The Aural Aesthetics of Ghosts in BBC Ghost Stories – Part 3 (William Ager).

Part 1. Part 2.

A “Disembodied Voice” of some form is a clear norm for representing a creature that, by its very definition, is now bodiless.  This means that, as an aural technique, it is used frequently throughout many other ghost stories as well.  In Lawrence Gordon Clark’s films, the aural trait occurs several times with different and varying effects, though never with the layered intent of Miller’s.  In his adaptation of A Warning To The Curious (1971), he follows the sorry fortune of Paxton (Peter Vaughan), who travels to the north Norfolk coast in search of the “lost crown of Anglia”; a priceless Saxon crown that defends the realm from invasion but also has a malevolent protector itself in the form of the ghost of William Ager (John Kearney).

ager chase 2.GIF

Ager is alive at the beginning of the play, being shown to kill an archaeologist also looking for the crown ten years earlier.  This is an interesting structural idea but its main goal is to show the viewer the visual and, more importantly, the aural signifier of Ager’s presence so that they will recognise his ghost later on even when he is not shown on screen.  Whilst his visual is relatively normal (Clark actually is self-critical about the realisation of Ager’s ghost), his aural presence is unsurprisingly more effective.  As Fisher suggests “It’s no accident that when the horror takes on a visible form, it is immediately less powerful.” (p.4, 2012).  When becoming aware of the living Ager’s presence, the archaeologist hears him first; his throaty, lecherous cough giving his presence away.  This cough becomes the ominous sign that Ager is following Paxton when he eventually finds the crown though in James’ original, he went to great lengths to describe this sound as a laugh:

“Nothing whatever was visible ahead of us, and we were just turning by common consent to get down  and run hopelessly on, when we heard what I can only call a laugh: and if you can understand what I mean by a breathless, a lungless laugh, you have it: but I don’t suppose you can.  It came from below , and swerved away into the mist.” (p.585, 1931).

The sound always comes as a “Disembodied Voice” in the present tense, often before revealing some visual form of the ghost as a jump-scare for the viewer and allowing the sound to become “bodied”, even if it is simply an aggressive corpse rather than a traditional narrative body.  In the small inn where Paxton is staying, he hears the cough constantly though Clark rather cleverly resists revealing the ghost after every cough, building up an aural-narrative precedent to wrong-step the viewer in a similar fashion to Miller’s dream sequence.  Chion again aptly sums up this malevolent effect, in spite of the ghost already being seen in the narrative, suggesting that “Everything hangs on whether or not the acousmêtre has been seen.  In the case where it remains not-yet-seen, even an insignificant acousmatic voice becomes invested with magical powers as soon as it is involved, however slightly, in the image.  The powers are usually malevolent, occasionally tutelary.” (p.23, 1983).

His description of the “Disembodied Voice” and its owner as “tutelary” acts as the most accurate description of Ager too; a malevolent protector and guardian whose presence is denoted by his bodiless voice and cough.  It is worth noting, however, that there is still a difference between the voiceover effects that Chion is describing and the actual bodiless voice found in the ghost story; it is Chion’s interpretation of it that can be contextualised as aesthetically supernatural rather than it being a reflection upon the actual narrative use he is analysing.


Clark would continue to present bodiless voices in several other adaptations too.  In Lost Hearts (1973), a dark tale about an isolated academic who is killing children for their hearts in order to create a brew that will supposedly bring him eternal life, the sounds of the already dead children laughing haunt all of the characters that are alive on screen.  Similarly in The Ash Tree (1975), a witch who was burned some years before the film’s setting, is heard to be humming a lullaby often before she appears to the new resident of the country estate where she is secretly buried.

Most interesting of all of Clark’s uses of this aural technique comes in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974); a tale of a treasure hunt in a monastery which eventually unleashes a ghostly defender to guard an old alchemist’s gold from the two academics who have solved the mystery of its location.  The ghostly presence of this film has an entirely different set of aural traits that signify its proximity.  A bodiless voice is actually questioned and used as a fallacy to show a false presence of the supernatural.  This may be explained by the origin of the story which Parry relates as being one not entirely born out of the recitation tradition and is an example which aptly breaks away from the recitation theories:

“James wrote most of his ghost stories to be read aloud to friends, and the best of them still work very well as dramatic monologues.  ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ is one of the exceptions.  It was composed at the request of the publisher of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to bulk up the volume, and James wrote it to order in the summer of 1904.” (p.26, 2012).

In an early séance scene (a séance disconnected from the main narrative), Rev. Justin Somerton (Michael Bryant) is invited to partake in it.  The two people in charge are of course charlatans, using the recent bereavement of a character to live comfortably within the large property of the family.  Somerton at once suspects this and goes out of his way to show the true nature of their side-show to be that of a pretence.  The séances up until then have been believable for the characters because of the bodiless voice put on by the performers: the woman is a mime who can talk without moving her lips and the man has “a frog in his throat” – a device that can make the sound of bird calls when air is passed through it.

Perhaps after four years of using the same aural technique, Clark wanted to question the idea of such a trait and show it to be clichéd enough to be taken advantage of by the psychic industry.  He would of course use it again (after all, The Ash Tree was made the following year and all but relies on the audio-visual technique to showcase its creatures), but it seems a fitting example to close on as Clark would use more than just this easily faked method to suggest the presence of the long-deceased.

Part 4.

Adam Scovell

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