There’s a lot to love about Britain. Beautiful countryside, friendly people, rich and intriguing history, a plethora of wonderful artists, musicians, filmmakers, not to mention the full English breakfast and the Sunday roast. Truly fantastic stuff. However, for me personally, one of the best things is a little seasonal tradition that is perhaps slightly lesser-known outside of the UK but nevertheless as quintessentially British as any of the above: the Christmas ghost story. One of the best known is of course Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge who after being visited by three ghosts changes his wicked ways and becomes an all-around nicer person to be around. However, the tradition of a wintertime ghost story goes much further than this and terrifying tales of spectral encounters have been told around the fireplace for decades, possibly centuries before Dickens ever put pen to paper. Like any good tradition, the seasonal tales of terror have evolved with the times and what started with word of mouth expanded to the written form, to radio plays and eventually to TV and cinema. While there are many great stories to choose from, there is one story in particular that keeps on terrifying new audiences decade after decade: The Woman in Black. Originally written by Susan Hill in 1983 (Published in October of that year; just in time for Halloween and more importantly, the upcoming festive season), this little novella has truly stood the test of time, with a still ongoing theatre show and two film adaptations to show for it. At its center is a ghost so terrifying, that finding her equivalent elsewhere in western literature is a difficult task to say the least. In order to recover something even close to this ghastly lady in black, I’ve steered my search to the abundant folklore of Japan, for amongst the myriad of horrid creatures it encompasses, lurks one so terrifying that it alone can compare to the terror of the Woman in Black.
For those not familiar, Hill’s novella tells a tale of a young London solicitor named Arthur Kipps who is send to small market town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of one Alice Drablow and take care of matters of her estate. While reluctant to go, Kipps takes on the job thinking it to be a relatively easy one, but soon after arriving and attending Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, it becomes very clear that no one in the local community is willing to assist him or even have anything to do with him as long as he is working at Mrs. Drablows old abode, Eel Marsh House. However, unfriendly villagers are the least of Arthur’s worries, as he quickly becomes to learn that the local legends of a sinister female ghost are more real than he could ever imagine, and the consequences of his encounter with her more far-reaching than he thought possible.
In an interview with The Guardian, Susan Hill states that the main motivation behind writing this legendary chiller was her yearning to write something in full length. Not having written anything in the long format for five years or so, Hill found herself pondering the classic ghost story and how no one wrote them at length anymore. So, taking inspiration from great ghost stories of the past and her own personal experiences writing in an old seaside house in Suffolk, where the sounds of the sea and slightly off-kilter light of the setting sun created an atmosphere unlike anywhere else, Hill embarked on writing something that would truly terrify. According to her, she did not set out to create a horror story as such, but first and foremost a ghost story; a story with a firm focus on ambiance and that would be engulfed in tension that would keep on building and building, keeping the reader firmly in its grip until the very end. It is certainly a task that Hill has accomplished brilliantly, and I can only think of a handful of other stories that will fill you with such genuine dread as The Woman in Black does. It has all the makings of a classic British ghost story, but a refreshingly original take on the genre that guarantees to frighten even the most seasoned horror fans.
The book was by all accounts a great success, so much so that it went on to be equally successfully adapted, first to the theatre stage, then to TV and eventually for the silver screen. For many fans of the story, their first encounter with it has indeed been in the theatre. Only four years after being published, the book was turned into a stage play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough by the director Robin Herford and playwright Stephen Mallatratt. Hoping to spend whatever was left of his grant, Herford asked Mallatratt to come up with a ghost story that could be done with shoestring budget and with no more than four actors. Having read Hill’s novella, Mallatratt came up with a rather genius idea of writing a play within a play and thus cutting down the dozen or more characters into just three. The play, meant only to be a short running affair to entertain holiday audiences during the Christmas period, ended up selling out on its first night and had a successful run of three following weeks. From Scarborough it later moved to the Lyric Hammersmith and eventually to West End, where it has played in Fortune theatre ever since.
