A Ghost Story For Christmas
1977 marked a departure for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas with an original contemporary-set tale written specifically for the series. David Evans-Powell explores Stigma…
The final play to be directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, ‘Stigma’ has long been recognised as a departure from the previous episodes by moving away from both the Victorian and Edwardian ghost story traditions, and from adaptations towards original writing. Being different though has earned it, perhaps rather aptly given its title, a mark of disgrace. Philip Tonge is not a lone voice when he described Stigma as ‘a straight down the line horror story … it just doesn’t fit in with the feel of what a Christmas ghost story should be’. Derek Johnston has noted how moving away from the traditional ghost story format was perceived negatively and came up short of viewers’ and critics’ expectations. Even Gordon Clark has stated that ‘Stigma’ lacks the resonance and impact of the previous plays.
Too different then, but also perhaps not different enough. The following year’s contemporary-set episode ‘The Ice House‘ (also an original play) is similarly compared unfavourably to the period adaptations but is at least appreciated for its bold, experimental style. ‘Stigma’ then finds itself in an unenviable position: the unloved and overlooked epilogue to Gordon Clark’s custodianship of the anthology before it mustered the confidence to step off into a completely new direction.
While ‘Stigma’ does undeniably signal a move away from the literary ghost story traditions of the previous instalments, it also takes some of those elements and blends them with other traditions of British television horror. Different does not necessarily mean bad.
Unlike earlier plays, ‘Stigma’ is pre-occupied with the bodily. Rather than withholding the appearance of the horrific until the final moments, it focuses on Katharine’s unexplained bleeding throughout, with multiple close-up shots of blood soaking her clothes and bed sheets or oozing from her naked skin. Earlier episodes though did not entirely shy away from the brutal. ‘A Warning to the Curious‘ opens with a particularly savage (albeit bloodless) murder. ‘Lost Hearts‘ features a startling scene where the ghost of the dead boy opens his tunic to reveal a gaping chest wound.
And while the spider-babies at in ‘The Ash Tree‘ are glimpsed in semi-darkness, we see one squashed into a bloodied, red stain. In contrast, while ‘Stigma’ is bloody, we see no viscera or wounding. The bleeding, while originating from Katharine’s body, is curiously divorced from it. She is panicked, but not pained, by it. It is treated, not as a shocking pay-off to suspense – as with the boy in ‘Lost Hearts’ or the spider-babies in ‘The Ash Tree’ – but instead as a mystery, something to puzzle over and not to be repulsed by. The blood may be excessive, but it is not gratuitous.
Neither does ‘Stigma’ dispense with the more psychological aspects of its predecessors. For the most part, it exhibits the same deliberate obscurity between what is manifestly real and what is only real in the mind of the protagonist. The more suggestive elements – the ghostly wind that accompanies the moving of the menhir, the poltergeist-like moving of objects, the sound of female laughter in the night – compliment the more overt, bodily horror.
What might explain both its less-than-enthusiastic reception, and its reputation for being less meritorious than the other plays, is not its pre-occupation with the body but its preoccupation with the female body. The female characters in the earlier plays had mostly passive or supporting roles. ‘Stigma’ is both the only play in the whole anthology with a female protagonist and one predominantly led by the dynamic between two women. The only male character with any significant presence within the story is Katharine’s husband Peter, and he does not appear until almost two-thirds into the running time. This is a marked difference to the other plays with their focus on academic or professionalised bachelors. The play also draws specific attention to the female body. Katharine is often shown semi-naked and, while not a sexualised depiction, her nudity and the physicality of her haunting makes specific associations between the feminine and the body, as the previous plays do between the masculine and the mind.
