An excellent example of the Saturn archetype can be found in the six-part BBC series The Living and the Dead. It’s a supernatural thriller structured around a love story set during the Victorian era in rural Somerset. The haunting music is based on old folk songs which adds to the eerie and suspenseful atmosphere. There are moments of horror and a few good scares, but The Living and the Dead is so much more than a standard ghost story.
The story follows the fortunes of psychologist Nathan Appleby who returns to the family estate in the country with his second wife, Charlotte, after his mother’s death. Their return to the village triggers an awakening of ghosts from the past and the locals are soon besieged by strange supernatural goings-on. Nathan does his best to help, but has his own problems which eventually threaten the future of the farm and his marriage.
The interesting thing about The Living and the Dead is that Nathan appears to be haunted by the past and the future simultaneously. This creates some confusion and triggers a lot of questions without easy answers. It’s based on a similar idea to The Others but is much better, in my opinion. So if you’ve seen that film you won’t be too surprised by what happens – although the ending still packs a punch.
Before we go any further, I have to give you the obligatory !!**SPOILER WARNING**!! If you haven’t seen The Living and the Dead, I urge you to watch it first cos, well, spoilers incoming…
The way the story is structured means it rewards several viewings because you pick up little clues and connections as it unfolds. I guarantee you’ll want to go back to the beginning to start again once you see how it ends. Scenes that may have been confusing or strange suddenly begin to make sense without removing the mystery. In fact, the more you think about it, the more questions open up about the nature of time and reality.
The series explores multiple themes, including family and ancestors, karma, time, death and grief, rationality and superstition, the clash between traditional ways of life and new technology, and the tension between the past and the future and how they influence each other. It also explores the importance of the land and sense of place in our identities. The landscape is almost a character in its own right and the seasons play a central part in the story, giving it structure both literally and symbolically.
It’s set in 1894 on the cusp of the 20th century when the Industrial Revolution was turning people’s lives upside down. There was an explosion of innovation and new technology, and many people were leaving the countryside to work in the towns and cities. Nathan and Charlotte buck that trend by going the other way, returning to the land from London and bringing their new ideas with them.
Charlotte is a photographer and a thoroughly modern woman – strong and independent, but with no experience of country living. She takes over the running of the farm, like Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd, and is determined to modernise and bring the locals up to date. They’re not happy about it but deference to the landowner and their ancestors means they do their best to adjust.
The story explores the collision between these worlds as the locals resist change and try to preserve the traditional ways of life. Their beliefs are a mix of Christianity, folklore and superstition, which don’t sit well with the new ideas of progress and science. In fact, the lives of the villagers seem stuck in a time warp – which they might be…
The disruptive effect of technology hangs over the lives of the characters as if the future itself is a ghost haunting the present. When Charlotte buys a traction engine, the locals feel unsettled by this machine that threatens to take away their jobs. Later she explains that if they could get the railway to come through their land, they could have produce on the tables of customers many miles away within a day. The natural cycles of life begin to unspool as technology speeds things up and brings the outside world closer.
The story explores the cost of progress and how somebody always has to pay the price – usually somebody lowly and long-forgotten. The Appleby family have been running a farm on this land for generations and they’ve already stacked up considerable karmic debts. Nathan adds to the load with his own behaviour too, especially as the series unfolds.
The past is also brought to life through technology. As a photographer, Charlotte is familiar with the latest craze for capturing a moment of time. She pours over old photographs of the previous generations of villagers and farm workers, and makes new ones of her own. Nathan also finds a phonograph and wax cylinders that contain recordings of the locals talking about their lives. He listens to them with Charlotte and she comments:
“You could be dead and buried a hundred years and people could still hear what you sounded like.”
But then Nathan hears the voice of his son, Gabriel, asking where he is – a phrase that haunts the entire series. Gabriel died many years ago and has been hanging around waiting for his father to return. And on All Hallows Eve, Charlotte takes a photo of the villagers in Halloween costumes only to discover the image of Gabriel lurking in the background.
Each episode has its own mini haunting that Nathan has to deal with, but the whole series is underpinned by his grief for Gabriel and guilt over how he died. In the first episode, he helps the vicar’s daughter, Harriet, who appears to be possessed by a dodgy old man called Abel North. But then she begins to channel various voices from the past, including Gabriel, and it all goes a bit Exorcist.
At this stage, Nathan believes there’s a rational explanation for the strange events. He explains to Harriet why people came to see him as a psychologist:
“The old certainties are gone and people look for meaning elsewhere – in spiritualism, in mediums, in mesmerism. The occult. And some of those people got damaged and became my patients.”
When she asks if he believes in ghosts, he scoffs and says he believes “in an open and scientific mind.” He thinks possession is a manifestation of an aspect of the patient’s mind and there’s no such thing as a ghost.
However, the events of this episode shake his rational beliefs, especially the death of John, the ploughman. It’s a gruesome but richly symbolic moment. John stands in the field and coaxes the horses towards him using an apple. He’s knocked down and the plough slices his head off. His blood seeps into the soil, the apple lying untouched close by. A sacrifice for the land.
Nathan is perplexed and can’t understand why John would kill himself. He loved the farm and generations of his family had ploughed the land. So what made him do it?
Other hauntings include a group of boys from the workhouse who died in the local mine and want Charlie to come and play with them; Peter hears the voice of a woman telling him to sacrifice his mother to protect the wheat harvest; a restless spirit returns to haunt Martha and reveal her killer; and ghostly Roundhead troops terrify the whole village on the anniversary of the Halloween massacre – a bit like the Wild Hunt passing through.
