The Photo of Ellen Hammell
Jamie Evans shares one of the British horror moments that terrifies and thrills him the most – the infamous ghostly photo of Ellen Hammell…
Horror. It bewitches us, fires our imagination, burns itself into our being. There’s a lot to the genre we love and what connects us with it the most. It’s in the stories, the emotions they provoke, the atmosphere, the aesthetics. And it’s in the moments we find and the impact they have, from jarring scare to creeping, lingering dread. Most often it is these moments that stay with us and inform how we feel about a film, or television show or book. It would be the very stuff of conversations around water coolers, if there are still offices to have them in.
It’s in that zoom to Christopher Lee’s pitiful creature unravelling its bandages and moving from confusion to murderous rage in The Curse of Frankenstein (UK, Terence Fisher, 1957). Or in Peter Vaughan’s desperate and doomed attempt to escape the curse he has brought upon himself in ‘A Warning to the Curious‘ (BBC, Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1972). Or those final, chilling moments of Ghostwatch (BBC, Lesley Manning, 1992) when we realise there will be no happy ending. It is moments like these that resonate with us and evoke a visceral response.
And so, I would like to welcome you to a new column wherein Horrified writers share the moments that mean the most to them, the flesh and blood of our British horror experience. What chilled our blood and warmed our hearts. What made us fall in love.
To begin with, we’re going to talk about an experience that will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the seventies, eighties or early nineties. Back in these dusty, comparatively Cro-Magnon pre-internet days, a burgeoning horror fan still had much to choose from. From television showings of classic films in the wee hours to horror running through Tom Baker-era Doctor Who’s DNA to a multitude of books, magazines and comics, these decades were awash with plenty to thrill the spookily-inclined. It was the halcyon days of monster magazines, fanzines, and comic titles like Scream! (IPC, 1984). As the great Scarred for Life team have demonstrated in their two-volume hymn to what terrified us in the seventies and eighties, horror rippled inexorably through these years.
Despite this, back in those days, we could not look up the history of a film or series or book with a few clicks or taps of a screen. Information was sometimes limited or scarce. It was the days of mail order, local discovery in your comic shop or newsagent of choice, or shared between friends like niche contraband. And it was not cosy or kind. It was gory film images in copies of Fangoria or latterly, The Dark Side. It was sleepy, half-glimpsed nightmares in late-night showings. On occasion, it was real, too. Magazines would do stories on ghosts ‘caught on film’. The mighty The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space and Time (Orbis Publishing, 1980-1983) was filled with reality-warping, frequently terrifying stories which were so wild they could only be true. And, in one of his television series devoted to exploring phenomena, Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (Yorkshire Television, 1985), the renowned author focused on ‘Fairies, Phantoms and Fantastic Photographs’ (Ep 7, 22 May 1985).
There is one photo from this that lingers with me the most. The Spectre of Newby Church was bad enough, but the picture taken of Mrs Ellen Hammell by her daughter was the stuff of beguiling nightmares. Mabel Chinnery had taken a photo of her husband sat in their car, but when developed there was a passenger of sorts. Behind her husband sat Ellen, Mabel’s recently departed mother. She had been dead a week. It’s grainy and otherwise banal but Mrs Hammell’s straight posture is unnerving enough. It’s as if she has returned from the grave unable to rest. That idea, that our lost loved ones can come back through love but also through habit and hatred, was horrific to me. But what is worse still is where the eyes should be is only white, like some sort of terrifying gateway into the beyond. If you stared at it too long, would it take you too?
When you are young, you don’t know anything about double exposures, trick photography or anything else that would explain it away. And this isn’t a film or show, it’s real. On film. Right there; a ghost. As an adult, my rational mind knows there is an explanation for it, that there is (on the balance of available evidence) no ghost ever caught on film. And yet…
It would probably be remarkable for Mabel Chinnery to learn that, for me and for others, this image and ones like it opened a door onto other worlds and possibilities in a way films, television and books could not. It frightened me to my very core, and yet I could not look away. There really was no better introduction to the genre I love the most.