‘Ghost Stories’: Debunking the Sceptics

Often in horror movies things are not what they seem. The main characters aren’t being preyed upon by some anonymous killer, but their own existential dread. Because if there’s one thing horror does well, it’s metaphor. Ironically it is this fact that gives some the license to dismiss the genre; deeming it too see-through to have any real effect. These Horror humbugs, who scoff rather than hide whenever the axe-wielding madman chases the heroine down the alley, rest assured and unfazed, because they know what the film was actually about.  

Professor Goodman from Ghost Stories is very familiar with this idea. He knows that the death of a friend or family member can be so catastrophic that it can be easy for the loss to manifest, metaphorically, as a spirit. He considers it his duty to be sceptical, and his job to debunk psychics, in fact, that’s how he’s first introduced. Marching onto a stage in the middle of a performance, Goodman declares that the man in front of him is only ‘communicating’ with the dead through amateur theatrics and a voice in his ear feeding him information. As emotionally exploitative and morally repugnant as this psychic is, there’s something about Goodman’s actions, the vehemence of his scepticism, that suggests he may not be the hero of this story. Not to mention that in this story the ghosts, unlike the ones he’s used to dealing with, are very real. 

Written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, adapted from their stage play, Ghost Stories (2017) is one of the most interesting British horror films of recent years. The film follows Goodman (played by Nyman himself) as he investigates three paranormal cases. Given to him by his professional hero, the supernatural sceptic Dr Cameron, they are the only three cases the latter could never solve. For Goodman the cases soon become as much about protecting his own world views as they are about debunking other people’s.  

Having Goodman as the lead in a horror movie is an intriguing choice because he seems the type who would heartily disapprove of them. At best he’d think them sensationalist and a waste of time, at worst he’d think the audiences watching them were actively deluding themselves. Goodman is a man of atoms and molecules, of everything having a rational explanation. “‘We have to be so very careful what we believe in’” he says as he persuades others to learn from his enlightenment and to conform to his way of thinking. Unfortunately for Goodman he doesn’t know that he is the Ebenezer Scrooge in this spooky Christmas Carol. Nyman is particularly brilliant as Goodman, getting the perfect balance between smug arrogance and a man desperately trying to hide that he’s out of his depth. As he makes his way through the three cases Goodman’s beliefs are strongly tested, and the more he clings onto them the more delusional he seems to become. Luckily, for those of us watching it, despite what its leading character may think, this is a story that is fascinated with all things spooky. Welcoming the genre in with open claws.  

Each case is recounted to him individually by the witnesses, played by the ever-welcome Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman. Each story is wonderfully directed and delightfully creepy in its own way, drawing from all aspects of the horror cannon. As a night watchman searches for a ghost through an abandoned asylum, his torch passing over walls and down corridors, the camera pushes the viewer forward (whether they want to or not) with a creeping tension, around the next corner and deeper into the building. A young boy lost in the woods at night accidentally hits something. Something with horns and cloven feet that seems to have crawled its way out of an Arthur Machen story. Inanimate objects in a nursery spring to life to terrorise a rich stockbroker awaiting the arrival of his first-born child. To Goodman each case seems typical; a classic ghost story, that can be ‘explained away’ as stress, lack of sleep or a mild psychosis. Which, of course, is to entirely miss the point. Each encounter may be the metaphorical manifestation of some deep trauma or fear. However, the point of a metaphor is not to explain something away; but to help in describing the indescribable. To better understand those aspects of real life that cannot be quantified or categorised by people like Goodman.  

Goodman’s constant attempts to “‘explain away’” reveals more about his character than seems obvious at first. He’s not out to seek the truth, he has no interest in investigating further. He wants to stay within the established status quo and remove any evidence to the contrary, to explain it away. Spoiler alert; that sort of thinking won’t get anyone anywhere. And as mentioned, he is still the Scrooge in this story.  

Eventually, after failing to conclude any of the cases Goodman himself is put under investigation – challenged by one of his own interviewees. The film finally reveals a flashback that had only previously been hinted at, lurking in the camera’s peripheral vision. It reveals that Goodman, as a child, was witness to an act of truly horrific bullying. As directors Dyson and Nyman clearly take great pleasure showcasing their skill in delivering jump scares, atmospheric tension and eerie practical effects. As the flashback plays it’s clear no effects are needed. The unfortunate, believable reality of the scene has all the horror that is required. Goodman had no active part in the bullying, instead he remained silent and watched. The camera reflects this; simply a passive observer that lets the scene play out in front of a helpless audience. This is, by far, the scariest scene of the film. 

Goodman has spent his life burying this memory, convincing himself that he did nothing wrong, wrapping himself up in this cocoon of his own innocence. Ignoring the memory does not eradicate it. Instead by refusing to engage with it, Goodman has let it fester in unseen corners of his mind and, even though years have passed since the actual event, it has now become a ghost. “‘You’ve been running from your greatest fear: that there is more out there than the here and now. And that every action you’ve taken, or haven’t taken, has had an effect and it’s left a little trace. A ghost of itself.’” Ebenezer Scrooge had the benefit of being in a Christmas story; it was almost guaranteed to have a happy ending. Unfortunately for Goodman he’s in a horror film; the lesson he had to learn was never going to end happily.  

  With the three cases Dyson and Nyman have proven that engaging directly with fear can be an exhilarating experience. And, by the very nature of a jump scare, can ultimately be a more cathartic release of tension. Whereas Goodman’s failure to do so has disastrous consequences, the longer this continues the more haunted he will become. The next time the sceptics scoff, tell them to look further than the metaphor, tell them to watch Ghost Stories. They may need to reconnect with their Halloween spirit, or else they’ll make ghosts of us all.   

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