The Thames: Uncertain Depths in Horror Cinema


The Thames

Uncertain Depths in Horror Cinema

Lauren Jane Barnett explores how the Thames of horror films is given agency, acting on the narrative aiding both good and evil in films from Hitchcock’s 1927 silent, The Lodger, onwards…

The rippling waters of the Thames glisten and flicker. The gentle flow breaks around a familiar shape: a body. Bobbing in the river as though it was nothing more than a piece of driftwood. The scene of a corpse suspended in the Thames could be from any number of films. Focusing on horror cinema only narrows the field slightly. If filmed in black and white this could be a scene from The Dark Eyes of London (UK, Walter Summers, 1939) or The Lodger (US, John Brahm, 1944). If presented in colour, it could indicate Behemoth the Sea Monster (UK, Eugène Lourié, 1959), Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Terror (UK, James Hill, 1965), Frenzy (UK, Alfred Hitchcock, 1972), or any film adaptation of Dorian Gray. When director Walter Summers included a body floating in the Thames in his 1939 horror The Dark Eyes of London it appalled The National Motion Picture League in America. Today, the same image has become a cliché.

Of course, a corpse in the Thames is not a fiction limited to cinema. In 1971, as a stunt while he was filming Frenzy, a plastic body double of Alfred Hitchcock was found floating in the river. Bodies found drowned or as result of foul play in the Thames are infrequent, but hardly rare. Reaching further back, images of the Princess Alice crash brought the shock of dead bodies in the Thames into newspaper etchings. On September 3rd in 1878 the Princess Alice collided with a coal boat and sank in the Thames, killing more than 600 people. The slow recovery of these bodies meant corpses floated in the river for weeks.[1] These tragedies are reminders that for all the good the Thames has brought to London in the form of trade, it also brought with it death and danger.

The defining wends of the river Thames have, for centuries, had an element of peril to them beyond the potential for drowning. The muck and pollution of the river is infamous. The overflowing sewage dumped into the Thames was linked to the Great Stink of 1858 and the spread of the Cholera epidemic. When the Alice crashed, the water was so filthy that there was speculation some victims did not drown, but died consuming the poisonous water.[2] In the 1960s American pop artist Claes Oldenburg proposed installing a colossal ballcock in the river. The artistic rendering of the Thames as a toilet never went beyond the proposal stage, but the idea demonstrates the renown of the river as a cesspool.[3] Since then, there have been several movements to clean the Thames. However, the enduring cinematic image of a corpse floating in the Thames ensures the waters, however clear, feel murky. 

Charlotte Brunsdon, who dedicates an entire chapter of London in Cinema to the Thames, saw in these corpses a symbolic link to London’s history.[4] Looking predominantly outside of horror, she argues that the Thames is a referent of change, and a reflection of the past across London cinema. She concludes: ‘I want to suggest that whenever we meet the River Thames in the cinema, it is a river of ghosts’.[5] The ghosts, in her analysis, are those who died in the river and also past versions of the Thames whose stories were lost to revitalisation. Each story on the Thames, and all the bodies in the river, are then referents to a past London and the changes the city has undergone.

Film theorist Katherine Schonfield argued for an alternative interpretation where scenes filmed involving the Thames are read as a microcosm of the city. Within this structure, the Thames acts as a link between the narrative and a larger, common London experience.[6] Schonfield and Brunsdon both see the river as a fragment which can be read as part of a larger London story. While Schonfield emphasises that the meaning of the river is unfixed and its connections are in the present. Brunsdon frames the Thames in relation to London’s past, with the river’s history as an enduring ‘ghost’. As a ghost, the river is then fixed as the past interjecting on the present. Whether fixed or flexible, these arguments share a common reading of the Thames as a passive figure in film. For Schonfield the stories by the Thames are a reflection of wider London, but the river is spectator. For Brunsdon, the Thames has a greater presence, but looks only to the past, connecting present stories with the history of the river.

