Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale dabbled with parapsychology to present a very science fiction take on the Christmas ghost story: The Stone Tape.
Even in a fine decade for genre film and television, 1972 was a year to remember. It began under the merciless glare of a Las Vegas sun, as Carl Kolchak – the scourge of vampires, ghouls, and newspaper editors – pursued a silent killer through Sin City in horror classic, The Night Stalker. And, across the Atlantic, it drew to an end with another TV milestone: one emanating the same sepulchral chill as Jeff Rice’s creation, but which, by contrast, fused ancient terrors with cutting-edge technology.
Nigel Kneale’s 1972 science fiction ghost story, The Stone Tape, drew on the Manx writer’s skepticism of the supernatural while leaving an indelible impression on television history. It’s a fitting paradox for this complex narrative, in which layers of trauma and ancient memory confound modern scientific methods, as they had the religion of earlier generations.
Originally intended as an episode of the now mostly lost BBC series Dead of Night, The Stone Tape first aired at 9.25 pm on Christmas Day 1972. Not the most auspicious slot, as Kneale wryly noted in conversation with horror critic Kim Newman for the commentary to the 2001 DVD release. Audiences were recovering from festive overindulgence, so genre fare seemed an odd fit on an evening better suited to light entertainment, in Kneale’s view. As he was the first to admit, The Stone Tape wasn’t “the most light-hearted piece.” Yet it found an audience of 2.6 million and met with a warm critical reception. The Evening Standard newspaper lauded it as “one of the best plays of the genre ever written.”
Fifty years on, The Stone Tape is – rather like the dilapidated house where most of its story unfolds – an impressive relic built on some decidedly creaky timbers. Its fine cast spends a lot of their time shouting, a necessary tactic when playing to viewers peering at tiny black-and-white screens but more than a little jarring today. Where it continues to impress is in its atmosphere: eerie, bleak, and, in its brutal conclusion, truly haunting. The mournful, electronic score and unsettling “special sounds” provided by Desmond Briscoe and Glynis Johns of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop make a huge contribution to the overall effect, jangling nerves and hinting at unspoken horrors.
As writer Adam Scovell – author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2007) – emphasizes, the British television landscape of 50 years ago was ideally suited for creative boundary-pushing of the sort Kneale excelled in. “I mean, 1972 really is a bumper year for ghost stories on the BBC and, from that year at least, they all hold up. The Stone Tape, Dead of Night, and (M. R. James adaptation) A Warning to the Curious are all classics. I think they have a quality that comes from the relative freedom afforded to the production of television back then. There was no sense of production by trend-hungry committees, a real belief in simply making things that interested those charged with making them, and a brilliant talent pool as well. It’s genuinely something I think worth mourning the passing of.”
The story opens with the arrival of a group of scientists at Taskerlands, a forbidding mansion in the countryside which houses a research and development laboratory for Ryan Electronics. Team leader Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) is, in Kneale’s words, “really a totally ruthless creature – and when he cracks, he cracks completely, as that sort of person does.” Brock is at the head of a bunch of rowdy, boorish men who christen their new premises with a slightly unsettling mock ritual involving the “sacrifice” of one of their number, Stewart (Philip Trewinnard), who’s dressed up in an alien costume. A little joke by Kneale, the man behind Quatermass, but it also strikes a note of suppressed threat, highlighting the pressure-cooker environment at Ryan Electronics and foreshadowing the story’s grim conclusion. In the midst of this arrogant, prejudiced crew, there is an outsider: Jill Greeley, a brilliant young programmer and the sole woman on the team. The story will end with a real sacrifice, and Jill’s card is marked.
The party atmosphere in the team’s new digs soon evaporates, as site manager Roy Collinson (played by British TV stalwart, Iain Cuthbertson) breaks the news that the protracted renovations at Taskerlands have hit a stumbling block. The cavernous space earmarked as the team’s computer room remains a dusty wreck: a Victorian building founded on an ancient structure that dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period or earlier, littered with the detritus of earlier generations of occupants. ‘Colly’ explains that the builders won’t go near it.
