As a kid I was obsessed with all things spooky and occult. Ghosts, haunted houses, werewolves, anything Gothic was my thing. I used to go to the library and get any and every book of ghost stories on the shelves. I watched Ghostbusters as often as I could, I rented any movie I could find at the video shop that was a horror I was able to under the age of 12 and every vaguely abandoned or spooky house in my area was thoroughly investigated and researched by me. Not that I ever discovered anything. My hope was that somehow my investigations would result in some sort of adventure involving some spirit or monster. It never did. I didn’t want to meet anything too scary but just the sort of things that happened in every Goosebumps book I read. As I got older I graduated to the more scary movies and books but it was also around then I wised up. Ghosts weren’t real. Werewolves, Vampires, Mummies, Zombies and so on, as they appeared on the page and on screen, would never be real. Literally no evidence of them ever existed except in folk tales. It didn’t stop the stories from being fun and exciting but ultimately that sense of mystery and the unexplained was gone. Even the cosmological elements I’d moved onto in my teens like HP Lovecraft, The Thing, etc were removed of any real effect because, while I staunchly believe in life on other planets, there is no way they are ever coming here. It did, however, make me realise that the real and terrifying horror that DOES exist here on Earth is because of us. The depths humanity plumbs at the expense of others never ceases to shock and disgust me. This isn’t the sort of spooky spectacle I was after though. ‘Horror’ and ghost stories as a genre were exciting, vicious, violent and cruel, while human beings are all of that but… less exciting?
In recent years the way we tell ghost stories has changed. Our modern ‘woke’ times don’t really allow for the kind of bump-in-the-night terrors we used to enjoy. The prevalence of ‘Slasher’ movies in the 90s on speaks to how we were keener to address the darkness in ourselves and the real horror therein. Today shows like True Detective have managed to combine the frisson of classic horror, the existential dread of cosmic horror and the miserable darkness caused by people in real society. For this reason, True Detective is one of my all-time favourite shows, along with Edge of Darkness from 80s which achieves a similar level of strange, eeriness along with a depressing realism. None of these however capture that sense of excitement and old-fashioned shivers that reading books about Borley Rectory managed to accomplish. The film that has come closest so far was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
As the title of this essay suggests, thinking of Dunkirk, as a ghost story is meant to be unusual. It clearly wasn’t made to be a ghost story, it’s a war movie. A classic suspense war movie like Where Eagles Dare or The Longest Day at that. But the movie has more than a few similarities to the genre than you might think. The most obvious one to me is the threat in the film is never given a human face and barely glimpsed at all. The most you see of the Nazis is their bullets, bombs and planes, until the very end when dark, shadowy figures appear upon the dunes and behind Tom Hardy. They are never even referred to as Nazis or even Germans, the are referred to in the abstract simply as ‘The Enemy’; a ghostly force of nature pressing against the British Expeditionary Forces. A malevolent spirit without a face that hungers for their death. Sounds like a ghost story to me. The protagonists are also trapped in one place, the Beach. Haunted House movies always revolve around a need to escape the limited area they are trapped in but are thwarted by the spirits acting upon them. This is to say nothing of the other meaning of the word ‘Haunting’. We tend to use the word ‘Haunted’ to refer to our past; Previous events that come back to assert their relevance or dominance over current events. Many saw the timing of a story about the British fleeing Europe being released less than a year after the Brexit vote as being a little too on-the-nose, but more significantly it’s telling a story of the amorphous and relentless progress of fascism which is a story everyone needs to hear today, frankly.
In more ways than one Dunkirk is a story about the weight of the past, which ultimately encapsulates everything about Gothic storytelling and this is what makes it a true ghost story. Ghost stories were always warnings of the past coming back to haunt us, be that in family secrets or entire towns and villages caught up in some historical evil they allowed to lie fallow. Today our horror seems to focus primarily on the future, as it should, with our fears of climate change and mutually assured self-destruction if we, as a race, continue on our current path, but by ignoring the way the past can assert itself in a very real way if it is not tended to, properly buried or disrespected in some manner, we run the risk of allowing culture to ignore our past mistakes. The Dunkirk rescue was a disaster, Nolan does not shy from this fact, but as Churchill put it “there is a victory inside this defeat that should be acknowledged”. However, Britain has taken the lesson of British Pluck and tenacity but ignored the lesson of not being routed by fascism. Sexism, racism, the alt-right and all other signposts of a slide towards totalitarianism are on the rise but we treat this as anomalous, attempting to merely bat it down like a still glowing ember of a long-spent fire. By making ‘The Enemy’ faceless but still an ever-present threat, Dunkirk, is a ghost story in its truest sense: a warning from history.
The true test of a horror story or scary folk tale was the validity of its monster. Far from being literal, the creatures of classic horror are representative of genuine fears: Dracula was a horror story about disease and class, Werewolves about unchecked masculinity, Frankenstein the fear of science, Zombies with their slow unstoppable trudge embody death itself shambling for us, arms outstretched. A horror story should speak to us on a fundamental level about deep fears or genuine concerns of the time. Ghosts, ghouls and goblins have long since had their day in the mainstream, in the digital age such things don’t scare us. Despite being set nearly 80 years ago Dunkirk manages to tell a story about a very real and present danger to almost everyone in the world today and it does it by not even showing us the monster. You know, like all good ghost stories should.