Ancient Terrors – or the Terror of Ancientness?

Archaeophobia in British Film and Television

Francis Young explores whether the distant past, in and of itself, can be a source of horror, leading to a distinct fear of the past: archaeophobia…

The classic British horror film Night of the Demon (UK, Jacques Tourneur, 1957) opens memorably with footage of Stonehenge, set to eerie music, as the narrator intones: ‘It has been written since the beginning of time, even onto these ancient stones, that evil supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness …’ 

There is no obvious reason, from a narrative or thematic point of view, why Stonehenge should feature in a film based on M. R. James’s ghost story ‘Casting the Runes’ (1911). Stonehenge has nothing to do with runes, after all. But the opening words of the film, referencing ‘the beginning of time’, suggest a reason: archaeophobia, the human tendency to fear the ancient. Ancient things like Stonehenge are uncanny, and therefore a cue to the viewer that what follows is going to be a particular kind of horror.

Archaeophobia is often at the heart of the representation of the uncanny in cinema and television, from the unease occasioned by the facial expressions of old-fashioned dolls to the terrifying consequences of dabbling in archaeology. While the sheer oldness of a site or object is rarely the sole reason it is presented as a source of horror in any story, our feelings of unease when presented with survivors from the otherworlds of the past are surely an important reason why horror is so often focussed on the old or the ancient. Archaeophobia is closely bound up with fear of the dead and the decaying, and the uncanniness inherent in anything which ought to be alive but is devoid of life, and anything that ought to be associated with vibrant life but is now abandoned and neglected (part of the reason, surely, why we find old toys so unsettling). However, it is also distinct from fear of dead things; our fear of things because they are old is greater the older they are, because at the heart of archaeophobia is a fear of difference: the past is fearful because it was different from the present.

The intrusion of the unquiet past into the present is an all-pervasive theme in horror, and indeed a cliché in thrillers and drama generally. Yet this intrusive past is usually the fairly recent past, and cinema and TV become specifically archaeophobic when the past is presented as frightening not just because of what happened in the past, but because it is the past. This is the horror at the heart of Quatermass and the Pit (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1967): the accidental excavation of a deep, buried (literally) human past unleashes horror in modern London. It is tempting to speculate that Nigel Kneale’s original serial Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, Nigel Kneale, 1958–9) was partly inspired by the real archaeological discoveries that were taking place in shattered Post-war London, such as the excavation of the strange and unsettling Temple of Mithras in 1954. In their haste to bring in the new world of the 1950s, builders inadvertently unearthed an older London that put the Londoners who queued to see the Mithraeum in contact with a strange and exotic ancient mystery religion, very different from the austere and patrician Roman religion of Victorian stereotype.

The deep past is frightening because it is alien: people do things differently there, like the moral horror of druidic human sacrifice conjured in The Stone Tape (BBC, Peter Sasdy, 1972). The uncanniness of the past arises from the necessity of holding in tension the knowledge that, on the one hand, people in the past were just like us; but, on the other hand, they did things we might choose to believe we are incapable of doing. The obvious historical reality, ever-present to the Post-war generation, that twentieth-century humans were capable of horrors beyond the ancient druids provides the ironic background to finding horror in the past. The discomfort of early Christians, unable to reconcile the young world of Biblical creationism with the Egyptian dynasties described by the ancient writer Manetho, stretching away into an impossibly deep past, is a recurring cultural nightmare of the western world. If history is manageable in extent then we can believe we have some control over it; but if the human past turns out to be a limitless abyss then there is no limit to the horrors the imagine can conjure. If the past goes on forever, then the history we know is no more than the gleam of a candle in a vast darkness; and, most terrifyingly of all, how do we know that the tiny amount of history we know about really defines who we are as human beings? What if there are far more ancient forces lurking within us?

It is no accident that Night of the Demon is based on an antiquarian ghost story, a literary genre associated most closely with M. R. James, whose horror lies in the intrusion of the past into the present – not in the usual dramatic fashion through the excavation of past memories and traumas in the characters, but often by the mere act of an antiquarian taking an interest in and studying some aspect of the past. The BBC’s seasonal adaptations of James’s ghost stories often capture effectively the horror of the past emerging into the present. The profession of James’s antiquarian protagonists means that, more often than not, they have become desensitised to the uncanniness of the past and therefore more prone than most to delve too deeply into a past left well alone. It is only at the horrifying moment when Mr Somerton reaches out to touch the treasure of Abbot Thomas in the adaptation of the same title (‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (BBC, Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1974)) that the consequences of his complacency become clear.

In British cinema and TV megaliths are the classic focus of archaeophobia, to the extent that we can almost speak of a distinct ‘megalithophobia’ in British culture: a fear of megaliths and other prehistoric monuments in the landscape. While some people react only positively to megaliths, many people’s first reaction to monuments like Stonehenge and Avebury is a mixture of awe and unease: awe that people so long ago took the trouble to erect such structures, yet unease at the thought of a society so alien that the construction of vast ritual sites of unknown purpose consumed so much effort. The BBC Ghost Story for Christmas ‘Stigma (BBC, Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977) captures something of this difficult relationship with megaliths, and the premise of the film – that the lifting of a stone uncovers a burial underneath – was surely inspired by the real-life discovery of a mysterious medieval burial underneath one of the stones of Avebury in 1938. The notorious children’s TV series Children of the Stones (HTV, Peter Graham Scott, 1976) exploited the uncanny potential of megaliths (and Avebury specifically) to its fullest extent.

If archaeophobia in British cinema is often ‘megalithophobia’, it is also often a fear of archaeology. Just as the uncovering of a burial unleashes dangerous supernatural forces in ‘Stigma‘, so in ‘A Warning to the Curious (BBC, Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972) it is disturbing the ground that triggers otherworldly retribution. The archaeologist – to a large extent the successor of James’s antiquaries – is a professional botherer of the dead, and from a narrative point of view it is surely a profession that invites supernatural trouble like no other. After all, if Professor Parkin’s discovery of the bone whistle in ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You (BBC, Jonathan Miller, 1968) is the accidental result of idle curiosity, what horrors await those who deliberately delve in the earth in planned campaigns? M. R. James and the directors who adapted him were in fact drawing on a longstanding trope of warnings against treasure-hunting, a business long thought to be fraught with supernatural danger. From Beowulf’s confrontation with the dragon guarding its hoard, delving in the earth has meant not only an encounter with a past best left alone; it has also brought humanity into conflict with chthonic deities – whether imagined as dragons, gods, demons, ghosts, or guardians. Don’t dig! – the past is down there …

Dr Francis Young

Dr Francis Young

Historian of religion and belief | professional indexer | Reader in the CofE | tutor for @OxfordConted

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1 thought on “Ancient Terrors – or the Terror of Ancientness? Archaeophobia in British Film and TV”

  1. Dwayne Olson

    Nice piece. However, “Early Christians” were NOT Young Earth Creationists. That didn’t really take root until Ussher, and didn’t assume it’s current, modern form until Price, Morris, and Whitcomb in the mid 20th Century.

    All else strikes me as solid however. 😀

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