The Secret of Crickley Hall Review: And why are we still so in love with being scared?

First aired on the 18th November, The Secret of Crickley Hall is a well-executed, disquieting television adaptation of James Herbert’s novel of the same name. Ground-breaking, eye-opening, barrier smashing; Crickley Hall is… er, none of these things, actually. So why is still such an entertaining television show?

Ghosts, vampires, frenziedly butchering axe-men and anything in between are still big news- and quite often, big money- in the film and television industry, and it would be safe to say that the Horror market (such a ridiculously vague umbrella term for a whole plethora of sub-genres) is alive and thriving, even if some of its characters are not. But sometimes you have to ask… why? People flock to the cinemas for midnight viewings of the latest exorcism film, the Paranormal Activity franchise has reached its 4th instalment (films admirable for their relentless, desperate effort if nothing else) and as you’re reading this, chances are someone is slipping their copy of The Grudge into their DVD player for the sixth-hundredth time, even though they know the story backwards… and what for? Even the most ardent, passionate horror film fans (and whilst fanatical probably isn’t the correct term to use, this author counts herself amongst the genre’s many admirers) would be the first to admit that, well… it’s all a bit the same. A bit predictable. The ‘twists and turns’ the adverts shriek and rave about are more like languid meanders along well-worn, tired plots. But we still watch it. We still love it, we lap it up, every stale morsel. And Crickley Hall is no exception.

The Secret of Crickley Hall
Looking earnestly sad in mandatory graveyard.

The Horror genre, like any other genre, is of course defined by its conventions. It’s only a personal opinion that Horror-conforming pieces of media- be it films, TV series or even video games- seem to get far more bogged down in what constitutes ‘horror’ than its action, romance or comedy counterparts. Crickley Hall is another example; every horror convention you could dream of is there (they even go so far as to self-consciously reference The Shining). Spooky old house? Check. Unsolved mystery of the cute missing child? Of course. Creepy old man who wanders round graveyards looking a bit forlorn? You got it. Eerily giggling ghosts of wartime orphans? Yeah, put it in. There’s even a Ring-esque well situated in the cellar (yes) of the aforementioned Spooky Old House- the Crickley Hall of the title, where our present-day family Eve (Suranne Jones), Gabe (Tom Ellis) and their two remaining kids Loren and Cally are spending a few months in a conveniently gothic ex-orphanage, so as to simultaneously avoid the anniversary of their son’s disappearance and allow Tom Ellis’ character to engage in the short-term contract he got in the area. On top of this, the series follows as parallel narrative (one that, in some ways surprisingly (considering the awful clunky way such a format is sometimes exploited) tends to work quite well and smoothly, and often succeeds in the tension build-up so necessary in this sort of drama) of Crickley Hall back in the second world war era, when it was an orphanage, run under the tyrannical regime of a cane-wielding, disproportionately bad-tempered Augustus Cribben (Douglas Henshall) and his irritating sister Magda (Sarah Smart). It’s within this narrative we meet the endearingly outraged Nancy (Olivia Cooke) and her sweetheart Percy Judd (Iain de Caestecker) who appears looking sorrowful and hopeless in the modern-day plot too.

From talks of an enigmatic, fatal flooding, to the unavoidable occurrence of the “creepy scratching sound emanating from cupboard #2”, and the ghost of an abusive authoritarian stalking the house at night indiscriminately smacking those in his path with a cane as though corporal punishment hadn’t been outlawed years ago- the audacity!- all hinted at inevitable unrest- The Secret of Crickley Hall was never going to be A Super Happy Fun Slide, it was immediately apparent. It couldn’t have screamed “THIS IS A VERY SCARY SERIES VERY SCARY WE PROMISE GUARANTEED BLADDER DISCOMFORT OR YOUR MONEY BACK” if had had a banshee wailing such a statement over the opening credits.

So why, I hear you lament, why is Crickley Hall worth watching, if it’s such a predictable, stagnant pool of recycled, washed out clichés? Why, if it’s so past it’s sell-by-date, if we’ve seen it all before, if it’s so terribly, gut-wrenchingly dull, should we watch it? Why is it even on air, in fact?! Take it off immediately, it’s an embarrassment even to the comforting mediocrity of the BBC drama!

