Online only - The Woman in Black, and storytelling
James Watkin’s film adaptation of The Woman in Black provides us with a fantastic opportunity to examine the psychology that lies behind our innate tendency to tell ourselves the stories that help us make sense of the world we inhabit.
In the film, recently bereaved lawyer Arthur Kipps travels to a remote village in the north-east of England to sort out the papers of the deceased Mrs Drablow, who lived in the creepy and isolated Eel Marsh House, which now needs to be sold. Here he encounters an oddly hostile community, who turn out to have endured a spate of horrific child deaths that have left them traumatised and searching for explanations. The film both studies and exploits the innate human desire to tell stories about a world which would otherwise be chaotic and random.
The need for myths to help us make sense of horrible experiences
The first kind of innate storytelling capacity can be seen in the reaction of the villagers to the events that have befallen their children. Between them they have lost, by my count, at least 7 children to drowning, poisoning and falls. The bereft parents blame it on the ghost of a mad woman who now haunts the ramshackle mansion Kipps is there to visit. She is, they reason, luring these children to the afterlife as a kind of substitute for her own son, who drowned in the estuary that separates Eel Marsh House’s own private island from the mainland. It’s quite a tenuous conclusion to jump to of course, but one which has a surprising power.
The fact that, in the central conceit of the story, the house really is haunted, should not distract us from the insight this movie gives us into people’s capacity to fit unusual or painful events into a narrative and thereby ease either their emotional pain, or cognitive dissonance. The film’s setting in the very early 20th Century is instructive, and not only because medicine; health and safety legislation and the protection of children were not so sophisticated as to render such a high death count unrealistic. Séances, mediums and widespread beliefs about ghosts were extremely popular in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oppenheim, 1985). This is partly because the Victorians and Edwardians inhabited a relatively brutal and deadly world, and could find comfort in the claims of spirit mediums that they could contact dead relatives, or in ghost stories that helped to explain senseless deaths. Spiritualism’s rise has also been attributed to a change in the nature stories that were available to people for talking about death. While spiritualism may look like a backlash against the rise of science in the 19th Century, it has been characterised as being “crisis of evidence” (Lamont, 2004); as the public engaged with reports of spiritualism, they wilfully bought into evidence that most people would more seriously question today (such as descriptions of people levitating). Equally, the sudden popularity of science may have led some to “scientifically” prove the existence of an afterlife in a synthesis of scientific and Christian ideals, using spirit-medium techniques as a research methodology. In any case; a more recent study (Keinan, 1994) found that, during the 1st Gulf War, Israelis living in areas exposed to missile attacks were more prone to magical thinking styles than those who lived in non-exposed areas, pointing to a human tendency toward superstition in times of stress.
Arthur Kipps: A Case of Psychosis?
Perhaps if we remain surprised that Daniel Radcliffe’s modern and educated character buys into this collective rural mythology, especially with his rationalist friend Mr Daily on hand to remind him that “even the most rational mind can play tricks in the dark”, we should remember that, in fact his circumstances make him vulnerable to unusual beliefs and bizarre interpretations of his experiences. His wife died in childbirth four years prior to the action of the film, and his boss has given him an ultimatum; either he succeeds in sorting out the deceased Mrs Drablow’s papers, or he loses his job. The stress vulnerability model of psychosis (Zubin & Spring, 1977), now widely accepted by practitioners as a helpful framework for understanding the phenomenon (NICE, 2011), suggests that stressful life events increase our susceptibility to a psychotic episode if we are already vulnerable by disposition. Furthermore, research using an experience sampling technique (Myin-Germys & Van Os, 2003) shows that elevated emotional reactivity to stress is found in those who are vulnerable to psychosis.
In the course of 24 hours, Kipps is threatened with the loss of his job and travels to a remote part of the country, only to find himself alone; far from his only son, and alienated amongst a community who make no secret of their hostility towards him. Remember that both migration (Harrison et al., 1997; Zowalska et al., 2001) and social outsider status (Selton & Cantor-Graae, 2005) have been postulated as risk factors for psychosis. Kipps then spends at least two days and one night in a large house, on his own where his source monitoring capacity (Johnson et al., 1993) is undermined by a lack of social input from others who might corroborate or contest his interpretations of events and comfort him. It is no surprise when Kipps finally succumbs to a full breakdown.
