Popular Occulture in Britain recently participated in Explorathon Scotland 2016, part of the European Researchers Night festival funded by the European Commission and held in over 250 cities across the continent. For our contribution, we ran a screening of Jacques Tourner’s classic British horror film Night of the Demon, followed by a Q & A with myself and Dr David Rolinson, Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Stirling. We were delighted to have a sold-out crowd of 150 attendees who engaged in a lively and fascinating discussion about the mutual influences between horror film and the occult in Tourneur’s riveting screen adaptation of M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes” (1911).
Although produced ten years after the 1947 end date of our project, Tourneur’s film is nonetheless a perfect fit for the themes we hope to explore through it over the next two years. No other British film better documents the extent, and in its vision, dangerous consequences, of the entrance of occult ideas into the popular press of the early twentieth century. Fans of the original story will know that it about something with which James as a Cambridge provost would have been all too familiar, namely a petty academic dispute. Karswell, a reclusive self-taught occultist who has “invented a new religion for himself,” has his proposal for a paper on “The Truth of Alchemy’ rejected by the organizers of a scholarly conference. Intriguingly, it is neither the dangerousness of its content or the depravity of its author that leads to the submission’s snub; on the contrary, Karswell, we are told, is simply an atrocious writer whose book on The History of Witchcraft is full of “split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise.” This stipulation makes me think that James may have based Karswell not on Aleister Crowley, as is often supposed, but on A.E. Waite, a practicing occultist and historian of esotericism well-known in this period for the turgidity of his prose style.
What is interesting here is that Karswell is positioned as an outsider not because he dabbles in occult science, but because he hasn’t been to the right schools or acquired the correct cultural capital through which to approach this subject. Rebuffed, he does what many disgruntled scholars have done: he takes revenge. Karswell tracks down his anonymous referee Edward Dunning—an easy task, as Dunning is “the only man in England who knows anything about these things—, accosts him in the British Museum Reading Room, and slips into his papers a runic inscription that will summon a demon to destroy him if he doesn’t manage to surreptitiously return the parchment. After much hijinks, Dunning finally succeeds in getting Karswell to take the runes and call down the demon on himself. Revenge, it seems, doesn’t pay after all.
When screenwriter Charles Bennett came to adapt the story in the mid-1950s, the occultural landscape radically transformed, and these changes are reflected in the controversial script he produced with Hal Chester and Cy Enfield. Far from being a fringe enterprise with only a single British expert, the occult and its associated phenomena are the subject of a major international Convention on Paranormal Psychology whose delegates, like the Irish Mark O’Brien and the Indian Mr Kumar, have come from all over the world to discuss topics such as “Mindreading, Fortune Telling, Spirits, and Zombies.” James’s bachelor-scholar Dunning is transformed into the debunking psychologist John Holden, here to complete the exposé on Karswell that his recently, and suspiciously, killed colleague Harrington initiated. This, for me, is the most fascinating difference between the two texts: where James’s Karswell is a popularizer who literally raises hell when he doesn’t get the notice he seeks, Tourneur’s is a fugitive from the press who desperately wants to re-esotericize an enterprise that has received too much public attention, and which he can no longer control. “No more newspapers,” he tells Harrington minutes before the latter falls prey to the fire demon. “All I want is privacy for myself and my followers.” Karswell is transformed here into a celebrity victim of the tabloid press who turns the runes on Harrington only because the American wants to write about his activities in the popular media. Cursed by the press, Karswell returns the favour by slipping the runes into his rival’s papers, a gesture no more ultimately successful than that of his Jamesian predecessor. The circulation of paper can be an occult process in more ways than one. The demon comes for him in the end in all its tacky cinematic glory, breathing fire and ripping him to pieces on the tracks at Clapham Junction train station.
There is much, much more to say about this compelling and often campy film and its implications for British occulture. But perhaps I might best end here by addressing its contentious decision to materialize—and materialize in a provocatively sensational, lurid, and cheap manner—a monster that was only ever suggested in the James story. Much of the criticism of the movie, then and since, has attacked this decision for ruining the suspense and integrity of James’s original; Tourneur himself claimed that this addition transformed “a major movie down to the level of crap.”[i] While I don’t myself have a firm position on this debate, I am fascinated by the way in which it reproduces some of the elite criticisms that have been levelled against both horror film and occult popularizers since the late nineteenth century: namely, that they make explicit that which only has value—aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual—when left unspoken or seen, limited to a restricted body of readers or viewers who can understand what mass cultural audiences supposedly cannot. What happens when that which should be hidden comes into over-explicit view? Does the occult encounter with popular culture ultimately diminish both, or produce new and more compelling forms of enchantment both onscreen and off? These are the questions we’re hoping to explore over the two-year period of our project, and we hope you’ll join the conversation with us both here and at our workshops!
[i] Quoted in Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, “Viewing Notes,” in Jacques Tourner (Director) (1957) Night of the Demon. Mediumrare Entertainment, 2010.