The Monk (Le Moine)
(Dir. Dominik Moll) Spain/France 2011
The copy of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk: A Romance (1796) currently sitting on my bookshelf is the Penguin Classics edition, which reproduces a striking illustration from a 1797 French translation of the novel. Our votary protagonist is being dragged through the air by his scalp, cassock billowing in a lightning storm. Above him his bat-winged demonic captor brandishes the contract for his soul and shakes his snaky locks in foreboding. The illustrator is clearly trying to convey some of the divine terror of William Blake, yet teetering on the brink of a total collapse into the absurd.
To me, this is what the Gothic mode is all about. The greatest Gothic fiction is that which situates itself at the precise tipping point between the grim and the ridiculous. Whatever might be said about the turgidity of his prose or the novel’s pacing, Lewis is undoubtedly the master of this trick. Think of the lascivious Ambrosio looming and salivating over the sweetly-slumbering Antonia, or Agnes the imprisoned nun nursing her corpse-baby. It is ‘loathsome’ Lewis repeatedly tells us, with unconcealed relish.
This invigorating campness is something which I often feel gets lost on screen, especially in more recent years. To take but one example: The Raven (Dir. James McTeigue, 2012) is supposedly set during the “lost days” leading up to Poe’s death. My fingers were crossed for opium dreams and gibbering hysteria, so imagine my disappointment at discovering the film to be an anaemic detective yarn with sub-Murdoch Mysteries production values. As a side note, perhaps the most prominent exception to this rule is Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which is never afraid to be overwrought or veer into outright silliness. “Your precious Lucy will become a bitch of the Devil! A whore of darkness!!”, Tony Hopkins-as-Van-Helsing crows. Even Dracula’s sobs are done in a cod-Transylvanian accent: “bleugh-huh, bleugh-huh!”. More like this, please.
To arrive at The Monk (2011), then, is to once again resign ourselves to a sad lack of the Gothic ridiculous. This French language version plays it utterly straight, offering us a version of Lewis’ events that is very serious, and also intensely religious. “This is the most Catholic thing I’ve ever seen,” I remarked to my viewing companions, “and I’ve seen mass.”
The devotional nature of the film will come as a shock to fans of the novel. Lewis’ Mediterranean peoples (much like those of Shakespeare, Kyd or Marlowe) exist only to add glamour and exoticism to the setting, and to confirm the prejudices of the English reader against ignorant, superstitious, greedy and lascivious Roman Catholics. The novel’s Ambrosio is a holy, hypocritical sham, but then Lewis cannot really imagine any other kind of monk. We are never, I think, meant to care for this protagonist, or to see any goodness or dignity in his vocation – Ambrosio is a bear to be baited for the pleasures of a Protestant audience. The Church is almost invariably presented as a malign and oppressive force, one that steals your fianceé and locks her in catacombs.
The film version strips away this contempt to offer a complex psychomachia. The opening scene shows Ambrosio at confession with a sumptuously-dressed and worldly man (who will later, of course, turn out to be Satan himself in the guise of a wealthy burgher). The burgher details the enormity of his predatory lusts, not stopping at incest. Unmoved and unimpressed, Ambrosio scornfully dismisses the burgher’s warning about the terrible power of the flesh over the human soul: Satan has no power over us, the monk retorts, excepting that which we give him. The audience’s attention is drawn to the latent pride that is to be Ambrosio’s downfall, and there is a good dollop of Lewisean irony here (by the end of the film our protagonist will, of course, have committed all of these crimes he at first considers so inexplicable), but it is also made clear that it is Ambrosio’s keenest desire to lead a blameless life of contemplation and thus to be worthy of God’s esteem.
The film is suffused with this sense of soteriological urgency. The richly visual, ritual elements of Catholicism are present (a striking Procession of the Virgin takes place in one highly atmospheric scene), but the characters are reflective and genuine in their piety. The bustling church scene which opens the novel tells us that the sermon is a social event, an opportunity to gossip and be seen, but here anxious, pinched faces stare up at Ambrosio in the pulpit, eager to be filled with his holiness and wisdom. God is real, the devil is real, and sin perpetually looms over each terrified soul.
Lewis’ Ambrosio is, at heart, a carnal creature. Seduced by Matilda (who inveigles her way into the monastery as a novice under the nomme de guerre “Rosario”), he gives his ardour full rein before eventually tiring of her and seeking pastures new. The film’s incarnation of Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), though, seems driven by a compulsive fascination with his own damnation. He is a pale, ascetic figure, staring at Antonia with a manic intensity; seemingly attracted more by her otherworldly innocence than her beauty.
The novel opens with a quotation from Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s most morally complex and unsettlingly ambivalent plays: “Lord Angelo is precise; / Stands at guard with envy; Scarce confesses/ That his blood flows, or that his appetite/ Is more to bread than stone”. To Lewis this possibly means no more than that Angelo, like his own Ambrosio, is a hypocrite doomed to get his comeuppance. Yet, the film is almost more aligned to Shakespeare than it is to Lewis. It raises many of Measure for Measure’s intractable problems: how do we tell the difference between true virtue and seeming? Is justice about punishment, or correction? How do we legislate against human sexuality – which societies need to control, and yet is often irrepressible?
