The Woman In Black: A Christmas Ghost Story That Terrified a Generation
Christmas Eve, 1989. I am ten years old, and my mum and dad let me stay up with them to watch a ghost story on ITV. Little did I know that in the next hour and forty minutes, I would be so terrified that I wouldn’t sleep that night. Or for several more nights. The Woman in Black was about to enter my nightmares, and 30 years later, she still does.
The Woman in Black was written by Susan Hill in 1983 and was then adapted as a teleplay by Nigel Kneale and directed by Herbert Wise (Tales of the Unexpected) in 1989. It is also the second longest-running non-musical stage play in West End history. The quality of the images in this article will not be high, that is because it has always been extremely difficult to find a copy of the TV movie. I do indeed own a rare copy of it on DVD, and it is available to watch (in several parts) on YouTube. If you do not wish to have it totally spoiled for you here, I would suggest you find a way to watch it first. Otherwise, read on.
The story follows a young solicitor, Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), who is sent by his boss to a town on the East coast of England, Crythin Gifford, following the death of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow. Arthur is to go to her property, Eel Marsh House, to attend her funeral, collect important papers, and put the house on the market. Mrs. Drablow has no living relatives for her property to be passed on to.
He travels by train to Crythin Gifford and on the journey, meets a Mr. Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) who happens to live in the town and becomes unsettled when he hears that Arthur is there to deal with the Drablow estate. On arrival at the Inn where he will board, it becomes clear to Arthur that the locals are reluctant to talk about the history of Eel Marsh House, but he won’t be unnerved. Well, I am. Even at this early stage, there is such a sense of dread and tension. Maybe it’s because these full-grown men, all fit and burley or well educated and well off, are clearly rattled by something at that house, so much so that none of them will go near the place.
Alice Drablow had been a recluse for many years, living alone at the house and with few visitors. Only a local man, Keckwick, a pony trap driver who knew the marsh tides well, ever went to check on her. It was he who found Alice dead in her sitting chair. Yet even he doesn’t attend her funeral. The only persons present are the Vicar, Mr. Pepperell, a local solicitor who will deal with the sale of the house, and Arthur himself. Oh, and a woman dressed in black mourning clothes who lurks at the back of the cemetery without saying a word, just staring. There is something so incredibly creepy about her stillness. The outline of her tightly corseted figure in Victorian dress, her pale face, and dark sunken eyes haunt me. It is a vision that has stayed with me for so long now; she almost feels like an old enemy.
This version of The Woman in Black has few jump scares. The 2012 remake starring Daniel Radcliffe has them pouring out of every corner, and it made for a far less scary film. This is what so many big-budget horror directors get wrong. If you try to make your audience jump continually, they will get used to it, and it just won’t be scary anymore. Less is always more when it comes to Horror. The musical score will do much of the work by building up the tension. Let the sounds paint the picture—what you imagine is always going to be worse than anything depicted on screen. I mean, that’s hardly breaking news, but it just doesn’t seem to happen these days, except maybe in the case of Japanese Horror. Is it me? Am I old and out of touch?
Well, whatever. It is the slow-burning terror that this TV movie gets so right. Arthur now must travel to Eel Marsh House with Keckwick while the tide is low. The atmosphere is bleak; sea mist clouds their vision as they move closer to the mansion. The clip-clopping of pony hooves and gulls squawking fills the air.
He ventures outside to look at the land around him, scattered with gravestones, and there, quite shockingly, the woman in black stands. Staring through his soul, hatred painted on her face. He is stuck to the spot for a while in terror, and then as she begins to move towards him, he flees back to the house and locks himself inside.
By this point, as a ten-year-old, I couldn’t breathe with fear. I’m one of those annoying people who, when they find something a bit scary, I can’t stop laughing—nervous laughter, I guess—but not here. This is just nasty. I can’t even really explain why. She’s just standing there; she hasn’t said a word, made a threat, or done anything bad at all yet. She is just intolerably depressing.
The score is reminiscent of a Hammer Horror; old organ keys tinkle, violins shriek and creak, all slowly built up to a crescendo of sounds that make the hairs on the back of your neck raise. Her presence comes at you like it does Arthur, and fleeing to that ominous old house is not much of a relief.
Once inside, Arthur calms down and quite bizarrely doesn’t even begin to think she might try to get in the house, I suppose at this point because he knows she is not human—that what he is seeing is supernatural, no matter how much of a sceptic he is. He begins digging through Alice Drablow’s personal belongings and comes across two death certificates and a picture of a young woman who looks remarkably like the woman in black.
Listening to some of Alice’s recordings on wax cylinders, Arthur begins to piece together what is happening there. This spectre was torturing Alice in that house, and Alice knew precisely who she was and why she was doing it.
Arthur decides he has to leave, so he packs up his briefcase and starts walking along Nine Lives Causeway. Despite it still being daylight, this is not a good idea at all. A thick fog surrounds him as he steps forward, making it impossible to see an inch in front of himself. His senses are flooded then with sounds of a clip-clopping of a pony’s hooves, gulls screeching, which bleed into the echoing screams of a woman, then a child wailing fearfully for its mother. Horrible chaos swarms around the fog as the pony and trap spill into the quicksand and are submerged. The cries of the mother and child die out. It is intoxicating, not only for Arthur, but for us viewers as we cannot see through the fog either, we experience this terrifying replaying of death on the marsh, and it swallows you whole.
