Before Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson wrote their chilling tales of historically grand haunted houses, there stood a manor so feared that the people of England could not even whisper its name without quaking with fright. “Borley Rectory.” Those two words – fine on their own, but when put together, leave the lips as a macabre and sinister sound, evoking terror and dread rivaling the most gothic of horror stories. This Victorian house, home to numerous clergymen and their families, achieved notoriety in 1929 when the Daily Mirror ran a story sensationalising its otherworldly occurrences, and, to this day (even though both burned and demolished) many people still regard it as “the most haunted house in England.”
In his new documentary aptly titled Borley Rectory, animator Ashley Thorpe examines the ghastly history of the site, from its construction in 1862 to its demolition in 1944. The film is non-traditional animation, made up of a combination of live action, stop motion, and cg composites, and is actually quite the visual treat. Reminiscent of Victorian-era spirit photography, each frame is curious and striking – which if I’m being honest, is unexpectedly restorative. When learning of the title of this film, and that it was animated, my first thoughts went to the likes of Coraline or any number of Tim Burton features – although a pleasing, tried-and-true style, I was glad to see a new take on gothic animation. Thorpe no doubt has an eye for the eerie and macabre, as evidenced in his previous work on a series of Penny Dreadful animated stories. Borley Rectory is done even more skillfully, with a genuine-looking aesthetic as opposed to, for example, the fake looks of some films given the grimey nouveau-grindhouse treatment. Beginning with the opening title card, every frame in Borley Rectory is a pleasure to lay eyes on.
As the film examines the mysterious history of the rectory, we are treated not only to the traditional scares of ghost lore, but also given insight into family dramas and scandals – after all, isn’t that the majority of what most alleged hauntings boil down to? We meet generations of Borley residents, starting with the Bull family, whose patriarch, the Reverend Henry Bull, built the house on the site of a former 12th century Benedictine monastery. And that serves us with the origin of this chilling haunt; legend goes that one of the monks, after learning a young nun was pregnant, walled her up alive, “Cask of Amontillado” style. Soon after construction of the home was finished, the Bull children began witnessing apparitions and other unexplainable paranormal events. Future residents complained of the same; however, the activity grew worse over the years, with the addition of some new spirits, namely the Rev. Bull’s deceased son, Harry. At this point, the stories of violent poltergeist encounters began, and after the Daily Mirror expose, the rectory’s story grabbed the attention of notable early 20th century parapsychologist and paranormal investigator, Harry Price. The documentary briefly touches on Price’s position as a sort of a godfather (gothfather?) to modern day ghost hunters, highlighting how he took pride in exposing psychic frauds. But Price also knew the value of a sensational story, and knew the publicity of Borley Rectory might bring some much needed funding to his paranormal research. In a move which undoubtedly influenced the literary likes of the aforementioned Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson, at one point Price took out a one-year lease on the home, running a classified ad asking for volunteers to conduct his research. The film notes a key quote from Price: “People don’t want the debunk, they want the bunk.”
The film chronicles all of these alleged paranormal events in a fashion similar to a History Channel re-enactment series (And I have to say, I kind of love it for that.). The actors are capable enough – even charming at times, especially coupled with a narration by the Warlock himself, Julian Sands – and the story is indeed compelling with some genuinely creepy bits peppered throughout. But I can’t help but think if it weren’t for the visual flair produced by Thorpe, this documentary might have fallen a bit flat. The film definitely is more stylish than educational, but still resonant due to its impressive imagery – think of it as whetting an appetite to find out more about a very interesting place. And the sections devoted to the exploits of Harry Price are probably more fascinating than any of the ghosts that may have lurked inside the dreaded house. All in all, Borley Rectory is a fun, entertaining watch offering just the right amount of light spooky-ookies.
Carrion Film and Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix’s present the documentary Borley Rectory, now playing as part of the 2017 Buried Alive! Horror Film Festival