‘The Woman in Black’ Is an Old-Fashioned Ghost Story

Like a lot of people who watch scary movies, I can be scared and also not-so-secretly a little bit delighted by being freaked out. That’s the point of the entire venture, of course, exemplified by The Woman in Black. It’s an old-fashioned ghost story, the kind we tell each other as kids to scare each other to death. The kind about ghosts that are out to get kids and about ghosts who are kids.

Based on Susan Hill’s 1989 novel, The Woman in Black tells the story of Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe, sans glasses but still riding on steam trains through remote countrysides), father of a four-year-old son, Joseph (Misha Handley). Arthur is still grieving for his beloved wife Stella (Sophie Stuckey), who died in childbirth: four years later, little Joseph draws pictures of his dad, always frowning. About to be fired from his job as a solicitor, Arthur is given one last chance. His employer sends him to a remote village in Yorkshire to go through the papers of a recently deceased client, Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova).

When Arthur arrives, the behavior of the villagers is so suspicious as to be almost comical: they shut their doors and turn away from him with an alarming regularity. But then, it’s not as if there is any question in our minds that something is wrong here. Likewise, Mrs. Drablow’s creepy, dilapidated mansion, Eel Marsh House, is the most fantastic haunted house imaginable, both attracting and repelling us. Inside, deep purples, blacks, and reds make the hallways seem endless, as the camera passes by ornate picture frames and odious mirrors.

The frights in Eel Marsh House — vast and full of artifacts — start immediately (which leaves one to wonder how poor Mrs. Drablow survived to old age?). We already know that Arthur’s inclined to this sort of adventure. On the train to Yorkshire, he goes through the newspaper, dwelling on an ad for a séance. Later, he tells Mr. Daily (Ciáran Hinds), the only sane person in the village, that he often feels his wife is still with him, that he can sometimes hear her, and that he sometimes wonders if she’s trying to reach him. If we take him at his word, then it’s no wonder he doesn’t take off running at the first sign that something or someone is in the house with him. Unlike the drunken frat boy who doesn’t think there’s anything behind the locked door in a slasher film, Arthur wants to believe there’s a ghost in Eel Marsh House. Such a thing would offer him the possibility of closer proximity, maybe even contact, with his dead wife.

At the same time, Arthur is trying to figure out a mystery. As he digs through Mrs. Drablow’s letters, he learns the identity of the woman in black, as well as why she’s terrorizing the village. It’s not pretty. From the first scene — in which three little girls stand up from playing with their dolls and jump out a top story window, killing themselves as the woman in black looks on — A Woman in Black has no qualms about showing lots and lots of dead children and just as many devastated parents. This is perhaps the most discomforting theme in the film, children as a kind of awful currency, coveted and hidden away by their parents, targeted by the woman in black.

But even as Arthur begins to uncover this pattern, his own grief makes his perspective suspect. His flashbacks of Stella’s death, though not frightening, are as vivid and as physically affecting for him as his experiences in the house. Does he really see what happened to the woman in black? Is he remembering what happened to his wife or is he breaking with reality and imagining himself into some other dimension?

As Arthur’s dilemmas multiply, we see something else too, that he can’t come to a simple resolution. His bereavement leaves him so deeply attached to the past that he can’t quite move into the future. It’s a dilemma that’s familiar in horror movies, reminding us of our own limits and desires, leaving us both scared and delighted to be scared.

RATING 7 / 10