The Ghost Train

I became a movie fan at the age of seven when, with a few friends from school, I started going to the local ABC cinema on a Saturday morning. I guess my parents thought it was a good way to get me out of the house for a couple of hours.

It was a big theatre – it must have held several hundred – and the noise before the show was like a cave full of bats, squeaking and chittering as they squirmed in the rows of seats. Eventually, a compere with a mic would appear, call us to order, and then invite all the kids who had had birthdays in the past week to come up and join him on stage. They stood in a long line facing the rest of the audience. I don’t think there were any prizes for this feat of being officially a year older; they probably just got a cheer and a clap. Or maybe we all sang Happy Birthday. For some reason – either I was too bashful or else I never managed to attend on the Saturday following my birthday – I never got to go on stage myself.

Once everyone was back in their seats again, the lights went down, the curtains opened and the words of the ABC Minors song appeared on the screen.

We are the boys and girls well known as
The Minors of the ABC
And every Saturday we line up
To see the films we like
And shout about with glee.
We like to laugh and have a sing song,
Such a happy crowd are we.
We’re all pals together.
We’re Minors of the ABC.

I could try and sing it to you now but it wouldn’t seem right without the little bouncing ball that picked out the words to keep everyone in time.

After the song, there was more wriggling and squirming and then the cartoons started: Disney or Looney Toons. When I watch an old cartoon now, I sometimes realise that I’ve seen it before, back then in 1950. Next on the programme was the serial: Captain Marvel or Flash Gordon or, perhaps, the cowboy, Buck Jones. Last came the feature, a full length film usually in black and white but not always.

I liked the Tarzan movies – Lex Barker was the Tarzan of my day – and the Westerns, with Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers, although I wasn’t keen on the latter’s habit of bursting into song. I also recall seeing the Laurel and Hardy classic The Bohemian Girl. The feature that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a comedy that included a sequence about a ghost train. It scared me half to death.

All that I remembered of this film for many years afterwards was the image a Victorian stationmaster collapsing on the platform with a heart attack and failing to turn a big wheel that closed a bridge over a river. A train roared through the station, the engine driver’s bushy white beard blowing about in the turbulence of the half open cab. The train hurtled through a tunnel and onto the bridge, plunging in silhouette down into the water.

This scene gave me nightmares. One, in particular, was even scarier than the movie, although it had nothing obvious to do with it. I dreamt of an ugly old woman, a witch. She had a terrible laugh like the Wicked Witch of the East but, otherwise, she made no sound. She scared me so much that I was terrified of going to sleep the next night. I didn’t tell anyone about the state I was in; you didn’t do that in my family. Instead, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t dream ever again. It was the most fervent prayer I have ever made before or since. And it worked, at least for a while.

A few days ago, when I first started thinking about the ABC Minors, I began to wonder if I could track this movie down. It seemed a hopeless task, given that I couldn’t remember the title or any of the actors, but then it occurred to me that maybe it had, in fact, been called The Ghost Train. Indeed it had. It was made in 1941, directed by Wilfred Forde and starred Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, and Kathleen Harrison. What was more I also found it was available on the Internet Archive under a public domain creative commons licence.

Wikipedia describes it as:

“Mismatched travelers are stranded overnight at a lonely rural railway station. They soon learn of local superstition about a phantom train which is said to travel these parts at dead of night, carrying ghosts from a long-ago train wreck in the area. The travelers eventually get to the bottom of the things that go bump in the night. In between the scary bits, comedian Arthur Askey plays the gags with his Vaudeville style humor.”

I started to watch on streaming video. One or two of the early scenes were vaguely familiar but I didn’t remember any of the comedy business. Then, it became clear that we were drawing close to the sequence that had scared me so much. I had an odd reaction. I felt no fear at all – it was just an old movie building to a melodramatic scene in which a stationmaster told the story of the train wreck in a voice full of portent – but nonetheless I found myself saying ‘Oh, dear. Oh, dear.’ and wondering if I should be watching this in the house on my own. It was as if, despite my conscious mind’s indifference, there was some more primitive part of me that was reliving that terror from sixty years ago.

That is still the most frightened I have ever felt, despite being in several situations of real danger. It seems that, in children at least, the strength of the emotion is not necessarily correlated with the significance of the thing that causes it. If this is so, then we have a problem trying to protect our children from nasty experiences in books and movies. We just don’t really know what is going to turn out to be nasty or how nasty it is going to turn out to be. Should we be over conservative? If children don’t experience fear in a controlled environment, then they may not be able to deal with danger when it threatens them for real. That said, though, I would not want a grandchild of mine to go through what I went through with The Ghost Train.

2 Responses to “The Ghost Train”

  1. Attila the Humdrum Says:

    Perhaps this does not quite belong here, but here it is anyway.

    A Dream

    I found myself involved in a war. The setting was suburban, humdrum, everyday. My job was to go to a forward position and set up some defences. I found the ideal thing, some chopped red capsicums. I arranged them on the ground in such a way that anyone walking past them would trip over.

    Then I noticed that the enemy had some red capsicums too. Luckily not as many as me, but clearly the situation was getting more tense than I had realised. Where were the rest of my unit? Where were the reinforcements?

    I decided to go back and get my weapons, which I had left behind somewhere, probably neatly stowed on a shelf or in a cupboard. As I set off, at last I saw reinforcements arriving. Among them was the host of Bruitin, splendidly arrayed in colourful regalia including a Highland kilt.

    At this point I woke up, and at the point of waking the following piece of wisdom came to me:

    Make mayhem while the sun shines.

  2. Chris Says:

    I have only ever owned one kilt. It was given to me by Bert, the leader of my Boys’ Brigade troop (see Huia and Beyond). The tartan was, I believe, Clan Gunn. It was rather dusty and had several small moth holes but it brushed up quite well.

    The last time I can remember wearing it was in an Auckland Teachers’ college revue in 1966. I was reading McGonagall to the strains of the pipes played by a fellow student called Ian Boyd. Actually that’s not quite true. The full pipes were so loud in rehearsal that they drowned me out so Ian confined his playing to the chanter and was also banished to the basement under the stage from whence the strains of music wafted up like the keening of some highland bog sprite.

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