As someone who thrives on experiencing all elements of the mysterious unknown, it should be a ‘gimme’ that horror movies and TV series appeal to my curious nature. Sadly, with few exceptions, I find myself usually in a state of peaceful, sleepy repose within twenty minutes of the opening credits. I’ve often wondered why this is the case, especially when I see friends’ comments on social media exclaiming how some horror movie, or series, almost caused them to open their bowels, or hide behind the sofa while making noises akin to shrieking banshees.
Recently, this came to a head when my wife and I sat down to watch the very popular Netflix TV series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’. I’d just spent a month in hospital and was intrigued to see Facebook friends waxing lyrically about this series, how bone-chillingly frightening it was and how it was the best thing ever, since Ug The Very Clever invented the wheel, circa 20,000 B.C.E.. Naturally, one’s curiosity was truly peaked and my wife and I agreed that when I got bored of duelling the Grim Reaper and finally left hospital, this horror series would be on the very apex of our television viewing agenda.
Sure enough, a day after I was healed and home, we camped on the sofa, turned the lights off and became prepared to be mightily frightened out of our skulls. Upon placing the mandatory status of what we were about to watch upon Facebook, several friends became equally excited and warned us that we were about to be ‘chilled to the bone’, ‘scared out of our wits’ and other eerie forebodings. Now, the mood was doubly tinged with excitement as we nervously gathered our television snacks with shaking hands and excited hands glanced eagerly towards the screen.
An hour later, we turned on the light and agreed that ‘well, these kind of horror shows usually take time to build up...the next one’s bound to be better. They’re obviously just setting up the characters’. Episodes two, three and four duly came and went. After-show conversation now veered towards elements of ‘No, I’m sure it will be scary soon..surely’,...‘Well, there was that one bit that made me jump….a little’, ultimately leading to, ‘Well, we’ve come this far, we can’t just leave it now.’ By episodes five and six, this final argument became our sole, stubborn reason for keeping on. By now, we felt we were watching more of a soap opera, with characters intent on tearing each other apart, rather than doing their jobs of scaring us to the point where we may have required fresh underwear. The last four episodes dragged to a conclusion (episode eight admittedly had a moment in it that made us jump and utter some bad words) until finally it was over.
There was a moment, somewhere around episode six, or maybe seven, where I began to drift away from what was happening (or not happening) on the TV screen and internally focus on why so many shows like this have little effect on me, other than struggling to keep my eyelids open. There’s a specific scene where one sister is home on Halloween. Let’s name her Sister A. She is angry with another sister (Sister B) because Sister A believes that Sister B has been canoodling with Sister A’s husband in a large cupboard. Naturally, Sister A is unhappy about this, but her attention is being diverted away to the fact that ‘someone’ keep knocking on her front door. When she gets to the door, no-one is there. This makes Sister A angry...or even angrier, seeing as she is already angry with that dreadful slut monster, Sister B. Whilst outside, believing that she is being hoaxed by neighborhood kids and engaging in shouting wildly at trees in the dark, Sister B appears, ready to offer an apology and explanation for why Sister A is erroneous in believing that Sister B has been kissing/ eagerly exploring the bodily parts of Mr A within a confined space. Naturally, this makes Sister A even madder and an argument ensues, leading both Sister A and Sister B back into the house at full volume. Whilst in screaming mode, both sisters pause and stare at the door. Yes, the ‘Phantom Knocker’ has reappeared and now both sisters can clearly hear it. Suddenly, there comes a ‘tap tap’ on the window, accompanied by more dramatic music and pained facial expressions. Now the front door again. Sister A and Sister B suddenly draw strength from each other; the argument on whether or not Sister B was engaged in lusty shenanigans with Mr A temporarily forgotten. It was at this exact moment that my mind evaluated reasons why I don’t usually find these shows very scary; expressing its mental delight with a cerebral fist pump. ‘Essentially’, stated logical brain, ‘we find the real thing way more interesting’.