In horror films, however, the Thames is often given agency, even becoming an integral part of the narrative action. In such horror films, we see a refined combination of both Schonfield’s river with an unfixed meaning and Brunsdon’s sense of the river of ghosts. On the one hand, the Thames of horror films, as Schonfield suggests, varies in its role and presentation from film to film, but offers an overall sense of ambiguity. The river is not to be trusted; but is neither evil, nor good. On the other hand, there is a parallel thread in which horror films suggest the Thames plays an active part in finishing or continuing stories from London’s past. In tying up the loose ends of London’s stories, the Thames of horror is like Brunsdon’s ghost: a past infringing on the present to change the future. In horror, the Thames takes on a seeming multitude of guises with conflicting representation even in the same film. As a result, the audience is left with the overarching certainty that the Thames is not to be trusted. 

In order to read the Thames in horror films, it is essential to understand that the Thames has agency. This is done by involving the Thames in the story as a driving force or making the Thames like a character giving it human traits or aligning it with human morals and actions. The final exchange in John Brahm’s 1944 The Lodger describes the Thames as a hypnotic force which entangles the film’s villain:

Kitty: The river drew him, even in the end.

Inspector Warwick: The river sweeps the city clean…

Kitty: Carries things out to sea, and they sink in deep water.

After this exchange we see a man’s body sink beneath the waves of the Thames. The ‘him’ of whom Warwick (George Sanders) and singer/actress Kitty (Merle Oberon) speak is Mr Slade (Laird Cregar), a quiet lodger who turns out to be Jack the Ripper. Slade has eluded capture for most of the film, and even caught the eye of Kitty, but Warwick discovers his murderous secret just in time to save Kitty’s life. Slade flees but is cornered by the police. He then takes his only means of escape: a fatal leap into the Thames.The lodger 1927

The Thames, which only appears at the end of the film, is given a larger presence in this exchange. Kitty notes the river ‘drew him, even in the end’ reminding us that the river called to Slade before. Earlier in the film, Slade told Kitty that he found water soothing. The suggestion is that the river calmed him, possibly in his earlier moments of murderous rage. By the end of the film, the Thames pacifies Slade’s murderous tendencies absolutely when it ends his life. The Thames is ultimately the saviour. Warwick furthers this heroic description of the Thames when he confirms ‘the river sweeps the city clean’. The quote implies that the river has always held the role of riding the city of disaster. By the time we see Slade’s body floating in the Thames in the final scenes of The Lodger, the idea does not provoke fear. Through Kitty and Warwick’s exchange, the audience can see the disappearing body of Slade as a relief. His horrors are finally stopped thanks to the heroic river. In this film, the Thames is given agency. It is spoken of almost as a character in the film which attempted to tame the villain, ultimately killing him. 

As well as an agent for good, the Thames ties up loose ends. When the audience sees the body sink below the twinkling surface waters, we know that the Ripper is dead, Even though the police have not captured the infamous killer, and even though Kitty and Warwick are not certain he drowned, the audience gets a satisfactory conclusion with good triumphing over evil. The Lodger is based on a novel of the same name by Marie Belloc Lowndes which was inspired by the real terror of Jack the Ripper who murdered at least five prostitutes in Whitechapel over August and September of 1888. The Lodger, both the novel and series of filmic adaptations, arguably offer a more satisfying end to the Ripper story than history could offer. In reality, the Ripper was never caught nor identified, leaving in his wake a legend and the fear that he may have gone on to commit murders elsewhere.

In this 1944 adaptation and the 1953 adaptation, Man in the Attic (US, Hugo Fregonese, 1953), the Thames swallows the Ripper, explaining why he was never captured while offering a victory for the good of London. In both films, the river is a hero. Man in the Attic suggests this end is just: after Slade drowns, the police remark that the Thames is ‘not so dark and so deep as where he is going’. Though suggesting a fitting end for the Ripper, this phrase presents the Thames in a more ominous light than its predecessor. This fits within the wider presentation of the Thames as more ambivalent in the film. In earlier scenes Slade (Jack Palance), his face hidden, washes his bloody hands and weapon at the side of the river. Thus, in Man in the Attic, our first encounter with the Thames shows the river helping the murderer to cover his tracks. By the time Slade dives into its depths, the Thames is continuing its trend of sweeping evidence away by keeping Slade from arrest. The Thames is thus not helping the police, and even helped Slade avoid arrest – first by hiding evidence and then by killing him. 