Brock angrily smashes down some rotten timbers himself, revealing a worn staircase that leads nowhere. Behind the timbers are cans of Spam left behind by the US Army, stationed at Taskerlands during the Second World War. The researchers also find a letter written by the eight-year-old son of the house, Martin Tasker, which contains a single chilling request: “What I want for Christmas is please go away.”
Jill is the first to find out what the young lad meant; it turns out that hers is not, after all, the only female presence in the old house. Startled by the sound of footsteps, she turns to see the spectral image of a young woman in Victorian clothing at the top of the staircase, who lets out a scream before disappearing. A terrified Jill swears to Brock – her on-off lover – that she saw a ghost. He’s skeptical, but the figure soon manifests again in front of the whole scientific team. Jill’s fellow programmer Stewart sees and hears nothing. The rest of the team experiences it in different ways. One man is as sensitive to the phenomenon as Jill, while the others hear the scream, more or less loudly, but don’t see the woman’s ghost.
A trip into the archives with the local vicar (Christopher Banks) provides the backstory. The apparition is a record of the final moments of Louisa Hanks, a 19-year-old housemaid for the Tasker family, who died after falling down the staircase in 1890. One of the vicar’s predecessors attempted to exorcise her restless spirit a few years later but to no avail. “You see, the ghost-laying didn’t take.” The team, at Taskerlands to research new recording technologies – Kneale’s original title for his story was Breakthrough – soon realise that they might have inadvertently uncovered a moneyspinner. Jill’s calculations indicate that Louisa’s “ghost” is merely a recording, absorbed by the stone walls of the old room and replayed in the minds of those attuned to it.
Scovell sees The Stone Tape as vintage Kneale, both in the structure of its narrative and in the quality of its ideas:
“I think it generally captures most of the aspects we associate with him really well. It has that scientific body of people, led by a headstrong leader. It has that haunted quality and the idea of trying (and failing) to get to grips with such esoteric forces through scientific, reasoned means. And it also has the scares.”
The concept of objects or locations as repositories for memories and emotions wasn’t new. Archaeologist-turned-parapsychologist T. C. Lethbridge had put forward a similar notion in his 1961 book, Ghost and Ghoul, while the UK’s Society for Psychical Research began investigating “place memory” in the late 19th century. Before that, Charles Babbage – a pioneer of computing theory, appropriately enough – had suggested that human speech might linger in the air forever, interpretable only by those with perceptive gifts. Kneale’s story gave this idea a name: Stone Tape Theory, now commonplace in discussions of parapsychology. Not a bad contribution to the field for a skeptic like Kneale, who came up with the term while writing. He even made a “stone tape” (quite literally: a cassette tape with a stone inside it) as a joke for the benefit of the director, Hammer veteran Peter Sasdy, who was thoroughly confused by the gag.
“I didn’t want it to be about the obvious ghostly things,” Kneale told Kim Newman in 2001. Yet, in some respects, The Stone Tape is as quintessential a British ghost story as anything by M. R. James, the 19th-century master of the form whom Kneale greatly admired. There’s a dilapidated house; chatty locals who lapse into meaningful silence when questions about Taskerlands probe too deeply; and a chilling, tragic apparition that has destroyed the mental health of several witnesses to it. What’s different is Kneale’s handling of the wandering spirit itself. An exorcism (or two, as it turns out, in a horrifying late twist that unveils the true nature of the horror at Taskerlands) has already taken place in previous centuries. In 1972, the “haunting” is tackled not by a priest, but by hard science, and it’s this contemporary approach that Scovell sees as key to The Stone Tape’s enduring impact:
“I think, aside from the adoption of some of its terminologies by actual parapsychology, what The Stone Tape showed (similarly to Dead of Night) was that the ghost story didn’t need to be a period affair. Like much of Kneale’s work, it’s defiantly modern in almost every respect and is still just as scary as the more Victorian/Edwardian fare. It’s a harder thing to get right than the period ghost story and has few peers, but it certainly proved there was potential for everyday hauntings, even if few match the sheer brilliance of it today.”
