I’m not sure how widespread the practice of telling, reading, and watching ghost stories is on Christmas Eve, nor when it began. The custom appears to be almost unknown to most of my fellow Angelenos — despite, you know, the most famous Christmas story, Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol, containing new fewer than four ghosts. 1940’s Beyond Tomorrow and the hugely popular It’s a Wonderful Life, which has seemingly aired every Christmas since its release in 1946, are both Christmas ghost stories of a sort. In 1963, Andy Williams released the first recording of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and, presumably, listeners weren’t confused when Williams, describing Christmastime, sang, “there’ll be scary ghost stories,” and more than they were when he sang “there’ll be much mistltoeing” or “marshmallows for toasting.” Sometime, however, in the intervening decades, people have come to associate scary ghost stories with Halloween if with any holiday.
Halloween, or Samhain, marks the beginning of Dark Half of the year — the liminal time when the veil between our world and the Otherworld is more easily crossed by spirits, monsters, and unlucky mortals. The Winter Solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere on, usually, 21 or 22 December, marks a turning point in the meteorological winter, Midwinter. This is the time of year when the sun fleeting skirts across the sky shining a jaundiced glow over a planet cloaked in nights that are intolerably long for many.
In the ancient German religion, the dark winter skies are stampeded across by the ghostly figures of the Wild Hunt. Anyone unlucky enough to witness the procession might be abducted to fairy kingdom. In Sweden, Lussi and her Lussiferda were said to enter homes through kitchens and abduct bad children long before the light-bearer was given a friendly makeover as St. Lucy who’s accompanied by angelic star boys and brings saffron buns. St. Nicholas is still “problematic” associated as he is with demonic Krampus, a murderous monk named Père Fouettard, whip-wielding Belsnickel, and other unsavory goblins. Winter Solstice customs involving ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural aren’t limited to European cultures, although those observed in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam tend to be less monstrous.
Anyway, I still like to read ghost stories or watch adaptations of them around Christmas and if that sounds like something that might interest you, then consider the following, many of which are presented (at least for the time being) in their entirety.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. It’s probably been adapted more than any other Christmas tale this side of Jesus‘s birthday (which actually took place in summer and was moved to its Midwinter date three centuries after his death). The first filmed adaptation came in 1901, with Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost. Films titled A Christmas Carol followed in 1908, 1914, 1923, 1938, 1940, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1962, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1974, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2009, 2012, 2018, 2019, and 2020 — and probably other years. There’ve, of course, been many adaptations of adaptations, including 1935’s Scrooge, 1962’s Mister Magoo’s Christmas Special, 1969’s Scrooge, 1978’s Rich Little’s Christmas Carol, 1978’s The Stingiest Man in Town, 1979’s Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol, 1988’s Scrooged, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1994’s A Flintstone’s Christmas Carol, and 1997’s Ms. Scrooge... to name but a few.
TURN OF THE SCREW
Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw was published, in serial format, in 1898. It’s a gothic horror work that concerns a governess caring for two children in what she believes to be a haunted house. The action takes place on Christmas Eve. It’s been adapted numerous times, including into an opera, a chamber opera, and films and television series in 1974, 1982, 1992, 1995, 1999, 2009, and 2020. 1961’s The Innocents, based on the novella and released, in some countries as Turn of the Screw, is widely regarded as one of the greatest English horror films of all time.
WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU
M. R. James’s “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad” concerns an academic who discovers, whilst exploring a Knights Templar cemetery, a strange whistle that, when blown, unleashes a supernatural force. It was first published in 1904, as part of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. I first saw the 1968 adaptation quite a few years ago and, although finding myself unexpectedly haunted by it, for many years after could not recall it’s name, which was shorted for that adaptation to Whistle and I’ll Come to You. That version was part of the BBC‘s series, Omnibus. It’s success inspired the long-running Christmas series, A Ghost Story for Christmas, which ran from 1971-1978 and was revived in the 2000s. A new adaptation, again titled Whistle and I’ll Come to You, was directed by Andy de Emmony for the BBC in 2010.
