Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.
Nothing quite evokes a bodily chill like a good ol’ fashioned ghost story. And as far as the British are concerned, the best time to share them is at Christmas. This tradition can be traced to the Victorian ages when spectral scares came back into fashion after nearly dying out. That is until book publishers found success with ghostly content, including the commercial hit A Christmas Carol. As society continued to grow, so did telling ghost stories during the holidays.
Books, films, and plays have all done their part in keeping the practice of Christmas scares alive and well, but for British audiences today, television has been a consistent storyteller. The BBC alone has endorsed holiday horror since the sixties; an adaptation of M. R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad‘, from the TV anthology Omnibus, inspired a new tradition called A Ghost Story for Christmas. For the next decade until a 27-year hiatus, the network’s Christmas programming included an annual production focused on supernatural disturbances. One of which, The Stone Tape, is widely considered the best of its kind. Although not an official entry in BBC’s strand of yuletide horrors, the 1972 television-play matches the same frightful tone.
The Stone Tape starts with Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) driving up to her new worksite at an old, Victorian mansion called Taskerlands. The preexisting dread painted all over her face only grows as her car becomes trapped by two moving trucks. When neither truck responds to a series of warning honks, Jill’s vision blurs as if the walls are closing in on her. She finally panics and backs into a nearby pile of sand, narrowly escaping what might have been a crushing death.
Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), the man in charge of this predominantly male research team for Ryan Electronics, takes both Jill and the estate manager Roy “Colly” Collinson (Iain Cuthberston) to a large room lined with stone walls. While the rest of Taskerlands has been refurbished, this one room remains untouched due to the fact that the contractors refuse to go near it. They fear the legends that surround this part of the house. Left on her own in the same room, Jill then hears a guttural scream accompanied by a vision of a frightened woman on the staircase.
After investigating the house’s haunted history, Peter and his colleagues stumble upon a groundbreaking medium that would put them ahead of their Japanese competitor. Peter theorizes the female ghost, an undermaid named Louisa Hanks, is really an image preserved by the stones in the room. He soon relocates his team to the room in hopes of gathering evidence of this technological breakthrough, but their equipment records nothing. At the same time, though, their activity has awakened something.
The British fascination with ghost stories stems from an innate sense of paranoia toward threats of foreign origin. For example, the Victorian middle class especially felt imperiled by external forces beyond their control. This of course led to both oral and written tales of supernatural invasion and unrest. In The Stone Tape, the male characters are bothered by the idea of the Japanese beating them to the finish line of a technology race. Peter and his associates’ intense desire to win is fundamentally one way of protecting the homeland. In the same breath, Peter ignores his own region’s customs and throws all caution to the wind as he overhauls the entirety of Taskerlands. He kicks in a wall in the ill-fated room, never once asking himself why the contractors are hesitant and why the wall was put in place to begin with.
The nature of the haunting is as intriguing as it is enlightening with respect to the characters’ dispositions. When the researchers begin their recordings in the room, they capture nothing. Yet Jill and her peers indeed hear a ghostly scream in some form or another. A man who played in Taskerlands as a child hears something different when he visits the room; he picks up on the sound of rats. Again, nothing is recorded on the modern equipment. These situations suggest people are hearing what they expected to hear; the Ryan employees anticipate a woman’s scream like Jill reported, whereas the other man heard the rats from his childhood. Of all Jill’s coworkers, Stewart (Philip Trewinnard) hears absolutely nothing because he does not believe in the ghost. The haunting here is what someone makes of it, in a manner of speaking.
From the first moment Jill appears on screen she does not hide her feelings; from surviving a near-death experience to understanding her complicated fling with Peter, her on-again-off-again partner. Even as the other woman in her relationship, Jill wants to feel cared about. With Peter, she knows she will never come first — at best she comes third with his family and job surpassing her. Similar to Louisa atop the stairs, crying in pure agony as something ghastly and unknown bears down on her, Jill is trapped in her rawest emotions. That current state of mind then impels her to help someone else unable to move on from their ordeal. Unfortunately there is not much she or anyone can do for Louisa. As Colly says at one point: “A living person in that pain, you can try and help them. Here you can’t.”
With so much emphasis on the science, The Stone Tape shows signs of sterility and overthought. Conversely, writer Nigel Kneale implies paranormal matters cannot be approached with only logic and technique. There must be heart as well. As seen in the character of Jill, it takes a certain level of empathy to experience the haunting. Even when others hoped to use Louisa’s trauma for their own personal gain, Jill looked to help using both her emotions and her scientific skill. In the end, though, that same sensitivity is what causes Jill’s downfall and turns her into a human medium of sorts. Without her realizing it, Jill is “following in Louisa’s footsteps.”
The Stone Tape sets itself apart from its contemporaries by having a modern setting and story. It does retain the cursory Christmas element — a former resident’s letter to Father Christmas is discovered in the walls — as well as the familiar venue of an eldritch, Victorian home, albeit gutted and renovated. The script is unique as it is mired in technospeak, and it observes a realistic paranormal theory still in effect today. On the other hand, programs in A Ghost Story for Christmas are more keen on not explaining the otherworldly occurrences and letting the hauntings run their course with more emphasis on effect than cause. Much like the character of Peter, though, The Stone Tape dodges mystery and wants answers. Other genre narratives with overdrawn explanations run the risk of lacking in wonder, yet Kneale composed a creative, thoughtful, and intimate tale rich in the same bitterly cold anxiety inherent to all Christmas horror.