This would not be the last time that the Thames would prove helpful to villains in horror. For example, Schonfield argued that Thames acted ‘in the guise of murderer, or accomplice to a murder’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 serial killer horror, Frenzy.[7] In the opening scene of the film, a shot along the Thames under Tower Bridge ends at the Embankment where a press conference is interrupted by a body floating along the river. The corpse of a woman, a tie around her neck, signals to the amassed press that the elusive necktie murderer has struck again. In this vein, the Thames is a perfect accomplice: there is no trace evidence and unclear sense of when or where the woman was murdered. 

Further, the Thames also plays a role in stoking suspicion and press pressure in response to the Necktie murders, which drives the narrative of the film. With the dramatic river reveal of the dead body, conveniently in front of the Houses of Parliament, the press go into an uproar. As a result of press pressure, the police doggedly pursue an innocent man on the flimsy evidence that his ex-wife was one of the victims. Hitchcock’s first solo London film – also titled The Lodger (UK, Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) – also focuses on the dangerous flurry of misinformation caused by the press, though in this later film the Thames kickstarts the titular frenzy. Frenzy 1971

In Frenzy, the Thames stirs the pot and acts as accomplice, a common thread in horror films where the river plays a minor role. We see this in The Mutations (UK, Jack Cardiff, 1974), Tony (UK, Gerard Johnson, 2009), and Dorian Gray (UK, Oliver Parker, 2009). In these films the Thames is complicit but plays a more passive role than in Frenzy, serving only to hold the bodies until they are later found. In contrast are the many horror films in which the Thames plays a more active role. When it moves beyond the role of accomplice, it becomes a narrative thread in both the film and the greater story of London. 

In Walter Summer’s The Dark Eyes of London, the Thames is essentially another character, acting as accomplice to a series of murders while also bringing a wanted criminal to justice. The serial killer in this story is Dr Orloff (a post-Dracula Bela Lugosi) who uses the Thames to coverup an insurance scam. Orloff convinces poorer patients to take out insurance policy naming him as the beneficiary as a means of paying for surgery. He then proceeds to drown them and fling their bodies into the Thames to make it look like an accident. The Thames is crucial to Orloff’s plot, allowing him to cover up a series of unquestioned murders. 

Playing turncoat accomplice, the Thames also reveals Orloff’s trick and ultimately kills him. When a victim’s daughter, Diane (Greta Gynt), begins to question her father’s death she turns to Scotland Yard for help. In an autopsy, they discover that the water in her father’s lungs is far too clean to have come from the polluted Thames, and therefore he must have been murdered. The mucky nature of the Thames, in a comic twist, will save lives as this discovery force the police to investigate the serial murders. As the police close in on Orloff, he captures Diane and instructs his assistant Jake to kill her. Jake, in a moment of redemption, refuses and instead launches Orloff out the window and into the river below. In a biting twist, Orloff drowns in the Thames. 

As in Man in the Attic, the Thames has helped the murderer but also brought his life to an end, leaving the audience’s moral sense of the river unclear. It has done as much to help the police as to hinder them, but in the end, the Thames closes the chapter on this murderous story. Orloff and Slade die in the very river they used to cover up his crimes, and everyone is able to move on, the slate washed clean.

The ambiguity of the Thames and its role in the conclusion of a reign of evil is a feature of Eugène Lourié’s Behemoth the Sea Monster. In Behemoth the Sea Monster the monster swims down from the Irish Sea toward London, wreaking havoc and causing panic as it travels. The first cost to human life by the monster occurs in the Thames when Behemoth overturns a commuter boat. It then moves further into London, causing damage when it goes ashore but avoiding the military by diving into the depths of the Thames for protection. Once again the Thames is aiding the villain as he attacks docks, streets and sends bursts of radiation through London before being cloaked in its waters.

Though the Thames acts as a shield, the monster is also only defeated when attacked from within the water. Two academics realise that the military’s air and land attacks are pointless, and decide to attempt and attack in a mini-submarine. Once underwater, the two men kill Behemoth with a missile strike and the beast’s body rests at the bottom of the Thames. The ambivalent Thames figures as both a haven for the monster and the avenue through which it can be defeated. And, notably, it is also where the terror begins and ends. This cyclical feature of the Thames is not limited to Behemoth. Behemoth the sea monster 1959

In Phantom of the Opera (UK, Terence Fisher, 1962), a London-based version of the classic, the Thames hides the secret of the Phantom and his past. The Phantom (Herbert Lom), was once known as Petrie, a poor man who longed to write music. Petrie managed to finish his opera only to have it stolen by a famous composer, Lord Ambrose d’Arcy (Michael Gough), to whom he went for help. When Petrie discovers a press printing his opera under d’Arcy’s name, he goes mad and attempts to burn the building to the ground. In the fray he catches fire and runs to the nearby Thames, jumping in. Petrie is believed to have died that day but is instead washed into an access valve hidden by the river, which leads to a cavern below the Royal Opera House. There, he is able to become the Phantom and seek revenge on the composer. 