THE TRACTATE MIDDOTH
M. R. James’s short story, “The Tractate Middoth,” was published in 1911’s More Ghost Stories. The plot concerns an employee of a university library and two mysterious patrons interested in the same esoteric work which turns out to be of importance to two propietors of a boarding house faced with eviction. In 1951, it was adapted as “The Lost Will of Dr. Rant” for the American television version of Lights Out and starred Leslie Nielsen. In 1966, it was adapted into an episode of the British television series, Mystery and Imagination. In 2007, it was adapted for BBC Radio 4‘s series, M R James at Christmas. Most recently, it was adapted by Mark Gatiss for the revived version of A Ghost Story for Christmas, and aired on BBC2 in 2013.
“Lost Hearts” was written by M. R. James in 1895. The plot concerns a young orphan who goes to stay with a reclusive cousin in a remote country estate. The cousin is obsessed with alchemy and achieving immortality. The young orphan, meanwhile, is tormented by the recurring vision of two children whose hearts have apparently been carved from their chests. In 1966, an adaptation aired on ITV‘s Mystery and Imagination. It’s believed that no copies of that version remain in existence. On Christmas of 1973, a new adaptation aired as part of BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas. It was again remade (and its setting moved to contemporary times) in two parts, filmed in 2005 and 2016, and released in 2018.
THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER
“The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” was included in M. R. James’s 1911 collection, More Ghost Stories. It was adapted, as The Stalls of Barchester, as the first entry in BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas strand, having been first broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1971. It concerns a sealed diary of a 17th-century archdeacon who was cursed, a black cat, and a “hanging oak.”
A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972)
M. R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious” was published in 1925 and included in A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories. The plot concerns an archaeologist on holiday who stumbles upon one of the legendary lost crowns of Anglia and is afterward pursued by a supernatural force. It was adapted for A Ghost Story at Christmas and first aired in 1972. It’s one of the most atmospheric and creepiest entires in the series.
THE STONE TAPES
The Stone Tapes was directed by Peter Sasdy and broadcast on BBC Two on Christmas day of 1972. The plot concerns a team of scientists who investigate the apparent haunting of their new research facility. The teleplay was written by Nigel Kneale, of Quatermass fame, and as with much of his work, blends the supernatural with science fiction. The mood relies heavily on the soundtrack, provided by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop‘s Desmond Briscoe. The film, itself, was clearly an influence on John Carpenter‘s Prince of Darkness, for which he penned the screenplay under the pseudonym, “Martin Quatermass.” The BBC commissioned a radio adaptation in 2015.
THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS
“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” first appeared in M. R. James’s 1904 Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The story follows a scholar of Medieval history who searches for the hidden treasure that once belonged to an abbot. It first aired on the BBC on 23 December 1974 as part of the A Ghost Story for Christmas series.
THE ASH TREE
“The Ash-tree” first appeared in 1904’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James. It tells the tale of a 17th-century Suffolk plagued by witch-hysteria. A lord accuses his neighbor of witchcraft and she curses him before she is hanged. It first aired on 23 December 1975, an installment of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas. It was remade in 2019 as a radio drama.
The Signalman was the first of the A Ghost Story for Christmas episodes not to have been adapted from a work by M. R. James. Its source, instead, was Charles Dickens’s short story, “The Signal-Man,” first published in 1866. The mood isn’t vastly different, thanks in part to direction, as with previous entries, by series creator Lawrence Gordon Clark. The plot, about traveling scholar who meets a railway worker tormented by nightmares and a vision, is not to far from James’s favored tropes. It’s also one of the most effective entries in the series. It first aired on 22 December 1976.
Stigma, which debuted on 29 December 1977, was the first entry in A Ghost Story for Christmas not to have been adapted from a preexisting source material. It was the last entry directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. It’s one of the least popular entries in the series, although for reasons I feel are not entirely fair. For starters, it’s set in then-present-day England of the late 1970s and thus there’s no tweed. Maybe the updated setting doesn’t bother me too much because from my vantage point in the 2020s, the 1970s are as exotic and quaint as the 1930s-situated must’ve been to audiences in the 1970s, when it originally aired. The plot, too, feels more Jamesian than its sometimes given credit for. A middle class family move an ancient megalithic stone from their yard and a malevolent force is unleashed.
