In ghost stories of old, little ghost-girls were more likely to be sweet, sad, and sympathetic than scary. Such an example can be found in this episode of the 1980s UK anthology series, Shades of Darkness, based on a short story by May Sinclair.
I’m not familiar with the original story, so I can’t judge this as an adaptation. I found it a moving tale about a dead child who isn’t haunting to seek revenge, but to try to reach her guilt-stricken parents.
Late in 1926, a young man named Garvin, no first name given (John Duttine), has come to the countryside seeking peace and quiet to work. He’s trying to write a book of county history–which county isn’t made clear, but it’s Oop North and from the accents I’m guessing Yorkshire.
Mr. Garvin has been staying in the village, but the room he’s in overlooks the schoolyard and there’s too much noise whenever the children are outside playing. The local doctor, MacKinnon, has recommended a nearby farm which might be willing to take a lodger. Garvin walks out to the farm to meet the Falshaws, a gruff middle-aged farmer, his wife Sarah, and a simple-minded niece, Rachel.
Would they be willing to give him a room? That “depends on the missus,” Falshaw says bluntly. There are no children at the farm at the moment, but there will be one in a month or so. Mrs Falshaw is expecting.
Mrs Falshaw doesn’t object, and Rachel shows Garvin to the empty room upstairs. At first, Garvin tries the door of another room down at the end of the hall, across from the Falshaws’ bedroom, but that door is locked. He does like the room that Rachel takes him to; spacious enough, and with a big window with a view of the yard. He’ll just go back into town and get his books and things.
“It’ll be all right,” Rachel assures him. Until then, Garvin didn’t think there was anything to be worried about.
Garvin is soon settled in. He hikes the dales and writes during the days, but it doesn’t take him long to realize that there is a child in the house. He hears her sobbing at night.
“Why doesn’t anyone keep that child quiet?” he asks Rachel.
Rachel is surprised that he’s heard the sobbing. “You needn’t worry,” she tells him. “She won’t hurt you.”
Once again, Garvin hadn’t realized that there was anything for him to worry about. “Who won’t hurt me?” he wonders aloud to himself.
Dr MacKinnon calls. “Is someone sick?” Garvin asks him, thinking of the crying child he hasn’t yet seen. No, it’s just a routine check on Mrs Falshaw. “Her day of judgement draweth nigh.”
The next time he hears the crying at night, Garvin traces the sound to the locked room. When he tries the knob, the child is suddenly quiet.
As he walks away, heading back toward his own room, he hears the doorknob creak as it slowly turns. The door opens.
A little girl in a white nightgown comes out. She crosses the hall and thumps her fists on the Falshaws’ bedroom door, but we hear no sound except for an eerie high-pitched tone. Then she disappears before his eyes.
Garvin is a bit unsettled by this apparition, but not frightened. He goes back to bed.
The little girl is there in his room. We hear that eerie high-pitched sound again, and whenever we see her after this. It seems to be a cue that something supernatural is happening. Does Garvin hear it too? Later scenes seem to suggest that he does.
The child climbs into bed beside him and curls up to sleep.
Whether or not he can sleep with a little ghost-girl snuggled beside him is not shown. The next scene takes us to the next day. Garvin sits writing in his room, as if nothing unusual had happened the night before, when he hears the Falshaws having a whispered argument outside his door. They must tell him, Mrs Falshaw insists.
Mr Falshaw comes in and doesn’t exactly “tell him” about the ghost, but he does say in his blunt but oblique Yorkshire manner: “If tha doesn’t like what tha knowst, tha can go.”
Garvin assures his landlord that he can put up with it.
“You’re not afeared?” Falshaw asks with some surprise.
“No,” Garvin replies. “Tell Mrs Falshaw.”
After Falshaw leaves him, he hears that weird sound again, even though it’s daylight. He looks out of his window and sees the little girl in the yard, scooping a cup of water from an old, stone trough.
When he goes outside himself, Garvin finds fragments of that same cup broken in the undergrowth around the trough. It’s been there for some time. In the tall grass he also discovers signs that there was once a play area and a garden here, both also destroyed.
More curious about the mystery behind the little ghost than “afeared” by her, Garvin gains access to that room at the end of the hallway; he requests that the door be unlocked so he can store some of his books in there. He’s brought so many with him that they’re piling up on the floor of his room and getting in the way. Mr Falshaw agrees.
Once he’s inside the room, he can see that it was once a nursery. There’s a small chair in the corner and a well-used cot, both under dustsheets.
This emboldens him to talk to Mr Falshaw to find out more about the child. How long as she haunted the farm?
Before he can approach with his questions, Mr Falshaw confides that Mrs Falshaw is worried that something will go wrong with the coming baby. She’s been in “a dark state since…” The sentence trails off unfinished and he doesn’t say since when.
Garvin offers to leave if that will make things easier for her, but Falshaw thinks that his staying is a help; having an outsider around the place keeps her mind off other happenings at the farm. He hasn’t heard the little girl sobbing himself.
At this, Garvin ventures to ask as if the little ghost was there before their time?
No, since their time. Falshaw has his own questions about what exactly Garvin has heard.