Even by the standards of the superstitious Victorians, it would have been strange indeed for an adult to dig around in the freezing mud of a tidal estuary, in the dead of night, to try and find the corpse of a long dead child in order to reunite it with the ghost of its mother. However, this is precisely what Kipps proceeds to do. That we, the audience, in a comfortable cinema and a range of life histories, actually share his belief about this course of action, tells us not only about suspension of disbelief and the magic of the movies, but also about the way that psychosis operates with its own internal logic. Psychotic phenomena are often spoken about as being the symptoms of an underlying brain disease, but recently, a broad movement in psychology (perhaps best embodied in the International Society for the Psychological Treatement of the Schizophrenias and other Psychoses) has come to view them as part of a structured and understandable way of thinking. The psychoanalyst Darian Leader recently described delusional thinking thus: “Paranoia involves creating a knowledge, a belief system centred around a fault or a persecutor, which has a high yield of explanatory power” (Leader, 2011). He presents case studies of individuals who have done extraordinary, even repellent things, because they had gradually built up a set of beliefs about the world around them. The precise way in which this psychological world is be built up, and the “high yield of explanatory power” is the subject of researchers who have looked into the cognitive foundations of paranoid thinking.
The logic of psychosis
Why do we buy into Kipps’ delusion when we haven’t been through all of the experiences he has? The answer of course is that, in a way, we have. Mimetic art functions by engaging the empathy of its audience. The Woman in Black stresses and frightens us through three principle mechanisms; the use of heightened emotional reactivity; our ability to pick out faces, and the use of incomplete information to draw on our “epistemological impulsivity”.
Almost from the beginning, the Woman in Black is a stressful film to watch. We see the death of Kipps’ wife in childbirth, illustrated by the image of a bloodstained sheet. From his arrival in the village, our emotional reactivity is exploited by constant exposure to surprise. Time after time, the audience is made to jump through the sudden occurrence of an object or noise, which heightens our stress levels and raises our vigilance.
This is complimented by constant exposure to images of harrowing faces. Psychologists recognise that we have an enhanced capacity to recognise faces (even to the extent of seeing them where none are; a phenomenon known as pareidolia). Even ambiguous stimuli, judged to be subjectively meaningful, can stimulate the neural networks associated with face perception (Voss et al., 2011). The director uses this skill, presenting us with faces that are so blurry they are near the threshold level of our perception of them. When we do pick them out of the film’s all pervasive gloom, they not only shock us, but make us question the nature of reality and thereby disorienting us. Was that really a face; or just something that looked like a face?
Of course the main reason for our willingness to believe in the ghost of Drablow is that we have all the cues Kipps has, and little information to contradict them. In one memorable scene in the film, Kipps walks down a long dark corridor towards a room, from which emanates a repetitive creaking, knocking sound. This is Aaron Beck’s classic “ambiguous stimulus”, and is open to a huge range of possible interpretations, but some of these will come more readily to mind than others. When we understand what the mind is capable of doing with ambiguous stimuli, we can better appreciate how easily our fear can be stimulated. In his recent book on cognition, Daniel Kahneman (2011) points out the importance of context by showing that a figure which looks a bit like a capital B and like the number 13 will be automatically perceived as the former when flanked by an A and a C, and the latter when flanked by a 12 and a 14. In a scary house, which we understand to be inhabited by a ghost, we have a propensity to interpret sounds as being caused by that ghost because that is part of the context; we will also be subsequently less willing to properly check all the alternatives (forget the fact that Drablow’s ghost really is making the sounds in the film, it’s the fear we feel before this is confirmed that is the most pertinent).
Clinical Psychologists David Hemsley and Philippa Garety were among the first to explain paranoid delusions in terms of a jumping to conclusions (JTC) bias (Hemsley & Garety, 1986), which can function to have us tell ourselves a story about our experiences. Garety, along with Daniel Freeman and Katherine Pugh, has shown that this bias also appears in around 20% of the general population (Freeman et al., 2008). There is a large literature on the role of a jumping to conclusions bias in paranoia (see Freeman et al., 2001 for a good theoretical exposition) and I have written for The Psychologist about how film directors can exploit our “epistemological impulsiveness” to make us jump to terrifying conclusions that resemble delusions (Green, 2007). For a filmmaker to put in only some of the ingredients of a terrifying scenario, but leave our minds to do the filling in, is the most effective way to induce something akin to paranoia in us. It is just a shame that no amount of directorial skill can persuade our minds to enhance the quality of Daniel Radcliffe’s acting.
- Huw Green is an Assistant Psychologist with Lincoln Partnership Foundation Trust.
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