Originally Aired 2008
Producer: Carolyn Reynolds, Tony Wood
Writer: Joe Ahearne
Despite the huge amount of TV horror that exists, some people still think you can’t really do horror on TV: that television is too mainstream, too concerned about “least offensive programming”, not niche enough, not cult enough, and not daring enough. Horror fans know, however, that innovative horror has debuted on the medium that brought us Quatermass, Ghostwatch and Being Human (or, across the Atlantic, The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows and Dexter) even if they’re often categorised as something other than horror, something more TV. It’s difficult to see Apparitions as anything other than horror. But it’s definitely horror for television and this is where it gets interesting. Apparitions is The Exorcist on TV. Even now, it seems unlikely and, on BBC1, almost incredible. I remember seeing trailers for it and thinking, it’ll never work. But, by mixing realist horror with bankable BBC elements, including a star actor (Martin Shaw) and a writer/ director with a track record in fantasy and horror as well as mainstream television (Joe Ahearne), it did, gaining a 20.6% audience share for its first episode.
Anyone familiar with Ahearne’s work, knows he previously wrote and directed 6-part Channel 4 series Ultraviolet (1998), an unforgettable revision of the vampire hunter story, as well as directing various episodes of Doctor Who early in its reboot. Fantasy mixed with realism is common on TV but before Misfits and Being Human, Ahearne was taking the aesthetic tradition of kitchen sink and social realist British TV drama and applying it to horror and the supernatural. Even in a story about vampires or about exorcising demons the setting, the world in which the characters move and the world in which the action takes place is utterly real, utterly contemporary, so when we do see demonic possession or exorcisms, these things are made real in a way that other, more extravagant and spectacular horror never achieves. That we see these horrors on our TV screen in our living room makes it, if anything, more grounded in the real.
And what do we see in Apparitions? Things barely imaginable for BBC1 in a primetime slot, even after 9pm. The basic premise of the show is that Roman Catholic priest Father Jacob believes that “Satan is not an exotic presence in our lives” (episode 1). Jacob is supposed to be examining proof of alleged miracles but is sidetracked into exorcism. Demonic possession and exorcism lend themselves to extreme body horror and despite Ahearne saying in pre-release publicity that “This is a story where the exorcist is centre stage – not the possessed victim,” Apparitions does not shy away from these elements. In the very first episode one of Jacob’s friends has his skin flayed from his body and dies. In another, a rapist incarcerated in prison is possessed, not by a demon but by a saint (episode 3), causing him to literally sweat blood. It doesn’t stop other prisoners trying to rape him in the washroom. In yet another (episode 4), a 70-year-old pregnant woman tries to secure an abortion. The visceral nature of these scenes is rendered in detail. When Jacob’s friend and student Vimal is flayed, we see the aftermath rather than the process, yet the camera lingers on the pools of blood and exposed flesh, blue lighting (another favourite of Ahearne’s) serving to make the blood look eerily black. The body is seen again in the following episode during an autopsy, this time brightly lit. A bible is later bound in Vimal’s skin, and close-up shots show the marks of hair follicles in the book binding – a subtle but stomach-twisting reminder of the grisly killing.
Apparitions aired on BBC1 and BBCHD, positioning it as a flagship show and affording the best possible medium for its special effects. Effects and spectacle are always an issue in screen horror and Ahearne wanted to avoid CGI because he believes it lacks emotion, a feeling shared by many horror directors in film and TV. The more complicated stunts are rooted in performance, grounding them in something tangible rather than in the details of make up, wirework and effects. Some proposed scenes were cut because they were judged to be less “real” and therefore out of keeping with the rest of the show and its authentic feel. Still, what remains is remarkable in a primetime drama on BBC1. Not surprisingly Ahearne admits that there was “quite a bit of nervousness about extreme horror on television because we don’t tend to do a lot of it”.
Apparitions made it to BBC1 partly because it was Martin Shaw’s idea. I hadn’t watched Shaw on television since The Professionals (1977-81) because his work for TV tends to be for a mainstream audience and I don’t watch much mainstream drama. With a career of acting that includes stage roles and occasional film parts and that started on TV in 1967, Shaw is a well-known face on British television. His most famous roles are in TV staples such as detective, medical and legal drama series and Ahearne describes Shaw as being “at the top of television.” This very bankability sells Apparitions as a primetime BBC1 drama, despite its high level of horror and inclusion of the supernatural. Shaw brings the authority of his past roles to playing Father Jacob, as well as their mundanity, to counterpoint the fantastic elements of Apparitions.
