Celebrating A Ghost Story for Christmas and its source material
My introduction to horror began not with a bloodbath captured on film, but with chilling tales told to me in the dark by my mother. I was too young to remember what those stories were about, but the experience was forever ingrained in some shadowy recess of my mind. So much so that I rewarded my mother with frequent night terrors that kept the whole house awake.
As I get older, my memories of these nightmares move further and further from of mind, though I do distinctly remember having a nightmare about the Cookie Monster emerging from under my bed and scarfing me down. It always scared my pyjamas off but I couldn’t resist the experience of laying in bed next to a dim light and listening to mom gently regal me with ghost stories. A tradition that began with the English; the masters of storytelling.
Ghost stories are a part of every culture, but the English honed that oral and written tradition so well that the rest of the world easily picked it up. Just as we, nowadays, love being scared communally in a movie theatre, the English loved being scared around a stone fireplace or with a cold pint in a warm pub.
They certainly had a deep cultural well to draw these stories from: lost Saxon kingdoms, windswept monolithic burial sites, and of course the Pagans and their earthly gods. Much material for both terror and wonder was drawn from this fantastic background, and they manifested easily as ghost stories.
Many Victorian-era scholars made a respectable living from writing them, such as Charles Dickens and the lesser-known but still important author M.R. James. James was an Anglican scholar who wrote wildly popular horror stories based on his deep knowledge of English history and culture.
My gateway into the world of James’ works was through the classic BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas. The show aired a single episode every Christmas from 1971-78 and each episode was a standalone adaptation of a classic English ghost story, mostly from James and Dickens. Naturally, the show was way before my time, but the series is becoming easier to find on modern formats.
The first episode I watched was titled ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and is one of the finest low-budget TV productions I’ve ever seen. It tells the tale of an archaeologist who unearths a lost Saxon crown and incurs the wrath of a vengeful spirit that haunts his every step through the fog-shrouded English countryside. As the show had a low-budget, the filmmakers had to go the ‘high-impact minimalism’ route by relying solely on atmosphere, suspense, and the subtle inference that unimaginable horror lies just outside of the frame.
From the works of Dickens came the adaptation of his story ‘The Signalman’ – the dark tale of a lonely railroad signalman who finds himself haunted by a spectre that always appears on the rails shortly before horrible catastrophes occur. This episode is made amazing by the lead performance of the late Denholm Elliot who is best known for playing Marcus Brody, the bumbling mentor of Indiana Jones.
Elliot’s performance lifted up what could easily have been a cheesy but entertaining yarn and turned it into a viewing experience that is terrifying and melancholic in its depiction of a powerless man trapped by supernatural forces he can’t possibly control or understand.
The original run for A Ghost Story for Christmas only had 8 episodes, but in recent years the show has been revived by Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss and continues with more adaptations from the works of James and Dickens.
I recently watched a couple of original episodes with my family and it succeeded in drawing us all in despite the fact that we were watching during the daytime with ample lighting. Still, being spooked by a good old-fashioned ghost story is one of the easiest and most fun ways to get everyone together on the same terrifying page.
Image credits: BBC