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Scary movies not the ticket

PUBLISHED: 10:14 21 January 2011

It must be something deeply inbred in me, a fear of being frightened even if the villain is on a cinema or television screen. I avoid scary movies, particularly if they are set in old dark houses with secret openings in the oak panelling and eyes furtively watching every movement through the holes in a portrait hung on the wall.

Pantomime’s “He’s behind you!” is OK; but anything about vampires or the supernatural is a definite no-no!

I was discussing Charles Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol with a chum who reckoned that Alastair Sim in 1951 was the best of all the screen portrayals of miser Ebenezer Scrooge. But I recalled that, at least six decades ago, my year at Great Yarmouth Grammar School marched along North Drive to the Aquarium one morning for a special screening of Scrooge because it was a set book for an examination.

Scrooge was played by aged British thespian Sir Seymour Hicks in a 1931 adaptation that was genuinely creepy in the eerie sequences featuring the ghosts. And as the audience comprised all boys, there was no holding hands with the girl in the next seat. Back at home, I slept with the light on.

I was still a lad when I read a novel about a man living in a terrace of houses who murdered another occupier a few doors away by clambering up into the loft that was common to all the properties and descending through the trap-door to commit the crime.

Then he sprinkled dried powdered rhubarb (honest!) over his footprints in that attic because apparently it looked like dust and had no smell.

That night, my parents went out, leaving me alone in our house...and as I stood in our upstairs bathroom cleaning my teeth at bedtime, a gust of wind lifted the loft trapdoor which then banged down again. I was under the bedclothes in an instant, my mouth still full of Maclean’s Solid Dentifrice toothpaste lather.

I was never so relieved as to hear the key turn in the front door as my parents returned.

My claim that this is in-bred is probably substantiated by a family story about my parents during their courting days in the 1930s.

Father Peggotty took my mother to the Plaza/Central Cinema on Yarmouth Market Place to see a film called something like The Old Dark House, a thriller with spooky music, bizarre villains, a hero and heroine unwittingly finding themselves staying overnight because of a thunderstorm, flickering gas lamps and guttering candles, disappearing corpses, cobwebs everywhere…you know the sort of thing I mean.

It included a scene in an unlit bedroom with one of those huge old-fashioned wardrobes almost up to the ceiling. The terrified young couple crept into the bedroom to hide from their ordeals…but unbeknown to them, a murderous midget with a large knife was hiding on the wardrobe, ready to pounce on them.

Unable to contain his self-discipline under the tension, Father Peggotty leapt to his feet and yelled a warning to the hapless couple on screen: “Watch out! He’s on top of the wardrobe.”

The shock-horror mood of the audience evaporated in laughter, and within moments the manager came along with flashing torch and bossily escorted my father and embarrassed mother from the cinema, an acknowledged flea-pit. They never did know the outcome of the film, but I reckon the young couple overcame the nasties and escaped unharmed into the sunset.

Before Christmas in 2010 another film version of Burke and Hare was released in cinemas, but the critics were not smitten with this retelling of the story of the notorious 19th century body-snatchers who dug up newly-buried corpses to sell them to help medical students in Scotland to master anatomy.

But while Burke and Hare unwittingly achieved national renown, their Yarmouth counterparts – Vaughan and Murphy – became infamous only hereabouts, as far as I know.

They supplied bodies for aspiring doctors and surgeons in London and elsewhere, a lucrative but illegal business, for there was a brisk demand from the medical profession for corpses. The so-called resurrectionists had no high-flown motives but were established brutal villains who saw a way of making a fast buck – or guineas, to be more precise.

It was a grisly business, obviously undertaken at dead of night in deserted cemeteries, and with the constant risk of apprehension after the authorities became aware of their activities. Having dug down to the coffin, they had to prise it open and somehow lift the dead-weight body 6ft and more before carrying it to a hiding place awaiting delivery to the trainee doctors.

According to Yarmouth chronicler Charles Palmer, Vaughan was a former stonemason’s labourer with “dissolute and drunken habits” who had a criminal past when he arrived in the town and rented a house in Row Six linking Northgate Street with Rainbow Square, only a short step from the parish churchyard of St Nicholas.

It had been known as Browne’s, Wigg’s or Rackham’s Row after previous residents but was renamed Snatchbody or Bodysnatchers Row because the two men hid exhumed corpses in some old houses there.

At least 10 bodies were “snatched” by Vaughan before he was caught in 1827 as the result of a classic “woman scorned” scenario, for he “behaved ill to a young woman to whom he passed himself off as a bachelor.” Locally there was great excitement when he was jailed despite London surgeons spending £14 on an advocate to represent him; during his 26-week confinement, they gave him ten shillings (50p) a week allowance.

Irishman Murphy, tall and strong, was deemed to be the expert, receiving 12 guineas (£12.60) for each of the four corpses he provided. Again the London-based medical profession paid for his defence, amounting to £160.

Murphy died in his bed, leaving his family well provided for, but Vaughan was transported to the colonies on a legal technicality: stealing a body was only a misdemeanour, so he received a short prison sentence...but for appropriating some of the clothing in which the body had been wrapped, he was prosecuted for felony and banished from the country!

Lofty pallisades were built on the west side of the churchyard to cut the risk of further grave-robbing, replacing a brick wall.

The activities of Burke and Hare, Vaughan and Murphy and other resurrectionists in Britain were brought into focus when Norfolk surgeon Sir Astley Cooper told a House of Commons committee: “There is no person, whatever his situation might be, whose body – after death – I cannot obtain!”

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