Last night I watched James Watkins’s The Woman in Black with a friend. It was our second viewing of the movie as we both saw it first in the cinema: it has just been released on DVD. That first viewing was an ordeal because, hats off to Watkins and his team, it is a scary movie, and it certainly holds the tension and scares with the second viewing.
If you do not know the movie: it is an adaptation of Susan Hill’s Gothic novel about a vengeful ghost haunting a community. It is also a successful stage play in the West End and apparently an evening out at that play is not good for the nerves – the stage directors have managed to keep the tension. The movie stars Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, who is quite good, and our own Ciaran Hinds who is excellent. Jane Goldman, wife of Jonathan Ross adapted the screenplay from the novel and she did a marvellous job.
If you like scary movies then get this one and watch it in the dark! If you find saying the Rosary hard, you’ll overcome any difficulties by the time the night is out. What is really good about this movie is that it works – it does not fall flat at the end as many horror movies do. It is also a traditional Gothic horror, it’s not a slasher movie, a genre which has come to dominate since the 1960s or so: it’s a good old ghost story. And it lingers long after you have turned off the DVD player. That is the sign of a good ghost story.
Why am I writing about a ghostly movie? Well, the theme is interesting – it is all about vengeance. Now it is not The Grudge, a Japanese flick that left me cold when I saw it, although The Woman in Black does have that oriental ghost story feel to it. I’ll try not to spoil it for you, but I need to tell you something about the plot in order to reflect on the lesson the movie teaches. If you want to see the movie without any idea of the plot then stop reading, come back later when you’ve watched it.
The story concerns a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps, widowed and raising a four year old son. He cannot get over the death of his wife and his work is being affected. He is on his last chance and so is sent to an eerie coastal village to sort out the will and papers of a recently deceased client. Arriving in the village he is shunned. When he arrives at the deceased woman's house, Eel Marsh House, he finds a creepy pile with lots of dark corridors and spectral secrets – you know the score. While there he sees a woman dressed in black and she starts appearing in the shadows scaring the living daylights out of you! Soon children in the village start dying in dreadful circumstances. Her story is simple: her son has died tragically and she took her own life, now she is wrecking vengeance on all and sundry by luring their children to their deaths.
Now it’s not exactly Alice in Wonderland, although to be honest there some dark characters in that story too, but it is an interesting reflection on vengeance. Here we have a woman who is so possessed by a vengeful spirit she haunts her home and local village, she cannot rest but must bring destruction and misfortune on others. At the end of the movie you realise that the one who suffers the most and has been completely destroyed by this vengeance is the woman in black herself.
In our Gospel today we had Our Lord’s teaching on prayer, and he gives us the Our Father. In that prayer we pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Forgiveness is a vital part of Christianity – the first word from the Cross was Jesus’ forgiving those who were responsible for his death (i.e. all of us!). It can be difficult to forgive, but we must do everything we can to do so because if we don’t we will end up seeking vengeance and that will destroy us.
I remember listening to a woman whose child was killed by another. She refused to forgive and so twenty years later she was still in the first flush of grief and bitter, very bitter. Her whole life had stopped, she could move on nor look to those around her: her anger had become hatred and though the killers were doing life, it was not enough for her: she demanded a greater retribution. She had no peace and she thought that in “making them pay” she would find it. But she wouldn’t. That peace could only be found in forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not deny justice, it enhances it. Forgiveness proceeds from mercy, mercy we all need, and only mercy can bring peace to our souls when we have been offended. To be able to let go (which does not deny what happened, nor let people off the hook) is a must if we want to be healed of the wounds others have inflicted on us. In letting go, in forgiving, we give ourselves a chance of life, of being set free of a chain which could drag us down into the depths of despair. Forgiveness also paves the way for reconciliation and while that might be difficult, perhaps unheard of to a soul that has been hurt, it is the path Our Lord asks us to walk with him. The example of Assunta Goretti, the mother of St Maria Goretti, is one we should reflect on.
The woman in black was a ghost, but she need not have been: her spectral wandering and desire for vengeance can happen to any one of us if we refuse to forgive from our heart. We will need God’s grace to do, but it is there for the asking.
And in case any of you are wondering: do ghosts exist? Does Fr John believe in ghosts? Yes, I do: as a priest I have seen and heard of too many things not to. As to what they are, I’m not sure. The demonic presences and figures are easily explained, and they can afflict people and places. As to the non-demonic – well they could be souls doing their purgatory here on earth, or the souls of the damned or, perhaps in some way, souls of the deceased who have resisted God’s call to leave this life and are hanging on – perhaps God permits it for a reason. I don’t know. But what I do know is that we pray for such souls.
So next time you see a ghost pray for them, have Mass offered for them – they could have appeared to you so you would remember them in prayer. In the meantime, don’t be fixated it can become unhealthy. Enjoy the movie, and then turn it off and say a Rosary – you might need it……