Arthur makes it back to Eel Marsh House out of the fog, and Keckwick arrives to take him back to town. Once there, he meets with Mr. Toovey and tells him what happened. Mr. Toovey warns him not to return to Eel Marsh House, but Arthur is determined to finish his work and find out what happened there. It becomes apparent that many of the townsfolk have lost their children tragically. Mr. and Mrs. Toovey are the wealthiest people in Crythin Gifford but wonder what the point in it all is when they have no children to pass it down to.
Arthur is adamant and returns to the Drablow estate. Toovey loans him his dog Spider for company. Again, another perfect way to step up the creep factor is to introduce an animal with a sixth sense. It’s not long before Spider starts growling and barking at something unseen. Arthur hears a bang from upstairs and tracks it to the only locked room in the house. None of his keys fit the lock, so he collects an axe to break the door down. On his return, he is stunned to find that the door is open. The soft banging noise still coming from inside. He opens the door—it is a perfectly kept child’s room. A ball bounces on the floor by itself. A child’s giggle dances past him, then a whisper of ‘hello’. Arthur notices a small lead figure of a soldier is in his hand.
The electricity generator starts to run down. It is actually painful being this frightened. He runs like hell to the outhouse and just manages to get it working again before all the lights go out. Spider hears a whistle from the marshes and runs away. We presume he meets his demise out there at the hands of the woman in black. Once again, the sound of the pony and trap replays while the woman and child’s screaming rings out across the marshes, exactly as it sounded the first time.
Arthur retreats to the house and locks himself in, frightened almost into madness now. He begins recording his own experiences into the wax cylinders and reads through the papers he has collected. Various evidence in the study shows that the woman in the photograph was the sister of Alice Drablow. Her name was Jennet Goss and she had a child out of wedlock at a time when it was very frowned upon. Unable to take care of her son, Nathaniel, Alice and her husband adopted the boy. He was never to know that Alice was not his birth mother. Then one day, Jennet, stricken with grief at not being able to be a mother to her child, kidnapped her son and attempted to escape with him in a pony and trap along the causeway. We all know what happened from there. Jennet came back to haunt her sister as a malevolent and vengeful spirit.
Toovey then shows up at the house, alerted by the good boy Spider, who managed to find his way home and get help. Toovey explains that according to local legend, seeing the woman in black precedes the death of a child in the town. This is why Mr. Pepperwell shouted at the children to stay away from Alice’s funeral. Earlier on, when Arthur first arrived in town, the woman in black had attempted to take the life of a young Romani girl, who was crippled when a load of logs fell from a lorry. Arthur whisked her out of the way before more fell on top of her. It appears that this is why she is after Arthur, for unwittingly foiling her cursed duty.
Arthur decides to show Toovey the child’s bedroom, but when they enter, they find the room completely trashed, all the furniture piled high to the ceiling. This is the final straw for Arthur; he collapses with shock.
He awakes at The Inn and finds the lead soldier under his pillow. More giggles fill the room, and Arthur calls out to the child, asking what he wants. A voice replies, ‘is for you’, then suddenly, from nowhere, the Woman in Black appears, hovering over Arthur’s face and shrieking with a deathly grin as he cowers in fear in his bed. I honestly cannot tell you how much this scene affected me as a child. It was so unexpected; the sound she makes, her face so up close with those dead eyes. I couldn’t hang my dressing gown on my bedroom door for years afterward, and that is no lie. The nightmares I had of her at the end of my bed and flying over my face. I remember hiding behind a pillow, holding my mum’s hand and whimpering a little. My mum and I have never had a particularly tactile relationship, even when I was a kid, so for us to hold hands was really something.
Poor Arthur is scared into unconsciousness and remains gravely ill for days. Stella arrives at the Inn to take him home. Just before he leaves, Mr. Toovey comes with news that Eel Marsh House has burned down. Accidentally on purpose. There will be no more haunting from Jennet Goss. Relieved but not entirely convinced, Arthur travels back to London.
Back at work, a trunk of papers from the Drablow estate arrives for Arthur to sort through. He is angry with his boss for sending him on this assignment, now knowing full well that his boss didn’t go himself out of fear. Arthur takes the trunk and in his office, dowses it with paraffin, setting not only the trunk but his office on fire, leaving it gutted. The lead soldier is nowhere to be found.
Arthur is sacked for his dangerous behaviour, and so Stella suggests that the family should get away for a while to help Arthur recuperate.
The final scene shows Arthur, Stella and their two children in a rowing boat on a lake, having a happy family day. That is until he looks up and sees the Woman in Black standing, on the water, with her death stare. Petrified, Arthur is unable to do anything before a tree above the boat suddenly creaks and crashes down onto the boat, submerging it under the water. The entire family are drowned.
No, no happy ending here. No escape from the horror of this terrifying ghost. She meant to punish Arthur and that is what she did, subjecting him and his family to a similar fate to her own.
Christmas Eve 1989, I did not sleep. I did not want Father Christmas to come and creep into my bedroom with gifts to fill my stocking that night. The sound of pipes rumbling and every floorboard creak in my parents’ old house struck fear into my heart. I lay there that silent night with my eyes shut tight, daring not to look up towards the ceiling in case she was there above me. The Woman in Black is the scariest film I have ever seen, and nothing has come close since.