Where Cassel’s ascetic, lizard-eyed Ambrosio is most like the wicked magistrate Angelo is in his despair. Having fallen prey to lust, Angelo exclaims: “it is I/ That lying by the violet in the sun/ Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,/ Corrupt with virtuous season”. This is a powerful Calvinist metaphor: God’s grace (the sun) shines down on one and all, but only those creatures receptive to it benefit thereby. Reprobates, like road kill, only stink the higher. Here the character affirms belief in his own corruption as something merely factual, and beyond his power to change.
The religious moral of The Monk is that Ambrosio’s least excusable sin is, likewise, his failure to believe in the possibility of grace. The film suggests that Pride, at its height, is not an unshakeable faith in your own excellency, but the arrogant belief that you are too terrible, too ingeniously perfidious, to be granted redemption. Yet less like Shakespeare – and more like the savage, rebellious Marlowe – the film also entertains the possibility that the protagonist really is irrevocably damned. The film’s Ambrosio has a birthmark shaped like a hand on his shoulder – the devil’s mark, an object of superstition to the monks who take in the foundling, and later, proof that he is the long-lost brother of Antonia, who falls victim to his unholy lusts. The scene of Ambrosio’s ‘seduction’ by Valerio (the film’s equivalent of Rosario/Matilda) makes it seem like he has no choice in the matter either physically or intellectually – he is pounced on while in the grip of a debilitating fever.
These details add a feeling of inevitability to the proceedings, yet the final note is one of profound ambiguity. As the film’s Ambrosio lies dying in a desert crevasse, he makes his pact with burgher-Satan not for personal freedom (as the novel’s monk attempts) but for the restoration of the ravished Antonia to sanity and health. Is it possible to sell one’s soul on another’s behalf, or does this act of charity ultimately redeem our broken protagonist?
The film has much to offer besides religious edification. The characters are excellently underplayed, stripped of Lewis’ ungenerous caricaturing, and the visuals are artful and striking. The filming locations of Catalonia and Andalusia provide landscapes which seem almost alien: weird scalloped rock formations and arid, empty plains. There is a continual, pleasing use of chiaroscuro: slants of blinding sunlight penetrating high windows into cool, dim interiors, making the viewer feel as if transported inside a Vermeer painting. The costumes are not the industrially dyed, machine-sewed anachronisms frequently found in films nominally set in the Early Modern period. The fabrics are dull, heavy and functional, and everyone looks heat-oppressed and desperately in need of a bath.
Very faint traces of the Gothic yet remain. The most arresting character in the film is undoubtedly Valerio (Déborah François). In a radical departure from the novel (in which his(her) equivalent is merely “muffled in a cowl”), Valerio disguises both face and voice beneath a wax mask, claiming to have been disfigured in a fire. The mask is eyebrowless and unmoving, giving the false novice a perpetual expression of sorrowful surprise. One image in particular lingers profoundly: Valerio gazing intently at a carving of a head in the recesses of the ceiling where the face has been eroded to a pockmarked nothing (in another nod to the genre, grotesques and gargoyles loom over the monastery). The assumption of Valerio’s fellow Capuchins is that the young burn victim is lamenting the loss of his own visage, but the keyed-in viewer recognises the ominous foreshadowing of the razing of Ambrosio’s soul.
Ultimately, this adaptation of The Monk is more charitable and thought-provoking than what Lewis intended, but to many viewers these qualities will not be detractions. Perhaps, then, I will be alone in lamenting the lack of silliness: O where now is my snaky-haired demon? O where my mouldering corpse-baby? Bleugh-huh, bleugh-huh.
Stephen Volk Interview
Working in film, television and literature, writer Stephen Volk came to prominence with his now notorious Screen One drama Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, BBC): broadcast on Halloween 1992, the programme took the format of a live broadcast that was investigating alleged paranormal events at a suburban house in London. With host Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith manning the phone lines, and Sarah Greene and Craig Charles at the house, the drama effectively reconstructed the visual language of reportage television to the extent that many viewers believed the spectral events they saw on-screen and ‘live’ were in fact real. The subsequent public outcry at the ‘hoax’ was unprecedented, with the BBC allegedly receiving over 30,000 phone calls in complaint, media coverage in the tabloids and protracted discussions on talk shows Bite Back and Points of View, all leading to Ghostwatch being unofficially banned by the BBC. Despite this, to mark the programme’s tenth anniversary, the BFI released the programme, uncut, on DVD in 2002.
Prior to Ghostwatch, Volk wrote a number of screenplays including Gothic (Dir. Ken Russell, 1986), The Kiss (Dir. Pen Densham, 1988) and The Guardian (Dir. William Friedkin, 1990) and would subsequently go on to write the acclaimed ITV serial Afterlife (2005 – 2006), in which clairvoyant Alison Mundy (Lesley Sharp) becomes professionally involved with sceptical psychiatrist Robert Bridge (Andrew Lincoln) as part of his research into the possible psychiatric explanations for the paranormal. As their relationship develops Alison helps Robert’s deceased son pass through limbo, allowing Robert to come to terms with his grief while, in turn, Robert enables Alison to come to terms with her mother’s suicide.
His most recent work, The Awakening (Dir. Nick Murphy, 2011), revisits some of the themes present in Afterlife: as a ghost story set in the aftermath of the First World War, the film explores the nation’s loss and subsequent grief through the characters of sceptic Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) and teacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West).
James Rose talks to Stephen Volk about ghosts, grief, the influence of the Gothic upon his work, his understanding of this ambiguous genre and the recurrent elements that unify his writing into a coherent and ever evolving body of work.
