Why school ghost stories are worth studying

I’ve just started reading, based on a recommendation, Justin Evans’ ‘The White Devil’, a contemporary ghost story set at Harrow School. It’s rattling along at a fair old pace so far, building up an impressively creepy atmosphere with the contrasting tones of ancient learning and modern anxieties, the spectres of the past juxtaposed nicely with the uncertainties of the present.

It made me think, following on from my last blog post, that there really aren’t enough spine-chilling stories set in schools. Odd, when you consider it – school is a common experience to every man, woman and child (‘everyone thinks they know how to teach because everyone’s been to school’ was one of my common moans when I was a teacher discussing education with non-teachers , and I still stand by this, Mr Gove). Everyone has their own vivid, Proustian memories when they smell disinfectant, overcooked mince or pencil shavings, and everyone remembers the dark corners of their school playing fields, where you dared your friends to go while you shivered in the sunlight.

The recent film’ The Awakening’ was a cracking interpretation of the haunted school theme. A young female investigator with a sceptical approach to the supernatural (Derren Brown in a bustle)  is requested to debunk the myth of a ghost that’s causing panic among parents and pupils at a boarding school in the North of England. Once there, she discovers that the cause seems to be human malice rather than ghostly goings-on – but there’s more  to find out, starting with her own past. The film is meticulous in its capturing of classic chiller language – the cinematography is faded like old photographs, and shadows seem to elongate and darken as you watch – and creates a tone of subtle menace. (I must add, for balance, that I read a thought-provoking feminist interpretation of the film that gave it a proper panning for the events that happen halfway through the film, as the investigator suddenly seems to lose her clearminded approach and turns into the archetypal whiny girl needing to be rescued by the brave (male) Latin teacher).

As I say, it seems to me that there isn’t enough being made of the spooky potential of the haunted school. I’ve listed below the stories or novels I can think of set in schools – all of them set in public schools, it must be pointed out (still waiting for that elusive tale set in the concrete jungle of Bog Standard Comprehensive) with extensive grounds within which malevolence can lurk. I’ve left out those with fragments set in schools or higher education (The Historian, or The Secret History if you’re reading it as a Gothic chiller) and focused on those set in the claustrophobic and closeted  world of the school, where the febrile emotions of damaged children and adults can be further heightened by the threat of fear.

  • A School Story, by M. R. James: The first tale I thought of, and one I intially encountered on an old tape of ghost stories my father bought me, read by Michael Hordern. His wonderfully distinctive voice, a world away from his Paddington  Bear narration, made M.R. James’s tale of a vengeful schoolboy one of the creepiest things I had ever heard – the line ‘if you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you’, read with sinister relish, still makes me shudder. James, the master of restrained atmosphere, draws a detailed picture, with pencil thin strokes, of a school where things secrets cannot be kept secret for much longer – under the curious gaze of his pupils, the unfortunate teacher who may or may not have killed a friend many years ago, unravels and is undone. I read a great, personal review of the story here which I’d fully recommend.


  • The Moth Diaries, by Rachel Klein: Recently filmed by American Psycho’s Mary Haron – not yet released in the UK, boo hiss – and a kind of cross between Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Margaret Atwood’s Cats Eye. I make this analogy not to be crude and reductionist, but because Klein brilliantly captures the angst of being a teenage girl – the fallings in and out of friendship, the love and bitterness of  having a best friend. It’s quite exceptionally done, and the supernatural elements weave seamlessly into the narrative as the lines between reality and suspicion are blurred. Ernessa is a new student at an exclusive all-girls boarding school – her exotic and unorthodox  behaviour both seduces and appals her fellow pupils, and she drives a wedge between Rebecca and her best friend Lucy. But is Ernessa more than just a mysterious interloper – could she be a vampire? The novel is told through Rebecca’s diary entries, and there’s a real sense of inevitable disaster about the tale – it’s a superb example of how a tired theme can be revitalised with a clever interpretation.

  • The Wishing Game, by Patrick Redmond: I came across this quite by chance some years ago, in a second-hand bookshop in Taunton. It’s a gem – Patrick Redmond doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, but this was his first novel (his second, The Puppet Show, is pretty good too) and is a tightly-plotted tale of blackmail, revenge and possible demon-raising at a boys’ boarding school in the 1950s. From the beginning of the narrative, you know it’s going to end badly – the macabre fun is in following the story to see how it happens. There’s a well-developed atmosphere of claustrophobia and the social mores of the time are neatly captured, but what stayed with me most was the theme of innocence corrupted – the four young boys who begin the tale are gradually infected by the evil that they have provoked. There’s a twist in the story at the end – and it’s painful.

If there are more haunted school stories, please do let me know – particularly if they aren’t set in the past, nor in the rarefied world of the boarding school! I sense a rich spooky seam waiting to be mined…

images courtesy of Amazon.co.uk

Categories: Books, Children

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