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 be? 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 surroundings. 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 theory... 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 that. 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 anniversary. 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
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