The Woman in Black

Most post World War Two leaders have studied Neville Chamberlain’s example and learned that it isn't a good idea to placate a monster in the hope that it will go away. When he was England’s Prime Minister, Chamberlain was afraid that going to war with Hitler would be ruinous for England, and he wasn’t wrong - World War Two did nearly destroy England. However, anyone with a working knowledge of Hitler’s personality could have seen that Hitler was unplacatable – war was inevitable one way or the other, so Chamberlain’s peace efforts were (at best) delaying the inevitable and (at worst) sabotaging England’s position in the run up to the war.

Unfortunately, lawyer Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter) lived in the early 20th century, so he didn’t get a chance to learn from Chamberlain’s example. You see, Kipps has been sent to a rural town to sell Eel Marsh Manor, which is unfortunately haunted by the ghost of a woman named Jennet Humfrye. Kipps spends a large part of The Woman in Black trying to placate Humfrye’s ghost, but he is an idiot for doing so.

Early in the movie, Kipps efforts to appease the ghost of Eel Marsh Manner make sense. Humfrye has a tragic back story: at one point she was institutionalized, so her sister was put in charge of raising her son against her will. When her son accidentally drowned in a marsh, Jennet completely lost her mind and escaped from the institution so she could hang herself in her son's nursery. She then returned as a ghost and started haunting her sister’s house, since she blamed her sister for her son’s accident. At this point in the story, you could argue for or against trying to help her fix her grief. Pro: if you help her heal her wounds, you’ll set her soul at peace, which would be a noble deed. Con: every one of her actions justifies the original decision to take her son away from her, so if she is still mad about that then she’s probably not rational, and if she’s not rational and she’s a ghost, then trying to bargain with her will not end well.

Here’s where the tipping point where the logic definitely tips against trying to appease Humpfrye: Kipps catches a glimpse of The Woman in Black once, and then later that day she murders one of the town’s children; he sees her a second time and then she murders a second child; and then he finds out that literally every time someone sees her she feels that she’s allowed to murder a child to get vengeance for her son – who wasn’t killed by anyone in town. You can’t afford to placate that sort of vengeful spirit – you have to stop it. Period. But does Kipps try to put up a fight against her? No, he just goes about the business of trying to give her what she wants, even if that means digging into a marsh to try to find the unburied body of a boy who died decades earlier. 

A smarter movie could have made spun Kipps actions in a way that made them make sense. Sometimes the only way to defeat a ghost is to appease it: if you finish the unfinished business that’s keeping them on earth then they evaporate. If that’s what Kipps is doing here, then it isn’t articulated well – mostly he seems to be acting out of cowardice and taking the shortest path to solving his problem. (Although, honestly, if he was going to be a coward he should have fully committed to that and just returned to London without selling Eel Marsh Manor.) As a result, it seems like his only thought is “I should reunite this woman who seems to have an infinite capacity for toddler-cide with the body of her son, because it’s a bummer that people thought she was an unfit mother.”

I understand that ghost stories operate on emotional logic, not rational logic, but there are emotional arguments that can be made against Kipps' actions, too: if Humpfrye was alive and murdering children and Kipps was willing to give into her demands we would be nearly as disgusted with him as we are with her. Is his decision to placate her that much different just because she’s a spirit? I understand that her ghostly status means that he has fewer options on how to deal with her, but the movie never addresses why he’s taking the steps he’s taking. Kipps just acts as if he’s doing the only thing he could be doing, but that’s not true. Where are the priests performing exorcisms? The spiritualists who could try to trap her in an earthly vessel that could then be killed? Why is the hero of this movie a lawyer who wants to reunite her with her son, instead of one of the doctors who separated her from her son in the first place who has to stand up to a belligerent spirit and say “Yeah, I made the right call the first time – now go to hell!”

Each ghost story gets to establish it’s own rules about what has to happen before a ghost can be “solved”. The Ghostbusters said “ghosts have to be exploded.” Fair enough! The Ring said that your only option was to sidestep the ghost's curse because fixing it and fighting it is impossible, which again, fair enough! The Woman in Black could have stipulated rules that would have let Kipps off the hook, but it didn’t. He’s far too accommodating of an evil spirit for his own good, or for the good of the town. If he can’t see that she’s an unstoppable murderer, then it’s fair to blame him for Chamberlaining a situation that shoulda been Churchilled. (And by Churchilled, I mean “Ghostbusted” – an equation that doesn’t happen that often, but which (I think) makes sense here.)

Winner: Draw

The Woman in Black on IMDB