Please note this interview contains spoilers.
Rose: Ghosts dominate your work, Ghostwatch, Afterlife and The Awakening all being obvious examples. What is the appeal of ghosts for you?
Volk: The ghost is a device, essentially. One that enables you to discuss the theme of its fundamental nature, i.e death. For me, a ghost is a prism through which to explore certain ideas in a more vivid way, I think, than, say, a social realist drama ever could.
I think also the beauty of ghosts is that they are a very easy way for the audience to get the idea that the uncanny or unreal has entered the realm of the normal. No further explanation is needed. A more complex supernatural phenomenon (vampires, zombies, aliens) needs a setting up of rules and so on: whereas I think the person in the street has an inbuilt knowledge of what a so-called “ghost” is and how that is expected to work. Which you can conform to or confound, as you wish.
Rose: Do the ghosts that manifest themselves within your work function on a metaphoric level? Do they represent something other than an image of the deceased?
Volk: My approach is very much that the character who sees the ghost is the important thing, not so much the ghost itself. The ghost is there, symbolically, often, to represent or “amp-up” a fatal flaw in the character who sees it, or (in the case of Robert Bridge in Afterlife) to make tangible, or at least bring into focus, an unhealed psychological wound. This is a bit different from the traditional, folkloric idea of a ghost being there to bring a secret crime to justice (as in The Ring), but of course both can occur in the same story, and there are plenty of secrets and crimes in Afterlife too.
Rose: Grief also seems to be a dominant motif in your work, particularly in Afterlife and The Awakening. It seems to be either a process to be embraced and explored by a character or as a feeling to be refused, denied, perhaps even repressed, by them.
Volk: Yes. Grief is one of the ideas I mean that can be explored in a more vivid way in a ghost story than in, say, EastEnders. I suppose I’m obsessed by death and my attempt to get my head round what I think about death is to tell stories about grief. To play them out in my head and see where I am after I’ve gone on that journey or process.
It wasn’t until I’d written... not written but actually sat down and watched the final episode of Afterlife, where Robert the psychologist dies, that I realised this was all about the death of my cousin, Geoff, who died of alcohol-related illness at the pitifully young age of 35 – strangely similar to the age of Andrew Lincoln in the show, though I wrote the part for an older man. What I realised was that Alison, the woman trying to bargain with death, trying to put off the day of saying goodbye, the woman who’d do anything to get that good man back to the land of the living, was me. Often you’re not aware of these very direct references to your life until much later: but this hit me like a hammer blow, it was so obvious.
I’m always thinking about the deaths I’ve been a part of because in death I think it comes into high relief what we thought of the person in life. The values are very strongly drawn. You become rather cold-hearted as a writer in your pursuit of some kind of truth. You end up for instance being commissioned, as I was, to write a Hellboy story based on Mike Mignola’s comic-book hero and somehow writing a painfully accurate description of your own father’s death. I felt awful about doing it, but as a writer you can’t question the impulse, you have to go with it, and it’s all about achieving the emotional effect, in the end. You use the toolbox and the ammunition you have and sometimes that is the raw meat of your own personal experience: if you aren’t doing that, you’re doing something wrong. If you’re not delving deep inside yourself, your work may be exquisitely crafted, but it will have no real depth and no hope of touching other people, which is what it’s all about in the end.
Rose: What about denial?
Volk: As for denial, well yes. I always loved the Dana Andrews character in Night of the Demon, smart and confident, yet stubborn and closed-minded. By putting a character in a position of denial at the outset you create the largest possible character arc for them to travel. If somebody believes in ghosts, then sees one, there is no arc at all: it isn’t about them as a person and it doesn’t interest me. Denial works for me because it’s exactly what I would be like if I saw something eerie or strange. I wouldn’t accept it immediately. I’d do anything to reject it and try to think, no, the world is normal. I’d cling to that like wreckage. I believe that is what’s psychologically true. For me, anyway. So that’s the kind of character I like, instead of, say, a bunch of witless teenagers. I don’t see any emotional or intellectual value in that.
Rose: How does repression make itself manifest in The Awakening?
Volk: Repression is at the very heart of The Awakening. It’s actually the key word. It’s why I set it originally in Victorian times, which was for me the absolute world of “repression”, from the careful language, buttoned-up clothes, unmentioned sexual drives. And the subject of the movie finally isn’t ghosts but repressed memory, which, like ghosts, may or may not be true. I liked the idea of one contentious idea, ghosts, being accompanied in a story by another contentious idea, the Freudian idea of repression. Freud may be a quack and ghosts may not exist – which makes it doubly delightful to try and make the story convincing. Nevertheless the arc of the story is hiding something from yourself and then the realisation of discovering it. And what are ghosts anyway if not a version of memory? Memory for a purpose?
Rose: Women often appear to be emotionally strong and independent in your work: Sarah Greene cares for and protects the Early children in Ghostwatch and then fearlessly enters the Glory Hole to rescue one of them; Alison in Afterlife, although tormented by what only she can see, actively and, at times, aggressively, defends herself against Robert's scepticism; Florence Cathcart in The Awakening is a confident and curious woman, one who seeks the truth, no matter what the cost.
