A Macabre Mother’s Day for a Macabre Horror Mother: Contemplating the Woman in Black

Photo Credit — The Woman in Black

It is just a screen.  I tell myself.  Nothing but some actors playing out a ghost story on the screen.  You’ll be 35 years old in a couple months—you can do this.  My self-assurance slowly lapses into condescension as I secretly lambast myself for being so afraid.  After all, do I not write on a horror blog?  Am I not focusing my dissertation on some element of the horror genre?  Some of this stuff is, indeed, second nature to me –werewolves and vampires have never scared me, and I’ve seen The Shining at least fifty times by now—but something about a well-made ghost movie, one that I haven’t already watched on repeat, really has the ability to de-stabilize my zen.  With the right directing and producing – the appropriate manufacture of jump scares – I can find myself fighting the urge (and sometimes giving into the urge) to cover my ears and eyes as I’m watching a particularly suspenseful horror film.  It’s rare that I react this way, but it does occur—which, I might mention, is another reason I love the horror genre.  For as many of these films as I’ve seen, the right one still has the power to scare the $#!+ out of me. 

Sometimes my terrified reaction is an unsurprising response even for a self-professed and allegedly bold horror fan; for example, wasn’t everyone monumentally unsettled while watching Hereditary?  I mean, everything about that movie was DISTURBING, from (spoiler alert) disembodied heads to familial drama to witchcraft.  Other times, though, my unbridled fear in the face of what might be a moderately scary horror movie is, on the surface, completely arbitrary.  Occasionally, a movie falls safely into the “B-movie” category, and it still horrifies me.  The original Pet Sematary is a solid example of this phenomenon.  And, do you even remember Lights Out?  F***ing Diana, the ghost who appeared in the dark, scared the hell out of me the entire film, with her wild hair and gangly, shadowy stature and odious agenda.  The Eyes of My Mother was almost excruciating to watch, too, but that’s another one of those films that will make even the most seasoned horror veterans squeamish. 

My point is that for a horror fanatic, I’m still not quite immune to the genre’s more intimidating—and sometimes less intimidating—elements.   And such is the case with The Woman in Black, a movie that petrified me during a first viewing and persisted in scariness every subsequent time I watched it.  I’ve probably only seen the film about three times, and I decided, a few days ago, that I’d face my fear and watch it again, with an eye toward my experience of the movie and the reason behind its impact on me.  So, I tried to watch the film alone in my parent’s pitch-black house at midnight while they were vacationing in Spain, but that ambition disintegrated about five minutes into the film when I was picturing the famed and formidable Jeanette Humpfry (the woman in black) around every corner.  Lucky for me, I have a boyfriend who will watch this stuff with me, albeit sometimes reluctantly, and he rented the film yesterday so we could enjoy a movie night.  The following transcription, then, is my recorded reaction while watching The Woman in Black.  Perhaps, by following my incomplete and sometimes spurious stream-of-conscience thinking, I can deduce why, of all the horror movies that have ever been manufactured, this simple run-of-the-mill ghost story scares me so much. 

                I was less scared, and more excited—albeit excited to be scared—as I waited for Michael to fire up the film.  He was enmeshed in a deep internet conversation with some friends, so I sat in impatient anticipation, awaiting his decision to turn the computer off and turn the television on.  When he finally did put in the film, I elected to keep the lamp next to me on—you know, just so I could see my notes, of course, not because I was afraid or anything, because I totally wasn’t and I definitely could have watched the film in the complete dark if I didn’t have to take notes for you, the reader.  But I did feel the need to take notes, so I sat by a lighted lamp and reluctantly began watching a preview for Salmon Fishing in Yemen before Michael fast-forwarded through the preview and the feature film commenced.  While he was doing this, I tried to surmount my fear by drawing the woman in black, in blue ink, as if I would gain courage from physically re-creating her on the page in front of me.  Here is my artwork:  She kind of looks like a Christmas tree, but one with a faceless human head.  In any case, it turns out she’s not so scary-looking when you have the drawing talent of a six-year-old: 

Note the subtly undulating torso pen strokes that give form and definition to the female specter. The absence of facial expression gives her the symbolic significance to occupy the amorphous socio-cultural space of the “every-woman” or, at least, the “every-mother.”

The opening scene of the film always creeps me out, when three little girls jump to their deaths during a doll-filled tea party after turning, simultaneously, toward the Woman in Black (who we can’t see yet).  Then the camera pans to the back of her stature, so we get a little shot of the top of her head, facing the children.  I wrote in my notebook, next to my sophisticated picture of said woman, “Okay, doing okay so far, just some little girls jumping out the window and a horrible scream.”  Then I added “get a shot of the back of her head—creepy.”  These, you will register, are not the most intellectual notes ever taken on a horror movie; nor was I incredibly specific about my emotional reaction here.  What I would say, retrospectively, is this: The beginning of the movie is one of those scenes that creates an incredibly scary ambience without employing jump scares or completely unnerving the viewer.  We haven’t gotten totally sucked into the Woman in Black’s woeful world, but we’re intrigued, nonetheless.  After this scene, however, things slow down for a while.

