Monday, 12 December 2011

A ghost story for Christmas — well, sort of...

My last article, written during ongoing demonstrations in London and elsewhere in protest against swingeing cuts in public sector expenditure, concerned the certain kind of courage it can take for people to confront their problems, face their fears, make known their unhappiness and propose how best to deal with all of it.

The problem — and the beauty — of fear though, especially irrational fear, is that the more you can define it, the more it becomes the precise solution to end its grip on you. In other words, if you jump every time you meet a spider in the bath first thing in the morning, you know deep down that you will never be rid of the phobia until the day comes when you cease to jump, or can even tolerate holding one in your hand. You can blame the origin of your fear on all kinds of things in your past, but there’s no escaping the same conclusion: the only way not to be afraid is to be unafraid. Therein lies the rub. The trick of course, is to unlock this secret, to find a way of rendering the fear impotent in some way. There’s little else in life that fails so abjectly as a truly crap horror film, for example. Finding the inherent crapness in something scary is laudable and effective, but let’s accentuate the positive and be a little more creative in our diagnosis. Many ostensibly fearsome things on this planet can be dealt away with by making them:

A) funny
B)  tasty
C)  sexy

So, a spider in the bath, you say?

A) Put it in a clown costume and see how you feel about it now*.
B)  Dip it in chocolate and deep fry it to make a toothsome post-bath breakfast sweetmeat.
C)  Clad all eight lissom pins in fishnets and have yourself an erotic arachnid encounter before you leave for work.

Problem solved. There’s no extra charge for this online therapy, by the way.

On a related subject, and one mainly concerning that most private sector of all — one’s own mind — I am pleased to tell you I laid an obscure ghost to rest earlier this month, and even more pleased to relate this story to you now.

John Nathan Turner, the controversial producer of Doctor Who in the Eighties (relax already, this is not going to be about Who) had a catchphrase, a maxim if you like, that was invoked on numerous occasions: ‘the memory cheats. Such a neat, compact expression with a variety of applications. It’s how continuity errors crop up in scripts. It’s the thing that makes people convinced they’ve seen a cut of The Great Escape in which Steve McQueen successfully jumps the final wire fence on his motorbike. It explains how the slimy, looming alien beast you remember with terror from an episode of Doctor Who from 1975 looks to your jaded adult eyes as about as scary as the luminous green-painted bubblewrap it really is (you know what episode I mean). Your memory, yoked to imagination often creates and reiterates the information much more vividly than being confronted with the stark, prosaic reality of an unchanging visual image. In other words, the pictures are better on radio.

Sometimes, however, the memory does not cheat. Sometimes it recalls something with exact clarity undiminished by increasing years away from the event. Some visual images get burned in and can’t be burned out — and if they are scary enough, you may not be able to shake them off. They float in a loose cranial orbit within, inside, unwanted — and then when you least expect it, the memory makes good on its promise and it will return to visit you, equally as unbidden, especially in your sleep.

As a very tiny child (on holiday by the seaside if I recall correctly — and you’ll find out, I do) I remember watching a film on television with scene of a woman driving recklessly and ending in a sudden car crash. At the moment of impact, the camera zoomed in on a still shot of her terrified face. Then, horribly, and in complete silence,

the image split                                                      into several                          pieces and                                               each one





The film then cut to the woman lying in a hospital bed in a full body cast. She had survived, but I don’t believe I wanted to know what happened next.

Forgive me if you’ve deduced already what film I describe, but let me assure the rest of you that this stylised, stark and brutal image lurked unnamed in my subconscious for over 35 years. It would lay dormant for months at a time and then choose to gatecrash my slumber and wake me, leaving behind a creeping sense of inexorable, encroaching fear and a powerlessness to meet it or defeat it. Over the years I had even begun to think that maybe it wasn’t something I saw at all, but merely my Id’s powerful conflation of numerous, nameless terrors into something cinematically visual with which to nobble me here and there. It could have remained that way, but then it haunted me again the other day. Right, I thought, I’ve bloody had enough of this. It was time to nail this sucker once and for all.

Now, I have told you the salient details of the scene, but the more I thought about it, the more something didn’t make sense. It wasn’t anything to do with the film itself, but the fact I saw it at all. I’m placing my memory of this incident from when I was of pre-school age, round about 1974 or 1975. My parents were pretty strict on the appropriate bedtime for a wee chap my age and yet here I was watching what my adult mind assumed to be some kind of thriller, or even a horror film. Then I remembered that I was watching this film in broad daylight. The recollection of this detail proved to be pivotal. There was, after all, no afternoon programming of note on British television in the mid-Seventies, nor any form of VHS playback available. Since I was at the seaside, it would have been summer, but also before my bedtime. This placed the transmission time anywhere from between 6pm and 8pm, but certainly no later. The concept of a watershed in broadcasting wasn’t as explicitly stated in those unreconstructed days, but all the same, a film on in the early evening couldn’t have been a horror film, nor a thriller of any great intensity.

