Adi Tantimedh writes,
I’m writing this on Saturday night of All Hallows Eve, and preferably, you should all have gotten to read this before all the Halloween trick or treating and partying or right after, but this column never runs on the weekend. I want to talk about BBC Radio 4 Fright Night, a double feature on Saturday night of two classic, if slightly forgotten horror stories adapted to radio.
It’s actually quite fitting that Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape and Koji Suzuki’s Ring got lumped together for a Halloween scarefest. The Stone Tape was originally a TV play broadcast on Christmas Day on the BBC back in 1972 and Ring here is from the original novel that became the classic horror movie in 1998. Both stories were new and unexpected, revolutionising the ghost story with new ideas that have influenced the genre ever since. The BBC has good form in horror adaptations, especially during Christmas where it’s been an English tradition to tell ghost stories for as long as I can remember. The BBC are quite proud of announcing they’ve recorded these two radio plays in binaural “3-D” sound for headphones to invoke maximum atmosphere and immersion, all the better to spook listeners with.
Nigel Kneale was one of those brilliant writers who seemed to effortlessly come up with high concept genre ideas that would have lasting effects on the field. He created and wrote the original Quatermass series, culminating with Quatermass and the Pit, which were the first adult Science Fiction series on television, and the latter was later remade into a Hammer movie now considered a classic. His TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics anticipated the rise of voyeuristic reality TV shows like Big Brother and Keeping up with the Kardashians decades later.
The Stone Tape introduced the first real innovation to ghost stories and hauntings in the 20th century that no one had thought about before, and I’m surprised it hasn’t really been endlessly ripped off by Hollywood ever since. Well, maybe not, since only the most hardcore of horror fans (including filmmakers, writers and novelists) really know about it. John Carpenter is a huge fan and cites it as a major influence on him, and its effects can be felt in many Hollywood horror movies or TV shows without its high concept ever being lifted directly.
The radio adaptation of The Stone Tape was written by Life on Mars creator Matthew Graham, originally planned as a TV update of the original to be directed by Philip Strickland. When that fell through, they ended up doing it for radio instead. A tech company doing research in an old Victorian building discovers a ghostly haunting on the premises. The arrogant, Jobs-like head of the company sees this as an opportunity to find out how it works and potentially develop tech that can cash in. He pushes his team, including his estranged geologist girlfriend, to the mental limit as they record the stones, trying to tap into their secrets, only to find there is a price to pay for meddling with the supernatural. This is where the story finds a new take on the haunted house story, adopting a scientific theory from 1961 that ghosts and hauntings might be memories, recorded moments that are actually electromagnetic phenomenon, events recorded in stone masonry. Stone as a recording and playback medium of moments in time, moments of extreme emotion and violence, moments of death… and the older the stone, the more recordings of moments of death and terror on it, throughout time… back to the first, ancient recordings of primal, unfathomable horror.
Ring also renovated the ghost story in the late 1990s and influenced the horror genre ever since. It introduced the idea of ghosts and hauntings as a psychic viral infection. Again, its characters pay the price for meddling with the supernatural. This radio version follows Koji Suzuki’s original novel, which is quite different from the eventual (and for many of us, much better) 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata. The novel was about a reporter investigating some unexplained deaths and stumbles upon an urban legend about a cursed video tape that causes the deaths of anyone who watches it in seven days. Nakata’s movie changed several elements of the book, streamlining the story as well as turning the main character into a divorced mother, and introducing the primal climactic image that introduced the long-haired ghost woman from Asian mythology to the West. The radio version keeps to the book, so dead psychic with a grudge Sadako doesn’t really appear in the story like she does in the movie, but in having her narrate the radio version, her presence is felt throughout the story, watching over the hero as he races to beat her curse and save himself and his family. The other change is the journalist hero is a Brit living in Japan in order to justify anyone speaking English in the radio version. The supernatural menace of the story is informed by Japanese mythology and Shinto Buddhism where the rage of a ghost is all-encompassing, striking out at everyone unlucky enough to wander into her path as a kind of karmic revenge. The Paranormal Activity movies display all the hallmarks of having been influenced by Ring in this respect, though relying more often on jump-scares on top of building an atmosphere of vast, unknowable cosmic horror along the way. The original book and Nakata’s movie never needed jump scares. They understood the creeping horror of being in the same room as something dead…
…as it turns around and looks at you…
…and hates you.
Supernatural horror stories scare us with the mystery of the unknowable, the Other that might come after us. Both The Stone Tape and Ring turn this around: they posit that supernatural phenomenon can be studied, quantified and understood…
…but that won’t save you if it comes for you.
Perfect for a fun Halloween night. Or anytime you want to spook yourself on demand.
Hearing horror at firstname.lastname@example.org
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