‘Damaged a generation of viewers, including me’: Joe Cornish on the most terrifying horror for kids | Television

Lately, people keep asking me if I have seen a ghost. Not because I am pale and sickly – that’s how I always look – but because of my new supernatural series Lockwood & Co, which follows the adventures of three teen ghost hunters in a London plagued by lethal apparitions.

In truth, the answer is “no”. I decided to adapt the brilliant novels by Jonathan Stroud – on which the series is based – not due to any personal paranormal experience, but because I was inspired by the terrifying TV shows and movies I saw growing up. There’s a scariness to them that I loved when I was a kid, so I wanted to create my own family show which channels that spookiness. Here, in nostalgic recollection, are my top-five unforgettable childhood screen scares.

The Ghost Hunters

‘Damaged a generation of viewers, including me’: Joe Cornish on the most terrifying horror for kids | Television
A scene from the 1975 BBC documentary The Ghost Hunters. Photograph: YouTube

This old BBC documentary about ghost-hunting might well be the scariest thing I have ever seen. I can’t possibly have watched it when it was first broadcast on a Thursday night in 1975, as I was six. I must have seen an extended clip on The Danny Baker Show a few years later, as I remember being amazed at how terrified I could be when it wasn’t even dark outside. This was ghost-hunting 70s style, with scholarly middle-aged men in tweed jackets carrying a clunky tape recorder and an ion pistol around Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in Britain. The rectory burned down long ago, so they head to the nearby church, lock the tape recorder inside overnight and walk away. The sounds they capture – the creak of the altar gate opening, even though the church is entirely empty, and a deep, otherworldly, melancholy sigh – scared the living shit out of me as a child and still do to this day. The whole thing is on YouTube if you want to watch it, but I’m staying away. I still haven’t recovered from my first listen more than 40 years ago.


Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne in Poltergeist
Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 horror film, Poltergeist. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

I was too young to see Poltergeist at the cinema when it came out in 1982, so I bought the novelisation from WH Smith in Streatham, south-west London, and the poster magazine from the foyer of the Odeon across the road. On the back of the magazine was a strapline informing me that one in five people would experience some kind of poltergeist phenomena. Even on the bus on a busy Saturday afternoon, this sent a chill down my spine. The novelisation was even more terrifying, as it detailed the horrifying demons with Latinate names who terrorise poor little Carol Anne while she is trapped inside the family TV set.

When I finally saw the movie, it more than delivered. As with so much of Steven Spielberg’s work, it was the combination of domestic realism and high fantasy that made the story so affecting. Even now, the pre-digital special effects, using water tanks, puppets and in-camera light flares, make the ghosts seem like a photochemical reality rather than a computerised contrivance, and they are all the more dazzling for it.

Quiet As a Nun

Maria Aitken (left) in Quiet As a Nun
Maria Aitken (left) in Quiet As a Nun, part of the late 1970s Armchair Thriller TV series.

The opening titles to this late-70s ITV series were sometimes more frightening than the show that followed. We saw a single shot of a spotlit white armchair in a dark room, across which the shadow of a figure fell. The shadow lumbered forward, sat down and then, with the final chord of the sinister theme tune, let its spindly fingers splay across the arms of the chair. The most famous run of episodes, based on Antonia Fraser’s novel Quiet As a Nun, damaged a generation of viewers, including me. To be honest I have little recollection of the ins and outs of the story. It is all eclipsed by the mortifying power of two moments, an empty rocking chair creaking back and forth in an abandoned convent tower, and the terrifying spectral nun with nothing but shadow beneath her veil who later leaps out of the chair. Whether it was commissions such as this, or the people they were hiring as kids’ presenters, it sometimes seems that 70s TV executives were going out of their way to scar Britain’s youth.

The House That Bled to Death

The House That Bled to Death, part of ITV’s Hammer House of Horror series
Gruesome goings-on in 1980’s The House That Bled to Death, part of ITV’s Hammer House of Horror series. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Another terrifying slice of televisual trauma arrived in an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a small-screen scare-fest that told a new story every week. Watching The House That Bled to Death in October 1980 when it first went out was a rite of passage for every kid in the country, and its thrills were the talk of the playground the next day. Revisited decades later, the episode plays like a suburban British knock-off of The Amityville Horror crossed with a Confessions film – complete with smoking in bed, Gloria Vanderbilt flares and men spying on their neighbours’ wives from behind net curtains. But the climax still packs a punch. At a children’s birthday party, every pipe in the building bursts and spews blood, drenching the tiny partygoers in the gore of the victims of a serial killer who once owned the house. Oh well, cheaper than a party clown.

Children of the Stones

A scene from Children of the Stones
A scene from the spooky 1977 ITV series Children of the Stones, set in Avebury, Wiltshire. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

My brother and I were obsessed with this 1977 ITV kids’ series when we were little. Not that we actually enjoyed it, it just exerted such a frightening power that we couldn’t look away. It opened with a montage of 2001-style shots of looming standing stones, accompanied by atonal megalithic choral chanting. Perfect tea-time viewing.

The story involved an astrophysicist and his son moving to a village held in a mysterious time rift by the stone circle surrounding it, resulting in all kinds of unsettling supernatural events. When we found out the show was filmed in Avebury in Wiltshire, a village not that far from London, my brother insisted we go there, in case the residents needed a real boy to rescue them. But the experience of seeing the stones for real was so frightening that we scurried back to the car for safety before my parents had time to finish their cream tea.

Lockwood & Co is out now on Netflix.

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