Things That Walk: The Weeping Angels and Gothic Semiology - by Stephen Carver
The ‘Angel of Grief,’ sculptured by William Wetmore Story in 1894. This is the gravestone of the artist and his wife, Emelyn, at the Cimitero dei protestanti in Rome.
Photographed by Einer Einarsson Kvaran, August 7, 2006.
In The London Burial Grounds (1896), Isabella Holmes describes All Souls’ Cemetery at Kensal Green as ‘truly awful,’ decrying ‘its catacombs, its huge mausoleums, family vaults, statues, broken pillars, weeping images, and oceans of tombstones.’(1) It was not, however, the ‘corruption underneath’ or the fact that it joined the Catholic site that so offended Mrs. Holmes, but the extravagance of the monuments themselves: ‘They are of no use to the departed,’ she wrote, ‘and they are grievous burdens laid on the shoulders of succeeding generations.’(2) The most common of these decorations were angels. Mrs. Holmes had no time for the ostentation of the bourgeois funeral, a celebration of death rivalled only by Egyptian pharaohs, and argued that monumental masonry was going out of fashion.
As the age of empire collapsed into the crisis of belief and representation
that followed the Great War, Mrs. Holmes was proved right. The Romantic excesses of the Victorians gave way to the utility and experiment of Modernism, rendering the frozen figures of the potter’s field rather ridiculous, as Joyce demonstrates in Ulysses:
—They tell the story, he said, that two drunks came out here one foggy evening to look for the grave of a friend of theirs … After traipsing about in the fog they found the grave, sure enough. One of the drunks spelt out the name: Terence Mulcahy. The other drunk was blinking up at a statue of Our Saviour the widow had got put up … And, after blinking up at the sacred figure, Not a bloody bit like the man, says he.(3)
The graveyard angels had reached their zenith by the end of the nineteenth century, after which production began to drop off, with only a brief Art Deco resurgence in the 1930s.
To us, Kensal Green, like St. James’ at Highgate, is the quintessential
Victorian cemetery: ancient, eldritch and imposing. These atmospheric necropoli are most familiar now as gothic spaces, frequently used as external locations in horror films of the old school, most notably Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), and Amicus’ Tales from the Crypt (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1974) – all of which shot exteriors at Highgate – and Vincent Price’s wonderful Theatre of Blood (1973), which was filmed at Kensal Green. And it is this rich semiotic vein that Steven Moffat so successfully tapped when he created the Weeping Angels for the award-winning Doctor Who story ‘Blink’ in 2007.
‘Fascinating race, the Weeping Angels,’ explains David Tennant’s Doctor:
‘The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely. No mess, no fuss, they just zap you into the past and let you live to death. The rest of your life used up and blown away in the blink of an eye. You die in the past, and in the present they consume the energy of all the days you might have had, all your stolen moments. They’re creatures of the abstract. They live off potential energy.’(4)
The Weeping Angels in repose uncannily resemble Victorian funerary statues, with folded wings, diaphanous robes and serene faces that crack into vampiric snarls when they attack, ghastly doubles reminding us that Milton’s demons were fallen angels. They are blurringly fast, but because of a ‘quantum lock’ they can only move when you’re not looking at them; when observed they literally turn to stone. ‘That’s why they cover their eyes,’ explains the Doctor: ‘They’re not weeping, they can’t risk looking at each other. Their greatest asset is their greatest curse. They can never be seen.’ They are, he concludes, the ‘loneliest creatures in the universe.’
Like all the best gothic icons, this is an elegant and poetic monster; as
tragic, deadly and implacable as Frankenstein’s creation and as bored and corrupt as Dracula. In the Weeping Angels, Moffat has taken Doctor Who back to the gothic sensibility that characterised the original concept as much as science fiction, with a hostile universe of malevolent alien creatures quickly replacing the early-60s vision of an educational historical fiction. And whereas Russell T. Davies’ rebrand introduced adult sexuality to the character, Moffat’s stewardship has bought back the horror in the most traditional sense, with stories of ghosts (‘Listen’), vengeful revenants (Jamie Mathieson’s ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’), the marriage of heaven and hell (‘Dark Water’/’Death in Heaven’), and statues that come to life. There is definitely something of the Hammer film about Doctor Who these days, just as there was when Jon Pertwee fought the ‘Dæmons’ and Tom Baker faced ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’ when I was a kid in the 1970s.
