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The Cult 70s Movie About Reverse-Engineering a Ghost

Nigel Kneale’s classic ghost story, ‘The Stone Tape,’ is perfect for a techy Halloween.
October 31, 2016, 10:00am
Image: Luomodivimini82/YouTube

Today's Silicon Valley may have fixations on simulated realities and vampiric blood rituals, but the the tech world has long been a subject ripe for horror movies. 1972's The Stone Tape is a perfect example. Inspired by a visit to the BBC's research and development department, science-fiction writer Nigel Kneale crafted a story about how engineers may grapple with a haunted house. Filmed using a mansion that once belonged to Ada Lovelace and broadcast, the movie has since become an acclaimed cult treasure, a sober yet unsettling ghost tale about the tech world's attempt to reverse engineer the afterlife.


Hoping a change of scenery will give them a creative edge on international competition, Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), an R&D team leader at a company called Ryan Electrics, moves his division into a secretive Victorian manor in the countryside. In a development that would surprise very few, this old creepy British mansion is in fact haunted. Computer programmer Jill Greele (Jane Asher) soon discovers a specter in the unrenovated cellar. Unlike the rest of the sterile-looking premises, the basement looks like a rat's den, with only a grim staircase and a locked wooden door keeping the autumn wind at bay. The apparition who lives there is a woman in white, frozen in time, and eternally screaming. Her shriek becomes a fixture. It haunts, after all.

The engineers soon discover that only certain individuals can hear the ghost, and even fewer can see it. Everyone experiences the ghost differently. While some of the crew claim they are catching the ghost in the corner of their eye, or hearing entire desperate phrases, one yuckster cannot see nor hear the apparition at all. Viewing their poltergeist as an opportunity, Brock attempts to deconstruct the creepiness, find a hard science behind hauntings in hopes of discovering a new form of telecommunications that could be encrypted for only certain parties to interpret. As their experiments go on, as the team becomes unnerved by their interactions with the dead, as Brock's anxiety of the parent company interfering with his work wind up, it seems clear they may be trifling with something more powerful than they can grasp, no matter how many gigantic 70s computers they have beeping and clicking at their disposal.

Nigel Kneale is one of the most important writers in genre television, with an uncanny brand of storytelling that contrasts sci-fi against horror, and pits characters of science against beasts of the unknown. He was one of BBC Television's first staff writers, and best known for creating Professor Quatermass, a rocket scientist who routinely tussled with alien threats. Quatermass is considered a predecessor to Dr. Who, though Kneale is on the record for despising Dr. Who and refused to write for the program. Seeing Kneale's dystopian Year of the Sex Olympics, about a society pacified by a violent and erotic reality show, it's hard not to think of Black Mirror, and that film was the first Kneale wrote for colour television.

Kneale is also responsible for the infamous Halloween III: Season of the Witch. He had never seen the previous two films and had little intrigue in slasher horror. When he was asked to write the script he was more interested in paying tribute to the occult sensibilities of The Wicker Man, which is how the third Halloween movie ended up having nothing to do with Michael Myers and everything to do with Pagan androids. Kneale had his name removed from the film after the rest of the production team pushed for more gore. I suppose Kneale didn't like having his name associated with a kid's head exploding into snakes. To each their own.

It has all the weighty dread you'd want from a ghost story, but The Stone Tape leans towards sci-fi more than a horror, if only because of very obvious budget restraints limit most of the supernatural effects into lighting filters and piercing noises. More than anything, the film presents an uniquely interesting notion behind ghosts, one for its engineers and inventors to rip apart.

One of the central concepts is the possibility that it may be the place, not the human soul, that manifests as phantoms. That the bricks and stones act as a conduit to nearby trauma and are projecting a kind of psychic recording. Parapsychologists like Thomas Charles Lethbridge and Henry Habberley Price had similar ideas before the film, but the concept is now known as "the Stone Tape theory" after Kneale's film gave it some mainstream attention. Paranormal enthusiast Timothy Yohe believes buildings made of limestone are more likely to be haunted due to the particles of biological marine life that make up the rock. Kneale himself was known to be a skeptic, however, and was more interested in provoking new ideas than fear or interest in the paranormal.

The Stone Tape feels like an idea more relevant today than when it was imagined for the 70s tech race. The ghoul enthusiasm and scattered webs of wires and equipment look uncannily like the slew of ghost hunting television currently broadcasted ad nauseum. The film was a major influence on Tobe Hooper when he created Poltergeist, as well as John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. Prince of Darkness even contains a few nods to Kneale's career, but given the fallout of Halloween III, Kneale wrote in The Observer, "With an homage like this, one might say, who needs insults?"

The funny thing about the supernatural is that it often defies explanation, otherwise there wouldn't be much "super" about it. The characters Kneale created knew their equipment, but they don't know what they were scratching at, and the consequences of testing and teasing the realm of the dead will have its repercussions. But if a Silicone Valley-type found spectral anomalies, you better believe they'd seek venture capital. An Uber for phantoms, a Bumble for ghouls, or a Pokémon Go for the recently deceased. I think that latter one has already happened.