The Aural Aesthetics Of Ghosts In BBC Ghost Stories – Part 8 (The Signalman).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

The Signalman And Aural Paranoia Over Dickensian Technology.

“For those who look back on it, the Victorian age seems to be invested with a peculiar quality of difference – heightened by its relative proximity in time – that is reflected in its ghosts.  It was an age shaped, perhaps more than any other previous period, by the forces of transition.” (Cox, M, and Gilbert, R.A, ix, 1991).

In spite of not being an adaptation of M.R. James, Clark’s final classical work for the BBC has a number of ties and uses for haunted objects connected with more overtly Victorian literary and sociological ideas.  In 1976, Clark would adapt Charles Dickens’ The Signalman; a short story that, with hindsight, is more Jamesian than Dickensian.  Of course, Dickens was writing long before M.R. James and James himself was often admiring and almost fan-like in his appreciation of his work.  Yet James would hone the idea of the haunted object and it is a trait associated with him more so than Dickens whose ghosts vary but also use objects to haunt their victims.

From the haunted chair in The Pickwick Papers (1836) to Ebenezer Scrooge seeing Marley’s face in the door-knob in A Christmas Carol (1843), Dickens could be said to be the pioneer of the “inorganic demon” though perhaps not its greatest exponent.  One aspect from Dickens’ The Signalman that does raise audio-visual questions in its subsequent adaptation is how exactly sound can manifest a haunting and, more importantly, what does the context of this sound actually convey when considering Dickens’ era?  This story is the best example of the fictional embodiment of Ryle’s idea of the “Ghost in the Machine” mentioned in his 1949 work, The Concept of Mind; “the myth of the ghost in the machine.” (p.15, 1949) as he calls it.  Though originally a criticism of Rene Descartés’ theories of dualism between the inner mind and the physical body, the theory is now contextualised to account for more supernatural aspects in fictional media; a non-living object’s power to do something physically, create a noise or movement for example, implying a logical inner aspect that can be read as intelligence.

This is perfect for the age of the industrial revolution and the ghost stories built around it: the era is littered with headlines about the mysterious effects of this technology and its interpretation is often viewed through the prism of Victorian mysticism.  Sweet discusses as much in his analysis of The Signalman, accounting for this increase in reported phenomena by hinting at its cathartic sociological effects: “The nineteenth century was an era of dizzying technological progress.  Accounts of hauntings – fictional and journalistic – seem to have functioned as a way of expressing unease about that progress.” (p.4, 2012).

In The Signalman, Clark presents a similar scenario to that of his other ghost stories.  It follows a traveller (Bernard Lloyd) who comes across an isolated signalman (Denholm Elliot) on duty who seems to be perturbed by something near the tunnel of his signal box.  The story follows as he relates his worry to the traveller before agreeing to let him visit again the following night to see if there’s anything true to his story of a mysterious figure that gives a vague warning about death; the ghost being a previous omen and foreshadow of a train crash in the tunnel the year before.  The narrative is circular, predicting the eventual fate of our characters through its haunting but it also has a lot to say on the era of Dickens himself; a questioning paranoia that Clark achieves through aural phantasmagoria.

The Signalman uses a number of aural techniques already discussed in relation to adaptations of James.  There is effective use of the “Disembodied Voice”, the phenomena being a reason for the signalman to be initially suspicious of the traveller, as if he is at the centre of some macabre joke.  Sweet believes that this aural aspect has an initial effect on the characters whilst also suggesting that something unnatural is apparent in the scenario: “Each suspects the other is a ghost – but they might just as easily be a species of automata.” (p.3, 2012).  The cries of warnings – “Hello!  Below there!  Watch Out!” – have ominous meanings with hindsight of the narrative and repeat viewings.  This bodiless voice is one of many aspects taken purely from the original story with Dickens writing the following to open the narrative:

“‘Halloa! Below there!’

When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole.  One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the line.” (p.260, 1866).

Dickens wrote The Signalman after his own personal experience with a train accident; the incident leaving a deep enough scar to inspire a story as well as a fear of technological progress.  There are various accounts of the effects this had on the writer as Picker suggests: “For months he could not tolerate the sound of train traveling (sic), and refused to ride the express: “The noise of the wheels of my Hansom, and of the London streets, was as much as I could bear.”” (p.40, 2003).  It’s perhaps fitting that Dickens’ own haunting of this event manifests through aural association rather than simply a visual one.  Earlier, Picker argues that this was what is commonly now known as Post- Traumatic Stress:

“In the immediate aftermath, Dickens experienced what would now be considered a type of post-traumatic stress disorder: “I am curiously weak – weak as if I were recovering from a long illness.  I began to feel it more in my head.  I sleep well and eat well; but I write a half dozen notes, and turn faint and sick,” he told Forster.” (p.40, 2003).