There’s so much symbolism packed into each episode that I can’t cover everything in one post – you’ll have to do your own detective work. But there’s an important clue early in the first episode that reveals this isn’t a bog-standard ghost story: when Nathan hears the sound of a jet engine overhead and looks up to see contrails in the sky…!
The episode ends with Nathan seeing a ghost from the future: a woman in a red coat holding an ipad – it’s a fantastic moment! The blue glow from the screen lights her face as if she’s holding a torch under her chin to tell a ghost story. She pops up repeatedly throughout the series and Nathan begins to believe she has come to take his son and may have caused his death.
This seems reasonable because the woman also haunted Gabriel when he was alive. Charlotte finds a box full of his things, including a drawing of a stick figure holding a glowing book. Nathan calls this a “book of light”. It’s not something he can find a rational explanation for within his own psychology and his mind starts to fray.
“It was God who took my son away. Sending down this angel with her book of light to lead him to his doom…”
Many of the people affected by the ghosts have the same thing in common: they’re outsiders or different in a way that makes them sensitive and singles them out.
Harriet is on the cusp of womanhood and puberty is sending her loopy. Charlie was raised by his aunt who calls herself his mother but he knows something is wrong. Peter was bullied as a child for being odd and may be suffering from schizophrenia. Martha couldn’t live openly because she’s a lesbian.
The hauntings are also connected to karmic debts and wrong-doings that need to be atoned. The sins of the past return as Nathan and the villagers reap what they’ve sown. Some are innocent victims, like John and Charlie, who pay for others’ mistakes. While others bring punishment on themselves through their actions, driven by unconscious motives that they don’t understand.
Nathan is haunted by grief for his son but can’t accept responsibility for his death. In the first episode we find out that Nathan left for London after the death of his first wife, but Gabriel stayed behind. The boy felt abandoned by his father, who was busy gadding about in the big city making a name for himself – and running away from his grief for his wife. Gabriel drowned in the lake beside the house and his father wasn’t there to save him.
Nathan blames everybody except himself, even driving Charlotte away in fear of the new life growing inside her. He’s stuck in the past because of his “insoluble grief” and becomes desperate to catch a glimpse of Gabriel’s ghost. In the end, he’s completely consumed by his own madness, stalking the grounds of the house and lashing out at anyone who tries to help.
It all comes to a head in the final episode when the story partially shifts to the present day and we find out who has been haunting Nathan from the future and why. The woman with the ipad is Lara, Nathan’s great-great-granddaughter, and Gabriel has been haunting her too. And her mother. In fact, this knotty problem has been with the family for quite some time.
Lara sets out to investigate the goings-on at the old family estate and does a spot of ghost whispering to encourage Gabriel to move on. The timelines crisscross back and forth, and scenes we’ve already seen are repeated from Lara’s perspective but often in the wrong timeframe. Intervening across time is clearly a tricky business.
Things get weird when Lara runs into her great-great-grandfather on the road. She swerves to avoid hitting him and the car spins out of control… another ghost has been created. Another sacrifice to feed the land.
Lara doesn’t realise she’s dead until the mind-bending moment the villagers dig a rusty old machine out of the ground. Four horses pull the wreckage of Lara’s car from deep within the earth – it’s obviously been there for a long time – and somebody remarks:
“Perhaps this was what was troubling the land.”
Lara leaves with Gabriel and Nathan finally finds inner peace – until the last scene and a question turns everything on its head. The question sets up a potential second series that never materialised because the BBC (inexplicably) cancelled the show. So we’ll never know the answer. But if you ignore the final scene, which feels tacked on and unnecessary, the series works well as a complete story.
Nathan’s story follows the cycle of the seasons through the year. It starts at the summer solstice when the sun is at its highest and the couple have great hopes for the future. Things begin to unravel at harvest time in the autumn when the crop is blighted and the reaping starts in earnest.
By winter it’s all gone to shit. The land is frozen and so is the relationship between Nathan and Charlotte. For a while it seems they might split up, despite the new baby on the way. But by spring, they’ve overcome their difficulties to emerge reborn and reconciled. The curse is broken. The story ends the following summer with the new baby and a new beginning.
This cycle may also be connected to the pagan idea of the ritual battle between the Holly and Oak Kings which reflects the position of the sun through the year. Holly represents the winter and darkness, while Oak is the summer and light. The Oak King reaches full power at the summer solstice but is killed by the Holly King on All Hallows Eve, and reborn at Midwinter.
In a similar way, Nathan begins with the intention of making a new start, slowly unravels and has a breakdown, then is reborn – like the sun. This pattern is also reflected in changes to the land and the fortunes of the farm.
But then the cliff-hanger ending poses a question that seems to set the whole cycle running again. Is Nathan doomed to be trapped in a cycle of eternal return?
We’ll never know, but the series provides plenty of fuel for speculation about the nature of time and what happens when we die.
The village of Shepzoy appears to exist in a time bubble, cut off from the rest of the world. The cycle of the seasons turn but nothing really changes, the old traditions hold everything in place and life continues as it always has. It’s as if the dead are still living their lives while the world goes on around them, trapped in a moment of time.
Perhaps all timelines exist simultaneously, the living and the dead rubbing shoulders and influencing each other in subtle ways we don’t see. Perhaps time is an illusion and it’s only our consciousness that affects how we experience it.
Perhaps Nathan is in purgatory and the village is a reality his soul created to help him find redemption. He is the unquiet dead, a lost soul, whose influence ripples down the ages through his descendants. Never has a family been more in need of a shamanic intervention than the Applebys. And it has to be said:
With ancestors this screwed up, who needs enemies?
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Images: film stills