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Christopher Webster [Celluloid 05.15.13] United Kingdom horror documentary

While The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill (trailer) is currently scaring the pants off buyers at Cannes, I had the opportunity to chat with Kevin Gates, co-director and writer, about making his supernatural shocker, recently acquired by Imagination Worldwide.


QE: Unlike most "found footage" horror movies your footage is actually real isn't it?

90% of what you see in The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill is completely real. The approach was interesting as with the exception of Mike and I, no-one knew that what we were really planning with the film. To everyone, it was a straight documentary on the Clophill legend where we'd spend a weekend up at the ruin, interview eye-witnesses and experts and carry out experiments of our own to see if there was any truth to the stories. Craig Ramos-Stovin on the team knew we were going to work some fictional elements in, but even he didn't know precisely what or when and that was important. We also had one of the most cynical people in the world on the crew and we even managed to trick him that the film was a genuine documentary right up until the end. The initial weekend shoot formed the framework of the film, and I then went back and worked in additional elements to the story.

QE: How hard was it to balance the needs of a documentary with the narrative needs of a traditional horror film?

It was actually relatively straight forward, but a hell of a lot of research was done first. I spent days at the archives scouring through microfilm and old newspapers from the 1960s and 70s for reports of incidents at Clophill. I then tracked down the witnesses to the events and let them tell the story that sets everything up for our own investigation. So the documentary side is incredibly important early on, but eventually becomes less prominent as we move into the main part of the film, which is the nights spent up at the ruin by the film crew.

Adding narrative later to the footage we shot during the weekend felt quite natural because I was mostly writing scenes that were based upon incidents that had occurred at Clophill. There were also lots of incredibly lucky things that happened during filming that all seemed to tie in with the story I wanted to tell. I couldn't for instance have predicted that the young daughter of Criselda and Craig who appears in the film had really experienced seeing ghosts and witches in her room at night. This tied in perfectly with a story about the paranormal and occult.

Criselda was on board purely as the interviewer, but she is also an actress. Craig was onboard as the production co-ordinator but he too is an actor. They were both involved due to a paranormal experience they'd shared a few years before in Spain. It was only later on after the initial filming that I told them what we were really doing and called upon their acting skills. But I didn't tell them precisely what was going to happen in these new scenes. They had to react to what I'd prepared for them, be it a heap of sacrificial birds crawling with maggots, or stumbling across a full-blown Black Mass in the woods at midnight. I like this technique, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Fortunately the guys pulled it off brilliantly through very subtle acting. It was really important there was nothing OTT in terms of acting or whatever else we were presenting on screen or the viewer would be taken out of the experience.

QE: What drew you to examine the Clophill legend?

I'd known about old St Mary's church at Clophill since I was a teenager as the village is quite local to me. I remember going up there one night in 1990 in a friend's beat up old car, driving up the lane and coming across this strange ruin in the middle of nowhere. It was also pitch black and freezing, which heightened the sense of dread. We were told stories of black magic and ghosts, but this was pre-internet so there wasn't really much information available to find out more. You only have to look on the internet now and there are hundreds of stories about Clophill and a lot of people draw inspiration from the ruin because of its occult past and continuing paranormal interest. But it was a few years ago and I thought no-one had done a feature film on the place and it's such a fantastic setting, so I started doing some proper research and tracked down pretty much every book and newspaper article on Clophill to uncover the story and set about putting a film together. I became a bit obsessed and have amassed two shelves of research material, mainly around the occult goings and actually turned that into a book that will accompany the film's release.

The legend all stems from an incident in March 1963 when an Aleister Crowley-esque group of Devil Worshippers dug up the bones of a young woman who died in 1770 called Jenny Humberstone. They did this at full moon - arranged her bones inside the church, impaled the skull on a metal spike, scrawled occult symbols on the wall and sacrificed a cockerel in what was believed to be a Black Mass, but was in fact an attempt at Necromancy. No-one ever found out who carried out the ceremony, although there were several suspects. This led to many other incidents in the following years: some were hoaxers but others seemingly genuine. What was strange was the police reaction to the occult incidents, as we found out from a witness to a 1975 Black Mass at Clophill who was actually shot at by the group performing the ceremony. The police did not interfere and were more interested in arresting anyone who tried to alert them about what was going on. It had all the markings of a sinister cover up.