The high concept here is, of course, the old children’s game of ‘Statues.’
In narratological terms it’s the ‘Pygmalion’ archetype, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 AD, but it was far from new then), and although Aphrodite’s blessing resulted in a happy ending the corresponding gothic archetype inverts it, just as Pinocchio’s double is Chuckie the Doll.
A seminal example is the short story ‘Man-size in Marble’ by E. Nesbit –
better known for The Railway Children – originally published in Grim Tales (1893). The narrator and his wife, both struggling artists, buy a country cottage that stands on the site of ‘a big house in Catholic times’ whose occupants were ‘guilty of deeds so foul’ that their ancestral seat had been ‘stricken by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven.’(5) Their effigies can still be seen in the local church:
[O]n each side of the altar lay a grey marble figure of a knight in full plate armour lying upon a low slab, with hands held up in everlasting prayer, and these figures, oddly enough, were always to be seen if there was any glimmer of light in the church.(6)
The couple engage a local woman, Mrs. Dorman, as a domestic, and are delighted by her tales of ‘the “things that walked,” and of the “sights” which met one in lonely glens of a starlight night,' (7) but towards the end of October she announces suddenly that she must leave by the last day of the month, apparently because of the figures in the church:
‘They do say, as on All Saints’ Eve them two bodies sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble…’
‘And where do they go?’ I asked, rather fascinated.
‘They comes back here to their home, sir, and if any one meets them —’(8)
What happens next, Mrs. Dorman will not say but she is adamant that she won’t stay.
The narrator keeps the legend from his wife, but on Halloween night decides
to take a stroll to the church; the marbles figures are gone. Rushing out in terror he meets the local doctor, who convinces him to return in defiance of old wives’ tales. The figures are once more where they should be, although the hand of one appears recently damaged, his stony face ‘villainous and deadly in expression.’(9) The pair assume vandalism and return to the cottage, where in dark epiphany they find the narrator’s wife dead:
There, in the recess of the window, I saw her. Oh, my child, my love, had she gone to that window to watch for me? And what had come into the room behind her? To what had she turned with that look of frantic fear and horror? Oh, my little one, had she thought that it was I whose step she heard, and turned to meet — what?
… Her lips were drawn back, and her eyes wide, wide open. They saw nothing now. What had they seen last? … Her hands were tightly clenched. In one of them she held something fast.(10)
When they pry her dead fingers open, they find a marble finger.
In such stories we are repeatedly forced to turn and face the central anxiety
of existence. Death, like the Weeping Angels, Nesbit’s recumbent Norman effigies, and our mates in the playground creeps up on us, removing us from the stream of time, leaving only a memory. Even the Doctor cannot save us.
My wife and I have one of these mock-Victorian funerary statues in our
overgrown garden, purchased without irony in memory of our first child, Lily, who didn’t make it to full term. It’s a figure of a little girl which we both find oddly reassuring: a goth fairy that might play by moonlight when no-one is looking. Our son has no idea what it represents, but he reckons it’s a Weeping Angel, and who’s to say she isn’t?
Stephen Carver is a writer and academic. For sixteen years he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia (where he also took his doctorate), spending three years in Japan as an associate-professor at the University of Fukui. He is presently Senior Editor at Green Door Design for Publishing, Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing, and a Reader for The Literary Consultancy. He is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, and has published extensively on gothic film and fiction. He also writes fiction and blogs on literature and creative writing.
( 1 )
Isabella Holmes, The London Burial Grounds (New York: MacMillan and Co, 1896), 256.
( 2 )
Ibid 256 – 257.
( 3 )
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: Penguin, 2000), 135.
( 4 )
‘Blink,’ Doctor Who, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie MacDonald (originally broadcast June 9, 2007, BBC). All quotations are taken from this episode.
( 5 )
E. Nesbit, ‘Man-size in Marble,’ Grim Tales (London: A.D. Innes & Co, 1893), 123, 119.
( 6 )
( 7 )
( 8 )
( 9 )
( 10 )
Ibid 143 – 144.