A cause and effect of this female focus is the play’s domesticity. Katharine is defined only as a wife and mother within the story, which takes place almost entirely within the house and garden. The earlier plays feature academic or professional male leads in traditionally masculine spaces of work, actively engaged in unearthing past narratives, usually to their cost. It is a pattern noticeably absent in ‘Stigma’. While Verity mentions at the play’s conclusion some aspects of witchcraft folklore that she read about in a book, there is no active research into the past here. Katharine is an entirely unwitting victim and one who goes to her death without any clear understanding of what is happening to her or why it is happening. A female character in the domestic space, she is not afforded the same intellectual authority as the male leads of the other plays. Ultimately though her fate is still the same, only here it feels all the more cruel; the men are punished for their hubristic curiosity, whereas Katharine’s ignorance renders her death particularly poignant.
‘Stigma’ has far more in common with other British television horror plays of the seventies that we could call ‘green-belt gothic’. The Play for Today episode Robin Redbreast (1970), three episodes of Dead of Night (1972) – ‘A Woman Sobbing‘, ‘The Exorcism‘, and the now-lost ‘Bedtime –‘, Beasts episode ‘Baby‘ (1976), and a few years later, the Hammer House of Horror plays ‘The House That Bled to Death‘ and ‘Witching Time‘ (1980), all concern themselves to a greater or lesser extent with notions of middle-class anxieties in metro-land and female hysteria in the domestic space.
Clive Exton’s script and Gordon Clark’s direction both make great play with the psychological tensions bubbling below the domestic surface. Beneath the polite veneer, conversation between both husband and wife, and mother and daughter, is clipped and strained. For much of the play, the phenomena aren’t witnessed by any character other than Katharine. Are these phenomena actually occurring, or are we experiencing Katharine’s own hysteria? In the bathroom sequence for example, when Katharine is desperately trying to locate the source of the bleeding, the camera is focused on her reflection in the mirror, so in effect, the viewer is seeing what she is seeing. The shaking of the house and the cracking of the walls (perhaps a nod to Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion), unnoticed by Verity, suggests Katharine’s emotional turbulence. This poltergeist-like haunting is commonly associated with adolescence, and Verity is clearly of an age where she is putting away childish things (witness her unceremoniously dump her doll upside-down in a vase). Gordon Clark makes subtle attention to this sexual dynamic, cutting between shots of Katharine preparing the meat for dinner whilst watching her daughter flirt with the workman outside. The camera makes an intrinsic connection between the physicality of the meat – all flesh and blood – and the tension between Katharine and her daughter. Frank Collins has drawn attention to the print of Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ on the wall, a sly reference that suggests the force released is latent, female desire.
Without a puzzle to solve, or some arcane truth to be sought, ‘Stigma’ has been described as far more obscure and much less forthcoming in explicit details of the past invoked than the earlier plays. I’m not sure this is the case. While there is no overt past mystery under investigation, ‘Stigma‘ is still fundamentally concerned with the tensions between our past and our present. The play is in tune with the film and television of the period often described as folk horror – Children of the Stones (ITV, 1977), The Owl Service (1969-70, ITV), and Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) episodes ‘Robin Redbreast’ and ‘Penda’s Fen’ (1974) – in which unwitting urbanites find themselves isolated and at the mercy of ancient forces tied to the land, which they cannot comprehend and that ultimately attempt to either change, corrupt or destroy them.
Perhaps then, ‘Stigma’ is less obscure than its reputation suggests. The commentary on the launch of the Voyager spacecraft that plays while Katharine prepares dinner wryly acknowledges our obsession with progress, with moving upwards and outwards while commenting that “we don’t even know what’s coming out of the earth yet”. While space is revered as the great unknown, the earth – the repository of our past – is taken for granted. It is vulnerable to our whims and fancies, our desire to move immemorial stones for the sake of our vain desire for the perfect lawn. Perhaps ‘Stigma’ is a parable then, cautioning humility in our dealings with our past, and warning against the fragility of progress and the ephemerality of the present.
 Philip Tonge in David Kerekes, Creeping Flesh: The Horror Fantasy Film Book: Volume 1 p.36