In Search Of… S02E20 Haunted Castles

WhoooOOOooo!

Open on a moustachioed 1970s-alist, who's playing with a film camera. He's investigator Francis Hitchins, and Nimoy tells us he may have recorded the last remnants of a seventeenth century ghost. A wailing noise rises and creepy electronic music plays.

Oh, yeah. This is going to be good. I can feel it. Haunted castles. Leonard Nimoy telling ghost stories! I may not believe in ghosts now. And I may d be willing to bet good money that when this episode has finished, I still won't believe. But you know what? These next twenty minutes are going to be awesome.

Jarring chords over a manor house! Long pan over English countryside. Nimoy talks about ghosts of kings haunting castles, ghosts of prisoners in dungeons. And now we're looking at druids! Man, I miss the 70s. More shots of the countryside, looking at ruined castles and manor houses.

Now Nimoy is walking in a park. In honour of this week's subject, he's wearing tweed. He gives a pretty standard 'what are ghosts?' talk. Stuck in one place, scaring people over the years, 'strange sights and mysterious noises.' But Nimoy's an American, so can't resist a little dig at British plumbing, too. Cute.

The story of the Wolverton Manor. Shot of the castle walls, then the story of the ghost of Lord Trencher is told by his lordship's descendant, Captain Fiddleby. I tell you, you can't make this stuff up! Fiddleby (who is just as posh as you'd imagine) tells the story of how seventeenth century rake Lord Trencher bet his friends that he could drive a horse and carriage upstairs. He won his bet -- now sometimes people claim to hear the sound of horse hooves on the stairs.

It's a cute story, but not particularly spooky. There's a nice shot of the repair work they had to do on the stairs after his lordship won his wager. There's a slow camera movement up the stairwell over sounds of whinnying, equestrian shouting and horsewhips.

Now Nimoy is in a graveyard. He explains that ghosts never attack people, but sometimes frighten people to death. Drink it in, folks! Just drink it in. This is the good stuff!

A Dorset woman tells a story of how something so monstrous was seen in her family's country house that two of her ancestors went mad. Amidst all the weird 1970s fashions of this show, this woman looks pretty classy, other than a fringe that looks like it gets right into her eyes. She says she didn’t like the haunted room, and the eerie music comes up as she tells a story about her grandmother.

Reenactment time! Dorset woman's grandmother's sister is brushing her hair, Victorian style. She says her prayers in her long nighty. No nightcap? Hussy! She tosses and turns in bed. Close up on grandfather clock… She wakes up screaming! There's a mysterious apparition in her room. It looks a little like Brain Guy from MST3K, but no—it's a ghost! Her sister (the narrator's grandmother) comes rushing in and sees 'something so horrible that she nearly fainted.' Her sister was no longer screaming. She was dead!

The narrator says that she wished her grandmother hadn't told the story because she still has nightmares about it. Still, she got a kickass anecdote out of it.

Back to Nimoy, who points out that sounds are more common than sightings in most hauntings, and most haunts are a single figure. But the next story has sights, sounds and two ghosts. Now, that's how you tell a ghost story. Manage your audience's expectations, then exceed them. Listen to the Vulcan, he knows what he's doing.

Tweedy English country guy, wearing Wellington boots and carrying a shotgun. There's no point in stereotyping the English, they do it themselves. He lives in a huge mansion called Baglake House and tells his story about Squire William Light. In 1719, he added the current frontage onto the current mansion. This is recorded fact the rest, we are told, is hearsay.

Re-enactment time: the Squire came home drunk. To be fair, the actor does a great job of lolling drunkenly in his saddle while still controlling the horse. His clothes are all wrong. No expert, but they look late 18th Century to me, not early 18th. Anyway the horse wanders into a stream to slightly comical music. Oh, and then the Squire falls into the water and drowns.

The Squire's servant comes looking for him. The music turns spooky as the Squire rises slowly from the water. This is actually pretty decent low budget horror. The music rises, the servant's horse whinnies and the servant falls from his horse. Nimoy explains that the servant's wife found him. He told his story, then died.

