If you go to Crythin Gifford on the north east coast of England, walk through the marshes, (never mind the fog and unfriendly silence), you will reach Eel Marsh House; an old gothic mansion standing alone and abandoned. Its last known inhabitant was (likewise alone and abandoned) Mrs Alice Drablow. But there is still an unspoken presence, roaming around the dark corridors of the house. You might feel it when you are there all alone with just a candlestick as your guide. Or if you walk among the graves, she might appear: the woman in black.
The Woman in Black, a novella written by Susan Hill, was first published in 1983. What was initially a short christmas ghost story has since become much more, haunting us for over 30 years. Since the book’s publication, the story has been adapted into two feature films, a television film, a couple of BBC radio broadcasts, and has been one of the longest running plays in London’s West End. Who is the mysterious woman cloaked in black, what happened in Eel Marsh House years ago, and what is so very fascinating and enduring about this story?
We first visit Eel Marsh House on the pages of Susan Hill’s short but terrifying book. It begins on Christmas Eve: Arthur Kipps, now a retired solicitor, sits with his wife and stepchildren by the fire; everyone takes turns and tells ghost stories following the old English tradition. When it is Arthur’s go, he suddenly remembers something that happened to him years before; a story “of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy”. Thinking the story not suitable for family entertainment at Christmas, haunted by the horrid memory, he decides to exorcise it by writing the account down.
The story goes like this. Arthur, a young solicitor, is summoned by his boss and sent to Crythin Gifford where he is to attend a funeral of their client, Mrs Alice Drablow, a childless widow who lived alone in a desolated house. On the train, Arthur meets Samuel Daily who lives in Crythin Gifford and offers the young solicitor a lift. When Kipps explains the reason for his journey, Daily says he will be the only person at Mrs Drablow’s funeral. Crythin Gifford is described as “the little market town” where they “don’t get many visitors”, and we soon find out that the townsfolk do not speak of Eel Marsh House. They are either enraged or fall silent at any mention of the house or Mrs Drablow.
Next day Arthur meets Mr Jerome, the agent looking after the property, who is to attend the funeral with him. At the funeral service Arthur sees a mysterious woman: “dressed in the deepest black”, morbidly pale, thin, and her eyes seem to have “sunken back into her head”. Arthur’s ghastly description goes on and the reader gets a very real sense of the woman’s haunting image. The gothic setting, melancholy of a funeral, and the old graves only add to the spookiness. Later, Kipps arrives at Eel Marsh House; “a tall, gaunt house of grey stone […] facing the whole, wide expanse of marsh and estuary”. As Kipps admires the house, so does the reader. The book’s description of the house is very detailed and alluring. He then notices the women, again, in a small graveyard – “the whole place had a decayed and abandoned air”. As she stares at him, the reader can feel her hollow piercing eyes staring back. Arthur feels creeping fear, not believing what he is seeing. The unknown is one of humanity’s worst fears because we find it hard to comprehend that which we can’t explain. As rationalists, we believe our eyes; we know that we saw it – but what did we see really? Arthur says, “I did not believe in ghosts. Or rather, until this day, I had not done so”.
Arthur walks around the house and we patiently shadow him in the darkness. He senses the uncanny presence of the woman in the house but there are too many papers he still has to go through. He hears strange noises, bumping and thumping and, suddenly, he realises that one previously locked door is now wide open. Inside he finds the Victorian nursery and the thumping sound is caused by a rocking chair. As he steps inside, the chair is still rocking – by itself. That’s definitely one of the most disturbing moments in the story, which has been used in many ghost stories before and after.
At one point, Arthur looks up at the house and in the window he sees the woman in black; standing and staring back at him. Kipps loses his consciousness and wakes up with Samuel Daily by his side. Eventually, Arthur learns that Mrs Drablow had a sister, Jennet Humfrye who, because of her status of an unmarried woman, had to give the child up. Alice Drablow and her husband adopted the boy and kept him away from his real mother. When Jennet came back to Crythin Gifford, Alice only allowed her to see the boy occasionally. Jennet, then, decided to leave with her son but an awful tragedy happened: the boy, his nursemaid and pony trap driver drowned in the marshes as Jennet was watching. Jennet went mad and fell ill; “the flesh shrank from her bones, the colour was drained from her, she looked like a walking skeleton – a living spectre”. Whenever she left Eel Marsh House and went to the town, people looked away and children got scared. Shortly after Jennet died, full of hatred and sadness, the sighting and hauntings began. She has been seen now and then, and when she is seen – a child dies in a gruesome and horrible way.
