It's that time of year again and as used to be tradition with the BBC, back in the 70s when it was still great, it's time for a TV Ghost Story for Christmas. Now, I've already covered a couple of these before, notably the magnificent The Signalman and the bafflingly weird The Ice House, and I gave y'all a potted history of them with The Ice House, so I try not to repeat myself too much.
If you recall, the Ghost Stories were divided into two camps: the earlier MR James and Dickens adaptations, which focused on the external and the period horror; and the later modern stories, such as The Ice House, that didn't really have ghosts at all. Stigma, the penultimate Ghost Story, falls firmly into the latter camp, a modern chiller that fits more in the realm of David Cronenberg's 'body horror' school of scares than the true ghost story.
The first of the series' original stories rather than adaptations, Clive Exton's (Armchair Theatre, Studio 64, The Eleventh Hour, Killers, Survivors) Stigma is actually quite simple: a woman, Katherine (Kate Binchy), heads off to her country cottage with her teenage daughter. Some workmen who have been working in their garden have unearthed a large menhir stone and they use an excavator to lift the stone up slightly. That's when everything starts to go pear-shaped and Katherine starts bleeding, despite not having a wound anywhere on her body. If I give you the clue that 'stigma' comes from a Greek word, the plural of which is 'stigmata', you can probably work out what's going on, and what the double-meaning of the story is.
It's a creepy little tale in all, with terrible things like possession, poltergeists and massive bleeding happening to terribly nice people for no good reason, other than they lifted up the wrong stone - making it as arbitrary as any of James's tales. Also, as with all the James ghost stories, there's no real explanation for what transpires: there is a literal explanation of what's happened (it's eventually found under the stone), but there's no revelation as to why 'the thing under the stone' has chosen to do what it did or how.
Unlike the relatively genteel previous stories, Exton's story is full of blood and nudity. At times, it plays like an episode of Casualty, focusing on all kinds of kitchen and household implements, making you wonder exactly what's going to happen. And it somehow manages to elicit scares from an onion, too. But its disconcerting invasion of the old and terrifying into the modern world, without any way of escaping, should manage to put the frighteners on most hardy people.
It's not available on DVD and has never been repeated. Silly BBC. But it is available on YouTube, you lucky people, so if you've half an hour to spare, gather ye around to have the willies put up you.
- July 12, 2012: Nostalgia corner: Casting The Runes (1979)
A look back at the ITV Playhouse adaptation of MR James' Casting The Runes by Clive Exton
- July 11, 2012: The BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas are all coming to DVD
The BFI is releasing all the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas in time for Christmas
- November 8, 2012: A trailer for the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas DVDs
A trailer for the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas DVDs