08 February 2012

The Woman in Black

I love old Hammer horror films - the ones that always seemed to star either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, or both.  I'm a total sucker for a spooky atmosphere and a little thought.  I'm not a big fan of gore films (no Saw films for me thanks), so I really haven't seen any new horror flicks lately.  When I heard that Hammer was alive and making films again I got very excited, when I found out their new film was starring Dan Radcliffe I got a bit giddy.  I figured it was either going to be awesome or a total disaster - worth seeing either way, so on Saturday Rae and I went and saw The Woman in Black.  It did not disappoint.  I spent a good half of the movie curled into a ball on my seat watching through my fingers.  If you want to see a good heart-pounder, then I highly recommend this movie.

One of the things I most enjoy about watching supernatural thrillers is analyzing their treatment of the paranormal.  I may, in fact, be a total nerd - but you've probably figured that out by now. 

***spoiler alert - I am going to discuss the movie in detail, including the ending.  You've been warned*** 

The Woman in Black is basically the story of a hungry ghost. In short, a hungry ghost is the spirit of someone who either has been severely wronged in life and thirsts for revenge or is the spirit of someone so evil that they keep hungering for destruction in death.  In this case the titular woman in black is the ghost of an unstable woman who had her son taken away from her.   When that son died while under the care of her sister she went full buggers, killed herself, and started haunting the town.  Whenever she is seen she finds one (or more) of the town's children, possesses that child, and forces the child to kill him/herself in various horrifying ways.  In the film Dan Radcliffe's character kicks off the action by going to the house where the woman in black's spirit resides. 

In a way it's a classic story.  There are several traditional tales of the mothers of who lost their children, went mad, died, and then became hungry ghosts who went after other people's children.  The most famous is the tale of La Llorona who, depending on which version you read, either drowned her own child or neglected it to death then went mad and killed herself, came back as a spirit and drowned any child who strayed too near the river without supervision for revenge.  The woman in black is definitely a spirit of vengeance.  We learn of her intense resentment and instability during life from a series of letters where she clearly states that she will have her revenge on the people she feels have wronged her. 

If this scenario had not been fictional, the likelihood of someone in this position becoming a hungry ghost would be extremely high.  When you combine madness with being genuinely wronged and an implacable will you have the perfect recipe for creating a haunting.  Most traditional hungry ghosts were not insane during their lives, so their behavior after death is somewhat predictable - they go after the people who have wronged them or those that fit the same profile.  In this film the woman in black has a definite profile for her victims (children), but she doesn't confine herself to those who wronged her - she goes after any child within her reach (which appears to be localized to the immediate vicinity around the spot where her child died and she committed suicide).  The unjustness of her choice of victims is explained by her madness, as is her choice of triggers.  To bring down her wrath all you have to do is see her.  You don't have to defile her grave, speak out against her, or wrong the memory of her child.  You just have to see her, and she positions herself so she is seen.  She's about as malevolent as you get.

What I found most interesting about this movie was the ending.  As I watched the movie I thought to myself that if I were the main character I would try to end the haunting by giving the woman in black's child a proper burial (which he never got). Ghosts want something or they wouldn't still be around, so giving a ghost what it wants is the best way to lay it to rest.  It's a tribute to the paranormal savvy of both the modern horror audience and the studio that the main character tried to do exactly that. Radcliffe's character finds the body of the child, presents it to the woman in black to reunite her with her son and then buries the boy with the woman in black's body.  For the spirit of a sane person that probably would have worked; it really should have worked.  Unfortunately for the character, but great for the chills, the ghost is unsatisfied and goes on to the movie's grisly end.  *I won't spoil everything for you*  Great horror flick.

One of the things this movie has me pondering is the possibility of a hungry ghost actually becoming a demon.  Several of the woman in black's behaviors - extreme malevolence, implacability, intelligence, and the ability to possess - are far more common in demons than hungry ghosts.  Most hungry ghosts have the ability to lure people and trick them into harming themselves (e.g. coaxing people off of unseen cliffs, making people so frightened that they don't watch what they're doing), but it's rare for a ghost to actually be able to fully possess someone, at least without their cooperation.  It is possible for ghosts to oppress people and get into their heads, but they really can't force someone to harm themselves (rather like a hypnotists can't make someone harm himself).  Most entities that possess people are non-human, usually demonic.  I wonder if it would be possible for any ghost to be strong enough to transform into a demon?  If it were possible I would think madness and will would be the biggest factors.  I don't know, but it's something to ponder.

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