Volk: I’m glad you think that. It’s not like I write a man’s part then flip it like they did in Alien with Ripley – I genuinely want to depict women as strong and not screaming and flappy-handed bimbos. I literally couldn’t write a female character like that. The females are always much stronger emotionally than the men: which is what I find in life, to be honest! I don’t particularly get thrilled about writing heroic male characters. I couldn’t write a James Bond. He’d have to be uncertain, wracked, troubled. I like women that are quite male and men who are quite female, in my stories. In a way Robert in Afterlife is quite feminine. He’s internal, a thinker – he’s not action man and you can’t imagine him going to the pub. In fact Lesley Sharp once bemoaned that he wasn’t more of a “man” but sorry, he just isn’t! He’s more like me, buries himself in books (denial again). Actually, I often say I’m like both the characters in Afterlife: the rational psychologist who analyses and writes books for a living, and the crazy psychic Alison who wakes up with night terrors because she sees spirits!
But of course also the thing with any kind of horror is that you only set up a strong, likeable character to put them through hell (as Sam Raimi once told me!) – which makes it sound a sadistic process. Of course it’s not. At all. I really baulk at the notion I’m in the business of being unpleasant or setting out to merely shock. The idea that horror culture comes from some kind of malevolent ill-will and an impulse to nastiness is just a creation of people who don’t understand or enjoy it, and the squeamish trying to make their feelings sound rational.
Rose: In contrast to the strong women you have men who are tormented by their pasts: Robert states in the first series of Afterlife that he tried to be a good father and that he only ‘took his eye off the ball for just one second’, an act which cost him his child’s life whereas the other Robert, in The Awakening, repeatedly self-harms as a means by which to cope with the guilt of surviving the trenches of the First World War.
Volk: Funnily enough, I didn’t call the character “Robert” in The Awakening – that was changed by the director, which amused me no end! And also he added the self-harming, which I liked very much... the idea of the wound, again, of course. Odysseus’s wound that helps his wife identify him, or the whole Fisher King thing. I like wounded men because, again, they have a journey to go on. But Dominic West was much tougher as a character than I wrote him. My original “Mr Gillett” was bookish and more teacherly and I think they took him in the right direction, to be honest. But yes – “tormented by their pasts”: if it’s to be a ghost story there has to be a degree of torment from the past, and the torment is what gets resolved. Or not.
Rose: There seems to be a significant gravitation towards the conflict/tension between the believer or psychic/medium and the sceptic in your work: Dr Lin Pascoe and Michael Parkinson in Ghostwatch; Alison and Robert in Afterlife and Robert and Florence Cathcart in The Awakening. What attracts to you to this opposition?
Volk: As well as the subject of grief, ghosts enable you to explore the issue of rationalism v instinct, science v emotion, sanity v madness and so on, which, you are perfectly right, are areas I enjoy. Because I believe, other than the fundamentalists amongst us, we human beings are all more or less split in two. I certainly find myself vacillating between sensible logical thinking and problem solving, and giving in to wild imagination, ungrounded feelings, dubious beliefs, often ones born of fear but that doesn’t mean they are easy to shrug off in the dead of night. Far from it.
So in Afterlife I had the “debate” in dramatic terms embodied in two people, in Alison’s spats with Robert (and of course on a more fundamental, deeper level throughout the series). In The Awakening, the conflict was embodied in the two sides of Florence: Alison and Robert combined in one person, in a way. She began as the debunker and scientist and the film was the process of her transformation into a believer and accepting her past (non-denial). In a less pronounced arc, Robert (Mallory, that is, in The Awakening), moves from believing in ghosts to accepting his own personal ghosts.
The root of it is, I suppose, I love sceptics as characters. I love the books of Michael Shermer and James Randi. And I think in this day and age when you have politicians from the religious right in America spouting patent idiocy and factual untruths, you have to listen to the true sceptics who talk about Why People Believe Stupid Things. You only have to listen to good old Richard Dawkins to know the wonderful rhetoric you can put in the mouths of a sceptic character but of course as soon as you hear that glib certainly in a drama, you know the person is riding for a fall! Haha! That’s the delicious thing! Some critics said of The Awakening, as soon as they met Florence they knew she was going to end up seeing the ghost, as if that was meant to be some great surprise and it was a failure on my part. Ridiculous! That was entirely the dramatic promise! The game was, yes it’s going to happen, but how? And, more importantly – what then?
Rose: Do you believe in ghosts?
Volk: People find it surprising but I am actually a fairly ardent sceptic myself. I don’t believe in ghosts, at all. I don’t believe in God either, as it happens. I am a member of the Society for Psychical Research. I read the scientific papers, I attend lectures, keep up on the latest theories in parapsychology (like ultrasound) and I’ve even done an investigation or two. They are mostly things that are fairly easy to root out if you’re got half a brain, but the fascinating thing for me is people believe in ghosts. Whether they are real or not doesn’t interest me, to be honest. I happen to believe there’s “No Such Thing” but I don’t feel it inhibits my telling a good ghost story (Oliver Onions didn’t believe in ghosts either – and neither do many of my horror writer friends). The psychology is everything.
Rose: Series 1 of Afterlife ends dramatically and, perhaps, ambiguously, with Alison the medium giving up her life so that sceptic Robert will finally believe her and to also allow his son, Josh, to pass on. Why did you choose to sacrifice Alison’s life for the change in Robert’s belief?
