Thoughts on “The Woman in Black”

The Woman in Black

In which Harry Potter takes on a homicidal ghost lady with a brilliant sense of dramatic tension

I feel like writing a review. Teresa brought this one home from the library, saying a coworker had recommended it. I’ve never been big on horror films, (1) because the genre has always seemed a little too … evil … for my tastes. (2) (this is the real reason) because Watcher in the Woods traumatized me as a child, and after I saw The Others as a teenager, I found myself literally afraid of the dark. So why purposely give one’s self PTSD?

However, I’ve since come to appreciate horror as an art form, and having also since studied film in college (a very demystifying process), I seriously doubted any film’s ability to actually scare me. I watched the film with this attitude, and I’m not sure if it was the attitude or the film itself, but I was right. Not scary. Funny.

One of the first realizations I had was that there are few things ghosts can actually do in movies. The instant a ghost comes out of obscurity and starts throwing knives at you is the instant the ghost has lost its status as a supernatural unknown and has reduced itself to just another physical danger. And the instant this happens, you no longer have a ghost story but a mind-numbing action film. Thus ghosts are required to stand at the end of hallways, partially obscured, making subtle noises, jumping out at you, then promptly disappearing, looming everywhere but not actually being anywhere. In other words, they’re all moonshine.

While this realization may ruin the fun of a good horror film, I found it enlightening, because (1) I guess I don’t like feeling vulnerable and, perhaps as a self-defense mechanism, I view horror films as a challenge, and (2) if the opportunity ever arises to claim an old, haunted mansion by spending the night in it, a la The Ghost and Mister Chicken, I intend to show up the paranormal by exposing their cheap tricks for what they are.

And speaking of ghostly tricks, this woman in black was the queen. In mortality, she must have been an accomplished magician with a masters in filmmaking. She knew how to compose each shot, placing herself just around the corner, standing where she knew the protagonist would glance, then vanishing as the suspense began to mount. To add to the ambiance, she dressed her set with all sorts of bizarre, custom-made toys with unbelievably scary faces, ominous music boxes, and wind-up dolls that no child would ever touch. Most impressive of all, she got her entire ensemble of murdered children to work with her in standing in opportune places with ghostly looks on their faces while not actually saying or doing anything. To think how she could have so masterfully orchestrated such horrific art without betraying it all by communicating something intelligible is beyond me. But then, I guess that’s how ghosts work. It’s their jobs to remain aloof, anecdotal, and strictly unquantifiable, lest someone were to disprove their existence.

And yet … come one. Is the afterlife really so dismal to explain one’s only pastime being sitting around in an empty house for decades on end, crafting spooky, yet subtle encounters with the living? How in the world are these haunting dead not bored out of their minds and moving on to something new? Among the living, I doubt even the most guilty mass murderer with “unfinished business” could bring himself to sit around for decades bemoaning himself. So what’s going on in the hereafter that makes so many so pathetic and tolerable of tedium?

What’s fun is when you realize the rhythm of a horror film like this. Camera tightens on protagonist. Protagonist looks around in uncertainty. Feelings of vulnerability increase. The strings are all over the place. Somebody’s playing a hair-raising waterphone. Three … two … one … AGH! Is it the ghost? Of course not, because the ghost can’t actually reveal herself until we approach the climax of the movie, which will happen at about 110 minutes, and we’re only at 35, so you can rest with 90% certainty that it’s a false alarm. And the cycle goes on. And on.

I’m not talking down this movie. It was well made with beautiful cinematography. I’ll bet the crew had a blast with nearly every shot. “Let’s see, what would be scary here? Oh! How about an eyeball!” It’s just that this movie has helped me realize how stilted, silly, ridiculous (and fun) cinematic horror can be. Now I would be lying if I said the movie never made me jump (a little bit) or afraid of the dark (slightly) afterward. One can’t expose himself to two hours of intentionally traumatizing material without feeling a little PTSD.

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize that there’s something valuable in horror. It can be good for the soul to experience fear in a safe environment so that we can learn from ourselves how to deal with it. And if I ever have to deal with a psychotic woman in black from the other side, I know just what I’ll do. I’ll sit down with her and talk cinema.

Ghosts.

Not scary.

OK, maybe just a little.

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