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The Consolations of Horror: Heritage and Tradition in the Televisual Haunted Country House
It has become a standard approach when considering screen presentations that incorporate the country house to examine them in the light of Andrew Higson’s formulation of the heritage drama, which presented an essentially conservative, depoliticised spectacle of grandeur, safely distanced from the reality of the majority of viewers. However, the country house has also long been a location for the gothic or horror tale, from Castles Otranto, Frankenstein or Dracula, via Abbeys Nightmare, Northanger and Newstead, or less grandly-named, or even nameless, abodes such as those in The Turn of the Screw, Uncle Silas’ Bartram-Haugh or The House of Usher itself. These representations, on page or screen, could be expected to be more subversive than the prettified spectacle of the heritage drama, revealing horrors of the oppressed and repressed beneath the attractive shell of the home. However, this paper will argue that, as the country house has become displaced as the location of horror in film and television, when it does appear in this context it is as part of the comfortingly familiar framework of the traditional filmic or televisual Gothic tale. By drawing directly on memories of previous productions and stories these dramas generate a feeling of familiarity, a feeling which operates to provide a comforting envelope around the terrors which are unveiled through the narrative. In particular, the paper focuses on the long tradition of the ghost story at Christmas, which takes in literary and televisual versions of country house horror such as The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in Black, and even the conservative setting of Downton Abbey in its first Christmas special. A ghost in a country house, particularly at Christmas, is no longer a disruptive eruption of abnormality into a conservative normality, it is rather something accepted, expected and traditional.