Volk: First of all, simply as a TV viewer I absolutely hate it when a series is thoughtlessly cancelled by a network or broadcaster before it has reached its proper conclusion or closure. The journey with Robert and Alison in Afterlife was so much like therapy it had to have “closure” of some kind! It comes from me being so hugely disappointed when a magnificent series like HBO’s Deadwood is nipped in the bud without a fitting climax and the equally-great Carnivale (also HBO) is similarly sent packing with several strands dangling. Anyway... Even if ITV confirmed a Series 2 and we had to continue Afterlife, I wanted an acceptable ending in Series 1 that I could hand-on-heart live with: Just In Case.
But to answer your precise question – partly I liked that Alison gives her life to reunite Robert with Josh. It just seemed immensely heroic and fitting that “nothing in her life became her like the leaving it” sort of thing. But the journey of the series isn’t Alison’s. She doesn’t really change that much. The real journey is Robert’s. And just when you think Robert is resolved because of Josh, no, oh shit, something’s gone wrong, there’s a price to pay... almost like in a fairytale. And I had this image of him cradling her and weeping. And that was it. I wanted the feeling he loved Alison and now he’d lost her and she’d done this amazing thing for him, and he could never tell her. He was too late. Hugely, hugely tragic and daring for an ITV show. But it seemed about right, to me.
In fact, it always seemed right... Because before I even wrote the very first episode I had a dream and the dream was, this giant black guy in a mask carrying Alison unconscious from a house and laying her on the road under a railway bridge and trying to revive her by mouth-to-mouth. I had that image in my mind very clearly all the way through writing the series, and I knew in some purely instinctive way, that’s how it had to end. I just had to spool backwards in my mind and figure out how they got to that point!
Rose: It is revealed in Series 2 that Alison has survived her experience of allowing Josh to pass on. As that series unfolds, it becomes clear that Robert, the psychiatrist, has become a believer and seeks to support Alison and use her ‘gift’ to help others. Does Robert’s shift demonstrate a possibility – for you – that science can accommodate that which is, mostly, unexplained?
Volk: No, actually. Other than the obvious fact that Science doesn’t know everything especially in the realm of the human brain. Not at all. I have to say this categorically, because it’s a very important thing to understand. What happens with Robert in Series 2 of Afterlife is nothing to do with my personal opinion. It really isn’t. I’m a sceptic. I’m a rationalist. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t think that rational people have to give in to their emotional and believing side to be “whole” – any of that. I actually think on any real level or real life that is bullshit. BUT, and it’s a HUGE “but”.... You cannot inflict your personal opinion on a story if the story doesn’t want to accommodate it. You end up with preaching. Delivering a polemic, and cutting off the audience’s pleasure of extracting meaning for themselves. Yes, I have strong views on the subject, but I realised in the process that I couldn’t construct Afterlife on that personal conviction of mine that rationalism is valid. I simply couldn’t do it. There was something about the series as it evolved that made the line of the story inevitable. And the production team all felt this too. That Robert HAD to be on the edge of acceptance when he died. It became inevitable. Because drama has to be based on emotion, and, yes, I could have concocted a perfect “rationalist” drama where we never see Alison’s ghosts and she ends up diagnosed as schizophrenic and locked away. The End. But that wouldn’t be very satisfactory as a drama series about ghosts!
Rose: Is this the same with The Awakening?
Volk: The Awakening is open to the same accusation, of course. Rational scientist becomes touchy-feely rounded person. But in fact the actual journey Florence undergoes is from shutting out the true facts and coming to terms with them – even at the cost of a lot of pain.
As a writer, you have to follow the flow of a story as if it is water. It might run into cracks you don’t want delve into, but the story knows where to go better than you do. Always. That isn’t to say, I hasten to add, that I haven’t written from a sceptical point of view about the so-called supernatural. I wrote a play called Answering Spirits about the rise of Spiritualism in America and it’s told from an entirely sceptical viewpoint: that the Fox Sisters story is fundamentally one of deception.
The history of psychical research is rife with deception and hoaxing, and that’s another subject (apropos of Ghostwatch) of which I’m very fond. Deception and ultimately self-deception. Florence begins unmasking a deception but ultimately it’s her own self-deception she unmasks.
Rose: With ghosts comes the Gothic. As a genre, it is one in which your work readily fits into but, as a term, the ‘Gothic’ is increasingly difficult to define. What, for you, is the Gothic?
Volk: I define it as the flipside of the Romantic movement, the low and dubious side of higher poetic aspirations, as described in The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz. Gothic originally meant a kind of faux-medievalism, of course, but now it is mixed up with 19th Century novels and even German Expressionist films, so much so that I think it’s now a ragbag of tropes. I think of it as being buildings with implied sentience, impious religious figures, dark noblemen, wispy ladies, blood and thunder, extreme weather conditions, physical and mental torture, entrapment, heightened emotions, family secrets... The unspeakable and unfettered and unleashed... Everything unsaid in polite society, basically. The dark side.
Rose: Are the recurrent themes that appear within your work a product of the genre in which you predominately work or are they issues that you wish to examine through the Gothic?
Volk: Hmm. That’s a bit of a chicken and egg question! I think as a writer you gravitate to the genre that offers you the opportunity to explore the ideas and themes that appeal to you, and you find that by the experience of reading and watching films and deciding which types of books and movies are the most thrilling. In my case it was Hammer, predominantly, and the Corman Poe adaptations. I remember thinking as I watched the images of the 19th century hero scurrying up the worn staircase of the House of Usher or Peter Cushing defending himself against Dracula with the crossed candlesticks that this was a realm in which I felt at home. They got to me because the themes chimed with me on a primal level, on a level I barely understood, and still barely understand. (Belief? Death? Sexuality? The frisson of being scared, safely?) So that world of horror and the imagination became my territory.
