Technological Hysteria in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972).

The following article contains plot twists.

Hysteria and Nigel Kneale’s Baby.

A very particular and often quoted segment from Freud’s summations of hysterical patients will be used here to begin the contextualisation our analysis.  Whilst writing about the generalities surrounding such cases of hysteria and eventually compulsion neurosis, Freud came up with a short but rather useful sound-bite to describe every patient he had seen.  In Studies On Hysteria (1895), Freud argued plainly and simply that “Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences.”.  This simple attempt to account for the physical manifestations of past traumas (which were often due to past sexual events) has the useful edge of vagueness to it that can allow for multiple interpretations and, most crucially here, metaphorical realignment with creative arts.

As we have already seen in his Baby episode of Beasts (1976), Nigel Kneale’s writing was plagued by the idea that the past haunts in such a literal way as to cause mental and even physical collapse in the people of the present.  The ancient practices enacted in his screenplay for Hammer’s The Witches (1966) are an obvious example where a whole community is trapped within reminiscence and are projecting its negativity onto the new-coming teacher, played by Joan Fontaine.  Even in his various editions of Quatermass and the Pit, reminiscence is the key to the horror; our violent and fascist instincts are race memories caused by the landing of a Martian insect species millions of years in the past whose practice of culls were translated into eventual fascism and totalitarianism.

These and a number of other examples all have a great sense of human implication but Kneale’s best use of hysterical metaphor is actually in his earliest surviving ghost story, The Stone Tape (1972).  The film was made for BBC 2 and broadcast on Christmas day as a rather disturbing addition to the usual spooky fanfare that the BBC produced in the early 1970s.  Directed by Hammer regular, Peter Sasdy, the film was an amalgamation of Kneale’s typical interests; a clash between the horrific ancient and callous modernity, often through technological arrogance and greed for intellect.

Where it differs, at least in general from Kneale’s other surviving work from the period, is where it places the emphasis of the reminiscence.  Far from planting the hysterical case upon a sole character or group of characters, Kneale uses the idea of hysteria to create a geographical location which is at the heart of the narrative.  The Stone Tape follows a technological research team in electronics lead by the determined Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) who, on finding a room that appears to record past events through sound and vision, attempts to find the secret of its power in order to commercialise it for the music market.  One of the computer programmers, Jill (Jane Asher), sees the repeated image of a young girl dying, convincing Brock that the room can hold the image.  After various attempts, they fail to produce any results but ultimately release something far deadlier and older.  The thing kills Jill and the film ends with Brock finding, much to his horror, that the room has recorded her death as well.

In Freudian terms, the room is a living embodiment of a hysterical case.  It is living in a state of permanent reminiscence of a past trauma, though the trauma is hinted at being death rather than something sexual.  It is also trauma in a surreal third person tense.  Behind the original death captured by the room, lies something older and far more dangerous.  Whether this is what gives the room its power or is just another capture (or, to link back to Freud, another memory) is debatable though the idea of the room capturing and repeating such trauma is a very literal and interesting embodiment of hysteria.

Taking this idea even further, we can begin to contextualise The Stone Tape in terms of repression.  Brock is desperate to find the key to how the room works in order for him to get ahead of his Japanese competitors.  For the room to stay dormant and resist Brock, the metaphor of Freudian hysteria must extend to include the ideas behind repression.  When the room fails to respond to his tests (which eventually wipe the original image of the first girl dying), it could be said that it was the Ego of the room repressing the memory deliberately as a mechanism to prevent the emotions of the past traumatic experience breaking through.  This is very similar to the human elements of hysteria only the room is repressing itself simply to frustrate Brock and keep him from finding out its technological secrets.

In his paper The Psycho-Therapy of Hysteria (1895), Freud concluded in one his chapters that “We must not expect a single traumatic reminiscence, and as its nucleus one single pathological idea, but we must be ready to assume a series of partial traumas and concatenations of pathogenic mental screams.”.  This is the perfect description of The Stone Tape, especially in its narrative conclusion.  The room does not possess or express a single past trauma really and, to show this, Kneale makes sure that the film’s final moment creates a “pathogenic mental scream” with Brock realising the horrible scenario that his curiosity has lead to his friend’s final dying screams being captured in the stones of the walls; yet another trauma to be repeated on loop in the hysterical room for years to come.

Adam Scovell


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