england’s dreaming #3: hauntings


Im going to continue this winter season of occult viewing with some vintage footage concerning the ghostly … 


As a genre, the ghost documentary has suffered a cheapening in recent years. At some point film makers embarked on a crazed arms race, framing their stories with ever more ostentatious post production trickery, gorging on sensory assault techniques plundered from modern horror films. As a result weve entered a claustrophobic space where interviews are crowded by ominous soundtracks desperate to insinuate unease, scene setting shots are monotonously interrupted by jarring bursts of screen static, and all manner of night vision filters and wobbly hand held camera footage are crowbarred in, ostensibly to create a sensation of disquiet. The results generally fall between two stools – too pompous to be enjoyably tacky, and too predictable to thrill. 


So this brings us to this weeks viewing; Ghost Train its an antithesis of sorts. Ghost Train was shot in 1989, as part of the excellent 40 Minutes series. Claiming that Britain and Ireland have the most reported hauntings of anywhere in the world*, the film documents a variety of people who have experienced apparitions in late 80s Britain. It offers a unique, gentle take on the subject, stripped of sensationalist cinematic artifice. The thing that strikes you is how matter-of-factly the stories are treated. Rather than describing howling poltergeists hurling plates, or the vengeful victims of violent death, the interviewees talk about their ghosts as they might talk about a favoured, eccentric uncle. Shot as it is in a pre-reality show world, the haunted folk of Ghost Train havent internalised TV psychobabble bollocks; they dont talk like people saying things that they think people on TV are meant to say. Instead theyre reflective, low key, rambling, occasionally funny, and occasionally tinged with sadness. Whether talking about the well intentioned visage of a deceased aunt, or Dominic, the spritely spirit in a cowl, the ghosts they describe fit into their world as easily as an unexpected turn of weather, causing little fuss and less fear. In one charming scene a kindly vicar performs an amiable exorcism thats more Country File than Paranormal Activity.    



The sinister only really intrudes with Eddie Burks arrival in the program. Burks was a civil engineer who spent his free time as a prolific ghost hunter and medium. He was in it for the long haul, showing up again in the late 90s Discovery Channel series Ghosthunters aged 74. At this point he had experienced some press notoriety a couple of years earlier he had been called in by Coutts, the largest private banks in the City of London, and the place where the Queen ferrets away her hard earned cash. Coutts had been having a spot of bother with visitations from the decapitated ghost of the 4th Duke of Norfolk executed for treason in 1572. Deciding they needed the services of an expert, the bank called in Burks, who obligingly descended into the banks depths to commune with the ghost. He reported the headless Duke as telling him that I have held much bitterness andI must let this go. In the name of God I ask your help Helpful to a T, the medium persuaded the Duke it was time to move on, to aid this a memorial for his spirit was held at a nearby Catholic church given a strange credibility by the attendance of various toffs, including the then serving Duke of Norfolk. 


In Ghost Train Burks is encountering the spirit of a man who died at an RAF base. He makes some surprisingly accurate statements, and the footage of his conversation with the ghost is a dark, eerie moment, all the more unsettling when it follows the happier ghosts detailed earlier in the program. The impression is that Burks is either genuinely disturbed, or blessed with an incredible imagination and a sly sense of humour, or, maybe, just able to speak to the dead.


If youre finding Ghost Train a little dry and Ill confess it isnt the most immediate video I plan on posting, but I think a gentle gem none the less, then may I suggest a blast of A Warning to the Curious, possibly the finest of all the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas adaptations.



I would have done a whole piece on these, but theyve been covered in some depth in recent years (this piece in the New Statesman is a pretty good overview). If you havent caught any of their recent TV revivals, I heartily recommend them as near perfect spooked out winter viewing there all on Youtube for the brave   


Ian McQuaid 


More rambling on Twitter : @ianmcquaid


*although they offer zero actual providence for this bold statement. My favourite fact Ghost Train purports is the gloriously un-provable: One person in ten will see a ghost in their lifetime, but not everyone will recognise it