I think the recurrent themes for a horror writer are generally to do with anxiety, and the images and tropes of anxiety change with the times. (Shadows and empty houses never go out of fashion, mind you, and it always amazes me how the Gothic has now completely seeped into our mainstream culture. A musical called Sweeney Todd, a new Gothic Batman trilogy, gloomier and more brooding than ever...) People sometimes ask me what scares me and my wife usually jumps in and says, “Everything. Everything scares him!” Which is maybe the core of the Gothic sensibility. Neurosis!
Rose: Is there a key Gothic text – novel, film or television programme – that has had a significant influence upon you? How does this influence manifest itself?
Volk: There are many, many films and TV shows, too many to mention. But I have to single out Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Of course the genesis of it was the inspiration for Gothic, but nevertheless I adore that book like no other and I am always writing versions of it (presently a TV show about artificial life, and I’ve also got a story called “Celebrity Frankenstein” coming out in March in Exotic Gothic 4, edited by Danel Olsen, from PS Publishing). I haven’t read Frankenstein hundreds or even dozens of times, but I do collect versions of it, be it with new illustrations or annotations or comic book retellings. The mythic nature of its narrative in so many forms and the grandeur with which it has invaded our popular culture I just find (overworked word, but) – awesome. The recent National Theatre production directed by Danny Boyle reminded me again how volatile a substance it is, how replete with striking ideas, how rich in shades of meaning and interpretation.
Rose: Your first screenplay to be made was Gothic, directed by the infamous Ken Russell. I can imagine a certain amount of changes took place between your scripted version and Russell’s final cut. What was your original vision for that fateful night at Lake Geneva?
Volk: Ken didn’t make too many changes in the script, actually. He more invented stuff on the (cloven) hoof. He brought in the dwarf and shot the Fuseli “Nightmare” dream sequence, which is possibly one of the most memorable scenes in the film, and one I never actually wrote. The general thing he did was depict the hallucinations more – even the infamous “breasts with eyes”. I think originally I just had Shelley reporting what he’d seen (which was taken from his diary, by the way). I wrote an objective film rather than a subjective one, but Ken just wanted to throw the camera inside their heads and show everything.
My central conceit was a prologue and epilogue with Mary Shelley on her death bed recounting the story of what happened at the Villa Diodati, thereby bracketing the events shown with an unreliable narrator, but Ken didn’t like that. I think he wanted the film to be Ken Russell’s fantasy, not Mary Shelley’s. So he instructed me to write a prologue about the poets Byron and Shelley being like “the rock stars of their era” with fans pursuing them across Europe. Not untrue, but so much of a cliché, and a Ken Russell cliché, I didn’t think it worth saying.
Rose: The supernatural events that take place throughout your work all have a quality of the uncanny. I am thinking here, for example, of the household objects repeatedly lining themselves up in Alison’s kitchen in Afterlife; the doubling/doppelganger in Daniel One & Two; the supernatural occurrences in Ghostwatch. David Punter and Glennis Byron, in their book The Gothic, suggested that the uncanny is the ‘modus operandi’ of the Gothic. Is the uncanny the mode of operation of your work?
Volk: Well, often it is. In Afterlife specifically we were looking for those weird but naturalistic spins on a scene like the kitchen doors in The Sixth Sense rather than great full-blown CGI moments. Not because of lack of budget, but we thought that seemed the way to make the TV series work, to make it unsettling in a way that wasn’t so easy to brush off your sleeve. In fact, I got the production team and other writers used to my term “domestic uncanny” to describe our stories in the series, and I was rather pleased that that description stuck.
I think of the uncanny as being different and more subtle and less extreme than the Gothic, though. Someone has killed a pigeon at work and comes home and puts down their briefcase and on the table is an egg. That’s uncanny, but not Gothic. If a huge bird attacks him, with big flapping wings, that’s Gothic. Large and bombastic and threatening and unsubtle, in a way. The uncanny can merely threaten by suggesting the out-of-the-ordinary, can threaten by unease. And because I think of it as coming via Freud, I think of the uncanny being the stuff of surrealism – in the sense implied in the word itself.
However I don’t always look for the uncanny as a raison d’etre in the way that, for instance, writers like Nicholas Royle, Mark Morris, Joel Lane or Gary McMahon will craft a story purely for an uncanny moment. I think more that the uncanny is one of the things in my box of tricks and if it’s appropriate for the story or the scene, I will relish it.
Rose: The literary device of False Documentation proliferates Gothic literature: from the very start there was Horace Walpole’s ‘translation’ of a found manuscript for The Castle of Otranto, Robert Walton’s letters at the start of Shelley’s Frankenstein and the sustained epistolary format of Stoker’s Dracula. Why did you choose to present Ghostwatch as a False Documentation, as a fictional live broadcast from a haunted house?
Volk: Because of how it came about, I suppose. It started as a proposal for a straight drama series, episode six of which was a live OB from a haunted house. The BBC said no. The producer said, what about a 90-minute single for Screen One? I instantly thought that it would be impossible to shoe-horn six hours of story into one single, so I said “Why don’t we just do Episode Six and the rest can be back-story? And we pretend it’s live.” And she went “Oh my God!” So that’s what we tried to do.
