I am a simple creature and my pleasures are correspondingly undemanding. Take, for instance, my delight in happening upon a DVD of the original Japanese version of the ghost film The Ring, with its deadly haunted video. This pleased me so endlessly that I didn’t actually watch it for months, just to string out the joy of anticipation.
Similarly, settle me down for an afternoon with DVDs of the first three instalments of the eternally rubbishy, but still good for a cheap shock Paranormal Activity movies and I will be your friend, if not for life, then for a good few weeks. And surely there is no finer way to spend a chilly, dusky autumn Sunday afternoon than watching the bargain-basement masterpiece The Blair Witch Project? Ah, the sheer pleasure of seeing three incredibly annoying students get lost in some woods before being terrorised then killed by a murderous ghost.
By now you will probably have picked up a theme. I love ghost stories. LOVE them. I adore creepy films and have shelves stacked with spooky books. Which is just as well, because television isn’t exactly a rich hunting ground for someone who loves the vicarious thrill of the supernatural. Apart from the occasional dip into the demonic with The Secret of Crickley Hall, and the short-lived series Sea of Souls, Apparitions with Martin Shaw as an exorcist priest (all BBC1), Afterlife (ITV) and the wet ghost stories Marchlands and Lightfields (ITV), we’ve had to remain frisson-free.
So, Mon Dieu! Thank heavens for the French and The Returned (Sunday C4). Now this is more like it, eight episodes of languid spooky noir with the creepy tale of dead people coming back to life and returning to their Alpine village home. They aren’t zombies, no one stomps around moaning with flesh hanging from their bodies, the returned of the title seem perfectly hale and healthy, though clueless about their resurrection. Their families react in different ways – from terror to thankfulness.
There are some good, sophisticated shocks in The Returned (by which I mean it goes one better than the face-in-the-steamy-bathroom-mirror tropes) but really, it’s all about atmosphere. Like the best ghost stories it’s pervaded by an uncomfortable psychological fog, a sense that the world is completely, inexplicably wrong. It’s tremendously slow and deliberate, too, which just adds to that out-of-kilter, just- waking-from-a-nightmare feeling.
My pet theory is that British TV drama rarely touches the supernatural because it’s in a rut, hamstrung by a kind of snobbery that thinks it’s not “proper”, it’s a bit silly and that anything that doesn’t involve John Simm in a field looking sad in a flat cap isn’t worth bothering with. But drama is cutting itself off from our rich British ghost-story tradition, from MR James to Susan Hill. We have always known how to tell a thumping good scary tale.
And surely The Returned can neutralise the snobbery because it shows that chillers can be real dramas rather than quick-hit thrill-fests, because it’s full of characters caught up in their own terrible stories – the young woman whose dead fiancé returns to hound her, the teenage girl who died on a school trip and who is angry and frightened, despite her parents’ loving acceptance of her return. And Victor, the silent, creepy, small boy about whom we know nothing. Across all of this hangs a pall of malevolence, interwoven with a sense of menace and fear.
The Scandinavians made us realise we love to take our time over crime with The Killing and The Bridge; maybe the French can coach sceptics to relish the thrill of slow, spooky suspense.