For most of the 1970s, BBC1 broadcast a ghost story on Christmas Eve. The first six were adaptations: five MR James stories, the sixth Charles Dickens' The Signalman (in my – and a lot of critics' – opinions, the best of them all). And a lot has been written on these. The last two were original productions, and on the other hand receive comparatively little attention.
Its 1977 predecessor Stigma, however, that's completely, uncontroversially folk horror gold.
The emphasis being on the horror. This essay will spoil plot details, as ever.
|The crane hook, filmed to look for all the world like a noose.|
It's a studied, mundane sort of an affair. Katherine (Kate Binchy), a plummy, middle class mother and her bookish adolescent daughter Verity (Marine Gordon) return to their – fairly new, we ascertain – home in the countryside. Some landscape gardeners are working to remove an old and ancient stone that sits in the middle of where Katherine's husband Peter (Peter Bowles) has decided the lawn will be. It's proving harder than they thought. At their first attempt at lifting the stone, they get halfway. Katherine, standing nearby, feels a strong wind blowing hard against her. The chain slips. The stone falls.
|Katherine, dazed, standing stones in the near distance.|
A snippet of a real radio news report about Voyager 1 is heard, and sets the story in late August/early September 1977. And Katherine and Peter are played by actors called Katherine and Peter; they're playing themselves as if they were married. Peter Bowles, known for comedy, plays a straight dramatic role and plays it well. His fear turns to panic and then to anguish and it's absolutely believable. Maxine Gordon isn't so great as Verity, but in a production as brief as this, her dreamy alienation when next to the fatal stone while her father loses his mind seems appropriate, mirroring the dazed, haunted phase of Katherine's own experience. Like mother, like daughter.
The metaphorical buttons pressed by a suddenly bleeding woman aren't lost on me, particularly when they're set against the scenes of a young woman only just becoming aware of her womanhood. And while mother and daughter are both affected, albeit very differently, by the haunting, the father only reacts to the effects of the haunting on his wife.
The substance of the haunting is almost ridiculously simple. You lift the stone, you let out the witch's ghost and it strikes out at the innocent. But Stigma works because of its undertones, its texture. It isn't Gothic; it's just matter of fact.
We have ghosts as our neighbours, and we would do well not to disturb them.