Many years ago I worked at a theatre in London’s West End. I did various things: I was an usher – tearing tickets, showing people to their seats, and worked in the Box Office. Of course, as nearly all theatres do, it supposedly had a ghost. Everyone had a story to tell about it. How it had pushed them in the wings. How if you went up to the balcony you could smell lavender. The Stage Door Keeper, whose job it was to lock up at night, saw a rustle of crinoline skirt disappearing round the Fire door. For a long time we had a sell-out run of The Woman in Black – the play adapted from the novel by Susan Hill. Even though I saw ‘The Woman’ backstage, smoking in the cafe, talking to the bar staff, walking from her dressing room, it scared me to death.
One thing that has stuck in my mind was when the stage door keeper locked up the theatre one night, securing the place, turning out all the lights as she did every night. She was just leaving, and when she looked back the whole place was ablaze with light. Every single light was on in the building. Nothing would have got me to go back in there.
I think I was an easily scared child. I embarrassed myself at Halloween parties by crying when it got too scary. I was not one of those teenagers who can laugh and joke about schlock horror slasher films, even if it is all bravado. The things that scared me as child were things like Tales of the Unexpected. A cat in a book. Carrie (seen much too young at a friend’s house). A school trip to Littlecote House in Wiltshire where they said the ghost of a woman whose baby had been thrown on the fire walked the corridors wailing. Getting lost in The Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds aged seven. Being pushed into taking part in playing on a Ouija board in the spooky basement at school.
Another time I remember being really scared is when, in my twenties, I stayed with a girl friend out in the country in this old house she had recently moved into with a new boyfriend. He used to share the house with a previous girlfriend. His ex couldn’t get over the fact she had been left and kept turning up at all hours and leaving things – possessions, bedding – in the drive and then ringing and ringing. He was away and she’d asked me to come over and keep her company. Every creak we heard we thought it was her. Every rattle of the doorknob. My friend wasn’t sure whether this woman still had a set of keys. When the phone started ringing off the hook we just sat, huddled together, watching this big black telephone, trying to block our ears from its menacing ring.
The psychological thriller I have (almost) written is a mixture of all these elements. It opens in a West End theatre, and a lot of it is taken from that time, but it deals more with ghosts from the past. It’s about obsessed and vengeful exes – that feeling of being watched. I am interested in guilt and the burden of the past. The ones who flip. The ones who everybody says about afterwards, ‘But they were so quiet, so ordinary.’
That’s what I find scary.