Do I believe in ghosts? To which I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.

– M.R. James, Preface to the Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1931)

In 1929, author M.R. James published the work “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories”, in which he outlined several defining characteristics of the literary English horror tradition. The emerging feature among these characteristics is the absence of the horrific object itself, in which the true terror is derived from that which is not seen. I see this motif as the singular feature of the English horror tradition, steeped not in overt Gothic cliche or bloodshed, but of a chilling nature that preys upon fears of weakness and suggestion. The Awakening continues this tradition in fine form, additionally coloured by early 20th century scepticism and psychological repression.

Following the Great War of 1914, as World War I came to be known following its denouement, a curious milieu was born in England – one of not only an economic, but social paradigmatic shift. Citizens were faced with the reality that their lives were irrevocably altered by the war, witnessing both the devastating imagery of war and the return of wounded soldiers (ore more often, the lack thereof), as well as the physical and psychological aftermath. The Awakening is placed neatly in the midst of this tense social climate, as grief-stricken families turn to supernatural means by way of séances through which to be reunited with those lost in the war. In this instance, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is the ideal philosophical and literal antithesis to this. Her character is by every means, a thoroughly modern character of enlightened rational empiricism and scepticism, and moreover a feminist icon, as a single, educated, and independent woman. Cathcart’s increasing psychological instability as her confident layers are cleaved apart is convincingly and confidently portrayed by Hall, without disposing entirely of the character’s fundamental nature.

The colours and cinematography in the film are ideally married to the fear-laden and reticent atmosphere. The bucolic English countryside speaks not to frolicking fields, but of deep, tangled woods and lonely landscapes. No English horror is complete without the gothic country house centrepiece, and a la Turn of the Screw, the empty rooms and corridors hold far more sinister secrets than Cathcart anticipates. The melancholic and muted greens and blues of the countryside are contrasted with the grounded and certain mahoganies and brass of Cathcart’s scientific instruments, and the beautifully detailed shots of wires and screws mirror her own mind, gradually decreasing in prominence. Candlelight, of course, is the illuminator of shadows, blurring the line between what one thinks they see and what is actually there.

The parallels between The Awakening and other recent films in a similar vein as the excellent The Others and El Orfanato are inevitable. From such a viewpoint, this film is not particularly original. However, it is the aspect of repression which is best handled here, simultaneously subtle and unsettling. Repression – yet another hallmark of the English tradition – is masterfully weaved into the narrative and the horror device, as the differentiation between reality and fantasy gradually deteriorates. It is psychological discourse and resolution meticulously plotted, and the purposefully ambiguous ending gives nothing away.

As this film and similar ones demonstrate, the ghosts we see aren’t those that are anchored by chains. Some ghosts prove far more difficult to exorcise, and, as The Awakening demonstrates, never quite leave the haunted corridors of the mind. This is not a typical ghost story that relies on sudden loud noises (although they are present), but on the possibilities of ghosts of the past haunting a fragmented mind; not those which merely leave fingerprints on cool glass.

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