The Living and The Dead: Why we are so fascinated with supernatural TV shows

Few ghost stories are given six hours of prime-time BBC1. James Rampton investigates the latest paranormal drama to capture our imaginations

James Rampton
Thursday 23 June 2016 14:10
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Colin Morgan (centre) and Charlotte Appleby in ‘The Living and the Dead’
Colin Morgan (centre) and Charlotte Appleby in ‘The Living and the Dead’

Introducing the premiere screening of The Living and the Dead at the British Film Institute in London last week, Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s controller of TV channels and the iPlayer, has some foreboding words for us.

“I have to warn you,” she says, “I had to turn the lights on when I watched this in my room. It’s scary, creepy and utterly compelling. Unfortunately, if you need to turn the lights on in this cinema, you can’t. Prepare to be scared.”

She is right to warn us. Ashley Pharoah’s unsettling new six-part drama, which begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Tuesday, is a highly effective chiller, which may well have you watching from behind the sofa as well as with all the lights turned on.

Tallulah Rose Haddon and Colin Morgan in 'The Living and the Dead'

Set in the summer of 1894, Pharoah’s original story centres on Nathan (Colin Morgan) and Charlotte Appleby (Charlotte Spencer), a very happily married couple.

After the death of his mother, they move into her remote family estate at Shepzoy in deepest Somerset and start running the farm there. It is an agrarian community on the brink of cataclysmic change, as the Industrial Revolution is about to transform everything.

Nathan is also an eminent psychologist. Out of kindness, he invites Harriet (Tallulah Rose Haddon), the disturbed teenage daughter of the local vicar, to come and stay with them. The hope is that under his care she will recover her mental equilibrium.

However, Harriet appears to be increasingly possessed by a seriously demonic spirit. Before you can say “something wicked this way comes”, the whole estate is in the grip of supernatural powers far beyond their control. It is a house where if things go bump in the night, you can be sure that it is something way more sinister than a gust of wind. ‎As the story unfolds, there are more twists and turns than on an Alpine road.

Pharoah, who has also created such successful otherworldly series as Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes and Eternal Law, describes The Living and the Dead as, “Sigmund Freud meets Thomas Hardy with ghosts”.‎

The prominent slot afforded The Living and the Dead – not many ghost stories are given six hours of prime-time BBC1 – underlines the popularity of supernatural tales right now. The schedules are haunted by such scarily popular paranormal dramas as The Walking Dead, The X Files, Penny Dreadful, Outcast and Preacher.

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So just why are these fantastical stories proving such a hit with audiences at the moment? It may well be that they are a form of escapism from the tumult of contemporary life. Instead of facing up to the horrors of the modern world, we would far rather lose ourselves in the fantasy realm of Westeros or Shepzoy.

Pharoah, Morgan and Spencer were chatting to The Independent before last week’s screening. Pharoah observes that, “It is to do with escapism from the turbulence of the modern world. So much of our TV drama now is social realism, but I’ve always loved stuff on the edge of realism. This is about showing the skull beneath the skin and losing yourself in another world.”

The writer, who himself hails from the West Country, adds that, “‎It’s a circular thing. I’m so ancient, I remember the Seventies, another very turbulent period. There were a lot of supernatural film and TV dramas back there, such as The Exorcist, Penda’s Fen and Witchfinder General.”

Perhaps supernatural dramas are also striking a chord with modern audiences because in the West we are living to some degree in a post-religious society. “These days people don’t believe in almighty God as much anymore," says Spencer. "They’re taking it back to the pagans and are believing in the power of the Earth. People are far more interested in that now, which is something we definitely explore in The Living and the Dead. Maybe there was something in those old traditions.”

The Living and the Dead certainly harks back to such classic ghost stories as The Turn of the Screw, Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man. In addition, the drama underscores Hitchcock’s maxim that what you don’t see is more scary than what you do see.‎ Pharoah, who has also created such popular dramas as Where The Heart Is, Wild At Heart and Moonfleet, says, “The word we used on set to describe The Living and the Dead was ‘eerie’. It’s more at that end of the spectrum than pure horror. It’s more about being unsettled. It’s about the things you glimpse out of the corner of your eye and the whisper you half-hear behind a door.”

Spencer takes up the theme. “You’re constantly thinking, did I really see that? Did I really hear that? For me, that is far, far more scary because it’s all in your mind. It’s like when you were a kid trying to get to sleep and thinking, ‘Is there something under the bed?’”

Morgan adds that The Living and the Dead also demonstrates that we should be careful where we poke our noses. "A big theme in this show is what lies beneath ‎should be left beneath."

The idea of immersing yourself in a spooky world and being made to jump out of your skin is also strangely relaxing – perhaps because you can’t think of anything else when you’re being scared witless.

Morgan concludes that, “The ghost story is timeless. These stories have always been there. We are merely continuing that tradition, but shaking it up in a new way. I don’t know how Ashley came up with this amazing story.”

A pause, before Pharoah deadpans: “Too much cider.”

'The Living and the Dead' starts at 9pm on BBC1 on Tuesday. It is already available as a box-set on the BBC iPlayer. It will also be available from Tuesday at BBC Store on https://store.bbc.com and‎ will be released as a DVD on 29 August.

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