For those who are not familiar with the play, using merely three actors might seem like a bizarre choice and one that should not necessarily work, but as the plays’ unrelenting success will testify, it certainly does. In the center of the play are Arthur Kipps and an unnamed actor. Kipps has hired the young man to help him dramatize the manuscript of his terrifying ordeal and after a small disagreement of how the story should be performed, the two agree to act out the whole thing, with the actor playing young Kipps, and Kipps himself playing various other roles, including the narrator. Like the casting, the set is kept very minimal, using only few larger stage props and utilizing lights and clever sound design to help create an eerie atmosphere. As it is stands, the story follows Hill’s novella with great accuracy, apart from the added twist in the end: after successfully finishing their run-through, the actor asks Kipps about the actress playing the Woman in Black. In horror Kipps vows that no other actors have been present for the rehearsal, hinting at the real Woman in Black being present. The play ends with the actress appearing somewhere in the theatre hall, either on the stage or in the audience, either way, scaring the living daylights out of you.
As it is only natural after the popularity of both the novella and the play, The Woman in Black was eventually also adapted to cinematic format. The latest of these adaptations are from as recently as 2012, directed by Jane Goldman and produced by the legendary Hammer studios and while it’s not a half-bad reimagination of Hill’s story, I would argue that the best film version was made 23 years earlier for British television. In 1989, the same year the play made its move to the West End, ITV brought out a Christmas ghost story that would freak out audiences all over the country, The Woman in Black. Directed by Herbert Wise and starring Adrian Rawlings, Bernard Hepton and Pauline Moran, the teleplay was an instant hit with the audiences and even though Nigel Kneale’s script takes a few liberties with the original material, as a whole the story stays relatively loyal to Hill’s original text. The film has only been repeated once in British television as part of Channel 4’s Christmas 1994 programming and only had a small stint in the home media world as an exclusive VHS release for WHSmith stores and later in August of 2000 a Region 1 DVD release by BFS Entertainment; both of which are long out of print.
In the 1989 version, the role of Jennet is portrait by Pauline Moran and for me she will always be The Woman in Black. While her most notable role is as Hercule Poirot’s incredibly efficient secretary Miss Lemon in Agatha Christie’s Poirot, in The Woman in Black Moran has transformed herself into the most hateful and sinister creature you could possibly imagine; so much so, that despite being a massive Poirot fan, it actually took me years to realize who the actor behind all that malevolent energy actually is.
As a horror film it’s not the most shocking of viewing. In fact, to do the film justice it would be more accurate to simply call it a ghost story rather than a horror story, just as Hill originally wanted. Unlike the 2012 update, this version does not rely on jump scares or even dim dark spaces to creep you out. Instead it builds the tension steadily throughout the story, keeping very loyal to Hill’s original text. It’s not an easy task to create suspense with only one actor in the center of the action, but Adrian Rawlings does manage to do a very credible role of it. It’s easy to relate to this sensible, modern man who very quickly comes to understand that what he first thinks simply as small-town superstition, is something much more tangible. Moran is simply amazing as the late Jennet Humfry and her presence on the screen, be it in full view or simply lurking somewhere in the distance, is consistently menacing. She absolutely exudes the odious energy for which the Woman in Black is known and feared. And then, of course, there’s that scene. You know the one. The only real jump scare in the entire film, but also quite possibly one of the best jump scares in film history. It’s beautifully set out to catch you off guard and I dare say, will leave a lasting impact on any viewer.
But what is really behind the success of this tale? What is that keeps it alluring to new audiences, whether it be in pages of a book, on the theatre stage or on your TV? Part of it, of course, is due to the classic structure of the story. It plays out very much within keeping with the traditional gothic ghost story and certainly rivals any works of classic horror writers like M. R. James or Algernon Blackwood. However, what truly sets it apart is its antagonist, the titular Woman in Black. While the British ghost story tradition has its fair share of vengeful spirits, none are quite like the ghost of Jennet Humfry. To find her equivalent, one has to steer one’s attention to the east, more specifically Japan. Amongst the diverse collection of spirits, ghosts, and ghouls that play a part in Japan’s rich folklore, there is a creature that is perhaps the most feared of all of them: Onryō. If you’ve watched films such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) or Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (2002), you are undoubtedly familiar with these terrifying ghosts, whose sole purpose of existence is revenge. Onryōs are believed to have been people who died as a result of an injustice, such as murder, war or suicide and have thus died filled with hatred or deep sadness; or as it is in the case of Jennet Humfry, both.