To demonstrate this, upon watching the scene with the ‘Phantom Knocker’, the room began to dissolve and I was immediately transported back a quarter of a century. A friend and I were working on the composition of a musical CD. The theme and style of the CD was New Age and focused upon the journey of a soul from the point of physical death, following him into a new, spiritual world. However, with work and the arrival of children into our families, there wasn’t enough time to finish our creative labours. The solution - to hire a cheap, tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere for a week and complete our CD. At the time, we were both working church mediums and healers across different parts of England and Wales, so this took even more of our time. However, a time window was found, a cottage was procured and suitcases were eagerly packed, along with musical equipment.
The cottage was a former miner’s home in the sleepy county of Somerset, in England and around 350 years old. Our dwelling was a literal stone’s throw from the edge of Exmoor Forest, a huge expanse of greenery and also home to a fabled ‘Beast of Exmoor’, a large, black cat-type creature, which we had the misfortune to encounter on another occasion, (but that’s something for another time). We chose the location for its peacefulness and inspirational qualities. Having unpacked, we examined our new home for the next seven days; basically a small ‘two up, two down’ dwelling, with a tiny kitchen and bathroom, leading out towards a basic, minute garden. It felt perfect, although the figure of a witch made from corn, which was hanging in the stone fireplace, was a bit of a shock. But hey, we were two young mediums, used to researching and discussing the afterlife. We’d both grown up in haunted houses. We’d seen things. No mere corn witch was going to scare us.
Musically, things proceeded very well and soon we had several tracks composed, played and recorded. Everything was normal. Well, admittedly there had been a couple of times where I was composing a track and I felt disembodied hands on my own, whilst playing...followed by the touch of a forearm on mine...and yes, there were moments at night when we both stopped talking and stared at the exact same spot in the room, because we just knew for certain that ‘someone’ was watching us. Aside from those moments, all was proceeding in finest fashion. However, inspired by my choice of television viewing twenty five years into the future, my mind rushed towards one specific evening.
It was a Wednesday. We were chilled and relaxed. A productive day had been had at the keyboards and we were winding down, after the consumption of a curry that we had both enjoyed creating within the hobbit-sized kitchen. Suitable male laughter of a childish nature was now filling the cottage, as we discussed what we had left to do in our remaining time. It’s now ten at night and we’re still chatting, when there are three knocks on the heavy, wooden front door. Thinking it might be the cottage owner who lived nearby and hoping that we hadn’t been making too much noise, I went out to see who our visitor was...but no-one was there. OK...odd, but as we’re out in the land of nowhere, it seems unlikely it could be kids playing a prank. I returned to the front room of the cottage and got seated just as another set of triple knocks came from the door. This time, my friend went out and returned a few seconds later with a quizzical expression,m sparking a philosophical discussion on what was occurring. A few seconds later, three more knocks appeared. This time we both went out to investigate, but again, there was no-one there.
Now slightly annoyed at all the getting up and down business, we agreed that if it happened again we’d take action. Exactly, what ‘action’ we were about to plan was lost in time as the knocks happened again. OK...this is now getting beyond a joke. Convinced that some locals had maybe seen our musical equipment and were trying to force an entry, we both found suitable ‘weapons’ - namely a broom handle for me and a large soup ladle for my colleague. With the confidence of a battlefield general who knows his plan is flawless I whispered to my friend and placed my hand upon the door knob, ‘the next time the door is knocked, we go on one’. Makeshift weaponry raised in stout defiance, we waited for a minute. Suddenly, the stout, wooden door shook with a resounding, heavy thump. Immediately, I turned the door handle and charged outside. No-one, or nothing was there. We checked up and down the narrow, country lane, but nothing. It was while we were stood at the front door, that we heard three, loud, distinctive taps on the glass door to the rear of the house. The back door that was locked, now swung open. There is a time for bravery and there is a time for bed. We split the difference and heroically decided that it was time for sleep...yes, an early night would definitely do us good.
