Looking at the severe faced man with no hair save a triangle on his chin, a high collared leather jacket and geeky/trendy specs, the guest speaker we’d invited seemed scary. He seemed to fit the horror he wrote – he has worked with notorious horror directors William Friedkin and Ken Russell, and was going to talk about his psychological thriller on mediums – all of which repelled me. So I wasn’t expecting to like him.
But Stephen Volk in person was much warmer than his press photograph. And the clips from his TV show Afterlife not only intrigued me but made me almost cry.
He explained how Afterlife is about belief and scepticism, two disparate people (a psychologist, Robert, and a medium, Alison) who need each other; it’s about unlikely friendships, about healing and facing death. Out of the many film workshops and events I sat through in Bristol, I can still recall this one and it was definitely on my list to follow up.
It took me four years to see the series.
I hesitated because of the DVD cover which suggested horror; I felt the bloody image alienated potential viewers. There seems to be blood for the sake of it. I have never understood the idea that ghosts appear as their body was last seen, and in this story it seems for scare thrills rather than any continuity or necessity. They’ve tried to make this suspenseful and horrific, but this adds no value in my view. Once one disengages from the soundtrack, the creepy stuff is ineffective and therefore wasteful. What does fear give to a story? Is inducing fear in your audience really worthy of being something in itself?
I was surprised to learn that despite making a career writing about ghosts, Stephen Volk’s own view is like his character Robert’s – a so called rational and a cynic. It shows, in that the stories feel penned by an outsider who hasn’t grasped his subject. It was also apparent when he tried to feature a vicar, also depicted stereotypically and clumsily.
The writing of Alison too is a mishmash. She is consulted by people at first who want to get in touch with the dead, but then she becomes a ghost verifier without always being able to help the spirit or the haunted. She recommends urgently abandoning two homes, leaving the haunting problem for the next inhabitant. There were some spirits who seemed malevolent, which raises questions of exorcism – never attempted in the series. If horrible spirits are violently killed horrible people, then some deaths in the series only add to the problem spirits, not erase them.
As a medium, Alison would normally have a spirit guide. Without reference to God either, she faces spirits who are unchecked and she is unguarded with only her own wisdom and fragile strength to deal with a boundless world beyond our control.
That Alison comes to Robert at difficult moments being demanding is poor writing, making stress for the sake of it. As a medium, Alison is sensitive to people and would be able to tell about his illness and his mood.
Series two begins unevenly and seems to move away from the ethos of the show, becoming about spooking rather than curing. The middle episodes are much better, back in the healing and letting go track. The best was about Alison’s family .
The final episode didn’t have the power it did when I first saw it out of context 5 years ago. After letting Alison’s supernatural stance have the last word each week, suddenly it’s Robert the psychologist’s turn to save the day and the suggestion is that Alison’s gift really has been a mental illness. Left alone in both senses by the spirits, Alison does not know what to do without her mediumship, and by the end looses the only friend we know of. There are final scenes we didn’t need – the one of Robert and Josh should have closed the story. The icy nurse was an unnecessary addition, a last attempt at fright and fulfilling some brief to satisfy the genre. The union of father and son felt quite clichéd and gooey when til then, Afterlife had been original and in the case of Lesley Sharp especially, brilliantly acted.