Recollections / October 25, 2018
I’m not likely to add much to the thousands upon thousands of words penned over the past decade or so on how formative an experience watching Children of the Stones (1977) as a kid was. Now considered one of the signal works forming the foundation of the British folk horror and hauntological aesthetics, the series is a brilliant melding of folk memory and technological terror, of magic and science, of tradition and progress, done in that ineffable way that only the British seem able to express satisfactorily. Except, I’m not British. I didn’t grow up in the UK and I didn’t see Children of the Stones when it first aired in 1977 on ITV. I’m a product of the American suburbs who, just like a generation of slightly-older Britons, has traumatic, half-remembered images and sounds from Children of the Stones buried in his subconscious. And for that I have a few people to thank.
In spring of 1983, my family took a vacation to Montreal (a six-hour drive from our home in Boston) and I had my first ever taste of cable TV in our hotel. My already antenna-television addicted mind was utterly blown; I’m not sure if I cared about anything to do with the actual sightseeing after experiencing cable, honestly. In a fashion that only a spoiled only child growing up in the 1980s could manage, I begged my folks for cable and, within a month or two, we had it. I think all three of us were a little stunned at how much more television there was. No longer were we limited to only eight options on the dial, the three network channels and PBS on VHF, and the three or four local independent channels on UHF. Now there were dozens of options, all accessible with a click from our heavy, clunky, click-button remote. Purely on sports alone, my dad gorged on highlights on ESPN and out-of-town games on TBS, not to mention boxing on HBO. MTV entered our home for the first time, and I entered the musical mainstream of the early ’80s, buying 45 rpm singles for myself for the first time; Thomas Dolby‘s “She Blinded Me With Science” and Toto’s “Africa,” MTV mainstays in 1983, formed the first two 45s in my collection. They were about science and geography, after all, my two favorite subjects in school! We also had MTV just in time for the debut of the “Thriller” video that December. My folks threw a video debut party for the members of our extended family who didn’t have cable yet; that’s how much of a cultural titan MJ was at the time.
MTV’s sister network in the Viacom family of cable networks, Nickelodeon, was the real gem for me. As much as I spent the first eight years of my life in front of PBS, it was over the next five or so where I found myself more and more tuned into Nickelodeon. The programming in its first few years was a desperately eclectic mix, culled in large part from other English-speaking nations: Canada, the UK, and Australia and New Zealand. Some of those programs became mainstays for me: Bill Bixby’s Against The Odds was a sober documentary series that told the life stories of important historical personages. Don Herbert brought back his 1950s/’60s Mr. Wizard character for the kids of his original viewers, filling my home with aspirational dreams of personal computers and home robots. And yeah, like any ’80s kid, I chortled at the gross-out, anti-establishment humo(u)r of Canada’s You Can’t Do That on Television. As the afternoon broadcasting schedule slid into early evening, Nickelodeon’s programming would get… weird. At the time, Nickelodeon stopped broadcasting at 8 pm Eastern; this was right before the nostalgia-TV bonanza of Nick at Nite, which debuted in 1985. But right before Nick went off the air, it would treat you to a half-hour of absolute creepiness: a supernatural anthology series called The Third Eye.
The Third Eye aired for a very brief period; in its roughly two years on Nickelodeon, from early 1983 to 1984, it rotated five single-series programs from the UK and New Zealand. All of these series were uncanny, disturbing, and a little bit frightening (hell, even the series promos were uncanny and frightening!). All of them also, importantly, featured kids or teenagers as the protagonists. You went along on the adventures with them, threatened by the same hidden paranormal dangers. I loved the mystical trip back through British history featured on Into the Labyrinth, as well as the series Under the Mountain, a sort of antipodean version of the Witch Mountain Disney movies. But it was Children of the Stones, the 1977 Welsh television production for ITV, that stayed with me for a lifetime.
I was 8 or 9 years old when I watched Children of the Stones in its entirety, at least twice, on Nickelodeon. I’m absolutely sure I couldn’t follow the ins and outs of the somewhat complicated plot. On the most basic level, Children of the Stones is about a teenager, Matt Brake (Peter Demin), and his astrophysicist dad, Adam (Blake’s 7‘s Gareth Thomas), arriving at an isolated English village, Milbury, surrounded by ancient standing stones. Adam is there for a summer of research, and in due time he and Matt encounter the population of the town, who mostly seem slightly off, saying “Happy Day” to each other in a semi-brainwashed manner. Adam and Matt meet two of the few non-“Happy People” in the village, Matt’s schoolmate Sandra Smythe (Katharine Levy) and her mother Margaret (Veronica Strong), Milbury’s museum curator. The haughty lord of the town, Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson), himself an astronomer, seems to have a strange hold over the people, the town, and, most important, the eerie stone circle.
The overall effect of Children of the Stones on a precocious kid was one of pure sensory overload. This series bombarded the young viewer with all kinds of tremendously disturbing imagery and sounds. The series is famed for its disturbing choral soundtrack, featuring atonal, pagan harmonies, which would suddenly swerve into out-and-out screaming. The history of the village—this was no stage set, after all, as all the exteriors were filmed in and around the very real English village of Avebury—oozed from every frame of the series, whether it was the stones themselves (although, even at 8, I could see that some of the stones looked suspiciously wobbly and/or styrofoamy) or the tiny museum that preserved and protected the village’s many stories and myths. (Let’s leave aside the idea of a suburban American kid trying to understand what the heck those Morris Dancers were up to without any context.)
