BBC's The Stone Tape is both the most influential and most obscure ghost story of the 20th Century. Written by Nigel Kneale and only transmitted once in 1972, it was a new take on the ghost story that still feels fresh today.
A Modern Take on Hauntings
A tech company doing research in an old Victorian building discovers a ghostly haunting on the premises. The arrogant, Jobs-like head of the company sees this as an opportunity to find out how it works and potentially develop tech that can cash in. He pushes his team, including his estranged geologist girlfriend, to the mental limit as they record the stones, trying to tap into their secrets, only to find there is a price to pay for meddling with the supernatural. This is where the story finds a new take on the haunted house story, adopting a scientific theory from 1961 that ghosts and hauntings might be memories, recorded moments that are actually electromagnetic phenomenon, events recorded in stone masonry. Stone as a recording and playback medium of moments in time, moments of extreme emotion and violence, moments of death… and the older the stone, the more recordings of moments of death and terror on it, throughout time… back to the first, ancient recordings of primal, unfathomable horror.
The Legacy of Nigel Kneale
Nigel Kneale was one of those brilliant writers who seemed to effortlessly come up with high concept genre ideas that would have lasting effects on the field. He created and wrote the original Quatermass series starting in 1953, culminating with Quatermass and the Pit in 1958 which were the first adult Science Fiction series on the BBC, and the latter was later remade into a Hammer movie now considered a classic. His TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) anticipated the rise of voyeuristic reality TV shows like Big Brother and Love Island decades later.
The Stone Tape introduced the first real innovation to ghost stories and hauntings in the 20th century that no one had thought about before, and I'm surprised it hasn't really been endlessly ripped off by Hollywood ever since. The idea being that ghosts and hauntings are actually recordings embedded in the stones of buildings. The older the building, the more the recordings, hence hauntings. This sidesteps the spiritual dimension of the ghost story. God, Heaven and Hell are not part of the equation of ghosts here. They're just recordings, but they're recordings not just of images and sound, but the emotions and the terror as well. You don't solve the haunting here with prayer or holy water. You can know how the hauntings work, but it doesn't save you from falling prey to it. Paranormal researchers have taken on "The Stone Tape Theory" since the original play was on TV.
The Stone Tape: Influence on Movies and TV
The most hardcore of horror fans (including filmmakers, writers, and novelists) really know about The Stone Tape. John Carpenter is a huge fan and cites it as a major influence on him, and its effects can be felt in many Hollywood horror movies or TV shows without its high concept ever being lifted directly. Carpenter admits Prince of Darkness was heavily influenced by The Stone Tape. Brian de Palma's 1981 thriller Blow Out was also heavily influenced by The Stone Tape, going so far as to feature John Travolta as a sound recordist who accidentally records a murder. The final shot of the movie is directly lifted from The Stone Tape – a man listening helplessly to a recording of the death of the woman he loves.
It's surprising that more movies and TV shows haven't ripped off The Stone Tape. The majority of ghost stories on TV and movies are still about vengeful spirits and religious subtexts. What's more surprising is that a TV or movie remake never got made. Updated and with a decent budget, it could be even more frightening than it was in 1972. Maybe the Kneale Estate has been very good at protecting the property. The BBC attempted to remake it for television around 2015 but that fell through, but the producers ended up turning it into a perfectly decent radio drama adaptation for BBC Radio 4.