What is a Ghost?
Revisiting The Little Stranger
Nick Bartlett looks back at the 2018 adaptation of Sarah Waters’ gothic novel, The Little Stranger, and posits a theory on who (or what) is haunting Hundreds Hall...
*This article contains spoilers*
“What is a ghost?
A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?
A moment of pain, perhaps.
Something dead which still seems to be alive.
An emotion suspended in time.
Like a blurred photograph.
Like an insect trapped in amber.”
The Devil’s Backbone
(Spain/Mexico, Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
The opening narration of The Devil’s Backbone establishes the central premise of the film with this question. A haunting and often philosophical exploration into what constitutes a ghost, Del Toro’s film features ghosts in different roles, as ominous harbingers of things to come, of protectors of the weak, and as avenging spirits. However, while the ghosts in Del Toro’s film do subvert expectations, they still fit with our preconceived ideas of what makes a ghost.
But what about a film that doesn’t feature ghostly apparitions, anyone returning from beyond the grave, nor any of the iconic imagery associated with the word ‘ghost’ and really challenges this notion of what a ghost is? Can it still be said to be a ghost story?
The film adaptation of Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger (UK, Lenny Abrahamson, 2018) does just this, although for the most part you are led to believe it’s a much more traditional narrative. In many ways it’s a ghost story without an actual ghost, although the supernatural elements are left largely ambiguous.
The story follows Dr Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson), a physician who is called to attend a patient at Hundreds Hall, the dilapidated family home of the once aristocratic Ayres family who have fallen on hard times, and whose fates seem to be entwined with that of the house. The matriarchal Mrs Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), detached and mournful over the death of her oldest daughter Susan, her son Roddy (Will Poulter), an RAF war hero recovering from burn injuries, and the intelligent but deeply sad Caroline (Ruth Wilson).
Over the course of the film Dr Faraday insinuates himself into their lives – or more importantly into the house – as sinister forces menace the Ayres family. As Roddy puts it: ‘There’s a thing in the house that hates us.’ It’s unclear exactly what this thing is. We never see a ghostly apparition, and it seems to manifest itself differently depending on who sees it. Roddy sees it as fire, Mrs Ayres is convinced that it’s the ghost of Susan, and Caroline… well, we’ll come to her in a bit.
Perhaps the most important scene in understanding the supernatural goings-on comes just over halfway into the film. After a disastrous operation, Faraday meets a colleague in the pub and they start talking, speculating on metaphysics and the origin of ghosts. Faraday, perhaps unwittingly, spells out what the malignant force at Hundreds Hall might well be:
‘We all subscribe to the general principle of a conscious personality with a sort of dream self attached… [which could] detach under sufficient pressure, become mischievous or malign, acting out the nasty impulses the conscious mind wants hidden.’
In short, saying that someone’s subconscious mind could fracture at a point of stress or trauma, and lash out in a way they would never do consciously. Essentially alluding to a ghost of someone who isn’t yet deceased. The concept is intriguing and rare, as I haven’t seen it brought up on film before, and the closest reference point I can think of is the excellent A Tale Of Two Sisters (South Korea, Kim Jee-Woon, 2003), which is still very different, but similarly plays with the audience’s expectations of what constitutes a ghost.
The ghostly presence is inextricably linked to Faraday, who visited the house as a child, the son of a maid, and immediately coveted the opulent surroundings. Class divisions are evident from the very start; Faraday constantly refers to himself as ‘a common village boy’ and the modest function that Faraday is invited to is full of people who think he’s there in his capacity of a doctor. One of the guests’ ‘Oh, you’re one of us’ rings hollow, and as the camera lingers on Faraday his discomfort is evident. Faraday is a complex and fascinating character, played brilliantly by Gleeson, whose cold, measured performance belies a lot of insecurities beneath the surface. Faraday’s whole outward persona is a façade as he tries desperately to fit in with a class system that is constantly judging him (Gleeson has a great time with his accent, managing to sound as if it takes him a great deal of effort to maintain the clipped tone) and his courtship of Caroline feels more like an attempt to gain access to the upper echelons of high society than a romantic affair.