The Thames acts as saviour to the Phantom, protecting him and allowing him to get revenge, righting the wrong done to him years before. Petrie, however, becomes corrupt and his revenge scheme leads to the murder of several people by his assistant and the kidnapping of a young soprano, Christine (Heather Sears). While looking for the kidnapped Christine, producer Harry (Edward de Souza) learns of Petrie past and goes to the spot where he leapt into the Thames. Harry then hears the sound of Christine’s singing, floating up from the river. He jumps into the Thame and finds the access valve to rescue Christine. Though Harry is caught, he and Christine manage to remind Petrie of his good nature and stop the murders from continuing. The Thames ultimately reveals the Phantom’s evil, but earlier in the film, the river saved him, allowing him to enact vengeance in the first place. 

Amid the river’s ambiguity, the Thames plays an active role in ensuring the story of Petrie and d’Arcy comes to a close. By the end of the film Petrie is redeemed, though he dies saving Christine, and the composer is revealed as a fraud. The Thames put in motion the possibility for Petrie’s revenge and also revealed Petrie to Harry ensuring that the revenge would not be further corrupted. There is a sense of closure to this story similar to The Lodger or Man in the Attic, but here the Thames also plays instigator in the story of revenge. 

 We see a similar arch in horror-comedy Theatre of Blood (UK, Douglas Hickox, 1973). In the film, maligned actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) is pushed to the point of suicide by the appalling reviews of an elite group of critics. At the penthouse apartment of one of these critics, Lionheart jumps from the balcony into the Thames. Everyone believes he died; however, the Thames shows mercy and Lionheart washes up on a muddy embankment at the edge of the city. There he is discovered by a band of vagrants who nurse him back to health and help Lionheart exact vengeance on the critics in a series of Shakespearian inspired murders.

As in Phantom of the Opera, the Thames washes up a man thought to be dead so he may right the wrongs done to him. In Theatre of Blood, however, the revenge is horrific, and one cannot conclude that all has been set to rights. By the end of the film, Lionheart is killed without succeeding in being recognised for his acting abilities. Further, all but one critic is killed, arrested, or is driven mad. Most do not know who is killing them or why, never apologising or facing Lionheart. In this story the Thames is a straightforward accomplice to horrific revenge and closes the story of Lionheart. Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood

Marrying the righteous vengeance of Petrie and the gratuitous revenge of Lionheart is Sweeney Todd in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (US, Tim Burton, 2007). After the opening credits, a fog clears revealing the shadow of Tower Bridge beyond the bow of a boat as it glides along the Thames. This boat brings with it Mr. Todd, whom we learn was once known as Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a happy man with a loving family. However, jealous of Barker’s beautiful wife, the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), frames Barker and has him banished from the city. After 15 years, Todd has returned, with the aim of restoring his life.

The Thames offers a return for Todd to the city which so wronged him, but there is even more tragedy in store. Once on land, Todd discovers Trupin, after arresting Barker, accosted his wife who then killed herself. Turpin then imprisoned Todd’s daughter as his ward with the intent of marrying her. Todd’s response is to seek bloody vengeance on Turpin, and eventually on the whole of London for allowing this travesty to occur. In Theatre of Blood, the justification for his horrific murders is tenuous at best, where Sweeney Todd’s 2017 iteration suggests the murders, though they get out of hand, begin with a sense of righteousness. The Thames, in bringing Todd back, could be seen as either an active accomplice to these murders or as a neutral catalyst, bringing Todd’s story to a morally abstruse conclusion.

