Ghost Stories is a terrifying investigation into guilt and trauma

Written by Joseph Earp on 7th June, 2018
Ghost Stories is a terrifying investigation into guilt and trauma

“We have to be so careful with what we believe in,” says the paranormal sceptic Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) at the beginning of Ghost Stories. Adapted from Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s internationally successful play of the same name, the anthology tinkers with three classic horror tropes in order to instil a sense of doubt within its viewers.

Hooved pagan demons taunt the deranged teen Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), an alcoholic Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse) reluctantly recounts horrors found in a haunted asylum, while the wealthy Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) navigates the modern terrors of a traditional poltergeist.

Watch the Ghost Stories trailer here:

“It was exciting to look at these different sub-genres within the overriding genre [of horror],” explains co-director, writer, and actor Nyman. “And explore those things that all had facets that we were fascinated by, which is the very notion of ‘what’s real and what isn’t real?’ and how we base what we believe the world to be through our very limited experience.”

The two have been best friends since they were 15, having met when they bunked together at a Jewish summer camp. “We are fascinated by our heritage. You know, Judaism is quite an intellectual religion. It’s founded in lots of thinking and talking and discussing and debating and we both enjoy that,” says co-writer and director Dyson.

“We’re not religious but we’re quite spiritual,” explains Nyman. “We talk a huge amount about spirituality, the responsibility and the function of what religion serves, why religion might dying as an idea but spirituality is growing.”

While Dyson is reflective and a bit softer spoken, Nyman is energetic and dynamic, their temperaments balancing the other out. “We are two halves of the same human being,” says Nyman, lovingly.

At the camp they instantly bonded over their shared obsession with horror and began pouring over the classics: An American Werewolf In London, Halloween, Evil Dead, and Friday The 13th. But it was the Britishness of films from studios Amicus and Hammer – in particular the three-for-one story structure of portmanteau films – that really struck a chord with them.

We’re not religious but we’re quite spiritual.

As well as the rainy, grey melancholy of their home’s landscapes, there’s a very British, very inappropriately timed humour within Ghost Stories: moments you most expect to be startled can quickly fill you up with laughter.

“It was really important that the Britishness that was so much a part of its DNA wasn’t thrown away,” says Nyman of their decision to turn down two Hollywood offers.

“I think we’re always asking ourselves in our conversations when we’re working together: what matters, what’s most important?” explains Dyson of their writing process.

“What we wanted was to have some very frank and open conversations with ourselves,” says Nyman. “And talk about things we’d done that we were ashamed of or embarrassed by, or moments that really struck a chord with us, digging into those things that maybe we’ve never spoken about to anyone else.

“Within the themes of Ghost Stories are absolutely some of those moments from our own lives. Things that happen you think, ‘I wish I could have those five minutes again to go back on that’. And how different one’s life could have been if one had acted differently,” he says.

Watch an interview with the directors of Ghost Stories here:

Nyman’s Phillip Goodman is a seeker of the truth, outing the phony clairvoyants and mediums that manipulate those vulnerable people suffering from existential terror – the fear of what happens after your life ceases to be.

Although each of Ghost Stories’ three tales – as well as the one we don’t realise we’re really viewing – feels like an exploration of more rational fears: the fear of being a parent; the fear of letting a loved one down, and the fear of the unknown and the unknowable.

Though the play was written some ten years ago, many cultural critics have linked Ghost Stories to the creeping doubt within the state of current politics when it comes to fake news and “the light racism that you realise underpins so much,” says Nyman. “It’s amazing when we read the reviews how much those things have been picked up on because the world has shifted.”

Within the themes of Ghost Stories are absolutely some of those moments from our own lives.

The priest within the film’s first story quips, “How unfashionable it has become to believe in anything other than our own personal gain,” and there seem to be anti-capitalist sentiments sprinkled throughout.

“We’re very big on being very suspicious about materialism,” says Dyson. “And we both know how easy it is to be swayed by materialism on every front in your life. And absolutely that’s in the film – I mean the whole Mike Priddle character in his story is a critique of that.

“The flip side of it is Andy and I are quite entrepreneurial people. You have to be if you’re going to earn a living through your creative activity; there’s no way around it,” Dyson says of surviving while making the best art you can. “And I think we would argue it’s a good thing, because it kind of enforces a disciplinary vigour. That’s why I couldn’t stand up and be a Marxist.” Dyson laughs.

The directors of Ghost Stories are dubious about chasing fool’s gold, and their independent devotion to this story could well have brought us one of the best horror films of the year.

The film questions the way we so easily set our beliefs in stone: how we might perceive ourselves to be morally superior than those around us, when really we might have just buried our worst mistakes. It revives the memories have been pushed into the deepest, darkest, dust-gathering corners of our minds. And what could be more horrific than that?

Ghost Stories is playing as part of Sydney Film Festival. For more Sydney Film Festival content, read our interview with the director of Holiday here.

The article was originally published on Brag Magazine