Why ghost stories make a British Christmas
Just as the turkey’s settling and you’re reaching for a final glass of port, get ready for a fright. That’s when the ghosts come out – and it’s a very British affair. Horror expert David Miller explains…
A TV highlight of this Christmas Night is a ghost story called The Tractate Middoth, written by MR James, adapted and directed by Mark Gatiss, the actor and writer behind Doctor Who and Sherlock.
It’s a peculiarly British tradition to scare ourselves silly at Christmas but just why do we love ghost stories at this time of year? It’s a good antidote to an overdose of sweetness – and has its roots long ago in pagan winter festivals to celebrate the dead.
The Victorians embraced the Christmas ghost story, epitomised, naturally, by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a staple of yuletide entertainment more than 150 years after it was written. Another seasonal Victorian ghost story called The Mistletoe Bough was actually filmed in 1904 and the BFI has recently rediscovered and restored it.
The beginning of the 20th century sees the debut in print of the acknowledged master of the ghost story, Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), a Cambridge scholar who wrote exquisite flesh-creeping tales. Every year, at Christmas, it became a tradition for James to give a fireside reading of his latest works to a gathering of eager students.
In 1957, one of James’s best-known stories, Casting the Runes, came to the big screen as a film called Night of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Though James rarely revealed his monsters, the film’s producers insisted on including a massive fire demon, at odds with the atmospheric build-up. In fact, Casting inspired director and modern horror master Sam Raimi in his full-blooded 2009 horror film Drag Me To Hell.
Another James story, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, concerned a professor in a remote seaside guest-house who finds an old whistle and encounters an unquiet spirit. Jonathan Miller filmed the story for the BBC in 1968, extracting every ounce of horror from the bleak coastal setting with stark black-and-white photography and atmospheric sound.
From 1970, the BBC delivered an annual dose of MR James at Christmas, and they became as eagerly anticipated as the author’s original fireside performances. Lawrence Gordon Clark directed A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts and others using real filmic qualities.
There were realistically creepy locations, close-ups of haunted faces, unsettling noises and some very nasty things lurking in the shadows. Clark unashamedly set out to scare his audience: “If you don’t frighten people,” he said, “you’re like a comedian that doesn’t make people laugh.” His films’ influence is still felt 40 years later, and no wonder – rarely has television captured more perfectly the clammy, claustrophobic feeling of dread.
In 2000, Christopher Lee brought his inimitable voice to some of James’ most famous stories in an enjoyable series that recreated the scene of the author’s original readings. Since then the BBC has struggled to recapture the ghosts of Christmas past, with tepid James adaptations including a soft-pedalled rewrite of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You starring John Hurt.
But now, in a perfect marriage of director and material, Mark Gatiss, a fan of the stories from the Seventies, has embraced the opportunity to adapt The Tractate Middoth, involving a librarian haunted by a ghostly priest.
Alongside The Tractate Middoth, Gatiss has made a documentary about MR James and adaptations of his work. With this, and a collection of the BBC’s Ghost Stories (now on DVD from the BFI), there’s a definite Christmas chill on telly that’ll last well into the new year.
David Miller writes for Stuff magazine and is the author of Peter Cushing: A Life in Film
LG’s Smart TV platform offers great catch-up apps such as iPlayer, if you miss Mark Gatiss’ ghostly production, as well as access to Sky’s on-demand service NOW TV – showing a range of festive and creepy movies… Find out more here