By MICHAEL BROWN
Modern technology and ghosts share an unusual history. Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone in 1876, was a believer in Spiritualism and attended séances. In fact, his creation was the result of a pact made with his brother that whoever died first would contact the other via spirit communication. The telephone evolved out of this wish to speak to the dead. Likewise, when Thomas Edison introduced the phonograph to the public the following year, it seemed that disembodied voices could not only travel across vast distances but could also be recorded in time. Just as mediums are said to tap into the spirit world, technological mediums relayed signals from the unseen world of electromagnetism and electricity. Analogue recording equipment could capture and reproduce a person’s “presence,” even if their body was absent. In other words, presence itself could be archived. Written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Peter Sasdy, The Stone Tape first aired on British television on Christmas day in 1972. With its mix of eerie presences and uncanny technology, what better way to explore archival horror than by revisiting this Christmas cult classic?
After refurnishing a Victorian manor house for their new research laboratory, a group of scientists hopes to discover a new recording medium more durable than magnetic tape. As part of research and development for an electronics company, the crew soon discovers the mansion’s reputation as a haunted house is well deserved. Centered in a room left untouched by renovations, the group is beset by terrible screams and the strange apparition of a woman in Victorian clothing running up a stone staircase. This stone is said to date back to the Saxon period. Jill Greeley (Jane Aher), a computer programmer, is particularly “sensitive” to these spectral appearances. She convinces Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), her peevish boss and sometime lover, to accompany her to the local vicar and archivist after uncovering records suggesting that in 1890, a young maid died in the room. The vicar, in turn, vaguely recalls that an exorcism took place at the site at some point.
Spurred on by Peter, the team begins to treat the apparitions as a scientific experiment. They determine that the stone itself acts as a recording medium and the ghost is like a recording of past events. Those who enter the room trigger the “excessively strong emotions” of a past trauma “encoded” in the stone to playback like the analogue tape they are researching. The “stone tape,”which gives the teleplay its title, implies a natural equivalent of the uncanny technology of the likes of Bell and Edison’s inventions. The environment itself is the “tape” and human beings are the “detectors, recorders, amplifiers,” as Peter says, of its signals. Armed with their probes, oscilloscopes and computer printouts, the team electronically excavate the psychic wavelengths for historical impressions Appropriately, Peter had originally intended to use the room for data storage. It just so happens that it was already storing data – that of past trauma.
As anyone who is caught up in the nostalgia for analogue technologies such as vinyl, cassette or videotape may tell you, part of the allure is the sense of “pastness” these recordings manage to carry with them. The hiss of magnetic tape or crackle of vinyl somehow captures the essence of the past, collapsing space and time. In a way then, recorded media are like the sedimentary layers etched into the soil that archaeologists explore. In The Stone Tape, Peter’s single-mindedness pushes his team to the point of breakdown. While doggedly testing frequencies within the room with an array of equipment, the phantom maid suddenly departs. Another member of the team concludes that Peter has “wiped the tape.” Peter and the other scientists abandon the project, but Jill senses something else going on. When the vicar returns to inform them that an exorcism took place on the site in 1760, before the house was even built, Jill’s suspicions seem confirmed. She frantically feeds new calculations into her computer, discovering “older impressions underneath, much deeper.” Seven thousand years, as it turns out. Like tape, the stone has been recorded and re-recorded on for millennia. When Peter “erased” the imprint, he unwittingly uncovered much earlier forces. On Jill’s final visit to the room, she is assailed not by a human spirit but by malevolent entities that compel her up the stairs. Once at the top, the stone around her appears more like the ancient monoliths that litter the British landscape from the deep past. Jill plummets to her death like an eldritch sacrifice to the gods.
The stone room in The Stone Tape mimics a very British way of approaching history. By using the analogy of a tape recording, Kneale illustrates how the British landscape has come to be seen as a palimpsest, a parchment or paper that is re-used over and over again. In other words, the landscape is an archive that surrounds us, with faint traces of the past stored and waiting to be read like a document or listened to like a tape. In The Stone Tape, the Victorian period, the 1760s, the Saxon era and the age of the monoliths are all archived simultaneously on the same spot. But these invisible layers only reveal their hidden forces when we broaden our definitions of media. The landscape is a recording technology just as much as the vicar’s parish register, personal letters, etc. Despite the modern world’s insistent urge to renovate its towns, villages and cities, archival horror shows us that the past continues to haunt the present. The landscape all around us is a data storage device, home to innumerable voices. But sometimes they need to scream before we can hear them.