The Stone Tape does indeed remain conceptually distinctive within its genre. The 1963 Outer Limits episode ‘The Borderland’ (S1, Ep12) explores similar philosophical terrain in its tale of researchers who attempt to contact their patron’s dead son via a dangerous experiment. More recently, Alex Garland’s Devs (2020) brought a similar strain of folk horror to Silicon Valley, as futurist Scott Smith has noted in an essay for Medium.
During his preparation, Kneale spent a day in the BBC’s own research unit at Kingswood Warren, a sprawling old house divided into sections, much like The Stone Tape’s Taskerlands. The scientists of the story are drawn from his experience of that unit: boisterous yet cerebral, and always conscious of the high stakes riding on their work as “heavy-duty researchers in a huge electrical establishment, like Philips or Bush,” as Kneale described them to Newman. Once he’d locked down the setting and characters, the building blocks of his narrative quickly fell into place. This would be a different kind of ghost story, “not just about ghosts, but partly about what a ghost can be – and what do you do to shift it?”
The dynamic between Brock and his team as they attempt to “shift” their ghost is fascinating to observe. Brock’s the unchallenged leader at the story’s outset, alternating between jovial barracking and genuine threat as he cajoles them into working punishing hours and carrying out ever more dangerous tests. He brushes off any dissent with a sneer as he bombards the haunted room with ear-splitting audio frequencies, oblivious to his team’s clear agony. A non-believer, he’s convinced that Ryan technology will win the day over superstition:
“They once had a go at it with bell, book, and candle. Well, we’re rather better equipped.”
In the end, he is exposed as a gutless creature: despised by his acolytes, a leader whose cult has abandoned him. Stewart, the mock sacrifice and runt of the pack at the outset, shoulder-charges him out of the way, disgusted by his attempts to discredit the now-dead Jill and her research. She’s being marginalized as a footnote to history, just like poor Louisa Hanks, the Tasker family’s servant, in the great house’s legend. Inconvenient truths are being overwritten to conceal Brock’s cruelty and culpability.
Scovell sees money and commercial dominance as the true motivation behind Brock’s obsession with the scientific puzzle presented by the haunting. “I think the main driver of the play is that greed, rather than technological interest or even theological respect or mastery. The point of it is that they want the edge over their international competitors. Their desire to understand it is almost always underlined by some commercial potential and even some justification of the team’s very placement in Taskerlands nearer the end of the play when threatened with budget cuts and a competing department taking over.” Ultimately, Brock gets his just deserts, sidelined by the ridiculous Crawshaw (Reginald Marsh) and his state-of-the-art washing machines.
A fate worse than death, perhaps, for Ryan’s chief lackey; yet it pales in comparison with the bleak cruelty of Jill’s ending. Jill is the key to The Stone Tape, as Kneale was keen to emphasize in his conversation with Newman. “Everything that happens, happens because of her.” It’s fitting that a programmer – an heir to Babbage, who had dabbled in what would become parapsychology – should be at the center of the haunting. Newman commented on Jill’s gender in his conversation with Kneale, citing her rareness as a woman in the field. This, however, is a common misconception based on the curious distortion of computing’s popular history in recent decades. Coding was, in fact, considered “women’s work” in the mid-20th century, which perhaps explains why Jill, though patronized and condescended to by her male colleagues, is never treated as an interloper.