I’ll try to get through these reactions fairly quickly so as not to drag this piece out, but what I guess I noticed about the following part of the movie—and this I noticed much to my surprise—was my boredom.  It turns out that I’ve never followed the plot of the film very carefully, and one really doesn’t need to follow the plot carefully to appreciate the scarier elements of the film later.  In many ways, as I’ve indicated before, the film is very typical for a horror movie: father loses wife in childbirth, father lives alone and sad with his young child, and then, a little like Jonathan Harker in Dracula, father is sent away on an odious mission in a gothic mansion by a law firm to seal his position with the company that’s sending him.  But, in this case, there’s no Count Dracula, no castle—at least, not in the literal sense.  There’s only the sequestered Eel Marsh House, which is allegedly (and we finally realize, actually) haunted by the ghost of Jeanette Humfrey, the Woman in Black—a woman who was forced to sit back and watch as her sister first took away her child, then failed to save that child when he drowned in the marshes surrounding the house.  Humfrey’s vengeful ghost, we learn, causes children to commit suicide in horrific ways when she appears on the scene.

There are a few cheap jumps scares when Daniel Radcliffe (Arthur Kipps) begins exploring Eel Marsh house—the types of fake-outs that turn out to be nothing except, say, a bird hitting a window or muddy water unclogging itself from a tap.  These particular jump scares didn’t phase me too much, but they do contribute to a mounting anxiety that will escalate closer to the plot’s climax.  During parts of this scene, though I was relatively calm, my viewing partner, who startles easily, may have said something along the lines of (or something exactly like) F***, $#!t, Jesus Christ.  We can’t say this for sure, but I surmise, according to my pointed memories and detailed notes, that something like this might have come out of his mouth.  You will observe that I’ve recorded some of his expletives below.   Meanwhile, I was drawing Daniel Radcliffe’s character ascending the stairs of Eel Marsh house.  Those little things that kind of look like pine trees (apparently all of my bad drawings look like coniferous trees) are really chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

The floating Chandeliers, seemingly unattached to a ceiling, represent the aloof spacelessness of Eel Marsh House. The figure ascends the stairs with feet slightly off the ground, as if to suggest he’s not grounded in the reality of his situation. The gender-less anonymity of the human figure suggests that we are all unknowing wanderers, intrepidly exploring the doomed mansion that is daily life.

Luckily, action started to escalate more as Daniel Radcliffe’s character spots the ethereal figure cloaked in black lingering in a foggy graveyard in the distance.  This is another one of those “moments” in the film—it’s not a jump scare, per-se, but it augments that unsettling ambience and, if our cognition chooses to accept and integrate the narrative moment into its field of experience, it can hardly help but get a little unnerved when we see a woman who we know is a ghost woman, waiting ominously for us—or, at least, for the main character—in the distance.  I think I may have been getting a little more afraid at this point, but I still wasn’t terrified.  In any case, I chose to process my fears by drawing the Woman in Black standing among a sequence of graves in a cemetery.  Yeah okay, I know it looks kind of like a chess board, and it’s a little two-dimensional (I could have done more to create the illusion of three dimensions) but I was drawing in a hurry, in my defense, as I was trying to both pay attention to the film, record my emotional reaction, and placate my frightened boyfriend.  In short, watching a horror movie, even when I’m taking the most mindless sort of notes on it for the blog, can be quite a job.  (Although, to be fair, I don’t actually do much to placate Michael.  I kind of let him ride the wave of fear on his own, and I laugh when he starts to swear.  I’m not always a nice girlfriend, in short). 

Here is my ghost in a graveyard picture.  I mean, give me credit; I was drawing fast: 

The acorn-shaped head of the figure suggests the Woman in Black’s innate frailty, as if she who seems so formidable were really none but a mere acorn waiting to be consumed by a stray rodent. The crosses signify the ironic absence of God in the cemetery of Eel Marsh house. This surrealist-impressionist mix is reminiscent of the fantasy landscape of a Van Gogh with the symbolism of a Magritte piece.