In relation to False Documentation, in particular I was thinking of Poe’s habit of trying to pass off stories as non-fiction in periodicals that published both side by side: he saw the opportunity in such publications to confabulate and delight the reader and I thought very much we could do the same for TV, where fiction and reality run alongside each other too. One of the inspirations behind Ghostwatch was the fact that in the early nineties the television language was changing. Dramas like NYPD Blue were using the hand-held camera techniques of documentary, whilst the new breed of “reality TV” shows like Rescue 999 were using dramatised inserts using actors. There was beginning to be a worrying confusion between the rules of the two forms, drama and documentary, so we wondered: “What if we confused the two completely?”
But I had two intentions in writing Ghostwatch from the outset. One was to create a damn good TV ghost story like the wonderful M.R. James Ghost Stories for Christmas or Nigel Kneale’s fantastic BBC play The Stone Tape which had been a massive influence on my wanting to be a TV writer in the first place. The second, which came hand in hand with the concept, inevitably, was the opportunity to deliver by sleight of hand a satire of television. Because it was saying: what would television do if it had the wherewithal to investigate the deepest philosophical question Mankind has ever asked: “Is there an afterlife?” It would do it in an unbelievably cynical and superficial manner. And, like the hubris I was talking about regarding the character of Florence in The Awakening, you know the more Parkinson and the other presenters are laughing up their sleeves at the proceedings, something is going to jump out and bite them on their bum.
Rose: Ghostwatch goes to great lengths in its imitation of a live broadcast, including an onscreen telephone number for viewers to contact the programme during transmission. Was this phone line active? What happened if a viewer rang the number during the programme?
Volk: It was manned by people from the Society for Psychical Research. I think one of them might have been Maurice Grosse, who was involved in the investigation of the Enfield poltergeist case. The first thing they told any caller was that what they were watching isn’t true and isn’t live.
Rose: At the start of Ghostwatch, Michael Parkinson says “No creaking gates, no Gothic towers, no shuttered windows. Yet for the past ten months this house has been the focus of an astonishing barrage of supernatural activity.” Despite Parkinson’s description, is the Early family home, for you, a Gothic space?
Volk: Most definitely. A ghost story is by definition modern Gothic. It’s no different really than the Villa Diodati in Gothic where your “deepest darkest fears are conjured into life”. That was the irony of the Ghostwatch intro. Parky is telling you what it isn’t, but in fact that is what it is. On a subliminal level, he’s telling the audience exactly what they’re attracted to and what they’re tuning in for. The whole point of Ghostwatch is that the audience really is a participant, or they’re given the illusion that they’re participating. One of the sisters says to camera at one point: “This is what you wanted isn’t it?” And it is. It’s the voyeurism of reality TV writ large. The wish fulfilment. People are watching the show because they want to see a ghost, but when they see it they don’t like it, it’s nasty. In that way Ghostwatch conforms to exactly what Freud said about revenants – the deep wish turned into a deeper dread. There’s also a rule-breaking in play because all along, for all the laddish quippery of Craig Charles, the audience intuits on some level “this dabbling with these forces shouldn’t be allowed, and no good will come of it”.
Rose: In relation to Ghostwatch, I am particularly interested in the Early family. Can you say a little about how they were conceived by you. Why, for example, did you make them a single parent family?
Volk: My influences were primarily The Exorcist and the Fox Sisters of Spiritualism fame, characters I was writing about and researching for a play at the time. I liked the idea of an absent father because it makes the family fragile and Pipes, the imaginary father, the replacement father (again the wish turned to dread), the Bad Father (who is also a Bad Mother) all the more potent. Having some experience of broken families I wanted to flesh out the sisters and it seemed strong to me if on some level they blamed their mother for ruining everything (as children in separations invariably blame the parent that stays, not the one who leaves). So it was largely a question of making them vulnerable.
Also the absent father raised some sort of question that, strangely, on re-watching Ghostwatch, hangs over the whole proceedings like a dark cloud in a really obvious way, and that is paedophilia. Way back I did want a subtextual implication that the father may have “done something”, hence the sisters’ disturbed psychology, but it never found its way into the script – maybe the “ghost” of it is there, though, somehow.
Very importantly, though, the thing about Ghostwatch as a piece of drama is the idea of “family”. The broken, terrified family appeal to another family to help them, essentially. The television people represent their “new family”. The TV people literally move in. Sarah Greene is a new mother. Parkinson is their new father. On a larger level, I wanted to play with the idea that we all think we know Parky and Sarah (and Mrs Sarah Greene: Mike Smith) and we all feel to a certain degree that they’re part of our family. So I was cashing in on that for dramatic effect too.
Rose: Ghostwatch is replete with significantly disturbing scenes – the appearances of Pipes, Susan’s scratched face, the screeching of the cats and, in particular, the short sequence in which a local resident describes the incident where a black labrador is found gutted in the playground at the end of the street, the foetus of its pups strewn about the play equipment. This is a very disturbing image and one that really alters the tone of the program.