In a variation on the Thames saving or returning those wronged, Madhouse (UK, Jim Clark, 1974) brings a presumed murderer to London to discover that he is innocent. Famous horror actor Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) returns to London after a spate in a mental hospital for killing his wife. Paul arrives on a cruise ship which docks in the Thames, an unusual choice for the 1970s when Heathrow would have been more expedient and affordable. The cruise ship is also an unhelpful choice for Paul who longs to be left alone but finds himself stuck on board with a young ingénue desperate to get his attention. The unusual river return of Paul, the ingénue desperately attempting to hold his hand, takes a sinister aspect when the same ingénue is found floating face down in the Thames a few days later. It appears that Paul is having murderous blackouts again, an idea that upsets him more than anyone else.

It turns out that Paul is being framed but these scenes on the Thames encourage the audience’s belief that he is a murderer and his return to London has triggered a killing spree. The connection between Paul, the actress, and the Thames helps disguise to the real murderer, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing). The ambiguity here is not as straightforward as in other films, but there is a definite sense that the Thames cannot be trusted by the end of the film. Further, the Thames is not cleanly closing a chapter in this film. Though Paul discovers Flay was framing him, Paul is killed in a confrontation and Flay steals his identity. The final scene suggests the story of Toombes will live on through Flay. Though vengeance was not Paul’s in the end, the Thames brought him home to conclude the mystery surrounding his first wife’s murder and force a confrontation between the old friends.

A further twist on the Thames tales of revenge is another Lourié sea monster flick: Gorgo (UK, Eugène Lourié, 1961). The film begins somewhat like Behemoth with an oversized sea creature discovered off the coast of Britain. In this film, however, the monster is captured and sold by the government to a circus. No one realises, however, that the monster, named Gorgo, is a child and its enormous mother goes looking for him. Much like Behemoth, the Thames is a place of safety and advantage for the monster. Gorgo’s mother is able to enter London through the Thames and, though she does go on land, finds it useful to slip into the river to avoid the military. In this film, however, the monsters live. The Thames apparently has helped an outsider destroy London.

However, if we look purely from the monster’s perspective, this is a tale of justified revenge in which the Thames helps a mother reunite with her kidnapped child. This perspective is upheld throughout the movie by the fishermen who initially find Gorgo. When they discover the monster in their nets they report it, but wish for Gorgo to be treated fairly and are horrified when he is sold to a circus. Later, as the mother cases after her monster child, the fishermen express sympathy for her, and suggest that her response is entirely natural if not sympathetic. Though no one wants to see the people of London killed, this film is more empathetic to the monster than Behemoth. As is the Thames, which helps lead the monster to her son and then take them both peacefully out to sea, leaving a damaged London behind. The Thames plays the role of catalyst and conclusion to the film, in a vein not unlike Phantom of the Opera or Behemoth the Sea Monster, but with the monsters taking over the human revenge storyline.

In the above films, the Thames plays an ambiguous role while it brings a London story to its conclusion. In this role, there is a real sense of the Thames as Brunsdon’s ‘river of ghosts’, but rather than a passive river which reflects the past and the dead, the river is an active participant. It brings the dead back to London, both as floating bodies and as living people who were only thought to be dead. It is worth noting, however, that unlike Brunsdon’s argument, pasts of London horror are largely limited to within a single individual’s lifetime; and in the case of films like The Lodger or Dark Eyes of London, the story spans weeks or months. In the past decade, however, one can find examples where the Thames is used to connect the present and future with much older stories of London horror.The-Dark-Eyes-of-London 1939

In the 2017 Alex Kurtzman remake of The Mummy, the Thames hides an ancient Crusader crypt buried beneath London. The crypt houses the tombs of the Knights Templar who, in death, guard against the return of an ancient evil. At the start of the film, we see news coverage of the crypt’s discovery during the Crossrail expansion. The scene is accompanied by aerial shots of the Thames as a news anchor explains that archaeologists believe the crypt was intentionally built beside the ancient river bank in order to ensure that when the river flooded the crypt would become permanently concealed.[8] Once uncovered, the Thames remains a presence in the crypt, flooding the lower the burial chambers.

By flooding the crypt, the Thames was hiding an ancient secret for the good of mankind. However, once the crypt is revealed the presence of the Thames in the remaining burial chambers helps evil return to power. Toward the climax of the film, the titular risen mummy, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), takes archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) from the London sewer into the submerged chambers of the temple, causing Nick (Tom Cruise) to chase her. Nick follows, swimming the curiously blue waters of the Thames before discovering a Jenny dead and suspended in the water.

