For Halloween, I wanted to revisit a recent six-part series that was a major fixture of BBC One’s summer schedule: The Living and the Dead. Set just before the turn of the twentieth century in rural Somerset, it charts the return of a pioneering Victorian psychologist to his family home, one that unearths some personal ghosts—such as the death of his young son in the grounds of the house—and some seemingly real apparitions. Of particular interest to me (and, naturally, this blog) is how it conflates belief in and experiences of the paranormal with states of mind and, most notably, mental illness.
Said psychologist is Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan), and he is accompanied by his city-born second wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer). The duo do their best to adapt to the farming way of life, led according to the rhythm of the passing seasons but increasingly disrupted by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. As they do so, however, Nathan finds himself drawn into the psychological disturbances of some of the locals, before events take a decidedly sinister turn with devastating personal consequences.
In an interview with the excellent resource that is the BBC Writers Room, creator Ashley Pharoah described the series as “eerie rather than horror,” and exploring “the skull beneath the skin of English pastoral” in much the same way as Penda’s Fen (1974) and other classic folk horror fare. Pharoah describes the setting as helping to suggest the tone of the series, with events taking place at a “moment in our history when the Industrial Revolution collided with a way of life that hadn’t changed for centuries, a post-Darwin world where God was dead. If ghosts and demons were ever going to rise up surely it would have been then and there?”
The Living and the Dead expertly crafts such a tone in so many aspects of its production: in its cinematography and lighting, its soundtrack of sombre folk song arrangements by The Insects, the stand-out performances of the cast, and in the tangible shift in the seasons represented across its five-month shooting schedule.
Nathan’s area of interest is described as “aberrant behaviour” and, even as he sets out to make a new start in life, he finds much of this to explore amongst the locals whose value systems are characterised by superstition and ancient folklore. Its first episode introduces us to an adolescent girl seemingly inhabited by the spirit of an evil old man, which Nathan theorises is an expression of fear of her own sexuality. When challenged by the girl as to whether or not he believes in ghosts, Appleby replies, “I believe in an open and scientific mind. I have certainly seen people haunted, but only by an aspect of themselves—never by a ghost.”
Subsequent instalments see Nathan take on such cases as a young boy who turns out to be haunted by the spirits of long dead workhouse orphans, and a young schizophrenic man receiving inciting messages from a woman murdered as a witch. As his involvement in increasingly paranormal experiences as a consequence of his professional interests deepens into a preoccupation, Nathan finds himself haunted by visions of his dead son alongside other strange manifestations that he struggles to explain.
Nathan Appleby’s series arc is an interesting one, as his experiences combine with his personal history to challenge his worldview and his very perception of reality. As Colin Morgan explains of the perspective and state of mind of his protagonist:
“He has been educated his whole life to believe that aspects of the supernatural are aspects of the mind that present delusions, that present visions, [and] are very much explained scientifically. That a vision is not reality; it’s a a delusion of something in the mind that has happened, it’s a version of the self that is trying to deal with some problem or to try to protect the core self from something else much grander, much bigger, like a trauma or a bad experience. To start to see things that challenge that belief and the years of education that he’s had is very unsettling for him. And Nathan does begin to experience things both through the locals and himself that puts him to the test; he’s forced to really thread the line and the divide between the scientific and the supernatural. You get the impression that land holds trauma, that land holds pain, that land holds memories, and this digging up, this unearthing of the land itself gives a feeling of something else being unearthed, of being unsettled and disturbed, and I suppose that seems like it’s a catalyst for things that happen.
As the series approaches its climax, any sense of ambiguity disintegrates along with Nathan Appleby’s own sanity. In the penultimate instalment—at Halloween no less—spectres of the dead manifest, such as those of Civil War soldiers from over two centuries ago. Meanwhile, in the present day, we meet a young woman with a connection to the Victorian Appleby suffering her own mental distress in the form of postpartum psychosis. Ultimately, their mental disturbances are equated to some sort of an ability to commune across time, and the collective memories of past and present generations collide.
The allegory to explore Nathan’s trauma through grief is clear enough but, sadly, this is well-trodden territory that perpetuates myths of self-deception that mental illness conveys special powers. Suddenly, Appleby’s instincts and philosophy are no longer presented as ground-breaking or forward-thinking, but directly at odds with the reality of this world. In one sense this sensibility contributes to an ingenious and dramatically satisfying conclusion, however it sits uneasily with me in terms of the mental health-related threads left hanging or, worse still, implicitly proffered.
There had been some speculation—recently put to rest—that the BBC might commission a second series of the drama, something that would have felt to me to be superfluous and to have risked miring the series further in its generation-jumping twists without furthering its central themes. Ultimately, what might have been a series well-positioned to offer a genuinely fresh insight into our widespread belief in the supernatural ultimately revealed itself to be a different animal entirely, and for me that felt like a missed opportunity. It is, however, still very much worth a watch on its own merits as a modern piece of psychological and folk horror, and not least right now given ’tis the season for such fare.