Stephen King, Louis Theroux and tales of ghosts makes Getintothis’ Matthew Eland wonder if we’re all coming to terms with life after death.
When I was a teenager, British Airways put an advert on television that threw me into an existential funk. In it, an unlikely selection of celebrities both alive and dead – including Winston Churchill, John Lennon, and, er, Damon Hill – walk through a futuristic airport departure lounge.
In the opposite direction walks a little girl. She turns a corner and is welcomed into an incandescent rectangle of light by a friendly air stewardess. All to the soundtrack of Something In The Air by Thunderclap Newman.
This was supposed, somehow, to represent the approaching millennial threshold of twenty-first century air travel. But that’s not what it meant for me.
To me, it was death.
This was much worse than the time I learnt about my own mortality. I remember, very clearly, asking my Mum and my Nan about it. Was I going to die, just like everyone else? I’d expected them to say no, that death was something that happened to other people. But instead they confirmed the horrible truth. I too would eventually die. Worse still, they didn’t seem too distressed about it. They accepted my fate as a fact of life. I cried and cried.
Twenty-nine years old, I was.
No, the British Airways ad was worse than that. I found myself gazing into the abyss. It sat like a leaden weight on my chest. I considered, with solipsistic resignation, the nameless void from which we all emerge, and to which we eventually return.
Naturally, I got over both of these events. Most of the time I can hold this kind of existential ennui in its proper place, in an equilibrium between sensible acceptance and blithe disregard, provided it’s not four in the morning and I can’t sleep.
Recently though, it seemed like every TV show I watched, every book I read, all the music I heard seemed to dredge up these old feelings.
Was this just me, or was there something in the wider cultural water? Was I blinded by apophenia, seeing patterns and faces in things where they didn’t exist? Perhaps it was something to do with being in my thirties, in good health, with an increasing awareness of how standards of living around the world are declining in comparison to mine in the privileged west.
Or maybe I watched too many things with ghosts in.
The first, of course, was Netflix’s 90% excellent, 100% shit-your-pants scary The Haunting of Hill House. It’s a loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel.
WARNING: The below contains spoilers for The Haunting of Hill House, Pet Semetary, and Brian Blessed’s autobiography
In the new version, the Crain family are brought together by a tragic event twenty-six years after the suicide of their mother. The program moves backwards and forwards between 1992 and the present day, each episode focusing on a specific character as it fills in the gaps regarding what happened on that fateful evening in Hill House.
The virtuoso crowning glory of the series is episode six, Two Storms, in which the family is finally reunited. It consists of five one-take shots and a whole manner of tricks and feints; think Hitchcock’s Rope, except with ghosts and exploding windows.
The reason why HoHH is only 90% boss is that the last episode is rubbish.
It spends 90 minutes ham-fistedly wrapping up all the loose ends into a difficult-to-digest knot. It also subtly shifts the entire premise of the show, which is summarised very succinctly in a speech by eldest son Steven Crain, played by Michiel Huisman, in the first episode.
He says that ghosts can be a lot of things: a memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. This nicely sets up the ghosts, both real and metaphorical, that haunt the characters throughout the series.
Except, in the last episode, the premise of the show changes.
Rather than the house being an organism, with the red room as its stomach, the house becomes a vessel to keep dead people alive as ghosts. Better to see them at all, Steven Crain says in the first episode to the woman who believes herself to be haunted by her dead husband, than to never see them at all.
This is similar to the plot of Pet Semetary by Stephen King, itself set to be released as a cinema adaptation in 2019.
It’s the novel that scares King the most, the one he put back in the drawer thinking he’d gone too far. The main character is a doctor recently moved to the country from Chicago. Down a path leading into the woods behind the new family home, he discovers the eponymous ‘semetary’, a burial ground controlled by malign forces.
Any neighbourhood pet buried there comes back to life. They’re alive again but different.
Our good doctor knows this because he’s already buried the family’s cat, and the reanimated feline has returned. Except this time it smells of death. It brings mutilated birds into the house and trips people up on the stairs. It is gone behind the eyes.
Midway through the novel, the doctor’s youngest son is killed when he’s hit by a truck on the road opposite their house. Our protagonist asks himself the question: if the semetary brings back pets, can it bring back people?
You can probably guess what happens next.
Pet Semetary is another work let down by an ending. The original novel is a considered, stately piece considering a father’s anxieties about the safety of his family, and the effects of his wife’s childhood trauma, with only occasional supernatural overtones. Except with a schlocky, Grand Guignol ending tacked on.
A major theme in the book – one used in the most recent film’s marketing material – is that ‘sometimes dead is better’. As the novel’s main character tells his daughter, sometimes death is a blessing, a release from suffering: from the spinal meningitis of one character, to the severe arthritis of another.
Recently there’s been a lot of discussion regarding the taboo surrounding how people end their lives.
A recent Louis Theroux documentary saw everyone’s favourite normcore older brother travel to California to meet three people, each with different stories and circumstances, who were seeking access to life-ending drugs. Each person was reluctant to see their quality of life deteriorate to the point where they’d be miserable, or they’d be too much of a burden on their families.
One dramatic, harrowing and ultimately obliquely life-affirming scene saw Theroux present for the death of Gus Thomasson, a man with stage-four pancreatic cancer.
