The Clifton House Mystery

The haunted house… where to begin?  Two seconds ago you read the words ‘haunted house’ and already your brain has processed the thousands of cultural references to haunted houses you’ve absorbed in your lifetime.  Every story you’ve read, every horror film or spooky TV programme you’ve ever seen, every ghost story you’ve ever been told.  And right now I suspect the image you have in your mind looks a lot like the one I have in mine, I’d be willing to put money on it.  That is the beauty of the haunted house story, so oft repeated in popular culture it combines a comforting familiarity with a frisson of the unknown. This is perhaps the root of it’s enduring charm, because you kind of know what’s coming the tension and suspense is there from the start.  If you have a spare ten minutes this extract from the Culture Show puts it much better than I ever could.

Mark Kermode on haunted houses and the thrill of being scared

The haunted house has become such a pervasive motif in popular culture that it has reached the point where it’s become separated from it’s origins in horror and leeched into day to day life.  Growing up you might not have seen a  real horror film until your teens, but you sure as hell knew what a haunted house was a lot earlier than that.  Sanitised versions of the haunted house story popped up all over the children’s schedules when I was a kid from the silly Rent-a-ghost to the educational Dark Towers.  It was a reoccurring theme in children’s fiction and they even attempted to flog us haunted house themed foodstuff  from ice lollies to pasta shapes.  But of course, none of this was scary.

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The Clifton House Mystery on the other hand… I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that this could be the only haunted house drama for kids that just might give you the willies. Co-written by horror film fanatic Daniel Farsden (with Harry Moore) the clichés of the genre are here in abundance.  You can’t really better the description in the Hill and Beyond (Alistair D. McGown & Mark J. Doherty, 2003, BFI Publishing) of the Clifton House Mystery as “a horror movie for those who would never be allowed to stay up late to see them on TV”.  Set in Clifton in Bristol, an area that not only was mentioned in the doomsday book, but one that is packed with imposing Georgian abodes, we know we’re in good haunted house territory from the start.  The house in question has come up on the market suspiciously affordably and it’s owner just can’t wait to get out.  I should also mention here that the house comes complete with a menacing portrait, so all we really need now is Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor to start playing and we’re away.

As it happens we don’t get any Bach, but we do get a really creepy music box.  In terms of sound the Clifton House Mystery really plays to the suspense by being unafraid of silence. Shot almost entirely inside and very dimly lit there is a brooding quality to the Clifton House Mystery that you don’t find in many supernatural stories for kids which tend to err towards the jolly ghost jape.  Not that the ghosts are themselves are particularly scary, it’s the general atmosphere of malevolence that will get you.  That and the dishes flying out of people’s hands, the blood dripping from the ceiling and the exorcism.  Yeah, the exorcism.

It’s not unusual in children’s supernatural drama for there to be some form of  cleansing, in fact it’s pretty standard.  To prevent long standing psychological trauma it’s almost required to insert some form of ritual or purge that restores the status quo, essentially dispelling the uncanny elements and returning safety and normality.  However resolutions do not usually take the form of full on exorcisms and watching this one as an adult I can safely say it would have scared the bejesus out of me as a child.  I am actually quite relieved that I didn’t see this as a kid.  Having grown up reading spooky stories I used to spend rainy days when I wasn’t in school absent minded wandering round the house tapping on the walls in the hope of discovering a secret room.  Seeing what the children in the Clifton House Mystery discover in their secret room would probably have put me off that pastime rather quickly.

This is not to say that the Clifton House Mystery does not sit comfortably within the genre of kids supernatural TV drama.  At it’s heart there are some quite earnest educational lessons about the history of Bristol, and the three children central to the story are all very nice well brought up kids.  Produced by HTV West in 1978 it follows in the tradition of Sky and Children of the Stones in the way it explores supernatural or mystical themes without being overly patronising, though at times the message is slightly confused.  This is particularly the case in terms of the final episode which sits a little awkwardly, almost as if – in true horror film style – the door is being left open for a sequel.

The Clifton House Mystery is available on DVD from Network.

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~ by hazyhazy on February 26, 2012.

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