“It’s just an old place cut off from the world,” is what Sam Daily tells Arthur Kipps about Eel Marsh House, a conventional Victorian mansion abandoned and falling into decay after its mistress’s tragic loss of a son and her death. It is not an unfamiliar story, particularly for the horror enthusiast. In fact, when The Woman in Black was released, I recall the complete lack of hype surrounding it: a beautifully-shot but typical ghost story, not at all what you might expect from Hammer. I’ve asked myself what it is that I love about this film if it does nothing new or exciting for the ghost story genre, and I think the answer lies in the setting and location of Eel Marsh House itself and the reproduction of something central to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century ghost story. Beyond the seemingly timeless obsession with mothers and children, this film is obsessed with something else: technology and communication. And the dead master both much better than do the living.
The plot subsists on a steady stream of deaths. Lawyer Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe), who has lost his wife in childbirth, must travel to Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of Alice Drablow and to recover her papers from Eel Marsh House. When he arrives, the inhabitants of the town do everything in their power to convince him to turn around and go home. Sam Daily, who befriends him on the train, informs him of the local superstitions concerning Eel Marsh house, but, in the end, he takes Arthur to Eel Marsh House and helps him to “settle” the estate in a quite different way than he planned. As it turns out, the house is haunted by the ghost of Jennet Humfrye, Alice’s sister. The film ends with these men following all the rules by which to put a disturbed spirit to rest, only to find that rest is not what she wants.
Eel Marsh House is set on an island of sorts and is only accessible at certain times of day, when the tide is out. The only path becomes flooded, and it was this flooding that occasioned the death of Jennet Humfrye’s young son, who remained buried in the marsh. After committing suicide, Jennet becomes the Woman in Black and directs children to enact their own deaths and to join her as her son never could. The method that she uses to do this, however, is more advanced than any communicative technology the small town of Crythin Gifford possesses.
When Arthur arrives, we learn that the town is painfully devoid of means of communication. The townspeople are so eager to get him to leave because there are only so many trains, and he has few opportunities to travel. When requesting to call home, he is told, “Not even Mr. Daily [the wealthiest man in town] has a telephone. You’ll not find one in Crythin Gifford,” quickly followed by the news that even the post office is closed, and he is unable to send a telegraph or a letter on most days of the week.
But, as we learn from Jennet, written communication is ineffectual in this film anyway. Her own letters lie veiled in dust and are read not by the recipient but by our third-party protagonist. Her pleas to her sister for time with her son and subsequent accusations of guilt at his death produce no results. As a ghost, she finds herself as isolated as she was in life, cut off from the town by a tide that comes in and out as reliably as a train schedule. With few visitors, however, she must find a way to reach out. Haunting, then, becomes a more effective method of communication, and she performs it much like combination telephone and recorded message.
It is not necessary to see the Woman in Black in order to die by her hand. Arthur and Sam are really in no danger while they’re in her house. The danger comes when they return to the village. As Arthur is told by Mrs. Daily, “Whenever she’s been seen…there has always been one sure and certain event. In some violent or dreadful circumstance, a child has died,” right before she begins speaking in the voice of her dead son, “She makes us do it. They took her boy away, so now she takes us. She saw you, she saw you. She’s coming. She’s coming.”
The Woman in Black, like many ghosts, survives most effectively by replicating the latest technology of the time: she uses those who see her to reach those who intentionally put distance between her house and their families. Arthur sees her, then carries that curse back to the town, where it is transmitted to the children, thereby conveying a message or a presence just as surely as a telephone, telegraph, or train might. The development of the telephone in particular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries preceded a renewed interest in ghost stories because it worked similarly to a ghost: a disembodied voice without corporeal solidity. Here we see a ghost embracing that principle and using it to her advantage. She phones her message in, and Arthur becomes her operator. Suspenseful moments end in jump scares created by very abrupt, loud, harsh bursts of sound. They evoke the very first attempts at and the primitive unreliability of communication through telephones and various recording devices.
We see other intentional uses of technological communication throughout the film as well: Mrs. Daily channels her son like a telephone or telegraph, the Woman in Black replays the scene of her son’s death like a wax recording, the myna bird in the town inn replays its mistress’s sorrow at the loss of her son, perfectly mimicking her sobbing like a recording. The one advancement the living does have is Sam’s car (“First one in the county, still scares the locals”), and Arthur says as much in reference to past attempts to excavate Jennet’s child from the bog: “You have something they never had.” They think it can help them lift the curse. Though they do succeed in bringing up the boy, reminiscent of the scene in The Ring, this does not stop the Woman in Black’s transmission (just as recovering Samara does not stop the curse of the videotape). In the midst of a complete lack of technological advancement and a continual struggle to get through to people (even with the one advancement of the car), the film makes clear that the dead communicate best: their technology is their own form of embodiment.
It is not until the final scene that we realize that the unique and jarring (I would even say painful) screeching sound the Woman in Black makes when she appears is, in fact, the distorted sound of a train, and her movements replicate this as well. In a film that masterfully recreates the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ obsession with technology and the ghost’s relationship to it, the Woman in Black has been telling us how the film will end all along.
Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death demonstrates a similar obsession with technology, but heightens the danger inherent in that technology. Set in the now decrepit Crythin Gifford and an Eel Marsh House in an even more advanced state of decay, the time is 1941, and England is under attack. A small group of children are removed from London to this remote location until it is safe enough to return, some to their parents but others as orphans. The switch to female leads (Phoebe Fox and Helen McCrory), the time period, and the isolation, emptiness, and darkness of the house all harken back to The Others, though without the twist ending. We again have themes of mother-child relationships, loss, barrenness, and decay, but on a national scale.
The Woman in Black has updated her methods to fit with the times, however. She still kills through being seen, but that seeing becomes more immediate: she, more or less, removes the middleman. With much of the village dead, she cares less about transmitting her message of death across a distance than she does about communicating it at close range, like a bomb. The pervasive fear throughout the film is not of the ghost but of the Germans, more specifically of being seen by the Germans. The children escape to a remote area of the country to escape the draw of the city, they can’t turn on the lights on the bus that takes them to the house because the Germans might see, the love interest, Harry, is a pilot with PTSD who manages a fake airfield, a decoy to detract enemy eyes from the real one. Seeing and being seen in wartime produces real consequences, and those consequences are death. Seeing and being seen by the Woman in Black replicates this cause and effect.
Eve Parkins, one of the two teachers in custody of the children, repeats something one of the few townspeople—a blind man—told her, “My friends had eyes, so they died.” This time, the Woman in Black wants them to “See what I saw, feel what I feel, die how I died.” The only protection, then, lies in a disruption of visual communication, an immediate outlet for the training all Londoners had been receiving to help shield the country from attack. So, we have the same kind of recording and communication effect as we had in the first film, but its immediacy and its emphasis on sight now make it not just a technological advancement but a wartime tactic.
Laura Kremmel received an MA in English from Lehigh in 2009 and an MLitt in Gothic Literature from Stirling University in 2010. Her dissertation considers the ways in which the Gothic imagination extends Romantic-era medical experimentation throughout the Gothic texts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including poetry, drama, novels, and chapbooks. Where scientific thought reached its limits, the Gothic could pick up the scalpel and set to work on dissections and cures of its own. Though she considers herself to be a Romanticist, she is also a Gothicist, interested in all facets of the tradition, Romantic to Contemporary. At Stirling, her MLitt dissertation explored the vampiric character of melancholia in works ranging from Polidori’s The Vampyre to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Laura also runs Lehigh’s Gothic reading group, has published on The Walking Dead, and is a frequent blogger. Follow her on Twitter.