Obviously, Hill’s Woman in Black is not a simple copy of these ancient ghouls, but her own original creation. Nevertheless, she shares many of the attributes Onryō’s are said to have possessed. Jennet’s death may not have been a sudden or a violent one, in fact, she died as a result of a prolonged illness, but during her tortured days on this earth, her whole entire existence was consumed by her hatred toward her sister and the desperate longing to be reunited with her child. It’s these two obsessions which in death gave birth to a curse that would not only haunt those who she despised when alive, but anyone unfortunate enough to come across her path, and it’s those same forces that keep her bound to this world forever, unwilling and unable to let go, even keeping her own child locked in the spiteful reality of her venomous loathing
While some of the most famous Onryō’s of Japanese folklore and fiction, such as Oiwa of Ghost Story of Yotsuya or Okiku from Banchō Sarayashiki, have focused their hate-filled energy purely on those who wronged them, not all others have been so kind and stories of Onryōs extending their curse way beyond the initial person who wronged them are big part of the lore. Often this means tormenting the family members of the wrongdoer or people who in the Onryō’s mind have not mourned them sufficiently, but stories of vengeful spirits haunting a specific place or even an object and targeting anyone who passes through the said place or has possession of the cursed object, are also common.
While some of the more modern manifestations of these spirits, such as Sadako Yamamura of the Ringu franchise or Kayako Saeki from the Ju-on series have much more straight forward, hands-on approach when it comes haunting their victims, traditionally Onryōs have been said to slowly torture their victims, preferably during course of several years, gradually driving them insane until they inevitably take their own lives. This is certainly also true of Jennet Humfry, who relentlessly hounds her sister Alice all the way to her final breath, and while your average garden variety ghost, seeing as the object of their vengeance is gone, might have given up and simply left this earthly plain, Miss Humfry’s fury toward this world is not diminished simply by her sister’s death. No. Jennet Humfry’s curse over the Eel Marsh House, over Crythin Gifford and over anyone who ever encounters her, continues like a sickness without a cure and in true Onryō fashion, has more far-reaching consequences than merely killing those who come upon her. Jennet’s takes out her anger and bitterness toward this world in the most horrific way imaginable; by taking away that which was taken from her, indiscriminately sending children to their early graves and leaving behind devastation and agony. Arthur Kipps finds this out in the most crushing way when the ghost of Jennet suddenly reappears in his life long after the encounter between the two is nothing but a nightmarish memory. As it was with her sister, Jennet is quite content to let time pass until making her move, prolonging Arthur’s torture and making the eventual attack that much more trenchant. If he over time had started to have doubts whether his encounter with Miss Humfry was a mere imagination of a paranoid mind, those doubts are quickly swept away in one heart-breaking move leaving Arthur’s life in shatters. In the end Jennet Humfry always gets hers.
The curse of Jennet Humfry is truly something to fear. Its fury is unrelenting and indiscriminate, tapping into that same fear that Japan’s most feared spirits draw their terrifying power from; the fact that anyone can be its victim. And even worse, if you do find yourself unlucky enough to come across these vile spirits, you will not only find yourself tormented for no good reason but that from these powers, there is no escape. An Onryō cannot be laid to rest by a “proper burial” or a ceremony performed by a holy man. As Arthur Kipps finds out in the 1989 teleplay, nor can its continuum be stopped by destroying the place where it started from. The curse, created by the hatred and bitterness of the individual in the center of it, is as firmly tethered to this world as the spirit itself and like a force of nature, it keeps on in its destructive path eradicating anything and anyone in its way. The carnage that will ensue might not be instantaneous, but a horrific lingering torture that will reach it’s peak when you least expect it, and even after the very worst thing conceivable has happened, you can never be sure whether the powers that haunt you are truly done with you, or just simply biding their time until they strike again. Be it on the pages of Hills novella, in the theatre stage or the TV screen, The Woman in Black will always find a new audience. It’s everything a great ghost story should be immersed in a beautifully woven atmosphere designed to seep slowly into your subconscious and make you wary of every shadow and the weird creek that your normally lovely and cozy home will have. It’s a story that has the power to scare you even after you’ve read and seen several adaptations of it and the plot is as familiar to you as the back of your hand. It’s a timeless classic that is sure to creep you out, no matter which format you decide to enjoy it in.