 Ahmanet has intentionally drowned Jenny as emotional leverage over Nick whom she needs to convince to help perform a ritual to restore her powers. Ahmanet is able to lure Nick into taking part by assuring him that he will then be able to revivify Jenny. Nick agrees, however, Ahmanet is thwarted when Nick stabs himself, taking the power from Ahmanet and giving himself the strength to defeat her before reviving Jenny, who is lying in a pool of conspicuous Thames water. In the scene, her body floats on the surface of the pool as we have seen so many corpses floating in the river. When Nick revitalises her, he reverses a long history of bodies in the Thames being past salvation.

The Thames serves the evil Ahmanet in killing Jenny, but overall the Thames is on the side of good in The Mummy for it brings to a close the potential threat of Ahmanet’s return. To begin with, the river concealed the Temple in which a key piece of Ahmanet’s ritual was hidden by the Knights Templar. Once the temple is discovered, the Thames provides access for both Ahmanet and Nick to the crypt where Ahmanet can perform the ceremony and Nick can defeat her. Though the Thames has not literally brought Ahmanet to London, it is only by swimming through the Thames that her story finally comes to an end.

Ahmanet’s story is not a purely London tale, for she is an Egyptian princess and her body is originally found in Egypt. However, her story is also tied to London’s ancient history through Knight’s Templar and the crypt which houses her ritual ruby. Her story may have begun in Egypt, but the story of her return and defeat are all centred in London. The tie between mummies and London specifically is part of an imperial legacy which I discuss in the British Museum chapter. For our understanding of the Thames in horror, however, the imperial implications are less significant than the older importance of the Thames in the creation of London.

The Knights Templar were soldiers of Christ and would have known London as a former Roman city turned Norman capital in the 13th century. The importance of London for both the Romans and the Normans was its strategic location along the great river Thames, offering the capital as a major trading port. The Thames has changed a great deal and the city with it since that time, something which is (inaccurately) accounted for in The Mummy with the flooding of the crypt. The ancient historical importance of London is why the Egyptian princess must return there and this is also where her story must end. It is no mistake that she and Nick must swim through the Thames to conclude her story, again the river is bringing a London story to its close.

The Thames in The Mummy reveals ancient secrets of London that were once hidden and helps bring the unfinished story of Ahmanet to an end. Again, the Thames is ambiguous, supporting good and evil in relatively equal measure. This is not the case in Matthias Hoene’s 2012 horror-comedy Cockneys vs Zombies where the Thames is a connection to London’s past and a present means of protection.

After saving their grandfather and his friends from a zombie-siege on their care home in East London, brothers Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) and Andy (Harry Treadaway) escape the pursuing zombie hoards by boat. As the group manoeuvre down the Thames, they can finally rest knowing that no danger will befall them on the river. It provides our heroes with safety from evil and as helicopters fly overhead, the grandfather, Ray (Alan Ford) assures everyone that London will survive the zombies just as it has done for centuries. Amid many other important themes culmination at this moment, it is no mistake that the characters connect London’s past endurance with their present predicament while floating on its famous river.cockneys vs zombies 2012

It is also worth noting that the only boat moving on the Thames in the entire film belongs to this group of Cockneys. The Thames here is an advantage only used by this group, who are defined as Cockneys, in other words, native Londoners. There is a wider suggestion in the film that London survives only because of people like Cockneys, and their unique use of the Thames further supports this. It also suggests that perhaps the powers of the Thames can be harnessed, or at least are directly related to the people of London.

If we look back on the characters who have made use of the Thames for their own benefit, they are not all the joyous good people of London. Serial killers from The Lodger, Frenzy, and Tony have used the river to cover their tracks, hiding bodies or washing away evidence in its waters. And yet, the Thames does not have a distinct characteristic of evil or the horrific, despite the pervasive image of floating bodies. The Thames is, across horror cinema, ambiguous; siding with evil and good sometimes within the same film.

This ambiguity fits with Schonfield’s argument that the Thames is ambiguous in order to represent a microcosm of London life – and we can see this played out in individual tales of woe and revenge in films like Theatre of Blood or Sweeney Todd. However, within this framework, we cannot exclude the importance of the cyclical aspect of the Thames. In the series of revenge-related films, the wrongs of London’s past are revisited when the Thames saves or returns those who seek revenge (be they monster or man). In the case of Jack the Ripper, films like The Lodger and Man in the Attic offer a firm conclusion to the open-ended mystery of the true serial killer. As for the bodies floating in the Thames, they usually lead to the discovery of the killer, always a man run amok in London.

