How to make people believe in ghosts.
I. TROUBLESOME GHOSTS
Stories of ghosts and supernatural creatures are notoriously hard to get right, but this was the challenge I set myself when making my short film Wicked Yeva. Since childhood I've adored anything ghostly – I'd even say I'm obsessed. I'm not alone. Most cultures have their own nuanced version of the afterlife and ways of explaining the unknown. So why is it such a difficult genre to master?
Wicked Yeva is inspired by a childhood story recounted by my Aunt Jane. Often left alone with her older sister, Yasmin, the girls were expected to do chores, usually washing the dishes. Nan was pretty strict and would demand tasks to be completed by the time she returned. Leaving the kitchen to go upstairs to the toilet was a terrifying experience for Jane. By the time she reached the top steps Yasmin would be there, hanging on the banister leering down, face distorted, cackling with laughter and shouting 'I'm the wicked Yasmin'. Fleeing for her life Jane burst through the kitchen door to see Yasmin casually washing up. Even as an adult, she can't understand how quickly Yasmin was able to scale the side of the building and get back down again. It was almost as if she was imbued with supernatural powers.
This is perfect storytelling material. Almost everyone understands sibling rivalry, so taking a creepy real-life tale and adapting it into a narrative exploring the conflicts of family life was fairly straightforward. The supernatural part was a little trickier. I've watched and read hundreds of stories recounting tales of vengeful ghosts, lost souls and folkloric creatures. But they often leave me feeling cold and deflated. A frisson shudders through my body, my eyes widen and I hold my breath as I walk with the protagonist into an old house, the moon-lit graveyard or dense, dark forest. The floors creak, a shadow darkens the room and a candle is inexplicably extinguished – they start well enough. The atmosphere and tone are exemplary. Tension increases as the protagonist, now in mortal danger, begins to unravel the mystery. The mystery, it turns out, is about as mysterious as the ghost - entirely misunderstood just needs to say it's piece. The spirit seeps onto the other side draining all the horror with it and leaving about as much impact as 'I woke up and it was all a dream '. This is at the heart of what makes supernatural stories so difficult to tell.
Whether writing for screen or in prose, there are a few issues to consider when dealing with the supernatural. Successful stories are borne of and respond to the time and location in which they are written. Whilst travelling in the deep dark forests of Scandinavia I watched the mutating pink, green fingers of the Northern lights stretch across the sky. In the wilderness there is no artificial light pollution and I was entirely isolated from modernity. Surrounded by and in awe of nature, folkloric creatures and Nordic gods seemed entirely possible: for a moment I believed in Odin. From the late 18th century to the early 20th, Western supernatural fiction flourished. Most classic works in this genre were written during this period and in direct response to contemporaneous fears. The Gothic novel warned of corrupted bloodlines and moral degradation, the most notable examples being the mad scientist and bloodsucking vampire. While the Edwardian ghost story reminds us that whilst science can explain and control most elements of nature, we would be foolhardy to imagine that there aren't terrifying worlds beyond our ken. Although some of these worries do persist today, it would be hard to convince most people that the dead walk amongst us.
II. GHOSTS DONE GOOD
So how do we convince a cynical contemporary audience to believe in the supernatural? The answer lies in the stakes of the story. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is often considered an exemplary ghost story. It actually contains all the archetypal elements considered essential for both a successful Gothic and ghost story; an innocent heroine, an old creepy house and a terrifying secret. A young governess, new to the profession, is charged by a man to look after his recently orphaned niece and nephew, Miles and Flora. He instructs her that she is to have sole responsibility for their care and she is to have absolutely no contact with him. When she arrives at the isolated Bly house she discovers that the previous governess, Miss Jessel and the Master’s valet, Peter Quint, both died in tragic circumstances. Being cruel and depraved, they flaunted their sexual relationship in front of the children and have now returned to claim them. A mortal battle ensues as the Governess fights these Godless ghosts for the souls of the children.
The story was written in 1898 and critics often argue that it directly tapped into contemporary notions of the unconscious mind. It is never entirely clear if the ghosts are a product of the Governess’s unconscious imagination or actually true spiritual entities. However, the outcome is the same: she believes she's fighting something evil and it is her responsibility to prevail. The tension in the story sustains until the end because it remains with the Governess’s interpretation and reaction to her situation.
Throughout his career James was attracted to the ghost story. However, he was not fond of literature's stereotypical ghosts. He preferred to create ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality, "the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy", as he put it in the New York Edition preface to his final ghost story, The Jolly Corner.
I think this is why it works – the stakes remain with the protagonist and not the ghosts. The audience is not being asked to work out how or why they died or solve their problems and so the tension remains, immaterial of what happens to the ghosts. This type of psychological supernatural storytelling reflects my own approach. I like to think of my stories as personal hauntings – whatever the individual fears, will haunt them.
"Despite how stupid it was, she still carried a secret fear of the unknown, a fear of the threats that nestle amongst ordinary things."
