Deborah Kerr in the British horror THE INNOCENTS (1961)

Tom Bielby takes a look at how stories of ghosts and the supernatural have been at the forefront of British horror throughout its fascinating history.

Classics such as The Haunting and The Innocents still have the power to chill modern audiences, and their legacy influences many filmmakers today. With the release of another excellent British horror in cinemas this week, Ghost Stories, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to revisit those films that have left an indelible mark on the horror landscape – as well as recommending a handful of lesser known ghost stories for the curious to explore.

Ghost Stories

Martin Freeman in the poster for new British horror movie GHOST STORIES (2017)


GHOST STORIES is a superb example of a portmanteau horror that incorporates a variety of creepy tales into a unified film, with an eerie overarching storyline that keeps the audience in the dark as much as the main protagonist. Starring the excellent Andy Nyman (who also directs alongside Jeremy Dyson), Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther and Paul Whitehouse among other British luminaries, this is a first rate horror that showcases how fulfilling the genre can be when it is in the hands of those who are clearly passionate about it.

Nyman portrays a sceptical professor who spends his time debunking others theories of the supernatural, that is until he encounters three terrifying tales that force him to question his own beliefs.

I’m fairly certain that if our skeptic watched some of the following British horror films, they would have a similar effect on him.

Dead of Night

A scene from British horror DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)

Our first recommended film tackles the genre with a similar approach to storytelling, and surprisingly came from a studio synonymous with comedy. DEAD OF NIGHT is an anthology horror film from Ealing Studios. It comprises of four twisted tales of the paranormal, and it remains essential viewing for horror fans today. Whilst it may not be as creepy as it would have been for audiences who saw it upon its first release back in 1945, the palpable sense of dread and chilling atmosphere it conjures up still linger longer than the shock of most modern day jump scares.

The main story follows an architect who encounters a number of guests at a country house that seem oddly familiar to him, and it is not long before they realise they have all experienced a supernatural event. As the guests retell their strange tales we move closer to the final revelation that is undoubtedly a masterstroke of horror storytelling, and has cemented Dead of Night‘s reputation as one of the finest British horror films of its time.

The Classics

A scene from British horror THE HAUNTING (1963)

Moving on to the 1960’s we encounter two of the aforementioned classics, THE HAUNTING (Robert Wise) and THE INNOCENTS (Jack Clayton).

Both utilise their incredibly creepy settings to instil fear deep within the unprepared viewer. Shadows flicker and unnatural noises are heard in two suitably atmospheric stately homes, with both directors favouring a less is more approach to their ghost tales – prompting the viewer’s imagination to run wild at the thought of what could be lurking in the darkness.

The Haunting follows the exploits of a doctor who is fascinated by the supernatural as he stays in a supposedly haunted house in an attempt to prove the existence of ghosts.

Meanwhile, The Innocents depicts the tale of a new governess who is charged with the care of two orphaned children in a foreboding and intimidating old manor house.

A scene from British horror THE INNOCENTS (1961)

Both films are based upon successful novels and the simple but effective storytelling on display here has been the source of nightmares for generations of audiences.

Imitators of these films followed with varying degrees of success and although few films came close to matching The Haunting’s creepiness, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (John Hough) and THE STONE TAPE (Peter Sasdy) are two of its lesser known successors that are worthy of your time. These are films that further explore a scientific approach to documenting ghosts and the supernatural, and both have their fair share of unsettling scenes as the supernatural occurrences escalate, and those investigating the phenomena become more concerned for their own safety.

The Woman in Black

A scene from the TV version of the British horror THE WOMAN IN BLACK (1989)

Taking a more traditional approach to the ghost story is the excellent TV adaptation of THE WOMAN IN BLACK which first aired in 1989 (Herbert Wise). You may be more familiar with the fine Daniel Radcliffe remake that graced our screens back in 2012 but the original is a far more effective horror film. Like Ghost Stories, The Woman in Black was adapted from a successful stage play – which was itself adapted from the Susan Hill novel – providing the film-makers with a tried and tested approach to scaring the audience, and allowing them to build upon an already incredibly creepy story. In The Woman in Black a young solicitor travels to an isolated house on the coast where he is tasked with finalising the estate of a friendless old widow. He begins to uncover some horrific secrets about the mysterious woman’s past, and ignoring warnings from the local townsfolk, he becomes embroiled in her terrifying legacy.


Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson & Sarah Greene in the British horror GHOSTWATCH

In 1992, the British public were concerned for the safety of the crew involved in a notorious BBC ‘documentary’. GHOSTWATCH shocked viewers who genuinely thought it was a real documentary, and many feared for the lives of those involved. The broadcast generated numerous complaints, and scarred generations of children who stayed up late to unwittingly watch a chilling portrayal of a poltergeist manifestation. Michael Parkinson’s involvement in the project added a sense of credibility to proceedings and its groundbreaking approach to the subject matter makes it an important ghost story that is still utterly terrifying, even when you know the whole thing was nothing more than an elaborately crafted hoax.

The Forgotten

A scene from British horror THE FORGOTTEN (2014)

My final recommendation is an underseen gem from 2014, THE FORGOTTEN, by director Oliver Frampton, that updates the traditional British ghost story by replacing the classic haunted house setting with an all but abandoned set of council flats. Clem Tibber stars as a young boy who is sent to live in one of the unwelcoming flats with his absentee father, and it is not long before he begins to hear strange sounds from the other flats. The Forgotten is a superb slow-burn horror and rewards the patient viewer when the eventual crescendo of scares gains traction towards the end of the story.

I hope that you get the chance to watch some of these creepy British ghost stories and would love to hear from you if you have any recommendations of similar films. Finally, (if you are brave enough – audience members were jumping out of their seats during my screening) make sure you get to experience Ghost Stories in the cinema when it is released. You won’t regret seeing this fresh approach to the traditional ghost stories that we all know and love fear.

GHOST STORIES is in UK cinemas from 6th April, 2018.

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