The river may help conceal the horrors of London, but it keeps those horrors within the city like a circulatory system, cleansing the system and yet circulating the same blood through the city. The Thames has been likened to veins and blood outside of cinema, with Sr Walter Raleigh and Wordsworth writing about the Thames flowing like blood.[9] In these cases, the Thames is the lifeblood of the city, and its flow gives life to the city, but in horror it also brings death. The circulatory system of the river kills as much as saves its citizens. If we consider this cyclical aspect of the Thames alongside the aforementioned ambiguity of the Thames in horror, the river is not so much an ambiguous reflection of the city as a force within the city, inconsistent in its morals. It supports and even enacts good and bad on the city. As a bloodstream it is the source of both life and infection for the city, but, unlike a circulatory system, it acts indiscriminately. The river’s agency is not bent to the will of London, nor does it consistently help or hurt it. It supports either good or evil – occasionally both – without a steady flow, mirroring the living flow of the river.

Among the many famous rivers of the world, the Thames is unique because it does not have a consistent current. As a tidal river, the inner flow of the Thames mixes with the flows at the top and base of the river, causing a varied and muddled current which changes throughout the river. Peter Ackroyd perfectly described this unusual Thames trait as ‘quixotic’ in his Thames: Sacred River (2008), noting that ‘it specialises in loops’.[10] Just as the Thames does not always flow out to sea, the bodies in the Thames do not always ‘sweep the city clean’. It does occasionally take bodies, innocent and malevolent, out to sea (as in The Lodger, Tony and much of The Dark Eyes of London) but this is not the River Styx, moving the dead on to the next world. The Thames more often brings the dead up again, either looping the past back into London to conclude a story or bringing up otherwise lost corpses.

What, then, is the significance of having the agency of the Thames in horror films match its inconsistent current? With the direction and speed of flow never fixed, the Thames is a river of mystery and uncertainty. This air of quasi-magical uncertainty defines the Thames of horror film, enhancing the magical aspects of a horror film. The audience feels this magic when the river houses surreal creatures like Behemoth and Gorgo, bringing them into the contemporary city. We experience a more ordinary, but equally potent, since of magic and mystery in the miraculous salvation of Edward Lionheart after his suicidal plunge into the river, or in the way Jack the Ripper, eluding all attempts at capture, is disappeared by the Thames right before our eyes. This mystery builds on the agency of the Thames leaving us with a sense that we cannot truly trust the river, but we also cannot cast it purely as the villain. When a body rises from the depths of the Thames it signals evil, but it may also be leading the course to justice. With this uncertainty, the river keeps us on our toes, and susceptible to its whims.


[1] For a brief summary of the disaster, see: Evans, Alice ‘Princess Alice disaster: The Thames’ 650 forgotten dead’, BBC News, (3 September 2018) [visited: 1 April 2019]; Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London:The Victorian Fight Aganst Filth (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2014), 102–3.

[2] Jackson, 97-8.

[3] The instillation was to be entitled “Ball” and was designed in 1967. A sketch for the proposal can be found through the Oldenburg van Bruggen Foundation.

[4] Brunsdon, London in Cinema: The Cinematic City since 1945, 181–204.

[5] Brunsdon, 204.

[6] Katherine Schonfield, Walls Have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City (London: Routledge, 2000), 147.

[7] Schonfield, Walls Have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City, 147.

[8] In fact, at the time the Temple would have been built the Thames was wider and shallower than it is today, which is why the Thames no longer freezes over as it did in the Victorian Era. This would mean the Thames today is further from the Temple rather than encroaching on this space, but truth is sacrificed for metaphor in this film on more than one occasion.

[9] This imagery alongside other symbolic references to the Thames is neatly summarised in: Peter Ackroyd, Thames: Sacred River (London: Chatto & Windus, 2007), 8.

[10] Ackroyd, 4.

Lauren Jane Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett

Lauren Jane Barnett is a horror ficiton and non-fiction writer and founder of the first London Horror Film Walks. Her short story “The Fog” was shortlisted for the WriteHive Horror Fiction Prize and her book “Death Lines: Walking London Through Horror Cinema” is coming out in 2022 with Strange Attractor Press.

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