Ultimately, Arthur returns to London, leaves Eel Marsh House behind, and is reunited with his wife Stella. He’s recovered, just married and happy; ready to forget about the woman in black. A year goes by, their son is born, and the woman in black is an old memory. The happy family goes to the park, where Stella and little Joseph ride pony and trap. Arthur suddenly sees the woman: “it was she, the woman in black with the wasted face, the ghost of Jennet Humfrye.” He stands paralysed as the pony trap with his family hits a huge tree. The boy is dead, Stella dies shortly after, and the woman in black disappears. She’s been sighted again, and the child has died.
Attentive readers and ghost stories fans will notice that one of the chapters is entitled “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”, which is a nice touch and a nod to the great ghost story writer, M.R. James and his eerie tale “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”.
Following Hill’s original story, Eel Marsh House was revisited in the faithful play, currently running its 29th year in London. The stage version of The Woman in Black was adapted by Stephen Mallatratt and first premiered in Scarborough, in December 1987. Two years later, however, in January 1989 the play moved to London and it is the one of the longest running non-musical stage works in West End. It is a minimalistic staging, during its 1.5-hour runtime there are only two people on the stage and all they have is a wicker basket for a prop. As the play script is so well written and executed, viewers don’t need any more than this. Leaving a dark theatre after the final sighting of the woman is not easy; most viewers are amazed and still slightly in shock. Audiences do return to Eel Marsh House, though.
The third time the story is revisited is in the eerie 1989 television film. Following the old English Christmas ghost story tradition, 1989’s The Woman in Black premiered on ITV on Christmas Eve. The chilling adaption has all the visual elements of a classic ghost story should have: an old and dark mansion, suspicious and rather unfriendly townsfolk, and, of course, a terrifying ghost. This film adaptation gets rid of the original beginning we know from the novel, jumping straight to the young Kipps and his boss. The 1989 film was directed by Herbert Wise and based on the script written, allegedly in 10 days, by the great Nigel Kneale. Apart from skipping the original intro, they also added electricity and a sound recording machine. Pauline Moran as the woman in black gives the performance so scary it lingers after the film has finished.
Few years went by and The Woman in Black was adapted into chilling radio plays. In 1993, it was broadcast on BBC Radio 5 in four parts directed by Chris Wallis, and in 2004 as one 56-minute version by John Taylor on BBC Radio 4.
Eel Marsh House returns again in 2012 with a feature length film from the revitalised Hammer starring Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps. Hammer took a more gruesome and graphic take on the source material. The beginning is eerie; three little girls are playing with their dolls and having a little cup of tea, then suddenly they get up and jump out of the window, as creepy toybox music plays in the background. Hammer added yet more grisliness and spectacle: one child is nearly killed by the wood on the trolley, and other spits mouthfuls of blood. Another is burnt alive. The haunted mansion is more vivid; as beautiful as it is creepy. The Victorian nursery with the broken dolls, a wind-up monkey, and rocking chair (which I personally find the creepiest of all) add up further to the already terrifying atmosphere of the story.
When the film was sent to the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) with a 12A rating, it was pushed up to a 15 because of its elements of horror including scenes where, according to the BBFC case study, “the ghost of the ‘woman in black’ appears to hang herself from a noose, and in another [scene] a young girl deliberately smashes an oil lamp and sets herself on fire.” Certain parts had to be amended in order to release the film as a 12A. Nevertheless, the BBFC still received 134 complaints from “from cinema-goers, who felt the film was too dark and unsettling for 12A.” These were mostly from parents who took their children to see a film with the well-known star of the Harry Potter franchise. The full case study can be found here http://www.bbfc.co.uk/case-studies/woman-black.
There is one more return, though. In 2015, Hammer released a sequel, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death along with a book (movie novelisation) written by Martyn Waites. The film doesn’t match up to its predecessor and is not really based on Hill’s novel. But despite its shortcomings and poor critical reception, The Woman in Black 2 is the perfect example of the power of the woman and horror she brings us.
The question is, then, why do we come back? Is it the appeal of a ghost story and our never-ending desire to being scared? Do we empathise with the woman in black and try to understand her loss, grief and hatred over and over again? Or is it the woman herself, the gothic Eel Marsh House that haunts us and calls us to return? At the end of the book Arthur Kipps says, “They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.” Nevertheless, we keep coming back and the woman in black persists.
The Woman in Black is one of the best classic ghost stories. It is a story about love, loss, grief and revenge. It’s about life and death, the living and the dead. It is as scary as it is beautiful and mesmerising. Although I love the story and I do return to it every year, I must admit that every so often I’m a bit scared to turn around in case I see her, standing in the distance, cloaked in black. I can only wonder when will be the next time we pay a visit to Eel Marsh House, and when will we see the woman in black again…