Ruth Wilson herself is a revelation as Caroline. Best known for her cold, femme fatale style roles in Luther and His Dark Materials, here she is vulnerable, eccentric, and incredibly human. It’s my favourite of her film performances by quite a stretch. She is a tragic character, trying in vain to extricate herself from the house’s malignant influence, but drawn back by Faraday’s compulsion to keep it. As they begin wedding preparations, it becomes apparent that Caroline sees Faraday as her escape, but he sees her as his way into Hundreds Hall, and it’s only when she calls off their engagement that his composure finally cracks.
Caroline’s death at the close of the film is left ambiguous – whether it was an accident, suicide, or something more sinister. In Clare O’Callaghan’s excellent essay on The Little Stranger, many suggest that Faraday may have killed her himself:
‘He is the mysterious person that she calls out to on the landing before “falling” to her death, and Betty’s account of the night – that she heard Caroline speak to a person she knew and was “afraid of” before running – suggest that Caroline was indeed assaulted by Faraday.’(1)
Caroline’s last word, a hushed ‘You’, would seem to support this. However, the film’s final shot gives us a not-so-subtle clue. As Faraday leaves the empty, ruined house, he is watched from above by the figure of himself as a child. The identity of the spectre that inhabits Hundreds Hall isn’t immediately obvious, but this offers some closure. It isn’t the spirit of Susan Ayres, but rather a fragment of Faraday that has been haunting the house all this time. A fractured part of Faraday’s psyche from the day he visited as a child (the ‘little stranger’ of the title) and was caught breaking off a piece of the ornate awning.
It’s a symbolic gesture, and one that speaks to his entire characterisation as someone who aspires to be upper class but is clearly disdainful of the Ayres family, and disgusted at how the family have let the house fall into disrepair. By killing, or getting rid of them, at one time the most respected family in the town, he is subconsciously lashing out at perceived slights that have been thrown his way as a common doctor. It’s also no coincidence that the characters are removed from the story once they are shown to prove a potential obstacle to Faraday ‘winning’ the house. First the dog barks at him, then Roddy attempts to sell the house, then the mother tells Faraday to take Caroline away, and finally, Caroline expresses her wish to leave. All of them are soon removed from the picture, and Faraday is able to remain at Hundreds.
It remains a bittersweet ending for Faraday though. All he ever wanted was Hundreds Hall. The way he idolises the place is reminiscent of Mrs DeWinter’s memories of Manderley in Rebecca or the way Nick Carraway recalls Gatsby’s parties. However, in the end all he owns is the structure. The house is a shell of what it used to be; what made it so special to him as a symbol of opulence is long gone. As Abrahamson himself puts it:
‘If you act on those sorts of unresolved impulses, you may technically get what you want, but what you get will be empty. The boy does get the house, but what he gets is bricks and mortar and emptiness. None of the glamour, none of the warmth, none of the love and excitement that he imagined as a child.’(2)
Abrahamson and Gleeson have gone on the record to distance The Little Stranger from the Horror genre – and it’s true that for the most part it isn’t scary so much as disturbing . Rather than an outright horror, it’s more concerned with issues of class and the metaphysical ideas surrounding ghosts. However, the ghost itself is something truly unique. The spirit of the young Faraday, exercising his malign influence on the Ayres family is very much ‘an emotion suspended in time… Like an insect trapped in amber.’ And the film’s triumph lies in the restraint it shows in revealing this to the audience. The Little Stranger is a beautiful enigma of a film, and there is a ghost in there, hiding in plain sight, but you have to pay attention to find him.
 ‘The Little Stranger – A study of the heteropatriarchal male and the dynamics of masculine domination’ (Claire O’Callaghan, 2017)