Ten years ago, film director Carol Morley was on the phone to a friend. “She started laughing and so did I. And then we couldn’t stop,” says Morley. “We were in hysterics. And she mentioned this medieval village where no one could stop laughing.”
On a whim, Morley checked up on her friend’s story. No evidence of the medieval village emerged, but there was a case in 1960s Tanzania that drew Morley in. Gradually, she found herself researching the strange phenomenon that is mass psychogenic illness (MPI), where one person has unexplained symptoms, like laughing, or dancing, or fainting, and somehow infects others around them.
The Falling, Morley’s new film with newcomer Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams (who’s Arya Stark in Game of Thrones), is set in an English school in 1969 and has this contagion at its core.
“I became obsessed with these outbreaks” says Morley, a sea-eyed woman with a blonde bob and a rapid, detailed way of talking. “They mostly happen in same-sex institutions, and they’re 90% female. The classic would be pre-adolescent girls, triggered by an event like an illness or exams.
“For it to happen to you, you have to feel wholly identified with the group, you have to admire the person who’s affected, you have to be in the line of sight of it happening and the crucial thing is you actually feel ill. It’s so mysterious. Ultimately, no one really knows why such things occur.”
The collective collapsing detailed in The Falling (in cinemas from Friday 24 April) builds into a sort of mass fainting fit and has hints of repressed sexuality, of obsessive admiration, of mutiny against rules, of emotions coming out sideways, even of the occult.
“In a way,” says Morley, “it’s about the power of young girls. Girls are so often disempowered, so to look at that power and what lies behind it felt quite exciting.” Morley is committed to telling female stories, as she’s so often disappointed with roles for women.
“When you do see women on film, which isn’t as often as men, they aren’t complex enough. They’re often objectified when they’re younger, and when they’re older the roles disappear, which is ridiculous – I mean, we don’t all die in middle age.”