So Daniel Radcliffe’s character (I keep omitting his name—Arthur Kipp) goes down to the graveyard to check things out.  Now I’m starting to get more uncomfortable (but in one of those good ways, that type of exhilarating discomfort that temporarily drowns out the rest of life and sucks you in).  When he looks in the window, from his position in the graveyard, he sees a ghastly face.  So he goes back up to the room with the face (silly, silly Arthur) and he sees nothing, but weee see the face appear behind him in the window.  Something about reflective surfaces and ghosts combined scares the $#!t out of me, so I greatly enjoy this part of the film.  It’s still not so scary that I need to close my eyes, but it’s sufficiently disturbing nonetheless.  In my fit of enthusiasm over the movie, I drew one last picture.  You’ll note that in this piece, the artist (that’s me, I’m the artist) does aim for a three-dimensional effect by situating the ghost “behind” the person standing in the window (Arthur)—at least, that’s the effect I was going for.  I know what you’re thinking, and I agree—I also think this one is my magnum opus.   Although that cemetery picture is pretty cool, too. 

The viewer will note the surprising similarity between the two figures. The conflation of human with ghost represents are collective, indelible mortality — we will all be ghosts someday — coupled with the subtle suggestion that part of our presence remains in our absence. Or: Jeanette Humfrey is watching you.

Around this point in the film, we see the camera from the ghost’s point of view for a while, which is cool and kinda reminds me of Spielberg’s technique in Jaws.  Then Kipp reads some horrible letters about the custody battle and death of the child.  Things are intense by this point.  I’ve written, in my notes, my genuine thoughts during this part of the film: “I will not cover my ears & eyes.  I am brave.”  Then a rocking chair starts to rock by itself, and I realize, fully enmeshed in the film’s intensity, that I’m having a delightful time.  The word I write down is pleasure.  Despite the fact that the timing of the jump scares juxtaposed with the presence of a veiled, vengeful specter is almost too much for me, so that I can hardly force myself to keep my eyes open, I am having a simply wonderful time right now.  I feel like I’m in a space apart from the space of everyday life—just close enough to the fantasy of the terrible without being directly involved in it.  And I’m no longer afraid in the classic sense of the word; oh I’m afraid, to be sure, but the feeling of fear has mixed with anticipation and produced a sort of anticipatory delight.  It’s kind of, in a weird way, like when you’re a kid and you’re shaking a present trying to find out what’s inside.  Which brings me to a fairly cliché comparison: Horror movies, for me, are a little like Christmas mornings.

I write down “no relief during this point.”  What I realize is threefold: Kipps is secluded (he cannot get to the mainland, the town, by himself, since the tide rises and he has no transportation) and he is alone, ultimately at night—two more elements of the scenario that make a movie scarier.  Don’t get me wrong; such circumstances are hardly necessary.  The brilliance of Sinister and The Conjuring—along with a ton of other horror movies—lies in their ability to create terror in a suburban afternoon with the involvement of an entire family.  But the seclusion, the sense of alone-ness, the inability to get away from the haunting, the presence of a dark sky, all these things combine together to make The Woman in Black even scarier than it would otherwise be.  I almost want there to be a moment of intervention, a moment that takes us out of the horror of the narrative for awhile, and eventually there is.  Arthur’s friend shows up, and the men go back to town together.  The fear of the movie continues, but we’re taken out of the most intense part of the mis-en-scene for the moment.  So I was wrong: the movie does give us some (temporary) relief, but it doesn’t last.  Shortly after I write “no relief,” after all, I record my sweet, feminist boyfriend, who gets so scared that he temporarily turns into a misogynist and yells “f***ing bitch” at the television.  Clearly, his affective experience of the film is similar to mine in some ways, starkly different in others.

Well, to avoid drawing out this explanation, suffice it to say that there were points in the narrative where I did close my eyes.  Those points were fleeting, and I didn’t cover my ears, so I’m still calling this experience a partial win.  And recording my reaction as I watched the film helped to mitigate the terror a little bit, although I dropped the pen during particularly intense parts and let myself both consume the story and be fully consumed by the story.  After watching the film again, I certainly wouldn’t call it a cinematic landmark, but I think it’s definitely worth another watch (for me) so I can force myself to experience it fully without closing my eyes.  I don’t remember the first time I didn’t close my eyes for The Shining in detail, but I remember thinking, “that wasn’t that bad” after deciding to keep them open.  So fully watching The Woman in Black, with no eye-closing, is still on the agenda.  Nevertheless, I made considerable progression in surmounting my fear of the movie two nights ago (a day has passed since I started writing) and I gained some insight into how the movie makes me feel.  I still don’t know exactly why the film scares me so much, but I’ve had fun writing this piece, nonetheless, and it’s a piece about a vengeful mother-from-the-grave, which seems ironically apropos on Mother’s Day. 

Next time, hopefully, I’ll be braver, still…. 

While not as artistically intricate as the complex sketches foregrounded in this piece, this still-terrifying picture gets the point across; This movie will haunt your dreams. (Photo Credit – The Woman in Black)
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A Macabre Mother’s Day for a Macabre Horror Mother: Contemplating the Woman in Black

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