It’s Jill who first sees Louisa Hanks’s ghost: Jill who insists on digging into local knowledge to uncover the long-dead woman’s identity. When her colleagues are laughing at “old Louisa”, she’s quick to angrily remind them that the dead housemaid was only 19. Jill is deeply troubled by the possibility that Louisa might still be sentient in some way and draws scant comfort from Brock’s reassurances that the housemaid’s image is no more than a “dead mechanism”. A horrible thought in itself, as Jill acknowledges, but better than the alternative:
“It’s just the thought of it, of there being nothing left of you but just enough to repeat the worst moment of your life, over and over again…”
Jill, picked up and cruelly dropped by Brock, with whom she’s besotted, is easily dismissed by him and her colleagues as either a fantasist or – in one particularly spiteful outburst by Brock – as a manipulator seeking to destroy his marriage. Collinson, who’s clearly harboring a respectful crush on the young programmer, warns Brock off: “I’ve only admired her from afar, but I’d say she’s the type that hurts easily.” Yet even he lets her down in the end, siding with Brock when Jill begs in vain for them to start testing the room again. Brock’s continued audio barrage appears to have “wiped the tape”, as Collinson puts it, but Jill realizes that all he has really achieved is to remove the top layer of data from this spectral palimpsest. Underneath is buried something far deeper: something cold and merciless that has occupied the site long before Ryan Electronics, the Tasker family, or the Saxon settlers.
And so Jill dies, just like Louisa, fleeing grunting, sinister presences – identified specifically as male by Kneale’s script, in a bleak parallel with her colleagues – who press in on her lasciviously as she scrambles up the stairs and the room mutates, different phases of its history fading into one. Nobody could ever understand why the luckless housemaid climbed the staircase to nowhere, but now an open door appears, as it must have to her, a warm and inviting portal to a room that no longer exists. Even as Jill reaches it, it disappears to reveal its true form: a menhir in place of the staircase, an ancient place of sacrifice. Her eyes are still open when Brock and Collinson find her broken body at the foot of the stairs.
Scovell wonders if the haunted room can be viewed as an “inorganic demon”, a concept borrowed from philosopher Reza Negarestani’s 2008 book Cyclonopedia and attached by the late Mark Fisher to the work of M. R. James, whose work Kneale enthusiastically cited as an influence on The Stone Tape in 2001. “Basically, he [Fisher] applies the idea because there’s a great trend in James’s writing as a whole of objects that are essentially manmade but possess some esoteric presence or being within them: the crown in ‘A Warning to the Curious’, the whistle in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.
“This is something I think Nigel Kneale took up with aplomb, and I can’t think of a writer who took the idea and continued to innovate with it more: taking it from the misplaced Victorian in Edwardian England of James to the suburban nightmares of post-war Britain. The room in The Stone Tape is just one example. Another could be the ship in Quatermass and the Pit or the jar in the ‘Baby’ episode of [1976 anthology series] Beasts.”
The room, as Scovell notes, “records and locks in past traumas, which themselves recur and mask things underneath.” In so doing, narratively speaking, it serves as a metaphor for the process of trauma itself: Jill’s, Louisa’s, Martin Tasker’s, and that of Alan (Michael Graham Cox), a local man who remembers the place from his childhood and runs from it in sheer terror when he hears Louisa’s screams again. Perhaps the most frightening thing in The Stone Tape is Alan’s account of his friend, Jackie, who was taken away for psychiatric treatment after becoming trapped in the room with Louisa. (“He don’t care a button, he just laughs all the time. He’s all right…”). Layers upon layers of accreted fear and panic encrust this space, blurring and distorting its true form and trapping those who enter it in an endless cycle of dread. A friendly barmaid in the village pub gives the game away early on when she reminisces about one of the GIs she knew during the war: a man of Caribbean heritage who told her there was a “duppy”, or malign spirit, in Taskerland’s walls. No chance of the exorcisms taking, then or now.
“She got away,” muses one of the scientists when Louisa’s spirit evades their recording devices. But that is the tragedy of the stone tape: she will never get away, and neither will Jill. As Brock revisits the room alone at the very end and hears Jill’s pleading voice, now added to the chorus of Louisa’s shrieks, there is only the meager consolation that, perhaps, there is nothing really there but an echo of past pain.
You couldn’t bear it if they knew.
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Gem Wheeler’s a freelance writer and researcher with over a decade’s experience of covering sci-fi and pop culture. She’s a regular contributor to Retro Gamer magazine, and you can also find her work on SciFiNow, Little White Lies, Whynow, NME, Digital Spy, and Den of Geek.