Volk: That idea is very extreme, granted. But it’s only said, not shown. It’s only words after all. Any image is in the mind’s eye of the viewer, which is perhaps ironic given the nature of the programme. I actually thought than anyone who knows horror films would chortle at that point, but of course the TV viewing public does not consist only of horror devotees, it also consists of grannies choking on their dentures. But the thing is, the implied horror had to ramp us at certain points because for forty-five minutes (I insisted) nothing could possibly “go wrong”. We had to maintain the illusion that this really was live, whilst setting up and foreshadowing information that would pay off in the second forty-five minutes, building to the climax where all hell breaks loose.
Rose: Was it your intention that the audience would think that Pipes had committed this horrific act?
Volk: No. Just that there were bad, nasty people on the estate. Probably kids, possibly a gang. Who knows? I wanted it as unrelated as possible. That the general evil of the location was somehow related to the haunting. That a central bad place was affecting the wider population.
Rose: I have read that you wanted to have a high-pitched sound, that only animals could hear, broadcast at pertinent times during the episode.
Volk: Yes, like a dog whistle. So that all the dogs at home would go mad and then we’d say “We’re getting reports that pets are going crazy” – and they were! I thought for a long time that the idea had been overruled editorially, but I found out quite recently that the director looked into it on a technical level and it wasn’t something they could achieve for technical reasons. So, a bit frightening that it was actually thought through that far! I would have loved to have done it, of course – but can you imagine the uproar?
Rose: Where were you on the evening of the broadcast of Ghostwatch? Did you watch the programme 'live' along with the unsuspecting audience?
Volk: A lot of us were in a pub somewhere with Sarah and Mike and most of the crew and, yes, we watched it go out live. About an hour into the show the producer arrived from BBC TV Centre saying the telephone lines were jammed, there were so many callers ringing in to complain. And we all were like “Oo, er” but secretly really pleased.
Rose: Given Ghostwatch was part of the Screen One drama series, the programme began with the Screen One logo and the Radio Times ran a cast list, clearly indicating that the programme was a fictional drama. Were you surprised at the public's reaction to the programme?
Volk: The fact is, not everybody reads the introductory credits and not everybody reads what’s in Radio Times, and even if they do, they forget. The most salient, and weird, reaction was that of a friend of mine. I told her the week before that I had a drama going out, and the week after transmission spoke to her and she said, “I believed it was real.” Taken aback, I said, “What do you mean, you believed it was real? I told you the week before that I’d written it!” And she said, “Yes, but when I saw Michael Parkinson, I thought you must’ve got it wrong.”
Of course we wanted a public reaction. Who doesn’t? But in all honesty I thought most people might watch for about ten minutes and might be taken in, then “get it” and hopefully stay with it because they understood we were giving them a different kind of drama with a twist. That’s what I hoped. I wasn’t ready (none of us were) for the level of vitriol of certain members of the public who felt they’d been made a fool of. That they’d been taken for a ride and made to feel like mugs.
Rose: How do you feel about the media furore twenty years later?
Volk: At the time the reaction seemed 100% negative. There was only one review, I think, that discussed Ghostwatch as a piece of drama. Only one review that asked, hang on, why did these people write and produce this piece of drama? The tabloids were all “Heads must roll at the BBC” or “Parkinson drops a ghoulie” type of thing: nothing serious, just random outrage. The BBC closed ranks and stuck their heads in the sand. They certainly didn’t defend the programme makers. They looked for scapegoats, couldn’t find any, so tried to pretend nothing had happened, and that the programme had never existed.
Well, the great thing now, twenty years later, is that a lot of fans have come out of the woodwork to say not only that it existed but it was one of their formative television-watching experiences. That’s just fantastic. Many of them come up to me after Ghostwatch screenings to say, laughing, that they were traumatized for life by Pipes or that as at 13-year-old kid they couldn’t pass the door under the stairs for six weeks afterwards! I even get meetings with young TV producers now and the first thing they do is tell me about watching Ghostwatch and how effective it was and how vividly they remember it. It’s incredibly refreshing and rewarding to hear because at the time all we ever heard was the “shouldn’t-be-allowed” brigade who metaphorically waved their fists on Biteback with Sue Lawley or complained on Points of View. It all changed really after the BFI brought out Ghostwatch on DVD in 2002, and people could watch it properly and also listen to the commentary by myself, director Lesley Manning and producer Ruth Baumgarten. Which was our first chance to explain why we’d done it, because it was the first time we were asked!
But back to 1992... None of us remotely estimated the anger, that much is true. And the anger was a lot to do with the implicit trust the audience invests or invested in the BBC as an institution. Which of course made the BBC the ideal place to make it! The ultimate authority figure, undermined. The last safety net, removed...
Rose: Is the idea of trust the dominant theme of Ghostwatch?
Volk: Absolutely! That was what was so exciting, to me. Because the idea of trust works for both my intentions, the ghost story and the satire. On the “ghost story” level it was: can you trust your eyes? Your sanity? Your belief system? On the “satire of TV” level we were saying: can you trust what a broadcaster is showing you? Can you trust the news? Can you trust what the next expert on your screen is saying? What any authority figure is spouting? That was the essential thing, and what is essential about it as a piece of drama (which entirely separates it from dire so-called imitations in the realm of “paranormal entertainment” like Most Haunted) is that drama at its very best challenges your preconceptions. It asks questions. And Ghostwatch more than anything asked: can we trust what we see?
The Awakening is released on DVD and Blu-Ray through StudioCanal on March 26th 2012.
James Rose would like to thank Stephen Volk for taking the time to answer these questions. Thanks also to Edith Chappey at StudioCanal for her help and support with this interview.