Folklore and farming have gone hand-in-hand for centuries partly because of the devastating effect an outbreak of disease can have on livestock and crops. Nigel Kneale was brought up on the Isle of Man where ‘There’s always been a traditional belief…in things you can’t quite see.’ The idea of liminal spaces, of boundaries between this space and the next, is inherent in farming folklore. Rituals are performed and talismans are used, in order to send the affliction back to the other side.
Murrain is an archaic term meaning a disease that affects animals and crops. On the Isle of Man, it has the additional meaning of a curse, specifically a curse by a witch. Kneale’s upbringing was infused with these beliefs, as he said in an interview, ‘We went not so much for religion, as a belief in monsters and bogies and ghosts.’
Murrain (John Cooper, 1975) was written for the ATV strand Against the Crowd; a seven-part series about society’s outsiders, produced by Nicholas Palmer. It was broadcast on Sunday the 27th of July at 10:15pm and was the only drama in the series to contain supernatural elements. Kneale went on to write a six-part series called Beasts (1976), which further explored many of the themes found in Murrain.
The idea of liminal spaces is evident from the start as the vet, Alan Crich (David Simeon) who is driving towards a village, is forced to stop because men are sweeping the crossroads. Crossroads are significant in folklore for many reasons, one of which is that they are considered a space between this world and the other. The villagers act as gatekeepers as they glare at him, an outsider, and then reluctantly move aside. Crich drives past and has now crossed into a place that believes in the ‘old ways’ with rules and traditions that he doesn’t understand.
Crich is on his way to see a farmer Beeley (Bernard Lee), whose pigs are afflicted with a mysterious illness. Crich tells Beeley the bad news, that the previous test results are inconclusive, and he still doesn’t know the problem. Beeley believes that something darker is going on and takes Crich to see a boy who has also been struck down with a mysterious affliction.
The villagers explain that the boy became ill after visiting a woman called Mrs Clemson (Una Brandon-Jones), who lives alone nearby. Apparently, she gave the boy some blackberries and he became ill soon after eating them. It becomes apparent that the villagers believe Mrs Clemson to be a witch, and that anything gifted by her, is cursed. They point out one of the farmhands who developed a limp after accepting a pot of jam, as further evidence of witchcraft:
Beeley: There’s a thing called a Murrain…there’s a plague on them. Your science can’t find the cause. When that happens, you have to look for other reasons and when it takes on people too, young kids –
Crich: When you find someone to blame –
Beeley: Find out who is to blame.
This conversation is an echo of the persecution of witches that swept through Europe from 1430 to 1780. There is a theory that the witch hunts took place during a change in weather called the Little Ice Age (1250-1500/1850) where there were catastrophic weather fluctuations that destroyed crops and brought plagues of mice and caterpillars. Without the scientific knowledge to understand the anomaly, witches became convenient scapegoats as they were meant to be able to control the weather and administer curses.
Murrain contains themes that are common in Kneale’s work including the conflict between reason and superstition. The locals have tried to find a scientific explanation but there is no known cause. Beeley explains to Crich that he has done everything asked of him, including burning animals but to no avail. And, since science has not come up with an explanation, there must be another reason:
Beeley: They got you trained to thinkin’ nothin’s true if you can’t find it in books or shove it in a bottle and analyse it!
Crich: That’s called –
Beeley: You work out the rules! And what the rule don’t fit, don’t ‘appen!
Crich: The purpose of science –
Beeley: Then you find you got the rules wrong!
Crich: Then we change the rules!
Beeley: Ohh! That’s handy!
Crich: For better rules! But we don’t go back!
The persecution of witches dwindled with the Age of Reason when science and rationality moved to the fore. Beeley is telling Crich that he refuses to see any evidence outside books and science labs. Crich, by dismissing Beeley out of hand, is soon out of his depth, as he needs to be able to understand the rules in order to know what he is dealing with.
In his hubris, Crich views Christianity as superstition and has no faith except in science and empirical evidence. Beeley has faith in things he can’t see or touch, as he says to Crich:
Beeley: I believe in God and believe in the Devil. You can’t have one without the other.
Crich: I thought that nowadays –
Beeley: Nowadays, it’s never been no different. They’ve got you trained out of all your senses.
What Crich can’t seem to understand is that Beeley isn’t talking about going back to the past; he is referring to something that has always lived alongside us.
There is of course a rational explanation behind the catatonic state of the boy and the farmhand’s limp: ‘The power of suggestion…It’s a powerful thing this belief.’ There is a phenomenon called shared psychosis or folie à plusieurs, where several people can share the same delusion. It can also manifest in physical symptoms such as catatonia.