This is instantly curious as the hauntings of the story could easily be construed as being of a similar nature.  The era of The Signalman is the height of the industrial revolution with fears of industry and the strange powers of electricity gaining an esoteric significance.  Faintness and illness of the mind could easily be seen as omen-esque.  Clark believes that Dickens’ story was a prediction itself and a Victorian omen of the coming century; fifty years of human calamity from two world wars defined by the technology pioneered in Dickens’ era.  Clark even likens the railway and the entrapment of the signalman’s situation to the imagery of the railway tracks of the holocaust, showing a genuine belief in Dickens’ prophesies of the coming century (2012).

The Signalman is equally about a small-scale omen, its ghostly happenings predicting accidents on the train-line and the eventual demise of the main character.  Clark highlights this pre-emptive fear, the idea of the “Ghost In The Machine” again, through the main character’s relationship with sound.  His job is one that is relayed to him through sound, the ringing of the communication code being tapped out on a machine and a bell that signals safety and danger.  These sound waves and those differentiated by Clark as being supernatural in particular, all have an eerie effect and recall Donnelly’s discussion of Vic Tandy’s research into sound waves and the presence of the supernatural:

“One interesting recent development is Vic Tandy’s research into explaining supernatural phenomena through the positioning of standing wave.  Tandy appears to have some evidence that the presence of ghosts and other mysterious apparitions coincides with the presence of standing waves emanating from objects such as machines, transformers or radiators.” (p.38, 2005).

It is a technological contrast to the warnings of the ghost; the two forms of warning being deliberately mixed and shown to be connected through their onlooker’s perception.  This is an aspect brought over again from Dickens’ original narrative description as well as something realised by Clark as can be seen from this excerpt from the story – “‘As to an imaginary cry’, said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires.'” (p.265, 1866).


The poor protagonist is haunted by all of these sounds.  The main narrative thrust of the story comes from debating the supernatural potential of these sounds, much of which Clark has derived from Dickens’ prose again.  Take, for example, this segment of the story, which is not only reproduced almost exactly in its adaptation but surmises the true potential of the aurally haunted debate:

“Then he went on. ‘I have no peace or rest from it.  It calls to me, for many minutes together, in an agonised manner, “Below there! Look out!  Look out!”  It stands waving to me.  It rings my little bell -‘

I caught at that.  ‘Did it ring your bell yesterday evening when I was here, and you went to the door?’


‘Why, see,’ said I, ‘how your imagination misleads you.  My eyes were on the bell, and my ears were open to the bell, and if I am a living man, it did not ring at those times.  No, nor at any time, except when it was rung in the natural course of physical things by the station communicating with you.’

He shook his head. ‘I have never made a mistake as to that yet, sir. I have never confused the spectre’s ring with the man’s.  The ghost’s ring is a strange vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs the eye.  I don’t wonder that you failed to hear it.  But I heard it.’ ” (p.267, 1866).

When relating a story of a crash in the tunnel to his new-found companion, the signalman states that “The screams of the dying echo in a… persistent way.”.  The conversations he has with the traveller allow him to present his problems but even before these, Clark has hinted to the viewer that the strange, new world of electronic technology is going to play a big part.  While the traveller is first seen walking through the countryside and is “drawn” towards the unnatural valley of the tunnel and signal box, Stephen Deutsch’s ambient, and importantly ambiguous, electronic music rings over the sound of the natural diegesis of the countryside.

This sound, which is credited as music during the final titles, is used as the aural signifier of the haunting, with the visuals often cutting to the wires outside the cabin as if it is they that possess the unnatural hum.  The ghost supposedly makes one of the bells in the cabin vibrate though the traveller cannot hear it.  Only the signalman can perceive it, in a similar way to Miller’s inner-looking haunting.  The sound of the electronic represents a personal aural perspective of the signalman’s fear; the omen for an oncoming disaster being enough to make him irritable and jumpy to be around.  Sweet succinctly amalgamates all of these aspects in his description of the story, stating: “The spectre that haunts the story burns in the warning lamp at the railway tunnel’s mouth; hums in the telegraph wires that link signal boxes and stations; brings, through uncanny intelligence, forewarning of some of the nastiest deaths the age of steam could furnish.  Dickens’ story is about the ghosts in the machine of the industrial revolution.” (p.2, 2012).  The signalman angrily suggests to the traveller “I’ve never confused the spectre’s ring with the man’s.” showing a clear paranoia and maybe even an undeserved guilt at the previous accidents and his lack of comprehension of the aural warnings.


The haunting and its aural manifestation in The Signalman therefore speaks of multiple readings.  It represents the original author’s deep-seated fear and suspicion over new technology, imbedded by personal tragedy and heightened with hindsight of history (Dickens died five years later on the same date as his train accident).  It aurally represents the diegetic paranoia of its main character who is surrounded by the sound of technology; the sounds that have failed him in the past to prevent numerous deaths and ultimately his own.  But most of all, the sounds in The Signalman present the viewer with the purest “Ghost in the Machine”: the supernatural manifesting through newly created means and objects deeply imbued with a potential for aural haunting and torment.

Part 9.

Adam Scovell

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