by Christopher Laursen
Ghosts on the Underground is a 2005
documentary that literally submerges viewers
in the splendour and mystery of the stations
and tunnels of the London tube.
interview | ghosts & hauntings
Filmmaker Joe Kane on the doc
Ghosts on the Underground
December 12, 2013
The London Underground carries over a billion passengers through its
complex network annually, with over 400 kilometres (250 miles) of track.
Ghosts on the Underground shines with its stunning wide-angle
photography of the tube's architecture, towering escalators, curved
tunnels, and brightly lit subterranean pedestrian passageways. The
documentary film is filled with a soberly told, intensifying brew of
anecdotes on strange things that have been encountered over the past
several decades as related by the very people who experienced them.
Surprising twists provide potential connections between ghostly
encounters and historic events, many of them tragic.
You can view a trailer for the documentary here.
On the 150th anniversary of the London Tube, I had a chance to speak
with the documentary's director, Joe Kane of the UK production company
Polar Media, about the film.
Christopher: How did Ghosts
on the Underground come to
Joe: I've lived in London all my
life and always loved the tube,
the mix of old and new
architecture, and have always
wanted to make a film about it.
I was directing a film for
Transport for London in one of
the new Jubilee Line stations,
and we were filming in the
amazing modern architecture
and I saw a monk traveling
down an escalator – he looked
like a classic comic book
monk, a bit like he could
almost have been in fancy
dress – and I thought it was a
really unusual sight, this very
traditionally dressed man in
those modern architectural
I mentioned what I saw later to the TfL client and he said that there had
been a huge increase in monk sightings on this part of the Jubilee Line
extension, and that maybe it had something to do with the fact that
during the building work the line went through the grounds of two old
monasteries, and that they had to exhume and relocate loads of monk's
graves. He said it as a passing comment but it stuck with me and so I
thought it would make a really nice film.
Christopher: I can see ghost enthusiasts who love ghost hunting
"reality" TV shows initially finding it difficult to tune into the grounded
approach you took with this documentary, but through the simple
process of actively listening to the stories being told, I think it is among
the most riveting films about ghosts. For me, rewatching Ghosts on the
Underground was quite unsettling. I was buzzing and a bit creeped out
after watching it, and I remember feeling that way the first time I watched
it. I study this topic on a daily basis, and I don't often feel that way. (It
makes me wonder if you were pumping some infrasound through the
soundtrack!) To me, it is among the most effective documentary films on
ghostly phenomena – and really, it is simply composed: artful shots of
the London Underground with eyewitnesses sharing their haunting
experiences. There is something very poetic and gripping about the
approach you took with this documentary. Could you tell me about how
the narrative style of the film came together?
Joe: Unsettling is a good word for it. I always wanted it to be a unsettling
in a filmic way rather than a shock horror way. I realised fairly early on
that I only wanted people who worked on the tube (or at least a majority)
to give it credibility. What appealed to me as a subject, and what I
wanted the film to relay was a sense that we were uncovering something
about a place that millions of people know so well they don't even take
any notice any more. Almost like hearing stories about your living room, I
thought it would be more engaging if the stories were told in a way that
let the viewer make the connection rather than us making it for them. It's
a nice situation hearing an unsettling story about somewhere you
actually were or know.
The editor and I did joke about putting infrasound on the film - it's a great
Christopher: The architecture, escalators, cavernous tunnels, and trains
of the London Underground really lend themselves to a documentary film
on ghosts. What cinematic techniques were used in the shooting of the
Underground itself? Some of the techniques reminded me of director
Stanley Kubrick's wide angle shots and use of Steadycam, for example.
Joe: Flattery will get you everywhere... We used a lot of Steadycam and
tracking shots. It gives the shots a sense of being a passenger, and puts
you in the film a bit more. I realised that you're hardly ever standing still
on the underground (unless you're waiting for a tube…) – either walking,
traveling on escalators, or when you're on a tube so I wanted to get that
into the feel of the film. It also really suits all the tunnels, and creeping
round corners can look really scary. They did it in An American Werewolf
in London and I remember being terrified when I was younger watching
Christopher: I especially like how you contrast eyewitness accounts
with short bursts of text that reveals a past event that may be connected
to their experience. It was often chilling, and in fact far more effective
than trying to dramatically recreate what eyewitnesses encountered and
past events. How did that technique come about?
Joe: There was a danger that the film would get a bit predictable, story
after story, so each one needed to have more depth to it than just "and I
can't explain what I saw..." at the end, so the text is there as an epilogue,
but rather to leave it open than to give any closure.