So far, so forensic. I then proceeded to pull out my investigative sledgehammer and Googled:


and one of the first results led me to a site listing all manner of films in which a central character undergoes a complete physical transformation thanks to plastic surgery (especially the kind of surgery that really doesn't quite exist yet, making one actor look like another completely) and role recasting. One of the films mentioned was "the 1973 TV movie The Girl Most Likely To…, in which an ugly woman is remade beautiful after a car accident. She then uses her new beauty to take revenge on all the men who were cruel to her." 

You may know of this film. I didn't. So I looked it up on YouTubeI should have done this years ago. All too easy. Go to about 3 mins 50 secs in. That is EXACTLY what I remembered.

The sense of smell, it’s often said, is the key that can unlock by association the deepest vaults of memory. Fear, however, is an older and more subtle caresser of the darker, lizardine parts of our brain. As I watched this sequence play out on YouTube, the hairs on my arms bristled. I went cold in exactly the same way as you greet bad news. Look there, mark you, I was staring my nightmare squarely and precisely in its breaking-broken, falling-fallen, fell face.

The Girl Most Likely To…

I maintain that this scene, while it demonstrates an imaginative way to describe someone’s facial disfigurement in a film shown before the watershed, still conveys a harsh finality — car crashes, after all, are car crashes. However, while the memory had not cheated, context was everything, and in this case my torment was ended instantly, because —  yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen — aside from the sense of ‘closure’ achieved by finally naming and nailing this dark and worrying corner of my childhood was the joy to learn that the The Girl Most Likely To…is a comedy film. A black one, for sure, but apparently very funny indeed, written with wit, bite and delicious spite by no less than Joan Rivers, to be precise. So now it’s not enough to live with the information in my head; I want to see this film too.

A young Stockard Channing stars in the title role and it was indeed her face that descended from frame in such a disturbing fashion, her features distorted not only by film blur and her horrified expression but also, most crucially, by what I now realise is the kind of exaggeratedly comic ugly-duckling makeup beloved of cinema from The Nutty Professor through to Ugly Betty and even Neighbours. Take your leading lady/lad, shove tissue up one nostril, add a mole on the face, hairy eyebrows, crap teeth, bad hair, a fat suit and optional specs. Et voila! For me as a child, Channing’s altered features had enough doll-like creepiness to lay in a stock of nightmares lasting over 35 years. Now, I realise that even the full-body plaster cast she wore in the next scene is really a pure touch of Carry On-style costume bandaging.

Look at me, I’m writing about it, it’s that exciting to me, but I really can't express in words the feeling of mental weight that lifted in exchange for all this knowledge. Seriously, I can look myself in the mirror and know that the greying, middle-aged apprentice wizard staring back has slain an ancient nightmare. Moreover, I did it using rational thought, deduction, application to the task and a little help from Google. If all problems were as easily solved. Let me say it one more time, just so the full meaning of what happened is completely clear: I confronted and slew a nightmare. It will never return.

Best of all, the real-life Stockard Channing, having been divested of her ugly makeup and fat suit in the post-accident scenes, plays out the rest of the film in delightfully minxy fashion: a glamorous blend of Carrie played for laughs and Vincent Price in Theatre Of Blood — and just as vengefully campy, with a wicked glint in the eye and some frankly splendid, figure-hugging costumes.

Suddenly, I find I am, like, SO no longer afraid.

I hope Yuletide offers you a chance to bury a phantom or two as well. Merry Christmas to you all!

* for some people, of course, clowns are absolutely terrifying, so feel free to substitute it for a rabbit suit, Spider-Man costume or suchlike. The Spider-Man outfit not only has the advantage of being witty and appropriate, but also kinda sexy as well if you’re that way inclined. Course you are.


Currently watching:
The Indiana Jones tetralogy of films (Steven Spielberg,  1981, 1984, 1989, 2008)
The Star Trek films, from The Motion Picture (1979), through to First Contact (1997), then Star Trek (2009)
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977, revised 1981 and 1997)

Currently listening to:
T*E*R*R*A*N*O*S*T*R*A (Paul Murphy & The Bishops, work in progress)

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