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So, what kind of heroine could you be? When you hear a noise in the night can you get up to investigate, or would you pull the blanket over your head and pretend it was nothing?
I re-watched Derek Jarman’s film of the Tempest last night. The Tempest remains one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and this is an incredibly atmospheric film version. Early on, as the storm rages, Miranda (Toyah Willcox) is wakened by the noise and sets off to investigate. The film shows her warily descending the spiral staircase from the castle tower, lit only by a flickering candle which throws monstrous shadows on the walls. In how many classic horrors of the 50s and 60s does the heroine do this – you know it’s a bad move – you scream at her to stay in bed and everything will be ok. But no – they have to be brave, that has to be high up on your CV to be a true heroine.
We can go to the cinema with the primary motive of being scared and accept that. In film there are defined parameters, we know what is going to happen, they tell you what will happen and then it happens. The fright is entertainment. But is it still the same when the memory of it walks home with you, when you open your door into a dark hallway and the memories of the film come flooding back.
Radcliffe sums up our attitude to fear:
This brought to her recollection the veiled picture, which had attracted her curiosity, on the preceding night, and she resolved to examine it. As she passed through the chambers, that led to this, she found herself somewhat agitated; its connection with the late lady of the castle, and the conversation of Annette, together with the circumstance of the veil, throwing a mystery over the subject, that excited a faint degree of terror. But a terror of this nature, as it occupies and expands the mind, and elevates it to high expectation, is purely sublime, and leads us, by a kind of fascination, to seek even the object, from which we appear to shrink. (Udolpho Vol 2 Chap 6)
Emily St Aubert has a lot to answer for. Clearly she was the forerunner of those cinematic heroines who walk the corridors at midnight, the flickering candle their only friend.
It was now entirely dark, and she left the casement. As she sat with her eyes fixed on the hearth, she thought she perceived there a spark of light; it twinkled and disappeared, and then again was visible. At length, with much care, she fanned the embers of a wood fire, that had been lighted in the morning, into flame, and, having communicated it to a lamp, which always stood in her room, felt a satisfaction not to be conceived, without a review of her situation. Her first care was to guard the door of the stair-case, for which purpose she placed against it all the furniture she could move, and she was thus employed, for some time, at the end of which she had another instance how much more oppressive misfortune is to the idle, than to the busy; for, having then leisure to think over all the circumstances of her present afflictions, she imagined a thousand evils for futurity, and these real and ideal subjects of distress alike wounded her mind.
Thus heavily moved the hours till midnight, when she counted the sullen notes of the great clock, as they rolled along the rampart, unmingled with any sound, except the distant foot-fall of a sentinel, who came to relieve guard. She now thought she might venture towards the turret, and, having gently opened the chamber door to examine the corridor, and to listen if any person was stirring in the castle, found all around in perfect stillness. Yet no sooner had she left the room, than she perceived a light flash on the walls of the corridor, and, without waiting to see by whom it was carried, she shrunk back, and closed her door. No one approaching, she conjectured that it was Montoni going to pay his mid-night visit to her unknown neighbour, and she determined to wait, till he should have retired to his own apartment.
When the chimes had tolled another half hour, she once more opened the door, and, perceiving that no person was in the corridor, hastily crossed into a passage, that led along the south side of the castle towards the stair-case, whence she believed she could easily find her way to the turret. Often pausing on her way, listening apprehensively to the murmurs of the wind, and looking fearfully onward into the gloom of the long passages, she, at length, reached the stair-case; but there her perplexity began. Two passages appeared, of which she knew not how to prefer one, and was compelled, at last, to decide by chance, rather than by circumstances. That she entered, opened first into a wide gallery, along which she passed lightly and swiftly; for the lonely aspect of the place awed her, and she started at the echo of her own steps. (Udolpho Vol 2 Chap 10)
Hallowe’en today is about controlled fear, a pale shadow of any real custom that may have existed in the past. By reading about or watching others experience of real fear it might help us to control ours. But when the clock on the turret chimes midnight, the wind whistles down the stone corridors would you hunt for a light for that candle?