The year is 1969, the scene an English boarding school for girls. A bright, cold summer is underway when the school's most popular student, Abbey, faints on her way to class. The consequences are terrible, for after Abbey's fainting comes her death. But if her passing was unexpected, what happens next surprises everyone.
Abbey's best friend, Lydia, assumes her place as student protagonist. And soon she and her new circle of followers start fainting too, this time without the fatal consequences that befell Abbey. Eyes rolling back, they collapse onto the floor with a thump and a bruise.
Director Carol Morley’s new film, The Falling, is a confident, immersive portrait of mass psychogenic illness in the mid-twentieth century. What follows is an edited extract of my conversation with Carol Morely, the full version of which you can read in the forthcoming Oh Comely issue 25.
What was your main source material when researching the history of psychogenic illness? A lot of mass psychogenic illness happened in schools or institutions, nunneries and hospital wards. I spoke to a psychiatrist, Simon Wessely; he sees it as an emotional problem becoming physical.
He commented that if you look at the central person in an outbreak--in the film that’s Lydia--they will probably have problems at home. Lydia’s mother has a secret that she doesn’t know about. I was just thinking: imagine if your whole identity is something you can never really discover, something no one’s told you. The film opens with the line "What’s wrong?" and ends with, "There’s nothing wrong with you." So it was this thing about feeling wrong, which I think all teenagers feel to a large extent. In many ways, the film is about an isolated teenage girl. It’s also about collectivity.
I enjoyed some of the reactions that the girl’s fainting provoked, and the unorthodox ways this was handled. In particular, the scene when Lydia’s headmistress sticks a pin into her leg when she faints in her office in an effort to revive her. Yes, the pin! I met a doctor who treated someone in a mass hysteria in the sixties and said, "I remember sticking pins in them to see if they responded."
What that illustrates is people not understanding how to cope with hysteria. The atmosphere you create in the film, the sense of the supernatural, heightens this sense of sense of confusion between what we can control and understand, and what we can’t. People have wondered if there’s something otherworldly about mass psychogenic illness. And I wanted the colours in the beginning of the film to be like those in a Renaissance painting, gold, red and blue. So it would feel like a painting come to life, rather than a reality.
Could you comment on the gender stereotyping that exists around hysteria and mass psychogenic illness? It is 1969 and the world of psychiatry is still very male. I was interested in creating male characters that were powerful in their own way, but not making women victim to that. I feel that Lydia actually gets the best of the psychiatrists.
There’s a sense of a very young person being demonised in some way, or not taken seriously. The articles I read about mass psychogenesis sometimes comment along the lines of, “It’s the drugs of this generation that causes it. They’re just taking LSD.” So they may have felt their experiences were trivialised.
The Falling is out this Friday. Find times and locations for screenings here: bit.ly/1F72PVE