Initially, a doctor neighbour suggested that the dose might not have been sufficient – that Thomasson might recover. Instead, he passed away surrounded by his family, who were drinking champagne and turning the bedside vigil into a party in accordance with his wishes.
It seemed to me that there are worse ways to go, and as Kathryn Mannix wrote earlier this year in The Guardian, it is important to plan these things in advance; to break the taboo of how we end our lives.
It’s impossible to tell, but one imagines that Theroux’s documentary could have a similar impact in this area to that of Planet Earth highlighting the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
As King says in his epigraph for Pet Semetary: ‘Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret’.
It’s no coincidence that both this and The Haunting of Hill House feature undertakers as characters. In Pet Semetary, the main character’s uncle was an undertaker. In THoHH, Shirley Crain, the oldest sister, owns a mortuary.
Now, in the middle of reading about death and watching a Netflix TV series about death, I chanced upon tickets to see Brian Blessed in Warrington on his speaking tour.
Haha! No chance of any death here, I thought. I’m used to seeing themes in whatever otherwise-unrelated films, books and TV shows I’m working my way through at whatever moment, but I was confident that having the star of Flash Gordon shout at me would break this cycle.
However, it turns out that Brian Blessed has very strong feelings about the subject.
For one, he doesn’t believe it exists. In Absolute Pandemonium, his autobiography, he discusses how the closest word the Tibetans have for death is ‘bardo’, which means ‘intermediate state’.
If you don’t remember what it was like before you were born, you can’t imagine what it will be like after. That way, all you will ever know is your experience of life on Earth. Therefore, posits Blessed (and here I paraphrase; try and read this in his voice) THERE’S NO SUCH FUCKING THING AS DEATH!
So far, so much familiar Blessed bluster. And yet, we learn from his book that he used to be an undertaker’s assistant.
When he was fifteen, his father was seriously injured in a mining accident.
Young Brian was now the man of the house, and had to become the breadwinner. The only job available to him was that of an undertaker’s assistant.
Alongside the more predictable japes (making the coffins the wrong size, scaring his friends by making the corpses fart and burp), Blessed relates the story of how he went into work one day to find one of his friends, who had been hit by a car, embalmed on a slab in the mortuary.
Until that point young Brian had become immune to the spectacles of death and mourning, but on this occasion, he was jolted out of his protective apathy by genuine grief. He began to cry.
The undertaker told him to pull himself together, so Blessed ‘chinned him’, which led to a full-on scrap, with ‘bits of lip flying through the air’.
Blessed sees this as having been a formative event, one that allowed him to put his priorities in order. Perhaps it helped him to balance an awareness of the fickleness and preciousness of life with a matter-of-fact way of looking at how it ends.
This was reflected later in his life, when Blessed presented Have I Got News For You in the week after Thatcher died. At one point in the program, Blessed ranted about the £40 million bill for the funeral.
Blessed claimed that instead of all this extravagance, he could have done everything himself: massaged her to get rid of the rigor mortis and any flatulence, covered her in glycerine and rose water, nailed a comfortable robe made out of roofing felt around her, painted the coffin blue, taken it to Westminster Abbey AND delivered the sermon. All for fifty quid.
Even if this wasn’t the cathartic ice-breaker that Brian Blessed thinks it was (in the book, he claims that David Cameron later thanked him for turning what could have been an extremely depressing day into a cheerful one; in fact, I can’t find any evidence that his speech was televised), it’s certainly an honest and funny de-mystification of the physical post-mortem process.
There is an argument that we’ve completely shielded ourselves from death in a way that’s unhealthy, in a way that makes us unable to plan correctly and live the lives we should be leading: particularly those of us privileged enough to be in good health, with no recent bereavements weighing us down.
If this is the case, then 2018 seemed set on reminding us of the fragility of this viewpoint. The ghosts of Hill House, Louis Theroux; we’ve not even mentioned Thanos turning half of the Avengers into dust. With troubling environmental and geopolitical times ahead, perhaps this is the culture’s subconciousness giving us a few memento moris.
Up in Orkney, where I visited earlier in the year, there were memento moris everywhere; skulls on gravestones and in the stained glass windows of churches. Ancient burial sites that will have been buried beneath urban sprawl elsewhere in the country are out in the open in Orkney. You can even crawl inside some of them.
They’re reminders of death from a time when lives were shorter and existences more elemental. To paraphrase the writer Maggie Fergusson, on Orkney, with no trees or mountains to interrupt the view, your eyes are drawn to the horizon: you can see that you are on a globe. The vastness of space is matched by an awareness of time.
St Magnus’ bones are interred in the walls of the cathedral. You can put your hands on the cold stone and be physically closer to legend, to the glacial sprawl of the centuries.
It’s difficult for anyone to think in time frames exceeding their own lifetimes, especially in the internet-guided, social media present, where it’s difficult to remember what happened a week ago in the constantly refreshing news cycle.
My feelings of existential ennui have died down now 2019 has arrived. Maybe it was just a phase. Maybe it was just because I saw too many ghosts. Maybe this is a cyclical thing that crops up now and again in peacetime; something to be mindful of. A reminder, while the sun is shining, that yourself and others can be lost.
In looking for solace we must turn to the authority on the subject, Mr Nick Cave. Recently in his Red Hand Files, Cave wrote about how grief is the price we pay for love. ‘That’s the pact,’ he writes. ‘Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable.’