QE: Was there a script? Or did the story evolve as you shot?

Initially there was no script. What I wrote was a detailed itinerary for the weekend of filming about what we'd be doing at what time, so this included interviews with experts and eye-witnesses and details of the experiments we were to conduct at night. A lot of the script was built around the questions I wrote for the interviewees, hoping to get the kind of answers that would build the story for the film. The main action centres around the Saturday and Sunday nights where we're up at the ruin trying to lure out whatever might be there at Clophill. The Saturday night was spent with the guys from the Luton Paranormal Society and the Sunday night we were on our own.

Once we'd shot the initial weekend footage, I went back and worked the additional narrative elements into what we had. So although it's not strictly a found-footage film, it actually embraces the technique more than something like The Zombie Diaries, as I had no idea what we'd get that weekend and I had to make the footage work. It took a long time to edit.

QE: How scary was it to hang out and film at Clophill at night?

It's something of a rite of passage for teenagers in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire in the UK. Everyone has heard of Clophill, but no-one really knows what is fact and what is fiction in terms of the legend. Once you've spent some time up at Clophill, it becomes less frightening and just incredibly atmospheric. I had to go up there twice on my own at around midnight to get some additional shots. Now that was an experience! I'm quite open-minded to the supernatural as there are things we can't explain and I believe it would change your whole outlook on life and the bigger picture if you did witness something. But I wouldn't recommend sitting alone up at Clophill at midnight on a full moon. There were a few times I genuinely felt like there was someone or something behind me.

QE: Did you experience anything you really couldn't explain while filming?

There were lots of strange events. We had the whole churchyard sealed off during the Saturday and Sunday nights by police and security so there was no interference from local kids. However our 'tough' security team ended up being genuinely freaked out after witnessing shadowy figures moving in the long grass of the churchyard that just disappeared. All of the crew were accounted for and one of the female members of the security team ended up in tears. These guys have done security at football matches, dealt with all kinds of tough situations, but when it came to the unknown, they lost it a bit. It's all on there on camera.

Someone threw rocks into the church when we were telling ghost stories and again, everyone was accounted for and the security guards were nearby. This could have been a prank by some local kids, but they'd have to have got past the security guards, thrown the rocks and disappeared off again without being seen - so it was unlikely.

One of the producers turned up on the final night. It was his 34th birthday and he tripped over a tombstone and landed flat on his back. As he looked up, the grave was inscribed "died aged 34" and it really shook him up. There is a legend at Clophill of the grave that tells you the date of your own death. Fortunately, he is still alive! There were a lot of things like that...

QE: Did you lose any crew members during the shoot?

I'd lost most of them by the time we did the additional scenes! But the ten minutes alone sequence was the time where we were individually on our own and one of us did disappear (I won't spoil it by revealing who). It was a really simple but effective part of the film. During the investigation a lot of eye-witnesses with no connection to each other were all pointing at a particular corner of the churchyard where they'd seen strange figures at night. So we set up a camera in this area and each of us spent ten minutes alone with just the camera for company to see if anything would happen. This is kind of where the film moves into different territory and I'm looking forward to people's reactions to one particular part of this scene.

QE: Any plans to examine other infamous local haunts?

Definitely. The next instalment is planned and will be 'The Paranormal Diaries: Mothman' and based around a remote wood where a mothman sighting was witnessed by an entire family in broad daylight in 1979. The same wood also has a history of occult goings on, animal mutilations and an incredible black shuck encounter. We'll be shooting this one in 2014 and spending a lot of time out in the woods at night. These films are a lot of fun as they're as much a real experience as they are a film shoot.

QE: What's next for Clophill? When and where can people see it?

We've just signed a deal with Imagination Worldwide who will be selling the film at the Cannes Film Market this month. Hopefully they'll close some deals in the various territories and with any luck we'll get the movie into a few festivals over the summer, so that could be the first public screening. I then expect the movie will be released commercially towards the end of 2013.

All details of screenings will be posted over on our facebook page:

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luisa_dolente (9 years ago) Reply

i have a genuin picture of ghosts from clophill church in 2005. I think the lady is jenny humbersstone. (her scull showed 1 tooth) this picture i have she has only one tooth. Also other ghost on the same picture. The institute of the paranormal said they had never seen so many ghost on one picture. they loved it.

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