“It’s not only what I’ve heard but what I’ve seen,” Garvin tells him. “And what I’ve touched.”
Mr Falshaw begins to cry. “There’s no reason to be afeared,” he insists. “She won’t show for them as are afeared.” But he and the missus and Rachel are afeared.
“She knows that I’m not afraid,” Garvin agrees.
“There’s pity in t’ lass,” Falshaw replies.
Garvin stays on at the farm. Autumn deepens into winter. The Falshaws accept him as the only one among them who can see the ghost-child, but who she is remains a secret from him.
“She’s chosen you,” Rachel tells him as part of her explanation as to why she won’t enter his room unless he’s in it. Aside from giving him the dead child’s name, Effy, she won’t talk about it. She says that her uncle doesn’t want her to. They’re all still afraid of Effy.
Garvin continues to see Effy inside the house as well as around the trough near the ruined garden outside.We don’t see it again, but she comes to curl up beside him fairly often at night.
Then one day, he sees something that unsettles him much more than a ghost child. Entering his room one afternoon, he’s faced with a flash of an astonishing and very different image: Falshaw and a woman, not Mrs Falshaw, nor Rachel, but someone he doesn’t know. Both naked and in an embrace.
This vision vanishes as he back swiftly out of the room into the hallway. Effy starts sobbing from the nursery.
When Garvin goes into the nursery and looks out of that window, he sees Effy–not playing by the water trough, but floating in it.
Badly shaken by this experience, Garvin leaves the farm and hastenes to call upon the doctor in the village, who gives him a stiff shot of whiskey. Garvin reports to Dr MacKinnon everything he’s heard and seen since he first moved in, including the little ghost-girl curling up beside him at nights. He shows the doctor a piece of the broken cup which he still has in his coat pocket.
“One cannot be frightened by innocence,” he tells the doctor, but he is frightened by what lies behind Effy’s haunting. He feels that there is Evil in the farmhouse, as well as corruption and guilt.
Dr MacKinnon agrees with this impression, and takes Garvin around to the local pub, not just for a follow-up pint of beer but to see a woman who’s there waiting tables. Garvin recognizes her as the woman he described to the doctor, although she looks older now. But then Falshaw looked younger in that flash of a vision.
Next, the doctor takes him to the churchyard to see Effy’s grave and tells Garvin the whole story of the events that led to the little girl’s death.
Rhoda the barmaid was living at the farm back when Mrs Falshaw was pregnant with Effy about ten years ago. The Falshaws’ marriage was already in trouble. Sarah was having a difficult pregnancy, and Falshaw brought Rhoda in to be a mother’s help around the house. Rhoda stayed on after Effy was born; I’m not clear on whether or not she was Falshaw’s girlfriend when she first came to the house, but they were definitely lovers while she was living with the family.
When Sarah realized what was going on, instead of taking it out on her husband and Rhoda, she took against the child.
“She showed me the ugliest thing on God’s Earth,” Dr MacKinnon tells Garvin while they’re in the churchyard. “Frustration that seeks revenge on its own offspring.”
Sarah had little to do with Effy after that. Rejected by her mother, Effy used to seek comfort from Rhoda and go into her room to sleep with her at nights, the same bed and room that Garvin has now.
While Sarah left the care of her child to her husband and his lover, at the same time she was jealous of the happy times the three of them had together without her. In an outburst of anger three years ago, she destroyed the little garden that Falshaw and Rhoda had made for Effy and crushed the cup.
The doctor’s description of Effy’s death sounds more like a drowning due to neglect than a deliberate act by her mother or anyone else. The little girl had epileptic fits and probably fell into trough while she was playing near it and wasn’t able to get out. Apparently, there were no grown-ups around. Were Falshaw and Rhonda upstairs making love when they should have been keeping an eye on her?
A tragic accident, but they blame themselves. At least, the Falshaws do. We only see Rhoda in those two scenes and never hear a word from her about Effy’s death or her part in it.
The doctor tells Garvin that he believes Effy has chosen him to save not only the new baby about to be born–which Sarah is certain will be born dead–but Sarah’s sanity as well.
Garvin was intending to leave before the baby’s birth, but he now attempts to intercede between the mother and dead child.
Sarah, as both the doctor and Falshaw have indicated, is in a very dark frame of mind about the expected baby. “I’m not fit to have a child,” she tells Garvin when he tries to speak to her about Effy. “Shan’t have a child.”
She believes that if there is a living baby in the house, the dead little girl whom she rejected will take it hard and things at the farm will be even worse.
Garvin tries to convince her otherwise. There’s nothing vindictive about Effy’s presence; she just wants what she didn’t have when she was alive.
Effy appears in the corner of the room behind her mother’s chair while they’re talking. “Don’t send her away,” Garvin urges. Effy steps closer, but instead of turning to look at her, Sarah goes suddenly into labor.
The ending is not entirely a happy one–there is one element about it that disturbed me the first time I watched this and which I still don’t like–but Sarah does achieve a reconciliation with Effy. Neither she nor Falshaw, nor Rachel is afraid and they see Effy at last. The little ghost-girl can rest in peace, and Garvin leaves the Falshaw family hoping that they find some peace now too.