Borley Rectory, the Most Haunted House in England is a 2017 film by Ashley Thorpe starring Jonathan Rigby and Reece Shearsmith, a wonderful labour of love that took six years to complete.
Ashley is the man behind Carrion Films, but don’t be misled into thinking Carrion Matron and Carrion up the Khyber – his movies are a little different. If you have any interest in the legend of Borley, the famous ghost saga of spectral nuns, dark creaking corridors and the wonderful Harry Price, you’re in for a real treat.
I saw Borley Rectory at the Manchester Grimmfest premiere, and Ashley has managed to capture the look and atmosphere perfectly.
The film oozes 1930s realism and you feel as if you’re actually there in the old building on a dark stormy night with Price and the Foysters. The thing is, Borley Rectory isn’t just a ghost story, it’s THE great British ghost story and has often been described as the Mount Everest of hauntings.
There are certain things which generate huge passions in some people – the Titanic for example, where enthusiasts can pretty much name all the passengers. The Whitechapel Ripper is another, the much-debated creature in Loch Ness, and the Great Train Robbery. I knew someone who was so obsessed with the latter, he drove to Bridego Bridge one night and chiselled out a brick which he proudly cemented in his conservatory with a plaque.
I can’t really comment on the absurdity of this as, for several years, a red Borley brick sat on my shelf, dug up from the rectory site in 1978 when they lay just inches beneath the grass and weeds. Yes, Borley Rectory most definitely features on this list of passions, and Ashley Thorpe, like myself, has definitely been bitten by the Borley bug. He first came across the story as a child in the Osbourne Book of Ghosts and his lifelong interest has led to this amazing film.
Borley is an isolated hamlet on the borders of Suffolk and Essex, just an ancient church and a handful of houses in a picturesque rural setting. Opposite the church, on the quiet lane that seems almost devoid of traffic, stands the Rectory Cottage and immediately behind this was the famous rectory. Constructed in 1863 by the reverend Henry Bull, many supernatural happenings were experienced there, including the famous sighting of a ghost nun in bright daylight by the Bull daughters. The real story of the Borley hauntings, however, dates from Harry Price’s arrival in 1929 to the building’s demolition in 1944.
I’ve always felt the story exudes a sublime Agatha Christie aura of tweed suits, pipes and croquet picnics on the lawn, and Ashley Thorpe captures this bygone atmosphere perfectly. Part documentary and part drama, Borley Rectory is shot in stunning black and white and could easily have been filmed in the thirties. It feels like actual footage from back then, where Alastair Sim may show up at any moment playing Price.
We don’t have Alastair, but we do have the wonderful Jonathan Rigby, excellent in his portrayal of this psychic researcher. Price was something of a celebrity, the top paranormal investigator of the day and very much a showman. Reece Shearsmith is also excellent as V.C. Wall, the Daily Mirror reporter who introduced Price to the rectory.
The movie has been classed as animation, but you can forget about Toy Story and Dumbo. This is the sort of ‘animation’ used in Sin City and 300. Every contemporary photograph of the rectory exterior, rooms, passages and surrounding gardens have been fed into Ashley’s computer, rendered as 3D and the living (green screen) actors inserted. You can’t tell - it really does look as if these people are walking around inside Borley Rectory in the 1930s and I really can’t imagine a better or creepier way to tell this ghost story.
Ashley even used a 3D model to work out exactly where the windows and other illumination sources would be to correctly light his people. The rectory was demolished after a mysterious fire in 1944, but here it stands once again, brought back to eerie life.
One memorable scene reconstructs Price and Wall’s night vigil in the old summerhouse watching the nun as she glides along the misty ‘nun’s walk’.
We meet the Bull family, along with the Smiths, the first rectory incumbents, Lionel and Marianne Foyster, and the Glanvilles. After Price, I’ve always considered Marianne to be the ‘star’ of the Borley story and here she is, brought to (very attractive) life by Annabel Bates. We see her finding the famous ‘Light, mass, prayers’ messages scribbled on the dark passage walls, and hear her enjoying a break from the ghosts with Frank Pearless, the friendly handyman and lodger.