Switch – from Surface Tension by Sarah Gray.
III. SEEING SPIRITS
The protagonist of Wicked Yeva is the younger sister, Susie, and it's from her point of view that the audience experience the story. Although by the close of the film the dynamic of the entire family has changed, the stakes remain firmly with Susie. Yeva conjures the power of the supernatural to solve her problems but it is Susie's decision at the end of the film, which makes her vulnerable and leaves the audience wondering what is to become of her. This is the horror of the everyday.
Throughout The Turn of the Screw it becomes increasingly clear that the Governess is an unreliable narrator. Initially at least, we believe what we are being shown. This is compounded because the ghosts are so normal – they look as they did in life. In prose, the text describes what we see, but we have to render it physical in our imagination. This is considered one of the strengths of prose – we bring our own individual interpretations and fears into play. However, in film the look of the physical world has been decided for us. Decisions about how much of the ghost we actually get to see and the skill of the script and actors all contribute to our ability to be able to suspend our disbelief. The ridiculous rubber shark in jaws is a prime example. If the look of the monster isn't quite right it can undermine the storytelling. The audience is led rather than leading.
Jack Clayton's 1961 film version of The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents is skilfully rendered. The ghosts look as they would have in life, but they are shown at a distance from across water, through steamed up glass and against the sunlight. Diffused and unclear they become frightening; just as it is unclear who the children are more in danger from, the governess or the ghosts only she can see.
When making Wicked Yeva, I had to decide how much of my supernatural character the audience would get to see. It was a balance between showing Susie's point of view to enhance our understanding of her experience and the general principal of less is more – usually very wise with film monsters. Both lead actors are children and it was difficult to know how well they would deal with the subtlety required to make the script work. Actually very well, I'm pleased to say. Additionally, on a small budget I couldn't afford any labour-intensive special effects. My solution is to make it work by using the same method as The Innocents and show the 'monster'. However, I intensified the lighting by changing the tones from blue to orange and made changes to costume and make up. It is also the contrasting normality of the subsequent scenes, which makes it creepy.
IV. SPOOKY LINENS
Most of my favourite supernatural films show ghosts in their human form, no elaborate special effects or ghoulish make up; The Others (dir. Alejandro Amenavar 2001), Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan 1999) and Blithe Spirit (dir. David Lean 1945). It would be wrong, however to suggest that this is the only way of rendering an on-screen ghost effective. If you’re reading this article I'll wager Spanish gold at some point in your childhood you donned a sheet and with arms outstretched shouting ’WHOOOA!!’ Tried your damnedest to frightened your younger brothers or sisters. I expect you failed. The white-sheet ghost has got to be the lamest type of apparition. A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery 2017) isn't afraid to jump out of the cliché cupboard and despite that, was still screened to critical acclaim at Sundance earlier this year.
In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.
It is the power of the script and enormity of the themes tackled, which make this film work. Although the protagonist of the film, C is actually a ghost, the stakes still remain with him throughout – he is on a journey of discovery. Unlike the traditional ghostly antagonist demanding satisfaction through the living, C is looking to understand his destiny. This subverts the form in the same way the film twists the use of the white sheet to great effect.
It's interesting to note how tropes change over time and can often come full circle. The bedsheet ghost is an antiquated relic from the theatrical world. During Shakespearean times, ghosts were usually clad with outmoded costumes, in which they had presumably died, to demonstrate that they were spirits returning from the past. Cumbersome armour proved an effective method of exposition, Hamlet's deceased father being a famous example. However, it's exceptionally awkward to give a subtle performance clanking and banging around on stage. Moving forward to the 18th century, directors ditched the outdated costumes and adopted the burial shroud. Returning spirits were now imbued with an ethereal like quality, thus the bedsheet ghost was born. This billowing shapeless form dominated ghost stories throughout the 19th and 20th century and has now returned to haunt us.
‘Yōkai’ are Japanese ghosts and although there are often similar visual hallmarks with Western-style ghosts, they are much more terrifying. The Ju-on franchise for example (also known as the The Grudge outside of Japan) tells the tale of the Japanese folklore legend that is the Onryō; a vengeful spirit capable of affecting the living in horrifying ways. Tormenting their victims to death, these ghosts are dangerous and pose a far greater threat than a translucent bed sheet feeling misunderstood. In the western adaptation, the filmmakers chose a traditional ghostlike persona, pale blue-toned white or completely pure white. While the original is true to character – she is, as you can see, normally completely covered head to toe in blood.
I'm not entirely sure whether Wicked Yeva works. I've been told it raises the hairs on the back of the neck and that's what I set out to do. It wasn't easy to embed all the subtle markers required to tell a chilling ghost tale in a short film. I'm still proud of Wicked Yeva, but maybe ghost stories are as mercurial as the supernatural itself and however much we try to explain them, they will change and mutate evading definitive, neat explanation.
A Ghost Story is in UK cinemas now and to read more about the bedsheet ghost, dive into this article on TvTropes.