This past Christmas, I watched and reviewed of a series of short horror films made by the BBC during the consecutive holidays informally called A Ghost Story for Christmas. For awhile I’ve been fascinated by these horror films made for British television. In 2014 for Halloween, I discussed Ghostwatch, which many in 1992 thought was real footage of a haunting.
To more or less conclude my delving, I decided to watch the much-lauded 1972 BBC Two sci-fi/horror film The Stone Tape, a movie that will make you afraid of old bricks and sound equipment.
The Stone Tape was broadcast on BBC Two on Christmas Day, 1972. You know, nothing better to do after a nice day of cheer and merriment than to get yourself and your kids shit-scared. It was written by genre favorite Nigel Kneale, who gave the world The Quatermass Experiment and its sequels. It was directed by Peter Sasdy, who helmed several Hammer Horror films including Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula. So the pedigree was in place, despite the video look inherent with TV production of the time.
The film is all about the mixture of science and superstition, the bleeding together of the ancient occult and modern electronics. This combination is where Kneale excelled. In Quatermass and the Pit, the final of his original BBC serials, he explores the idea of ancient Martians being responsible for humanity evolving the way it did, and the ghosts of the Martian passengers remaining tied to objects. He continues down a similar path in The Stone Tape. In it, he conjectures that “ghosts” as we know them might be nothing more than energies recorded onto the stone of very old ruins.
The film stars Michael Bryant as Peter, the self-absorbed and arrogant head of a research team for an electrics company. He and his team move into an old Victorian mansion to attempt to beat the Japanese to superior recording techniques. The home has been renovated, however different parts of the manor are different ages and the crew refused to do work on the oldest wing full of old stonework. The team’s lone woman, computer programmer Jill (Jane Asher), begins hearing screaming coming from that room, and even sees what looks like the specter of a Victorian woman at the top of a narrow set of stairs.
Naturally, this phenomenon is strange to them, and even the less attuned to the natural world (it’s heavily implied Jill has some kind of ESP) can hear the screaming. Peter insists they set up their equipment in the room and monitor the strangeness. However, they soon discover that none of their high-tech recording methods can capture the screaming, and none of their UV or infrared cameras can see the ghost woman. It soon becomes clear the screaming isn’t in the room, it’s in their ears. Whatever is making the horrid shrieks isn’t in the room, but using the skulls of the people in it for resonance to create the sound. Peter immediately sees a cash cow, a brand new and seemingly infinite way to get perfect sound on recordings. It’s that kind of thinking that gets people in trouble, and the whole crew realizes that some unexplained phenomenon shouldn’t be disturbed.
It’s such a simple idea: ghosts aren’t ghosts but echoes of traumatic experiences. Cool! This film actually spawned research into the paranormal, fittingly called “The Stone Tape Theory.” It is a way to explain residual hauntings and images people see in supposedly cursed places. The movie isn’t only about this theory; it’s very well executed. Despite the ’70s BBC video, Sasdy is able to get some real scares using simple techniques like overlaying images and cranking up sound. A lot of old BBC productions could easily have just been stage plays; this film would lose quite a bit, I think, especially during the climax in which even more ancient spirits arrive.
I’m not sure what it is about the British and spooky things, but gosh darnit they all seem to work for me. Mixing horror and sci-fi in this way, bringing in reason to explain genuinely chilling events, makes things more frightening. It isn’t just your imagination — science is telling us it’s really happening, even though it’s still just fiction.
If you get a chance, check out The Stone Tape (it’s available for rental from Amazon Prime), turn out the lights, and open your mind to a really neat way to explain the things that go bump in the night.
Images: BBC/British Film Institute
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. He’s also a huge anglophile who can’t get over how much cooler British people are. Follow him on Twitter!