THE ICE HOUSE (1978)
Even less fondly regarded than Stigma is the final entry in the original run of A Ghost Story for Christmas, The Ice House. I have to say, I think it’s one of the best. The story involves an aging loner takes place recuperating at a palatial health spa in the country. The direction is, at first, a bit elliptical — perhaps inspired a bit distractingly by Alain Resnais‘s L’Année dernière à Marienbad — although the effect is appropriately disorienting. The brother and sister who run the spa are odd and, there are clues that the guests and employees of this spa are powerless to leave — perhaps a nod to Luis Buñuel‘s El ángel exterminador. I suppose the most valid criticism is that there are not exactly ghosts of any sort — which some might convincingly argue are an absolute requirement of a ghost story. It is, however, eerie, amusing, and enchanting — although not everyone agreed, apparently, and the series was cancelled after it aired on Christmas of 1978.
SCHLACKEN THE PAINTER (1979)
The BBC may’ve terminated A Ghost Story for Christmas after the Ice House, but not even Scrooge could cancel Christmas all together and the year after the least popular entry in that series aired, the BBC aired Schalcken the Painter on 23 December, as part of the series, Omnibus. It’s based on Sheridan Le Fanu‘s 1839 story, “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter.” The story follows a painter whose true love is married to a ghastly and ghostly figure and his efforts to both achieve fame and fortune and to save her from her matrimonial enslavement. The whole thing, as directed by Leslie Megahey, manages to be spooky, anti-capitalist, and resemble Dutch oil paintings of the 17th-century. It’s tone, in other words, is rather different from most Christmas horror films but also quite unique and accomplished not just for a made-for-television film but really any film.
CASTING THE RUNES (1979)
The 1979 production of Casting the Runes for ITV’s Playhouse, having debuted April, is not exactly a Christmas ghost story but it does have several things going for it that make it appropriate viewing for Christmas. It was directed by A Ghost Story for Christmas creator and director, Lawrence Gordon Clark, and is based upon a ghost story written by M. R. James.
James’s “Casting the Runes” first appeared in 1911’s More Ghost Stories. The story was pure James — following as it did, a researcher at the British Museum who has recently reviewed the work of an alchemist and occultist and who is afterward haunted, in a manner, by his curse-casting subject. The story was first adapted a 1947 episode of the CBS radio drama, Escape. It was subsequently adapted for Jacques Tourneur‘s 1957 film, Night of the Demon. It was in 1968 adapted for the season 3 opener of Mystery and Imagination (no complete episodes are known to exist). It was again adapted for radio in 1974, for CBS Radio Mystery Theater. It was the source of a loose adaptation titled, “The Hex” that aired on BBC Radio 4 in 1981.
A VIEW FROM A HILL
In 2005, BBC Four aired View from a Hill, which hearkened back to A Ghost Story for Christmas and was, like most episodes of that series, based upon a short story by M. R. James. The plot concerns an historian who is summoned to the country where he spies the ruins of an abbey through a pair of cursed binoculars. The historian is assured by a local squire, that the abbey, located next to a graveyard containing the bodies of many hanged men, no longer exists. After visiting the graveyard and ruins, he’s haunted by a malevolent force.
Number 13, which aired on 22 December 2006 was the second episode in BBC’s revival of the Christmas ghost story tradition and was again based on a story by M. R. James that first appeared in 1904’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The story concerns an academic lodging in a hotel in a small English town where is is staying in order to authenticate some Reformation era papers. During his stay he notices that there is no No. 13 in the hotel… until, one night, there is. Of course he investigates. Directed by Pier Wilkie, it comes pretty close at times to recreating the tone of the classic episodes.
Crooked House was a BBC Four anthology miniseries influenced by M. R. James and Amicus horror that aired on 22, 23, and 24 December 2008. The three episodes were “The Wainscoting,” set in the 18th century, “Something Old,” set in the 1920s, and “The Knocker.” All were created and written by Mark Gatiss, who in 2013 remade The Tractate Middoth, one of the original episodes of A Ghost Story for Christmas.
THE DEAD ROOM
The Dead Room was directed by Mark Gatiss for BBC Four’s revived A Ghost Story for Christmas and was based on an teleplay, also by Gatiss. The plot concerns a radio horror program titled The Dead Room.
“Martin’s Close” was written by M. R. James and published in his 1911 collection, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. It concerns the trial of a man, George Martin, who is accused of murdering a girl, Ann Clark, and is set in 1684. An adaptation directed by Mark Gatiss aired on BBC Four in 2019, part of the revived A Ghost Story for Christmas.