I’m not a believer in the supernatural.
I’m a rational kind of guy. I love writing about ghosts, demons and the possibilities of experiences beyond what we comprehend, but the blunt truth is that I don’t believe in any of it. I’m not a guy to get rattled by dark corridors or abandoned buildings.
With that in mind, I want to tell you a few things about our 2006 shoot for the movie KillerKiller.
We shot in the then long-disused building then known as Warley Hospital. Nowadays, the site is a posh housing development known as The Galleries.
Before it was Warley Hospital, it was known as Brentwood Mental Hospital. Before that, back in 1853 when the building first opened its doors, it was known as Essex County Lunatic Asylum.
Attitudes towards mental illness in 1853 weren’t, of course, quite as enlightened as we’d like to think they are nowadays. “Treatments” included lobotomies and electro-convulsive therapy. Not only that, but ideas of who actually constituted a ‘mentally ill’ person were flexible enough to include an awful lot of people that society would rather just keep out of sight; everyone from unwed mothers to soldiers suffering from PTSD.
So places like Warley ended up having some fairly horrible things happen in them. Over a century and a half, even the recorded incidents make for grim reading. God knows how many worse things went on that nobody will ever know about. If ever there’s going to be a building to store up bad vibes, it’s going to be a place like that.
This wasn’t really something I thought about when I locked down the location, I’m ashamed to say. I was far more concerned about budget; the fee for shooting in the building was pretty huge for a film shooting on such a tiny budget. I was worried about how we were going to afford the location for long enough to get a huge amount of footage in the can. In the end, we did this with a mixture of good planning and dumb luck; we shot with available light rather than lighting set-ups, and the building was so cinematic anyway that the footage ended up looking pretty great now matter how quickly it was shot. We shifted complex ‘kill’ sequences to non-Warley locations where we could take our time a little more and somehow got everything we wanted in the can over a mere three days of filming at the former hospital.
By the end of those three days, however, all those things that I’d never even considered were beginning to get under my skin.
By the end of those three days, quite frankly, I was more than happy to wave Warley goodbye.
Our wonderful photographer Debbie Attwell discovered dozens of torn-off butterfly wings inserted between the bricks in the chapel. We would regularly find scrawled messages or carefully folded pieces of paper with troubling pictures on them tucked away behind radiators or whatever. The phrase ‘I Am Not Alone’ gouged into one of the walls (which can be seen in the first montage of the hospital in the finished film) wasn’t added by an enterprising member of our production crew: it was already there.
And then there was the incident with the footsteps.
Like I said, not a superstitious guy, so I’ll stick to the facts.
We were about to call action on a scene, when we heard footsteps in the next corridor over. These were loud enough that all of the crew heard them, and loud enough for our sound recordist to shake his head as a ‘no go’. They got louder until they stopped abruptly on the other side of the door from the room in which we were filming. Irritated, I probably called out something like “You might as well come through now” and we waited.
My lovely DoP Al Ronald went to investigate when nobody came through. As I’m sure you can guess, there was nobody there.
It sounds so Scooby Doo and hokey. It sounds ridiculous. But that’s what happened.
I also became increasingly convinced that I could hear whispering voices in the corridors of the building. This was probably an auditory trick caused by the wind whistling through the cracks, but, goddammit, once I thought I heard panting about a foot away from my ear. Enough to make me spin around like I’d been stung.
I’m not even sure what these are examples of. Weird acoustics in an old building? An over-active imagination triggered by the fact that we were shooting a gory horror movie in a location that had seen an awful lot of unhappiness?
Soon after the film came out, a few enthusiastic souls started suggesting that they could see ‘orbs’ in the final film (specifically in the scene starting 31:43 on the special edition, for those interested), which made me chuckle a little because I’m pretty goddamn sure that those floating orbs are dust kicked up by the chair that gets thrown against the wall in that scene. On the other hand, since I’m the dude swearing blind that I heard footsteps with no source that vanished into nowhere, who the hell am I to judge what others perceive?
After three days I was unreasonably happy to be leaving the most cinematic location I’ve ever filmed in. I still don’t believe in ghosts. I still believe in science over superstition, logic over legend.
But if I never hear a panting sound a foot away from my ear again for as long as I live, that’ll be just fine.
– Pat Higgins
KillerKiller: The Special Edition is available NOW to rent and purchase on VOD. Click through the trailer below.