The Ghost in British Horror: More Than Just Spooky

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Ghosts play a significant part in British horror cinema. LUKE BARNES argues these ghosts possess a deeper purpose than just a simple scare.

The Haunting 1963, one of many British films that explore the supernatural
The Haunting 1963, one of many British films that explore the supernatural

British horror cinema can be seen as focused on two key ideas, The Gothic and The Folk. Within these ideas key aspects of our nations history and identity are reflected.

The Folk offers a glimpse into a wilder British past full of Druids, Romans and folk tales, whereas the Gothic taps more deeply into the human fascination with the other side, the occult and moving on. 

It is common within British horror cinema to have the film take place, or at least visit, a creepy old manor or castle. These places are dripping with both metaphorical ghosts, but will also feature a real one for the sake of the film.

However, this article is far more interested in the sub-text of the ghost within British horror cinema and the connection it has to forgotten and often marginalised people.

Memories Of The Past

Often within these horror films the ghost will be of a child who died early or a house keeper who threw herself in the lake after her affair with the Lord of the Manor was exposed. However, rather than read these at face value, think for a minute instead about what these ghosts are commenting on. 

I posit to you that ghosts within British horror cinema come to represent guilt and past trauma, and possess a deeper purpose than just a simple scare. 

As many around the world will know, and we Brits too, the idea of carrying on and keeping the stiff upper lip is a quintessentially British way of thinking. However, this mode of thought won’t work in the ghost story as by it traumas are left to fester, this then leads to manifestations. In reality this could then result in mental health related issues, but in the pages and frames of horror this manifestation is physical and personifies in the ghost. 

The Sins Of The Past 

Take my earlier example of the boy who died prematurely, the filmic narrative would have you believe he has come back to punish those for a wrongful death, but that is only part of it. In returning the boy challenges a modern audience with the senseless child death of the past, with neglect and with pestilence. These hit hard and remind the audience and the characters of past trauma. As such the purpose of the ghost is not just to give a scare but to confront and challenge a modern western audience with the evils and sadness of it’s past. 

The house keeper who drowns in the lake comes to represent love that was unaccepted by society, commenting on notions of classism and social isolation. The latter idea is physically spelt out by the fact that the ghost often resides in lost places where time has seemingly stopped. When the ghost hunter or other modern stand in finds and interacts with these ghosts they are deeply connected to each other’s lives and times. Often the ghost becomes a secret teller, needing to bring light to its personal injustices in order to move on to the next life. From this the ghost becomes a combative force to the stiff upper lip of British society. 

A Nation In Mourning 

The Gothic and ghost stories have been popular in Britain for a long, long time and when you think about why that is the idea of history becomes ever more important. Throughout the last few hundred years, as well as long before that, there have been a number of national tragedies, the World Wars for example, which have ravaged the nations psyche and have led to new ghost stories. This can be seen as a means to deal with the things that have happened and also to turn the dead into almost fictional characters as it makes their passing easier to bare. 

The ghost therefore is removed from reality, they can exist on an entirely different plane to you or I and do things that none of us can do. By cheating death the ghost endures, in fiction as a physical manifestation but in reality the ghost endures as memories and the shared trauma of loss. 

In this sense the ghost becomes a wider wanting in their being more than what is readily apparent and what we can see. The ghost haunting the house on the hill then comes to represent the idea that are loved ones are never really gone. The ghost becomes a coping mechanism. 

Talking To The Dead

Whether the ghost is an illuminator of past secrets or a coping mechanism to help deal with loss, the ghost is a communicator. Meaning that within ghost stories both in horror cinema and in literature the focus is on the conversation between the living and the dead. 

In a metaphysical sense this forbidden conversation is the embodiment of the unholy, but it comes across in both a literal and figurative sense. Literally to talk with a ghost becomes symbolic of moving on an embracing the past in the present, to embrace history and to keep it with you. This then takes on a further meaning if the ghost is known to the person who finds them as this literal conversation then becomes a final goodbye, a means to meet and greet both your own mortality as well as your dead acquaintance. 

Figuratively, this conversation represents a union of life and death, the holy and the unholy. Conveying secrets and wisdom that humans are not supposed to know. Within fiction there are links to madness for those who converse with the other side, and in a notion of closure and moving on it can be seen to be madness that allows for the conversation in the first place. Meaning that the conversation and interactions between ghosts and humans within British horror films could be viewed as the grief induced thoughts of someone struggling to cope.

Who Is The Ghost?

To surmise the ghost within British horror cinema is all of these things and so much more than just a mere monster. Through its trans-dimensional, often translucent form, the ghost embodies loss, history and past secrets looking to emerge and be known. 

LUKE BARNES is a horror film fanatic, who can be found at the cinema any day of the week. Ghosts, Ghouls and Gremlins – he writes about them all. Here is his blog:


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