If you’ve ever been intrigued by this famous haunting, watch Borley Rectory, the Most Haunted House in England and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Where Ashley Thorpe first discovered Borley in the Osbourne Book of Ghosts, my first encounter was seedier, but still pivotal. A magazine called Witchcraft was published in the UK in the mid-seventies, which contained ‘glamour’ shoots of naked ladies on altars surrounded by black candles and muscular men wearing goat heads. The magazine was given to me by a school friend, but I was more interested in one of the articles.
Where Playboy mixes the nudity with commentaries on fast cars, Witchcraft had a few pieces on the supernatural and this particular issue featured Borley. It mostly covered the sensational aspects of the story – headless coachmen and bricked-up nuns – but after reading it, I immediately borrowed Harry Price’s the End of Borley Rectory from the library. Shortly after this, in 1975, came the Ghost Hunters television documentary with Geoffrey Croom-Hollingsworth and Roy Potter. Geoffrey ran the Enfield Paranormal Research Group, he’d seen the nun and he had amazing tapes of spectral footsteps and a phantom sigh, recorded on one of his overnight vigils inside Borley church.
I bought his cassette from a Leeds occult shop with the (very frightening) sigh and first visited Borley in 1977. The lady who lived next door in Borley Place always locked the church at sunset, but would allow you to leave microphones inside with the leads hidden under the mat in the porch. After an evening in one of the Long Melford pubs, you could then plug in your recorder and hopefully pick up ghostly whispering, footsteps and rapping (knocks on wood, not black ghosts with attitude singing). I only ever recorded silence.
On my second visit to the churchyard and rectory site I met Geoffrey Croom-Hollingsworth who had brought a small party of ‘researchers’ who mostly seemed to be giggling girls.
On another visit in 84 I met the American ‘demonologists’ Ed and Lorraine Warren. This is the pair who investigated Amityville and the Annabelle doll, the star of recent horror films. They arrived late in the afternoon on a coach – not the spectral horse-drawn coach seen galloping through the hamlet by many witnesses, but an air-conditioned 52 seater. They were leading a tour group of Americans on a paranormal journey of the British Isles, they’d visited various haunted hot spots, such as the Edinburgh Vaults and York’s Treasury House, and Borley was the much anticipated highlight.
After the rectory was demolished, the spirits supposedly moved over the road to the 800 year old church and I joined the tour group as they wandered quietly and excitedly around the building hoping for glimpses of phenomena. This was back when the church wasn't permanently locked, the porch fitted with a metal security gate, and before visitors were actively deterred.
Lorraine and I talked at length about her interest in Borley and how on a previous visit she’d witnessed an ‘apport’, a rare supernatural event where an object literally appears out of thin air. In this case it had been an old pre-decimal penny that fell to the floor in front of them near the altar, an obvious sign from Harry Price, she claimed. Price wrote books about the Borley hauntings, Lorraine had spoken to him psychically on several occasions and the pair were, more or less, on first name terms.
As we were chatting, one of her group, the young man pictured above, suddenly spotted an old English halfpenny on the aisle carpet. Everyone agreed it hadn’t been there moments before, and picking it up, Lorraine realised it was another apport from Harry. If proof were needed, it was right there in the date on the coin – 1946, the year Price published the End of Borley Rectory, his second book on this place.
The halfpenny was a physical message from Harry, said Lorraine, to let us know he was there with us. Incredible as this was, I couldn't help wondering why he didn't send a coin dated 1940, the year of his first (and more famous) rectory book, the Most Haunted House in England, or 1881, the year of his birth, or perhaps more pertinent, 1948, the year of his death. As it turned out, this was pointless speculation, as Lorraine held the coin tightly and felt Harry's definite presence in the church with us. That and an overwhelming sensation of peace.
The villagers don’t exactly welcome visitors these days and it’s hard to blame them. Back in the late seventies and early eighties the place often resembled a circus on Friday and Saturday nights, with drunken youths from the nearby Long Melford and Sudbury driving over to harass the various bunches of ghost hunters and overnight investigators that were always present. I often wished I could have experienced Borley in its ghostly heyday and now I, and you, can with Ashley Thorpe’s Borley Rectory, the Most Haunted House in England.