'Ghost Stories' Features a Recent Entry for the Short List of "Scariest Scenes of All Time"

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Ghost Stories used sound and shadow to build up unrelenting tension for this utterly terrifying scene.)

Few things frighten and fascinate as well as a good ghost story. The supernatural taps into fears of the unknown, but it more directly ties into the concept of an afterlife. Nothing inspires obsession and conversation quite like death and beyond. An “existential terror,” Ghost Stories’ Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) explains why ghosts are such a draw for many. In the film based on the 2010 stage play of the same name, it’s existential terror and the pursuit of disproving supernatural phenomena that drives the narrative forward in this unique spin on the anthology format.

Directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson waste no time plummeting everyone into the deep end of fear, creating separate vignettes that work to build momentum in both narrative and scares. It’s the first that sets the high bar, creating a disconcerting atmosphere that systematically ramps up the tension at a steady pace then yanks the rug out from under once dread reaches a fever pitch. It results in a nerve-fraying scene that brings maximum chills.

The Setup

Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) has dedicated his life to debunking supernatural frauds and psychic phonies, inspired by events from his childhood and childhood hero, paranormal investigator Charles Cameron. Randomly, Goodman receives an invitation from Cameron, who’d been out of the limelight and missing for decades. Cameron, now sick and dying, encourages Goodman to change his perception of the supernatural by tasking him with three paranormal case files that remain unsolved.

The Story So Far

The first case file belongs to Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a widower wracked with guilt over his continuous failure to visit his daughter, who suffers from locked-in syndrome, in the hospital. At an empty bar, he recounts his tale of being haunted on duty as a night watchman of a derelict building once used as an asylum for female patients. His overnight job has him isolated in a guard shack overlooking the vast, dilapidated building with limited electricity, keeping an eye out for trespassers. The only other person on shift is stationed at an undisclosed guard station at the opposite end of the compound, unable to communicate outside of a walkie talkie.

On the fateful night of Tony’s story, he’s lured outside the safe confines of his station by power outages and strange sounds. He ventures out slowly at first, sticking close to his shack, and finds power cords unplugged with strange claw marks over the outlets. He finds personal objects in other places than where he left them. Strange static sounds and eerie echoes in the distance lure him further away from his station and into the bowels of the facility. The overhead lights behind him dim one by one. He turns, and the beam of his flashlight passes over the appearance of a little girl in a yellow dress. Tony flees back to the shack, but disembodied voices over the radio and walkie talkie, followed by groans in the distance, prompt him to head back out into the dark to find the source.

The Scene

As Tony approaches the end of a darkened corridor, the chain suddenly drops from the door in front of him. It slowly creaks open, audible wails of a child emanating from within. Armed with a flashlight and a hammer, the nightwatchman steps inside and searches for a light switch. He shines his light on the mannequins lining the room’s walls, stopping and doubling back on the sole outlier – a mysterious figure shrouded in a colorful blanket. It moves, and Tony thinks he’s finally found the culprit, closing in slowly with a confident grin. Setting the flashlight down, he approaches it and removes the blanket to reveal another mannequin. Behind him, at the far corner, the door slams shut. The overhead light turns off, and his flashlight flickers, revealing a screaming child right in front of him. Tony remains locked in fear as the ghastly, deformed figure shuffles toward him, reaches out, and embraces him. In the flashlight’s silhouette, she traces her gnarled fingernails up his arm and into his mouth.

This horrifying scene comes after ten straight minutes of steady build and mood setting. Nyman and Dyson use every horror tool in their arsenal to create palpable tension and dread, but sound is the most vital component to putting the viewer on edge here. Straightaway, the quiet sanctuary of Tony’s guard station is interrupted from the piercing shrill of the walkie talkie. It’s just the voice of his colleague commiserating over the same shared isolating job experience. Tony then turns the radio to an upbeat song. Both devices are forms of comfort that are quickly stripped away.

First, it’s the lights that draws Tony from his spot and into the shadows. Then, it’s strange sounds that echo throughout the cavernous space. The more Tony retreats to his station, the less safe it becomes. His colleague tells him over the walkie, “I don’t like this place. It feels bad.” Tony tries to soothe him but is visibly unsettled; he too feels something strange about the place. The radio and walkie malfunction, offering no reprieve for the nightwatchmen.

With the eerie sounds pulling him out into the dark for good, the filmmakers then use limited light and shadow play further fuel the tension. There’s something out there, baiting Tony, but the derelict building contains very limited lighting. It casts dark shadows and plays tricks on the eyes; at one point, Tony even mistakes a blanket draped over a mop as a moving squatter in bed. It’s both this use of shadow and limited scope of vision, along with the unsettling use of sound, that makes the critical scene in the mannequin room so effective. 

By the time Tony gets trapped with the ghostly girl in the yellow dress, the audience is ready to jump out of their skin. So is poor Tony. Yet Nyman and Dyson stretch it out even further, keeping the unpredictability going through light and sound until that excruciating fingernail climb up Tony’s body. Is the specter haunting him a manifestation of his guilt or a long dead asylum patient? It’s so freaking scary that it doesn’t matter.

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