Why? Because horror is safe, that’s why. There’s an undeniable peacefulness with the predictability. If you think that you can’t imagine anything more stupid than seeking comfort in the arms of a crumbling Victorian manor or a moonlit graveyard, then you’re just not watching enough horror. I promise, after a while, you’ll see what I mean. They’re all the same. And that’s what’s great about them. We want to be scared, of course we do, but we want to have our fears reconciled. We want it to be all alright, as it so often isn’t in real life. We want our imaginary ghosties and ghoulies as fantasy replacements for the all-top-real threats of the day to day mundane. We want someone to have it worse than us. We want the creaking door, the last girl, the momentary relief before the shocking climax because it’s what we’re used to. If Crickley Hall didn’t follow these conventions, was “fresh” and “ground-breaking” and all these other wonderful words that if you applied them to a horror piece of media would render it an immediate flop- it wouldn’t be Horror. It needs the dilapidated old house, wind whistling through the cracks in the roof of the attic dormitory, the mournful old man, the whispering children, otherwise it wouldn’t have half the appeal it does now, even if we’ve seen it all before. What the horror genre’s fault-finders use as the greatest criticism is also it’s greatest virtue.

Yes, of course it gets a bit irritating. Why is it always the spookiest house on within miles that the car breaks down in front of? And why does she, ohmygodWHY, does she continue down the hall at 3am after hearing the wailings of some lost soul, when we all know the sanest thing is to pull the covers over your head and pray that you’re just having a mild breakdown? It’s obvious, it’s annoying, and it makes you want to bite your hand off at the utter stupidity of the characters- but that’s what makes a horror. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t deny it. It’s one of the most solid, unchangeable genres, one that has stood the test of time like no other, one that refuses to change because, damn it, it knows it’s perfect the way it is.

Crickley Hall isn’t faultless, and it certainly won’t go down in history. But so what? It’s entertaining, convincing, with some great acting, and it’s wonderfully, genuinely spooky. A joyous collaboration of every ghost-story convention so far known to mankind, and it’s that very tranquil transparency of plot that makes it such great viewing. And okay, we might all have a good idea of how it ends, but guess what? That doesn’t matter. And I’m still going to be cowering behind cushions come the finale, and I suggest you do the same.

You can watch episodes 1 and 2 on BBC iplayer, and the third and final episode airs on BBC1 at 21:00 GMT Sunday 2nd December.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Raggelito Ode

    Cliches can exist in any horror, it is the execution that matters really. Crickley Hall seems like a fun adventure that does not take itself too seriously 😉 Fun article Helen.

    • I think cliches pretty much exist as a rule in most of them! But I agree, I am enjoying Crickley hall (looking forward to tonight’s episode haha)- and thanks! Means a lot.

  2. Amanda Duke

    I have been watching this too. It has major similarities to The Orphanage and The Others.

  3. I’ve never seen The Orphanage (would you recommend?) but I totally agree with The Others- the atmospheres are majorly similar.

  4. I am amazed you rated it. I thought the secret of crickley hall was embarrassingly bad – tacky, over the top without panache, not a drop of subtlety or suspense-I laughed out loud in disbelief repeatedley at how bad it is-if this was a movie it would be Z grade. Dont get me started on the ‘ghost’children or the score-or the acting or the script or the revisionist history-the BBC continue to dumb us down, and we pay for it.

    The BBC should be spending OUR money on actual content, rather on than so many overpaid invisible bureacrats.
    The BBC are taking the piss

    • WOW, sorry for the late reply, I’m still having trouble navigating the site (not because of the site itself but because of my general idiocy)!
      I must admit, I do think the BBC have an irritating tendency to treat it’s audience quite patronisingly, and you’re right, I do think Crickley Hall was an example of this. Sadly, I am easily satisfied, and that’s part of the reason (alongside my shameful taste of cheesey horror) that I rated it like it did.

  5. Fushiabell

    I loved it, guess I’m dumb and common :-). Yes, it follows all the conventions but such good actors, great atmosphere, you really don’t know *exactly* how the story line is going to play out in terms of the particulars, so for me anyway, and perhaps I’m dim, it provided surprises. It was kind of funny how the ghost of the villain goes around whacking everyone but a lot of ethos going on there as well. I binge watched it to the end and am glad I did.

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