Back to the manor, where the old guy says that there's a village legend that people are afraid of the Squire's house, and people have seen and heard mysterious things in the house. Nimoy says that the local priest tried an exorcism, but only succeeded in confining the squire to the chimney, where he moans when the wind blows. The servant waits outside, calling for his master. People 'who share the Squire's taste for whiskey' see the Squire rising from the pond.

I am so loving this episode. I guess the great thing about ghost stories is you don't have to believe in ghosts to like them. A good ghost story is just a good story.

Rolling English countryside. Bettiscome Manor. I can't help but notice that we haven't seen a single haunted castle so far. Anyway, this place is haunted by a screaming skull. Jarring camera angles looking at building while an actor screams. Extreme close-up on skull. Scream mixes into sound of lawnmower, as we see the house's current owner doing his lawn. Classic!

The owner of the house is a descendant of the original owner Ezeraiah Pinney*, who was exiled to the West Indies and returned with a slave. The old guy sits in his manor house, but he's wearing a stripy red and white shirt. I take back that 'stereotype' joke.

The legend says that an African prince was enslaved, ended up in the West Indies and came back to England as a slave to Pinney. The slave told Pinney that, as restitution for the horrors he'd endured in a lifetime of slavery, Pinney had to return his body to his native country for burial. Instead, the prince was buried in the local churchyard, apparently by a group of historical recreationists. Creepy burial scene, slow piling of dirt on the coffin.

The legend has it that the grave started emitting screams, until the skull worked its way to the surface. It is said that its screams could be heard for miles. Close up on red-lit skull. Shot of house, creaking doors, the skull in its alcove. Nimoy tells us that every attempt to dispose of the skull ended badly, but offers no examples. Witnesses say it sweated blood.

Cool story. I'm going to go all English major here, for a second to mention just how many great horror stories are built on guilt over slavery and/or colonialism. This makes for a more visceral story than our previous tales of drunken upper-class nincompoopery.

Now we move from Dorset to London, and the George Inn pub. People are enjoying their pint amidst some of the brownest décor ever. One of these people is a BBC documentary maker who seems to have been constructed out of slabs of corned beef. He tells a story about how he'd been making a series about the ghosts of London, when the landlord of the George told him a story. The landlord's wife saw a man dressed like a cavalier in the cellar. She refuses to go down to the cellar now. And from the tense music over shots of a utilitarian cellar, you can see why!

The producer contacted a Francis Hitching, an 'investigator of strange phenomena'. He says it's a typical sort of ghost story,  and investigated by sealing the doors and remaining in the cellars with a reel-to-reel tape recorder running and a camera rolling.

We see his footage. Hitching says he was looking at the pillar that the camera was pointed at, but saw nothing. On the film though is… a faint patch of light. He then waxes lyrical for a while about how this changes everything about ghost research.

And this is why, even though I love ghost stories, I can't stand those ghost investigator shows. They just take everything fun and interesting out of things. To make matters worse, Hitching – who if you'll recall, we last saw saying unhelpful things about Stonehenge – speaks in a very matter of fact way, which just takes more enjoyment out of the proceedings. Even the creepy electronic music doesn't help.

Nimoy strolls out of the graveyard. He's talking about ghosts, but just the pseudoscience end of ghosts. Nothing interesting. He basically goes with the 'Stone Tapes' theory, and much as I love the guy you'd be better watching the Stone Tapes then listening to this.

So – good episode. Three quarters of it is fun. People telling their stories with disclaimers like 'the legend goes…' and 'or so people say…" and things like that because, like I say, the great thing about ghost stories is that it really doesn't matter if they're 'real' or not. But then we have to waste time on the 'but it's totally real and scientists will prove it soon' theme that ruins so many episodes of this show.

* Or so he's named in the show. Wikipedia names him John Frederick Pinney.

Quotes

Nimoy: "Today [the screaming skull] resides on an attic shelf, silent… at least for now."

That’s how you do it!

Hitchins: "It's not an earthly thing, it's nothing that could be created with a torch."

Oh, face facts, it was a trick of the light.

Summing up

Cool stories: 9/10, Re-enactments: 9/10, Nimoyness: 9/10, Music: 10/10, Consistent theme and tone: 6/10. Overall: 43/50. High Distinction

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