Beeley talks of how Crich is ‘trained’ not to see what is right in front of him, ‘You’re trying to prove there’s no such thing. Well, you won’t prove it to us, we know there is.’ He then describes how television used to be called ‘scrying’ but is now a fixture in every home. Beeley is referring to the way something scientific would have been seen as magic only a few years ago.
Belief in the ‘witch’ is so embedded that the villagers are frightened to speak her name. They want Crich to cover her with the sweepings from the crossroads that he saw them collecting earlier. They explain that each of them has been to the crossroad, therefore there is dust from them all that will break her power once it’s poured over her head. They symbolically remove the tools of science from Crich’s veterinary bag and replace them with dust. The use of dust is common when dealing with witchcraft on the Isle of Man, but in a different way to that portrayed in Murrain. On the Isle, dust is taken from under the witch and rubbed over the animal or person suspected of being cursed. Crich takes the bag and walks towards Mrs Clemson’s house but then tips out the dust and runs. The men give chase but won’t step over the threshold. Instead, they wait for him to exit.
Inside Mrs Clemson’s house, Crich finds a woman tormented by male aggression. She can’t buy food in the local shop as they won’t serve her, so she is forced to eat berries and gruel and has no water or electricity. She is a woman suffering due to the traumas visited upon her by the villagers and residual trauma from her past. Her only companion a cat, was killed by the villagers with a pitchfork, cut in half and thrown into her garden.
Crich points out the misogyny at play here: ‘She is old, right? Wrinkles…even a wart or two… makes her nasty to look at. A bit odd too, talks to herself, shouts at people, nobody goes near…’ He’s describing a woman past childbearing age who is no longer of interest to the male gaze. Mrs Clemson is alone and has no family, she’s a little bit different so she is othered by the villagers. A woman past her prime who makes an easy scapegoat, like so many of the women who were persecuted for witchcraft; is marginalised and powerless.
Female suffering and trauma at the hands of men is a common theme in Kneale’s work. He wrote a play called Ladies’ Night (Herbert Wise, 1986) where a woman is murdered after infringing upon the traditions of a gentlemen’s club. In The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy, 1972), female trauma is embedded in the very foundations of a building, recorded in the stones and played out over and over again.
The men in Kneale’s series Beasts are dismissive and aggressive towards women and, in one episode, ‘Baby‘ (John Nelson-Burton, 1976) Kneale explores similar territory to Murrain. A pregnant woman and her veterinarian husband find an object in a jar as he knocks through a wall. The wall is symbolic of the veil between this world and the other which exist side by side. The woman’s fears of the sinister object are dismissed by her arrogant and abusive husband as hysteria – a misogynist term traditionally applied to women. Their relationship is an echo of Crich and Beeley, where Beeley is trying to persuade the man of science that sometimes the irrational cannot be rationalised.
Pregnancy also features in both dramas as does the inability to have children. Mrs Clemson didn’t have children and describes herself as a nut that fell off a tree and was trodden underfoot, meaning that the seed of her life was crushed in its infancy without a chance to develop. She wanted to be a mother and devote herself to her children, but her husband was unable to give her any. Once she was alone and past childbearing age, she was cast aside as if she no longer mattered, ‘…but I was me!’ she cries in anguish to Crich. She is telling Crich that she had a life, she is a human being, that she matters even though the villagers have dehumanised her because of her status and sex.
In ‘Baby‘ there is a disease that is causing animals to miscarry, but this doesn’t seem to be a disease of the animals but a disease of the land. It’s as though the land itself is barren and unable to give life. Nature is often referred to in female terms – Mother Nature/Gaia – and there appears to be residual feminine trauma in the land resulting in spontaneous abortion. This is an apt metaphor for the way farming on an industrial scale has interfered with nature’s delicate balance. The colour palette in Murrain is washed out as though the place itself is drained of life. It also seems to have been filmed in the winter, because the environment is stark and devoid of greenery.
Murrain was filmed on a pig farm in Derbyshire and Bernard Lee later said that he stopped eating pork because ‘the poor pigs were cooped up breeding machines.’ Modern farming methods have dissociated people from the land and the relationship has become less reciprocal. Folk horror often contains the idea of sacrifice as a way of giving back to the land and, perhaps Murrain acts as a warning of what happens when you don’t. On his way to the farm at the beginning of Murrain, Crich passes a quarry where machines are digging into the land, perhaps this rent has allowed something to escape which is responsible for the mysterious virus.
Beeley talks of how there is a ‘dreadful strength in the land’, similar to gas or oil that is available to use if you know how, ‘Once you have the cunning to tap it and put it to use and it’s the same with the other. Learn how and you take the land’s breath away.’ Beeley’s reference to ‘cunning’ is to ken or know and associated with folk magic or cunning folk.
