whistle he finds, the words “Who is this who is coming?” move more and more into the metadiegetic world in spite of the character being shown throughout to not mind extensive dialogue with himself.  This begins to hint at what the ghostly phenomena may just be; that of a mental instability within the character.  Chion discusses this transition in several analyses of films with one example being extremely applicable to Parkins: “The character’s voice separates from the body, and returns as an acousmêtre to haunt the past-tense images conjured by its words.  The voice speaks from a point where time is suspended.” (p.49, 1983).  Though this is discussing a narrative recollection created by the “Disembodied Voice” (found most commonly in film noir voiceover) and Parkins’ voice is bodiless firmly in the present tense rather than it creating a visualisation of the past.  The idea fits comfortably as a descriptor of his mental degradation; his voice separates but only because of a disparity between the movement of his visual mouth and the volume level and mental placement of his voice.

The sound of the ghost within Parkins’ dream-sequence is his own voice, distorted and contorted in shock as he wakes again and again from a recurring nightmare.  This sequence is very telling as it features the presence of no diegetic sound (Parkins is after-all on the beach he visited early) and is instead occupied by an electronic heartbeat which cuts in and out with low-pitched screams of shock from the character.  The aural haunting presented here is one that suggests that Parkins has succumbed to paranoia, blighted by his own curiosity; his own voicing of reaction being the key aural motif of the supernatural presence.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell

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