A few prefatory remarks from a hooded host, who is himself hosted.
I think any horror film fan can agree that for an undertaking of cinematic terror to work, it has to find a way to get at us. That’s not the same, certainly, as appearing in front of our faces. We need to be at a place and time in our lives where a film, if it’s formidable enough, can all but reach out and say, “I got you now!” We are taken, we are terrified, and we welcome that taking and that terror, because we feel so alive. Even when we’re dealing with the dead. Or the dead are dealing with us, as it were.
I think that’s one of the great paradoxical powers of the horror film. The charnel house opens us up to new, verdant worlds within ourselves. We may question the nature of what it means to be dead, if the bogeys and the haunts of our favorite horror films have this life-spreading knack. We question, and we affirm. We challenge by being challenged, and we realize by dint of knowing, and conceivably newly knowing, what it means to be alive, which often times has little to do with “mere” respiration and pulse beat.
In my experience, people who love horror films are some of the most alive people I know. They are not necessarily children, and they may be wise and mature, but they retain the child’s capacity for wonder. An adult with said capacity is an impressive being, in my view. Equipped to face the trials of life with energy, creative problem skills. A saving sense of humor, despite macabre goings-on, which would thrill a horror film director like James Whale, who understood the art—and the necessity—of both laughing as one passed the proverbial graveyard, but also recognizing the gravity all but saturating the air.
The finest horror films—like the finest art of any stripe—are those that corner and catch us most readily, in the various spurts, stages, iterations of our lives. And who we are. As adults we’ll watch the B-grade sci-fi horror effort that thrilled us as a child of thirteen, with that pleasing infusion of nostalgia that makes us feel safe when we recall what once frightened us so much. We’ll want to share that film with our own kids. But that’s not the same as the horror film that is experienced as deeply, but differently, at all of the spurts, stages, iterations of our lives. Their artistry of terror has a built-in malleability, just as conceivably the human soul does. I always imagine these films in effect saying to us, “Ready when you are,” to bend once more to whom we’ve become, or maybe bend us a little, too, to whom we might better become.
Scrooge, as you will read in these pages, has always been that film for me. I think more than any movie, not just a horror movie. Make no mistake about it: a story about a guy who is totally alone, with no love, no friends, who lives in what looks like a haunted house, in this 1951 version, and then becomes a literal haunted house, who is shown—by no less than four ghosts—the most painful aspects of his life, his memories, and his non-existent prospects—that is, his complete absence of hope as he is currently constituted—is one mighty matzo ball of horror. It borders on the overwhelming. No wonder the film appeared for so long primarily on late night TV schedules, when gentle folk, as the saying goes, ought to have been asleep.
The film is much else besides, but the substrate of horror is always the surface upon which our carriage rattles down (until, mercifully, the terror breaks with a joy that, to me, anyway, is beyond even Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus in Messiah) in the lonely dead of this night, as though we were advancing upon Castle Dracula, save that this is a House of Scrooge. And it could well double as the figurative house of all of us, too, in some part, be that part a mountain-sized chunk, or a sliver that could fit between the pages of a book.
If you’ve read Dickens’ 1843 novella, you know that there is a lightness at times to the tone. You’ll experience it also in scores and scads of seasonal theatrical productions, from those mounted by local high school kids to the big city staple that has run at the same theater for thirty years. That wit is provided by the third person narrator. He is an imp. Not a literal imp. Though I guess he also might be. We don’t really know.
In the 1951 film, there’s humor, but it comes in other ways. Alastair Sim, as Scrooge, is responsible for what there is of it. His humor, though, is also plaintive. It’s head-shaking humor. We laugh, but it’s with the noggin moving from side to side in a gesture of passed judgment—for after all, we are only human—and empathy. That kind of humor.
But what I always liked about the book—which I think is a perfect work of art, though I believe—I truly do—that this film is the greater work of art—is how that narrator addresses each of us specifically—or that’s how it feels—with that line about standing in the space of the crook of your elbow. Right next to you. All along. And you didn’t notice it until just then. If you’re like me, you might even stop reading at that point, and take a quick look around you. I love that quick look. I live for things like that quick look.
I wanted to channel my version of that spirit in walking alongside of you with this book. I’m the ghost of the authorial present. Or the near future, I suppose, as soon as our time together officially starts when you move out of this preface and we begin our shared journey through this film, and also a sort of film beyond the film. The nimbus of the film. The penumbra of the film. Pick what term you like. Because a work of art always goes beyond itself, in a sense. Points like the finger of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that awaits our Mr. Scrooge.
When we are grabbed by a horror film, we feel that we’ve been solely clutched. The experience is so personal. And yet, many others have this same experience, each in their way, and the personal and the universal enter into a dialogue we may not be aware of—thus is the intensity of our own experience—until we take a few paces back, and let our senses, and our minds, utilize a different kind of deep focus than we get with some of the cinematography in Scrooge, which we’ll also inspect on our particular dissecting table.
So I’m going to invite you, at times, into the crook of my own elbow, where you are perhaps already standing, as if waiting for me, and I’ll tell you about the universal ways that this film got at me as an individual. Because I think that’s what matters, what allows a work like Scrooge to get discovered, rediscovered, loved, loved anew, and for it to do what it can for us, and those we care about, those we don’t know, and, dare I say it, the world out there of viewers who prosper by being haunted by this film, each in their own way, one that is also, in sublime and beautiful ways, the ways of all of us.
I am in loose-hanging, over-big sweatshirt as I write these words, with the hood over my head for warmth. It is dark outside, there is a mug of spiced tea beside me on the desk. I’m thinking of what it means to simultaneously occupy the past, the present, and the future. And now I am ready for a journey into, through, around, and inside of a film.
This would be the part where I solemnly intone, “Touch the sleeve of my hoodie, and away we go!”
Let’s all be in the crooks of each other’s elbows. And let’s let Scrooge get at all of us, in what, I hope, is a new way for every one, in the words of one boy who lived after all, from another boy, who is now a man, who was inspired to.