Crich comes back to visit Mrs Clemson and brings her food. He also tells her that he has alerted social services who will hopefully also help. However, Mrs leach (Marjorie Yates) also becomes afflicted with the ‘virus’ after handling Mrs Clemson’s money and the men want to bring an end to this once and for all.
As the men rush upon Mrs Clemson, she raises her hands and Beeley drops dead. Crich stands halfway between them both, as though caught between the two beliefs. After a brief examination, he proclaims Beeley’s death to be a heart attack. The groundwork has been laid for this throughout, with references to Beeley’s ‘rude health’. However, Mrs Clemson shouts ‘Yes!’ before going back inside her house as though she is confirming their fears that it was her after all.
This ambiguity is deliberate on Kneale’s part and something he tried to incorporate into much of his work:
‘The trick is the paradox – turning your story inside out. Now if it is something that appears to be of total normality and then suddenly turns inside out and is a different thing all together then that’s fun to write.’
As such there could be any number of plausible explanations for the problems in the village. Throughout the drama, it is evident that Beeley is the ringleader of the witch-hunt and the villagers are following him. This could be due to the problem with the water which has now dried up or perhaps he wants to drive Mrs Clemson away because he covets her land.
Conversely, there is also something to be said about the amount of coincidence surrounding Mrs Clemson, culminating in the death of Beeley. However, a vulnerable woman who is being hounded by a gang of men may be playing on their fears in order to protect herself. They were too frightened to come onto her land before, and, as they round on her, perhaps her only defence is to play the witch and try to send them off with a ‘curse’. Then again, if Mrs Clemson has found a way of tapping the land for its power, perhaps she is taking her revenge for being ostracized and childless.
Kneale said, ‘All stories should have some honesty and truth in them, otherwise you’re just playing about.’ This is something he took from the writer, M.R. James. In an introduction to a short story collection, curated by Kneale, he says, ‘…But James takes us into his nightmares and they can be the worst of all. What we encounter there is unnerving because we sense truth in it.’ Kneale is describing a sense of the uncanny that James manages to bestow upon the familiar and every day, ‘Suddenly we find ourselves in a wholly alien place – like the houses and landscapes we inhabit in our sleep, synthesized out of all the ones we have known.’
In his essay The Uncanny (1919), Freud explored the semantics of the German word ‘heimlich’ and its opposite ‘unheimlich’ which have overlapping meanings. The first is belonging to the house, something friendly and familiar. The second is that which is concealed, secretive, withheld or private. The third is something that is concealed from the self. Unheimlich is the negation of heimlich and applies to that which is unhomey, unfamiliar and uncomfortable or, in other words, the weird and eerie. Secondly, it means that which is inadvertently revealed, that which should have remained hidden but has come to light. As such it is a mistaken self-exposure or self-revelation. This self-exposure can be found in the transcripts of the interrogation of the witches, which were obsessively focused on sex during a time of Christian sexual repression.
Crich experiences this tension at the crossroads, where he is a stranger confronting the unfamiliar or secretive nature of the villagers. This is unheimlich or the unfamiliar, the eerie and weird. It is in the hills that loom over the village, in the wind that whistles around them, in the shared delusions of the villagers and in the doll Mrs Clemson falls upon in her torment and uses to cast the men away when they round on her.
In English, it is ‘uncanny’ or beyond one’s ken. The uncanny is that which is simultaneously known and unknown, giving rise to feelings of discomfort, ‘Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.’
The uncanny reminds us of our own Id which consists of our forbidden and repressed impulses, desires and urges. These elements are unconsciously threatening to us as they deviate from social norms and we fear punishment for them. In order to protect ourselves, we project these repressed impulses upon objects and people which, subsequently, become scapegoats for natural calamities and personal misfortunes.
When we are children, these objects and people are seen within the context of childish fantasy but as adults, they take on a new fearful meaning. The difference between childish fantasy and adult fear is realism – there must be an element of truth. There are no actual supernatural acts in Murrain and a rational explanation can be found for every strange incident, yet the ending remains ambiguous because any number of possibilities could be true, including the supernatural.
These incidents that arise from projection such as ostracism, misogyny and persecution for being different, have been a part of human existence from time immemorial. This trauma is embedded in the foundations of the very land itself, as Beeley says, ‘It’s never been no different.’
The Uncanny Sigmud Freud (1919)
Ghost stories of M.R. James, Folio Society, 1973
Against the Crowd: Murrain (1975) 12 May 2018, Kevin Lyons
Cult films and the people who make them, Interview with Nigel Kneale, 25 October, 2016
“The Magic Word Here is ‘Paradox,” Jack Kibble-White interviews Nigel Kneale, First published November 2003a