I think ghost stories are particularly difficult to make scary. They’re generally filed under the umbrella of horror monsters, but they’re more often tragic than frightening. That’s why there are so many ghost horror movies that depend on the jump scare—because that’s sometimes the only kinds of scares they offer. Let’s face it – the more you get to know them, the more lost spirits seem sad rather than scary (SIXTH SENSE kind of covers this phenomenon, and I’d consider SIXTH SENSE one of the better ghost horror movies). I think this is the reason a lot of movie hauntings have transitioned from the human spirits to the demonic. Ghost stories are extremely difficult to do well, especially when trying to find the right balance of tragedy and horror.
THE AWAKENING is one of my favorite ghost stories, but it is, without question, a better tragedy than it is a horror movie. I would say the closest comparison to the movie in tone, palette, and time period is THE OTHERS, which is also one of the better ghost horror movies. However, while THE AWAKENING has a few jump scares, it’s really shot as a drama rather than a horror movie most of the way through, which is good, because aside from some good tension here and there, it functions much better as a supernatural period drama.
I love the opening to THE AWAKENING. It begins with a quote from the main character’s book challenging the spiritualism movement prevalent at the beginning of the 20th by placing it in historical context. Between the Spanish flu and World War I, so many had lost people close to them under terrible circumstances. In the midst of survivor’s guilt, lack of closure, and an excess of grief. Florence Cathcart rightly points out, “This is a time for ghosts.”
The opening transitions into a classic seance, with the supernatural element rising higher and higher…only for Florence to interrupt the proceedings by exposing the spiritualist charlatans for what they are. Instead of being outraged at being taken advantage of, a woman who lost her young daughter – presumably to influenza – slaps Florence and asks whether she has any children. “No, of course you haven’t,” she replies with disdain, because a woman with children would know why a false dream was better than nothing. She questions whether Florence’s grief for the young soldier whose photograph she brought to the seance was even real. But as the mother leaves, we see Florence—played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall with arch strength and vulnerability—deflate. Her commanding, energetic presence dissipates. She appears weighed down, barely able to take another step.
In her own words, “This is a time for ghosts.” And it’s clear within the first fifteen minutes that, though Florence devotes herself to disproving hauntings and exposing frauds, she’s desperately seeking ghosts of her own. It gives her no pleasure at all to debunk the supernatural. Quite the contrary.
This entire movie offers some of the best depictions of depression and grief from a number of the characters that I think I’ve ever seen in a movie. The way it weighs you down and you sometimes don’t even want to move. The way it makes people lash out. The way you have to put on a mask, the way you lie to others and yourself, the way it takes over your life and cycles through your thoughts, the guilt, hopelessness, and self-destruction it can cause.
From the wonderful opening, AWAKENING moves into the main plot, with Robert Mallory—played by Dominic West as an attractive but caustic ex-soldier—an instructor from a boy’s boarding school, visiting Cathcart and requesting her help to put to rest rumors of a ghost boy haunting the school, after the death of one of the students. Usually the man would be the skeptic and the woman the believer, but like Mulder and Scully, AWAKENING switches that expectation on its head. Mallory believes in ghosts, but he’s also a firm realist, and he only wants the truth and to keep the kids safe, and the prim but earnest school matron, Maud, is a devotee of Cathcart’s work and recommended her.
At first, Cathcart is reluctant to engage in another investigation, weary as she is with her depression and needing a break, but Mallory throws her own words from her book back into her face, about how she was a fearful child and cannot abide children being made to live in fear – another point that resonates through the movie.
The boys’ school to which Mallory brings Florence is appropriately gothic, a looming, gray structure in the middle of nowhere, gloomy and forbidding, with energetic but somewhat melancholy students and a severe administration. With her, Florence brings the various accoutrements of her trade—a delightful look into the early twentieth century versions of our modern ghost-hunting gizmos, with all the scientific rigor of pre-WWII CSI. The dark manor at night provides some decent spookiness, but it’s pretty clear with the first tripped bell wire and footprints on the floor that the ghost boy traversing through the halls at that late hour is not so dead, and the tension dissipates…until something’s there that shouldn’t be.
And thus begins the slow unraveling of Ms. Cathcart. The most held-together characters of the movie lose their masks, exposing not ghosts but shells, broken survivors of any number of tragedies who must learn how to live with the ghosts of the people who passed on without them, and beyond the fear of mortality so keenly felt at a time that wrought the need for ghosts.
To be honest, the supernatural elements are sometimes the worst parts of the movie – the swirly face ghost is actually the worst effect, which is a shame, because that’s one of the few things you’re supposed to be afraid of.
The human elements – shattering perceptions and confronting fears – are by far the most interesting parts. I feel like I see something new every time I watch it. It’s a beautiful film and a beautiful, tragic story, and I do encourage you to give it a try on that merit rather than the horror.