Does a horror film have to be scary?
Revisiting The Awakening
Nick Bartlett returns to The Awakening, finding a subtle and affecting ghost story beyond the genre tropes...
*This article contains spoilers*
The Awakening (UK, Nick Murphy, 2011) has all the traits of a traditional ghost story: a ghostly child, a huge empty house, and a protagonist with a troubled past. Even the setting, just after World War One, is ideal territory for a chilling tale. However, unusually for a ghost story, the film actually suffers a little from the inclusion of genre tropes and is much more interesting when it digs a little deeper into the psychology of its characters.
Co-written by Murphy and iconic horror writer Stephen Volk (the mind behind the seminal Ghostwatch and Afterlife), The Awakening has an intelligent, sensitive script, with the writers taking a traditional horror setting and giving a slightly different take on a well-trodden track. It’s a sceptical ghost story – although, as the film continues, there’s a definite shift away from the supernatural towards the psychological, before making one final swerve back to spiritualism. Rather than the sensationalism of similar films, it relies more on atmosphere and plot, resulting in a more muted (yet still potent) finale that burrows deep into your memory. Less horror and more drama with supernatural elements, it’s an engaging, atmospheric film that’s rarely genuinely scary – but doesn’t really try to be. The most resonant scenes don’t rely on jump scares and are instead informed by the characterisation.
Rebecca Hall stars as Florence Cathcart, an author and paranormal investigator. Her introductory scene makes it plain exactly who she is and shows her scepticism regarding spiritualism. It might seem odd now, but in the years immediately following the Great War there was a notable rise in spiritualism.(1) People were jumping at the idea of their loved ones visiting them from the afterlife, and, as such, susceptible to con artists. The idea of ghosts would have been all too plausible:
‘By the end of that war, few families had escaped the experience of loss… the grieving process was a national experience, so widely felt that spiritualism found a large and ready audience. Professor [Jay] Winter has said it “provided a means through which the dead led the way. They helped both to lift the burden of grief borne by their families and to spread the ‘truth’ of spirit communication”.’(2)
The opening séance is the perfect encapsulation of this viewpoint, and by design the most conventionally scary scene of the film, with a shrouded medium, animal sacrifice and a spectral child. It’s almost immediately revealed to be a hoax, letting the audience know early on what not to expect from this story. Namely, that it will not be a generic horror film, and that standard horror tropes are not welcome. (Incidentally, this scene seems to have been lifted wholesale for the episode ‘Séance Time’ of Inside No.9 – an episode that centres on a fraudulent séance that goes wrong.)
When a child dies under mysterious circumstances at a boy’s school in Cumbria, History master Mr Mallory (Dominic West) arrives on Florence’s doorstep to try and persuade her to investigate. Upon arrival she meets the too-nice-by-half Matron Maud (Imelda Staunton), the headmaster (John Shrapnel), and brutal teacher Mr McNair (Shaun Dooley).
So far, so conventional – but the mystery is resolved within 45 minutes, giving director Nick Murphy time to delve deeper into the character of Florence and her mysterious past. It’s no surprise that the more overt horror elements have also largely dissipated by this point, and as the film progresses, it begins to resemble something altogether deeper. World War One casts a heavy shadow over the film and every character is touched by death. Florence lost her fiancé in the war, and the headmaster makes allusions to his deceased sons who may have died in similar circumstances. War veterans Mallory and McNair are shown to be deeply disturbed by their experiences; Mallory self-harms by re-opening his leg wound, and McNair has a cough from mustard gas. Even Joseph Rawle’s creepy groundskeeper is immediately coded as suspicious from the word ‘go’, revealed to be worming his way out of conscription. Not only the war, but influenza had killed over a million people in Britain during this period (as referenced in the opening titles of the film) so death was something of an everyday occurrence by this point. It might not be explicitly tied to the plot, but this informs the attitudes of the characters and adds to the mournful, ethereal tone of the film.
On release, reviews often drew negative comparisons with The Others (Spain, Alejandro Amenábar, 2001 – also set during the war), The Devil’s Backbone (Spain/Mexico, Guillermo del Toro, 2001) and The Orphanage (Spain, J. A. Bayona, 2007), as well as British classics like The Innocents (UK, Jack Clayton, 1961). However, the melancholy tone and subtle direction mean The Awakening never truly feels like a traditional horror film. It doesn’t feature jump scares (aside from one ill-advised instance, in one of the film’s weaker moments) and doesn’t sensationalise the haunting for cheap scares. That being said, the production and post-production often seem to be at odds, with subtle cues in the dialogue often undermined by an overemphatic score that seems to be trying to convince the audience that this is SCARY – when the mood is more low-key and ethereal than that. It feels like these have been crowbarred in somewhat – a sense that is reinforced when you see interviews with Murphy, who says that:
‘If you’re making a genre piece, you gotta deliver certain tropes and traditions to the audience. It’s like if you’re doing a cowboy film and no one gets shot or there are no horses or saloon, then you just cheated the audience… there needs to be those familiar tropes within a supernatural film, within a ghost story. I think the trick is… you have to get the balance right and deliver enough that’s novel and new and not too overfamiliar.’(3)
As such, the film often feels like a compromise between two opposing styles of horror cinema – and thankfully, it’s the more interesting, philosophical ghost story that wins out. The few genuinely scary scenes have a much more spine tingling feel to them, precisely because there are so few of them.
The most effective instance of this comes when Florence finds a creepy old dollhouse in the school. Looking from the ground floor up, she sees dioramas of previous scenes from the film and then, on the very top floor, a model of herself looking at a tiny dollhouse – except there’s a model of a child behind her. When she turns she thinks she sees something, but it’s gone too quickly to be sure.
Several reviewers have criticised the final twist, with Mark Kermode saying it’s effectively too big a reveal,(4) and the conclusion can’t contain the ramifications of the twist in the limited remaining runtime. I disagree. Not only does it work in terms of the story, but it informs the characters and makes the film even more rewarding on rewatch. The ambiguous ending is also a nice touch, and one that does have a definite answer, but one that is more satisfying unanswered.
The twist itself is muted and underplayed. The reveal is that the ghost is and always has been Tom (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a quiet boy who’s been visible to Florence the entire time. Not only is he a ghost, he’s the ghost of Florence’s half-brother who was murdered by her father as a child, in the building that was then made into the school. Florence has repressed this memory completely – aside from a few vague fragments that begin to filter through in brief glimpses as the film goes on.
The Awakening is one of the more affecting and subtle ghost films of the last ten years, but it’s rarely truly scary. It falters when it attempts to be a more conventional horror film and is much more successful when it drops these elements and focuses more on the characterisation and story. It may on some level emulate classics such as The Innocents and The Others, and there are spine tingling moments for sure, but on the whole it foregoes scares for atmosphere and a layered narrative and is all the better for it.