The following evening, after another productive, creative day - yet one also that had caused us both to occasionally pause in mid-conversation to stare at a certain spot in the house at the same times - we were in our separate bedrooms and I was trying unsuccessfully to sleep. After an hour, I gave up and was reading. The door to my room was missing an inch from its base and my attention kept diverting from my book to the door, as shadows kept appearing through the gap at the bottom, as if someone was passing by my room. Even more unsettling, I could hear my friend snoring loudly in the master bedroom at the front of the house, so it certainly wasn’t him. The shadows kept up as I tried desperately to read to the end of a page, accompanied by odd tapping noises. Logical brain kicked in and gave a brief lecture concerning the expansion of wood in old houses at night time and how this was utterly normal.
When another shadow passed by my door, heading towards my friend’s bedroom, logical brain annoyingly deserted me. I’d nearly made it to the end of page 27, when the house became full with noise. It took my brain a few seconds to work out that it was screaming of a highly excitable nature and another moment to deduce that it was coming from my friend. Hearing shouts of ‘Get off!’ and ‘Go away!’, I leap to the rescue in a manner that would have made Batman proud. I sprinted into the master bedroom, where I fully expected my friend to be on fire, judging from the terrorizing, Earth-shattering screams emanating from his mouth. I flicked the light on...no signs of flames or burning. OK, that’s a positive but now he is silent and staring at me like he’s never met me before.
‘So...hey...bad dream?’ He shakes his head slowly. Darn it. It turns out that my friend was soundly snoozing, when he was awoken by an odd feeling. Upon looking up into a pitch black room, he sees a large man standing by his bed. The man is illuminated in a phosphorescent light and glaring at him in a far from friendly fashion. Upon asking the man who he was, the aforementioned self-illuminated chap grabs the bed clothes and attempts to get into the same single bed that my friend is occupying; hence the screaming and shouting. At such times, it is imperative to be brave and my Irish/Viking blood boldly came to the fore, stating that I would occupy the spare, single bed in the master bedroom so that my friend would be safe from all harm. The fact that there was no damn way I was going back to sleeping in the other creepy bedroom all alone, is of course entirely besides the point and utterly irrelevant.
So, it’s now two hours before dawn. I’ve heroically descended the ‘Staircase of Shadows’, into the ‘Kitchen of Eerie Uncertainty’, in order to fill a large jug with water and grab two glasses, before sprinting back up the stairs to the relative safety of Earthly company. The mood is tense and my friend is still badly shaken. The next hour is spent chatting and raising the vibration in the room, mostly via bawdy, schoolboy humour. The ghost clearly liked my friend. He’s tried to get into bed with him. It was my friend’s fault because he is obviously a magnet for passing spooks who can’t keep their hands off him and find him adorable. Such conversation is washed down with welcome sips of cold water and slowly, the mood is lifted. An hour to sunrise...we should try and sleep. Tomorrow is going to be busy. My friend turns away from me and is quickly snoring into his pillow. I have just turned on my side when there is a very harsh sensation to my posterior, followed by a burst of pain and the loud clattering of an object landing to my left, some ten feet from the bed. The light is immediately on and it becomes clear that one of my stout hiking boots has somehow moved from underneath my bed, to be raised to a large height and thrown at my rear end. The room is now ice cold. Once the pain has subsided, I am livid. Minutes are spent patrolling the bedroom and urging the spirit to materialise. How dare it throw my own boots at me! C’mon...show yourself! I realise that I am sounding like presenters on a corny paranormal TV show…’c’mon, show yourself!’...’are you scared to appear?’ Having wasted suitable energy on shouting at thin air, I return to bed and notice that the large jug of water and two glasses, are now completely drained and empty. It’s now half an hour to sunrise. Conversation turns to our families back home. Yes, we were both missing them and especially our young children. Yes, we probably have done enough music this week...maybe...maybe we should wait till dawn and consider going home a day early? Yes, me too...great idea! By 9 AM, we are packed and speeding back to our home city. Whoever wants the old cottage that badly is welcome to it.
I wonder how many readers can relate to observing, or reading, fictional attempts to create a sense of horror, only to remember times when they have encountered the same thing for real?
'The Best of Exmoor' - https://www.thebestofexmoor.co.uk/about-exmoor