Jacob is at the centre of this drama, though whether it validates his position is unclear. In Ahearne’s previous series, Ultraviolet, vampire hunters were as much in danger of losing their humanity as any vampire recruit: in Apparitions, Father Jacob is accused of being mad and deluded by many other characters. Shaw makes his character’s faith convincing but repeated denials and disbelief from those who encounter Jacob continually undermine any sense of rationality (in the diegesis and for the viewer). Moreover, to most of those he interacts with, even associates in the church, Jacob’s faith is as exotic as demon possession. “Many of those beliefs are out of place in a secular society like Britain,” comments Ahearne, “and it creates great conflict which is the engine for drama”. Similarly, the rituals of Catholicism function here as another form of spectacle, contrasting with contemporary secular society (abortion clinics, prisons, psychology) and with other religions (Islam in episode 5), as horror does with realism. While shooting the majority of the series in Liverpool or London underpins the show’s contemporary social realism, location shooting in the Vatican enhances a sense of simultaneous realism and exoticism in the finale episode.
It should be apparent from this description that religion and the Roman Catholic Church are not depicted simplistically here. The Exorcist supposedly went down well with the Catholic authorities, since its priests are heroic figures fighting evil to the death. The very idea of a priest as hero might make some reluctant to watch Apparitions but, since this is a drama created by Ahearne, it’s not that clear-cut. The church as an institution is painted much less sympathetically than Father Jacob. Religious belief is, perhaps, upheld by the narrative to the extent that it suggests demons exist. But Apparitions really tackles religion as morality and neither offers definitive answers, nor gives only one view. It debates the nature of evil: are bad things in society the work of the devil or is this just ducking the issue and avoiding social responsibility?
Although Ahearne notes that Apparitions makes reference to classic horror films (and to Silence of the Lambs, a prestige production that also effectively brings horror into the mainstream) the series engages with “current live issues” and contentious areas for contemporary Catholicism such as abortion, homosexuality and the holocaust. With episodes negotiating potential child abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder, the show ranges from intimate family life to international conflict. Many of the episodes raise questions about violence, for instance: about how it is used and justified, when it might be acceptable, and when it is considered criminal or simply evil. While Apparitions delivers spectacular “horror” exorcisms or possessions on a regular basis, Ahearne is more interested in extremes of good or evil, and in how we judge extreme acts and extreme beliefs.
Some online reviewers comment that the show is a mish-mash of exorcism horror movie clichés. Of course it is: that’s how genre works, whether it simply recycles, or whether it renegotiates and re-presents. Vimal, Jacob’s friend and student is attacked and flayed in a bath house, apparently having given in to repressed homosexual desire. Cliché? Well, yes, but homosexuality remains a major issue for the Catholic Church (and other religions), homophobia is still rife in contemporary society, and self-loathing is nothing new to Catholics. Vimal’s sexuality is something many around him prefer to ignore; his death is a threat close to home. And, like countless horror protagonists, Jacob must live in fear that all those close to him will die before he can defeat the evil only he seems to believe in.
Apparitions and its reworking of possession and exorcism will not appeal to all horror fans. Ahearne knows exactly how to use TV and its realist conventions to best effect for horror, so it’s surprisingly low-key in places, surprisingly graphic in others. As in most contemporary TV horror the grey areas of morality are to the fore. Adding religion just makes it more challenging. Can you be objective about vampires? Probably. But religion? Like it or loathe it, religion still affects how we see the world and Apparitions sketches out how it can be a vehicle for complex TV horror.
Lorna Jowett is a Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Northampton, UK, where she teaches some of her favourite things, including television, film, horror, and science fiction, sometimes all at once. Research currently focuses on genre, aesthetics and representation in television, film and popular culture. Her monograph, Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2005, she is on the editorial board of Slayage: the Journal of the Whedon Studies Association and she is currently writing a book on TV Horror with Stacey Abbott.