Borley Rectory: Q&A with Animator Ashley Thorpe
Borley Rectory in Essex had the reputation of being the most haunted house in Britain. The Gothic revival house, built in 1822 to house the rector of the local parish was demolished in 1944 after being badly damaged by fire in 1939, but its reputation lives on and it will shortly be the subject of a short film by animator Ashley Thorpe.
Horror fans have helped Borley Rectory make it onto the screen thanks to an Indiegogo campaign. We like the punk ethos of this at the Hothouse, we like haunted houses too, so we tracked Ashley down to his studio and had a chat. Let’s begin by finding out a bit more about Ashley.
“I’m a Devon based animator whose work is inspired by what I believe to be the neglected aspects of British folklore and myth. Other than making animated horror shorts I’m also an illustrator and have painted commissions for Headpress / Critical Vision, Little Shoppe of Horrors and Fangoria magazine (cover art for issues 305 the Amicus one and issue 307 Alice Cooper) wherein I’m also a regular contributor as a writer, most recently providing an interview with John Hurt. I’ve also dabbled in radio scripting having recently written two scripts for the Glass Eye Pix old school horror radio project Tales from Beyond the Pale – ‘The Demon Huntsman’ and ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’. That’s all shoehorned in-between working for a living and being a new Dad. I don’t sleep much!
“As you might have guessed I make movies in quite an unconventional way. For one they’re made completely independently and secondly they’re animated. I use a blend of different styles of animation, a mix of traditional and digital rotoscoping with sometimes painted and sometimes photographed backgrounds. I love the look that rotoscoping gives because it occupies a space between reality and fantasy which is exactly where the majority of the tales I adapt lie.”
As mentioned in the introduction, Borley Rectory was reputed to be the most haunted house in Britain, for those unfamiliar with the rectory’s story, tell us what your film is about.
“Borley Rectory is essentially an animated documentary, inspired by the haunting that caught the worlds imagination during the late 1920s. The Rectory was a Victorian mansion built during the 1860s by the Reverend Henry Bull on a site rumored to have been the location of a monastery wherein a great tragedy had taken place. The Reverend and his daughters told tales of ghosts during their occupation and the rectory soon became known as a haunted place. When the Reverend Smith moved into the rectory in the late 1920’s he and his wife Mabel found the supernatural phenomena so ‘troublesome‘ that they reached out to the Psychic Research Society via the Daily Mirror to gather enough evidence to convince the local Bishop to let them leave.
“The Mirror journalist however knowing when he was on to a good spooky yarn – redolent with phantom nuns, headless coachmen and screaming spectres – splashed it across the nationals (much to the Smith’s dismay) before getting notorious paranormal investigator Harry Price involved – a man famous for debunking the supernatural yet also not known for his subtlety. Upon investigation Price publicly declared the rectory to be no hoax, rather ‘the most haunted house in England’.
“My film is a study of the origin of the legend, the investigations and what makes the story so enduring. This isn’t ‘a’ haunting, this is ‘the’ haunting’. If you like a good ghost story this is the best.”
There are some impressive names working with Ashley on the film. As an ageing Banshees fan, I was pretty excited to see that of a Mr Steven Severin.
“Although we’re a micro-budget production we’ve attracted a fantastic cast – Reece Shearsmith, Jonathan Rigby, Nicholas Vince, Steve Furst, Richard Strange and Sabrina Dickens among many others. We also have a great narration by Julian Sands and an original score by Steven Severin. Severin came on board because of my previous animations, which I think he watched after we chatted for a Fangoria interview I conducted with him. He just simply came out and asked me after the interview if I was working on anything at the time, this was way back in 2011 / 12 I think, and I said I’d just written this thing ‘Borley Rectory’. The rest is history! I’m a HUGE Banshees fan so I was overwhelmed utterly when he came on board. It was Steven’s idea incidentally to release the soundtrack as a ltd edition vinyl to keep in with that old school 1970’s horror vibe that the artwork has.”
Ashley is about to embark on the second phase of filming after a remarkable overachieving Indiegogo campaign so I asked him what we could expect to see from, the finished film
“Yeah that was pretty amazing wasn’t it. Such wonderful support from the horror community. We made our initial target in a week and we’ve since gone way over our first stretch goal of £6k to so things are looking very optimistic! The more raised the more time we’ll have in the studio, it’s that simple, so additional budget gives us more breathing space to realise what are ostensibly quite difficult sequences. But I’m very happy with what we’ve captured so far. The finished product will be something a little unusual; the lost Elstree horror film, think ‘Dead of Night’ with a smattering of noir and a dash of classic universal horror. It’s a love letter to a gentler age of terror full of Gothic archetypes, quite old fashioned, black and white, very textural and stylised. It’s an ultrasound of a haunting.
“And of course it’s going to be animated which is an unusual way to present a documentary. But I felt that the story was so rich in imagery, so dense with facts and intrigue and duplicity that for me it made sense to make the visuals very dreamlike and beautiful, even expressionistic in places, and keep the narrative slave to the facts so you’re simultaneously exploring the truth of the matter whilst tonally getting under the skin of what makes this tale so enduring and fascinating to people.”
Sounds like just the sort of thing this Hothouse writer likes, thanks for taking the time to speak to us Ashley and good luck with the project, we look forward to seeing the finished film.
Interview by Simon Ball