The Independent London Newspaper
23rd May 2019

ILLTYD HARRINGTON: Fright nights – a thing of the past

    Bernard Kops

    Bernard Kops wrote a play in which a ouija board spells out ‘Adolf’

    Published: November 5, 2014

    THE last time I was frightened was in 1960 during the screening of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. A majestic Simone Signoret thought she’d murdered her husband, but the body disappears. People left the cinema scared stiff. Some fainted and were carried out. 

    So I am able to look at the absurdity of trick or treat, where an old traditional value has been debased by supermarket rubbish. We are a long way from Tucking Apple night. Hallowe’en. Nothing seems to bother us at the absorbing of our culture. We appear resigned to what Henry Luce, the publisher of Time magazine, proclaimed the American century in 1941. Pumpkins are after all a profitable crop. How far will it go? Will we have children imitating the American attitude where they take a loyalty oath and salute the flag daily? 

    There was much in my boyhood which really terrified us in our local fleapits. There were two actors who spread fear and even terror into our young hearts. Top of the list was Bela Lugosi, who made his way from Hungary to Hollywood. He had a very sinister appearance, and his accent bore a flash of cruelty from beyond the grave as he searched for blood. The best Dracula of all. He ended up living in poverty above a Los Angeles gas station. Such was the anti-Red hysteria in the US of the 1950s that he was subpoenaed by the Un-American Activities Committee, where he faced real bloodsuckers.

    The other voice and face of evil was Englishman Boris Karloff. He worked in a theatre of blood. During the course of the Korean War of 1950-53 his brother Sir John Pratt, ex-foreign office, and the idiosyncratic Duke of Bedford starred in a meeting in St Pancras Town Hall. They discussed opposing the use of British troops in Korea. Sadly Sir John was marginalised. 

    Such is the course of history that Hammer Horrors are being revived, without the late Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. No one seems capable of making you hide behind the sofa, trembling.

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived during a gloomy day by Lake Geneva because she was bored. 

    In 1940 my father took two daily newspapers, the liberal News Chronicle and his party’s Daily Worker, now the Morning Star. About this time the home secretary Herbert Morrison, in spite of widespread opposition, banned the Daily Worker. I was 13 at the time and welcomed the news reports in the News Chronicle. There I read of the last trial for witchcraft. 

    One Helen Duncan practised a necromancy in the front room of her Portsmouth house, then a key naval base. In the magistrates’ court she was accused of spewing ectoplasm from her mouth. It proved to be a very delicate cotton. However, her fairground tricks became rather disturbing as she prophesied that a ship, HMS Barham, would be sunk. Unfortunately, it was a dead accurate prediction. Mary was bundled off to jail, considered to be a spy for the Germans. Spies don’t usually deliver warnings to their enemies in seances, so the authorities changed tack: Duncan will go down in history as the last public witch. 

    I find the teacher horrific in James Joyce’s book Dubliners when he tells the boys in detail what awaits them if they pass with sin on their souls. 

    Bernard Kops, our local playwright, wrote a play about 30 years ago in which five old East End Jews gather round a ouija board. They are startled when the board spells out “Adolf”. They become white with fear when Auntie Sadie breaks the tension: “Perhaps he has come back to apologise,” she says. 

    Hitler, I understand, had halitosis and flatulence. That’s enough to scare anybody.