Christopher: I like how the late Vic Tandy was a significant part of the
documentary. Tandy, for those readers who aren't familiar with him, was
a proponent of exploring infrasound as a potential explanation for
"haunting" experiences, particularly when people catch a glimpse of an
apparition in the corner of their eye and feel unsettled, as if there were a
presence in the room. How did he become so key as a way to delve into
why certain parts of the tube are connected to eerie experiences?
Joe: Vic was great. He was the perfect balance of not rubbishing
anything but also keeping his scientific mind looking for an explanation.
His infrasound theory is really good and applies to quite a lot of
situations. He explained infrasound to me as a leftover from prehistoric
years when we could hear deep rumbles like animal roars and it would
trigger fight or flight responses –hair standing on end, etc. – and that we
still hear those sounds, we just don't consciously recognise them as
audio, so we get the effect without the sound. Once I heard his theory I
thought he was perfect to balance out the film and keep it credible.
Christopher: And Tandy's theory is still widely discussed. Yet you don't
suggest that it is a blanket explanation for the hauntings. You present a
variety of stories that firmly fall outside of how Tandy explains infrasound
effects on human physiology. Did you, yourself, experience anything
ghostly while making the film?
Joe: The nearest thing was Pages Walk. It's really creepy place to be
and we were told by the station staff that all our batteries would run out
when we got down there. Sure enough they did, we had four of them go
flat on us which is a bit strange. We also had a shot down there where
we were filming a tracking shot of the tunnel, and as we started
recording I said to the cameraman that what we needed was the door to
slam shut to make the shot more interesting, and as soon as I said it, it
did. The perfect 'stage' door slam; creaking door followed by a slam. The
shot made it into the film.
Christopher: One of the most
wonderful things about Ghosts
on the Underground – and I
think so many other
documentaries on supernatural
topics can learn from this – is
that the eyewitnesses are very
grounded. They had these
experiences, and they've never
forgotten them, but they are
not obsessed with some sort of
paranormal explanation. They
are, for lack of a better term,
everyday people. How did you
find these eyewitnesses?
Joe: It took a long time. Lots of
researching, adverts, asking
amongst Transport for London,
putting the word out. There
were some peculiar lucky
breaks. The amazing Maurice
Grosse, who sadly died shortly
after the film was broadcast,
called me after seeing an ad in
his local paper in Muswell Hill.
I've still no idea who placed
that ad, it wasn't anyone in the
production team, we were all
based in South London. A
phantom ad placer...
Christopher: Any future plans of exploring the paranormal on film, Joe?
Joe: If the right story or subject came along, one that could also be
made with a similar filmic approach then I'd jump at the chance. Maurice
Grosse showed me some amazing photos when we were shooting the
film, they were very unexplainable and really creepy. I'm always on the
look out for stories though.
You can see more by Polar Media on their website, polarmedia.co.uk.
Ghosts on the Underground is currently available through British retailers,
including online through Amazon.co.uk.
Joe Kane directed the 2005 documentary film Ghosts on
the Underground which was just released on DVD
coinciding with the London Underground's 150th
Photo courtesy of Joe Kane
Image: Polar Media
Image: Polar Media
Cover for the documentary film Ghosts on the
Underground, available now for the first time on DVD.
Image: Polar Media
STUDIES & EXPERIENCES
OF THE EXTRAORDINARY
© 2012-2014 Extraordinarium Digital Press & Journal.
All rights reserved.
Press is distributing
Horror Bound’s ebook
for the acclaimed
dark fiction anthology
FEAR OF THE DARK
featuring 300 pages worth
of eerie tales by emerging
and established writers.
starting at only
$4.99 USD / £3.58 / €4.38
CLICK HERE to read the
author biographies, and
to buy your copy.
Extraordinarium Digital Press publishes
non-fiction on studies & experiences of the
extraordinary; speculative fiction; and
OUR SOCIAL MEDIA FEEDS
WHAT IS EXTRAORDINARIUM?
Extraordinarium is a Digital Press & Journal
in which we journey through the extraordinary,
the fantastical and the supernatural. It is
curated and edited by Christopher Laursen.
The extraordinary consists of moments,
events, and things that unexpectedly catch us
off guard - changing how we see the our lives.
It defies order, challenges rules, and invites us
rethink everything! Read more about the
extraordinary in our About section.
Our online Journal, Studies and Experiences
of the Extraordinary (SEE), features indepth
articles, interviews, and first-hand experiences
on many facets of the extraordinary.
The Digital Press publishes non-fiction on
studies & experiences of the extraordinary;
speculative fiction; and imaginative works.
Subscribe to our e-mail list for updates.
EXTRAORDINARIUM’S CHRISTOPHER LAURSEN
& PAUL CROPPER DELVE INTO THE BALDOON
MYSTERY IN FORTEAN TIMES
(FT 315, JUNE 2014).