The nightmares I got from the series as a kid were pure and direct: they were about being turned into stone, just like some of the villagers were over the village’s history. In the series’s horrifying denouement, Hendrick, having finally turned everyone but Matt and Adam, has them over to his manor house for their final initiation into “Happy Ones.” Hendrick uses the stones’ alignment with an ancient supernova/black hole (coordinated by giant reel-to-reel tape-playing computers and an ominous flip-clock) to keep the villagers under his control. But Adam and Matt have tampered with the clock’s mechanism, and Hendrick’s plans are foiled—however, the misalignment turns Hendrick into a wizened old druid and the entire village to stone. Adam and Matt escape the event by finding sanctuary outside the circle, and find the village the next morning strangely renewed, everyone alive and un-petrified. The Brakes escape, but not before it’s intimated that the whole cycle will happen all over again.
Certainly, I was no stranger to these kinds of fantastical sci-fi narratives as a kid, but this was a different type of narrative, one that conveyed a deep and profound wrongness, and more importantly a wrongness of place, that was a common thread throughout a lot of the media was I drawn to. Whether it was Doctor Who serials I’d seen on PBS like “The Android Invasion” or “The Hand of Fear,” or another British series full of psychic powers and mysterious happenings, The Tomorrow People (which also aired on Nickelodeon), or the few tantalizing glimpses of The Prisoner that I caught in syndication in the early ’80s (my dad was a great fan of the series), or even the Canadian kids’ educational series Read All About It! (1979-1981), which, while kitschy and silly in spots, was also alternately legitimately terrifying to a young kid already obsessed with the consequences of not having the right answers at school—all of these shows were alien to me on two levels: culturally and thematically. These programs were not afraid to frighten or unsettle the audience; the heroes’ foes were ambiguous (often foes disguised as friends), the settings often combined the antique and haunted with the modern and technological. It was an aesthetic contrast whose power I could understand even at this young age. Whether it’s the Doctor seeing what’s under the face of an android in a seemingly abandoned English village, or the old Coach House in a small Canadian town holding super-advanced computers and teleportation technology, this juxtaposition of old and new created great dissonance in my childhood mind. Wasn’t the future—that gleaming hypergrid of every TV commercial’s dreams—supposed to banish ghosts and hauntings and old things from my life forever?
Two indelibly haunting images from my obsessive childhood viewing of Doctor Who:
Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith replaced by a duplicate in The Android Invasion (1975);
and Sladen as Smith sitting in a nuclear reactor, controlled by the titular Hand of Fear (1976).
I think this is the essence of what nostalgic adults like me find so compelling about hauntology today, and why it’s very hard (but not impossible!) for this aesthetic to find purchase on American soil. It’s also why I feel strangely lucky to have had access to all these Commonwealth-produced meditations on a haunted past intruded upon by an uncertain future. All the implicit or explicit propaganda I embraced as a kid was tied into celebrating the worship of progress and technology for its own sake. I grew up in a world slowly becoming surrounded and bound together by computers, cable TV, naked consumerism: a slowly shrinking global village. And I also grew up, largely, without folklore or myth deeply embedded in my life. Urban myths? Sure. And certainly there were the ancient echoes of my childhood Catholicism, but in the 1980s much of the authentic antiquity and paganism in the Church was being actively chased off: no more Latin and a whole lot more guitar Masses. The sense of physical emplacement that could lead to being scared of the horrors that lurked in tiny villages, stone circles, abandoned coach houses, seaside retirement communities? That didn’t exist for me in the suburbs, except maybe in my mind and on my TV screen, thanks to these foreign shows. Being enthralled by these narratives served a very important purpose in the formation of my psyche: the understanding that progress sometimes can’t beat back the ghosts and magic.
There’s so much more to be said about how Children of the Stones set me on the paths I’m on today. When I first rewatched the series after getting the DVD for Christmas a few years ago, I marveled at all the subconscious ways it had invaded my life since I was 8. Every now and again I’d recognize a plot point or a half-remembered image that I’d unconsciously ripped off for one of my role-playing game campaigns decades later. When I saw Adam in the first episode check out Margaret’s town museum and examine the dioramas and exhibits that held secret clues to understanding the stone circle’s history and mystical powers, I wondered if this had somehow set me on my path, 30-some-odd years later, to entering the museum field. There’s my obvious love of all things British folk magic and folk horror, itself an expression of subconscious envy of the authentic history and magic in the very hills and stones of the British Isles. Children of the Stones‘s legacy also persists in the oddest places; I now realize one of the reasons I was a devoted, maybe even obsessive, fan of the show Lost (2004-2010) was the aesthetic echoes of Children of the Stones all over the mysterious Island: flip-clocks and outdated computers that somehow control mysterious powers in the very earth itself. The stones of Milbury cast very long shadows, ones I’m still walking in to this day. The cycle that Matt and his dad escape from at the end of the series is one I actively seek to re-enter myself every time I spin the DVD. Time is, after all, a flat circle. Happy day!