Ah, a good old-fashioned ghost story! Things that go bump in the night, shadows at the end of the corridor, faces in the mirror… I don’t normally consider myself susceptible to this sort of thing – but like everyone else in that packed cinema, I jumped out of my skin more times than I care to admit!
The Woman in Black has succeeded as a novel, a long-running stage play, and now a film, so there’s something deeply effective about this story. So, attempting to keep spoilers to a minimum, can we draw some conclusions about why it’s so powerful and gripping?
The hero is vulnerable. Arthur Kipps is young, far from home, and ostracized by the local community. In adapting Susan Hill’s novel, screenwriter Jane Goldman has, if anything, emphasized his vulnerability – by making him a widower, and sole carer to his young son. That, and his grief, has distracted him from his work, and this is his last chance to keep his job. This is a man physically, professionally, and psychologically on the edge, long before strange things start happening in the deep background…
The victims are children. The collision between child as innocent and child as monster drives a lot of Victorian (and modern) horror, and again, Goldman works hard to foreground this. In Hill’s novel, the deaths are all accidents, the kind of simple tragedies that befell a lot of children in a dangerous age. In the film, the children are hypnotized into taking their own lives, emphasizing the Woman In Black’s power and making them, however briefly, sinister extensions of her.
I remember a horror author saying in an interview that horror isn’t really about fear of death. The thing we fear most is loss of self – possession, insanity, the triumph of our suppressed fears and desires. In this version, the children are not simply killed – in the moments before they die, they lose themselves, become slaves to a malevolent spirit with no will of their own, and that disturbs us far more than the brutal fact of their deaths.
Horror is all about depth of field. The best scares are the things we’re not even sure we actually saw – the slight movement, the reflection at the window, the shape in the bushes. So, unlike any other kind of movie, the real action in a horror movie takes place not at the front and centre of the frame, but in the background and at the edges.
Early humans weren’t always at the top of the food chain, and one of the reasons we survived was our ability to assign intent to random events. The leaves move in the jungle – we assume it’s a predator and run away. Yes, sometimes it’s just leaves moving, but it’s safer to run from a few false alarms than miss the one time it’s really a hungry tiger.
We all still carry this survival reflex. It’s stronger in some people than others, but none of us are immune to it. So tap into that movement = danger reflex, and you have the ability to scare the audience any time you like…
And last but not least, she doesn’t play by the rules. We all know that ghosts have unresolved business, and once their emotional needs are met, they’ll pass over peacefully and it’s all over. Right? Well, not this time.
Again, Goldman’s reshaping of the plot works hard to give us a bittersweet ending that doesn’t underplay the Woman In Black’s power and cruelty, but also provides Kipps with a degree of victory over her. The hero’s triumph is not physical but emotional – she may have defeated him outwardly, but he has still passed beyond her power, largely thanks to love and human bonds of emotion. (see The Orphanage for a similar physical failure/ emotional victory…)
So what did you learn from The Woman In Black – apart from don’t sit next to the nervous person with the giant-size popcorn tub?