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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

The Woman in Black

Director: James Watkins
Producers: Richard Jackson, Simon Oakes , Brian Oliver
Screenplay: Jane Goldman
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Shaun Dooley, David Burke, Liz White, Sophie Stuckey, Misha Handley, Roger Allam, Mary Stockley, Alexia Osborne, Alfie Field
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2012


This supernatural horror-thriller film is based on Susan Hill's 1983 novel of the same name.

The film opens with the prologue during the Edwardian-era in North England. Three young sisters are playing teatime with their dolls in an attic. They abruptly cease playing, simultaneously look at a corner of the room, and, as if possessed, get up and jump out of the window while their mother screams outside.

In the meantime, the young, inexperienced lawyer, Arthur Kipps, grieves the loss of his wife Stella. She had died after the birth of their now four-year-old son Joseph. Periodically he has visions of her, a beauty in luminous white, hovering around him.

Arthur is also facing financial problems since his employer has almost run out of patience with his poor work performance. He gets one last chance to prove his worth. Arthur must travel to the remote village of Crythin Gifford in a swampy coastal area to sort out a large estate by searching for relevant papers of Alice Drablow who has recently died. She owned Eel Marsh House, where she had lived with her husband, her son Nathaniel, and her sister Jennet Humfrye before they died.

Arthur leaves his son with a nanny, boards a train and heads straight into the creeping mists of an isolated hamlet where the children scatter when he approaches. Most adults treat him with hostility, glowering, and slamming doors. Some townspeople shun Arthur and others strongly suggest he take the next train back to town. The only room an innkeeper is willing to provide is the attic from which the three girls had tumbled in the prologue.

In his melancholy, the lawyer barely notices how fear has warped the secretive residents of the village. They are terrified of Eel Marsh House and the legends surrounding the manor. Its late owner is said to haunt the house in mourning for her dead child, Nathaniel, who disappeared in the marshes. This ghost is responsible for the deaths of the local children, brought about as her form of vengeance for her own child being taken from her.

But Arthur must succeed because his job depends on it, and he needs to support his son. A carriage driver refuses to take him close to the mansion. It is located on an island in the marshes and can only be reached by a single-track road on a long, narrow causeway that lies so low in a brackish sea that the waters lap its edges. Arthur fortunately meets a friendly, wealthy landowner, Sam Daily, who does not share the superstitious beliefs of the locals, and drives him to the gothic mansion in his new Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce.

When Arthur reaches Eel Marsh House, he learns that he can only be picked up at particular times of day, as the tides wash over the road at most hours. The house is crumbling, forlorn, and filled with the faded and jumbled Victorian possessions of former times. He repeatedly hears footsteps and sees a woman dressed in black.

While Arthur waits at the local police station to report the sighting, two boys bring their sister Victoria who committed suicide by drinking lye. She dies in Arthur's arms. This confirms the townspeople's belief that whenever someone sees the "Woman in Black", a child nearby dies. The local attorney Jerome's daughter Lucy hides in the basement and screams at Arthur to go away because she believes he was responsible for Victoria's death.

At Sam Daily's house, Arthur learns that Sam and Elizabeth's son, Nicholas, drowned while playing at the beach. He communicates now through possessing Elisabeth, making her draw a hanging woman who Arthur realizes is Jennet Humfrye.

The next morning, Jerome's house is on fire. Arthur rushes inside to rescue Lucy, who has been locked in the basement. There, he sees how the "Woman in Black" manipulates the girl into smashing a lantern at her feet, setting herself on fire. Now the villagers desperately want Arthur to leave but he refuses because he needs to protect his job.

Back at the manor, Arthur discovers old correspondence revealing information about Nathaniel's mysterious death and Jennet's mentally instability. Therefore she was not allowed to care for the boy, who was actually Jennet's son. Alice, who raised him as her own, hid this fact. He also finds out that Jennet had hanged herself due to his death.

During another visit with Elisabeth Daily, she tells Arthur in a trance that his young son Joseph will be the next victim. Horrified, Arthur dives into the marsh to retrieve Nathaniel's body. With Sam's help, he puts the corpse into the nursery. But when "The Woman in Black" knocks Arthur to the floor, they give Nathaniel a proper burial by laying him next to his real mother, Jennet. After Arthur and Sam leave, the voice of the "Woman in Black" can be heard saying "I'll never forgive!"

Arthur meets with Joseph and his nanny at the railway station to leave immediately. While his dad is distracted bidding Sam goodbye, the boy walks along the tracks towards a fast approaching train. Arthur jumps onto the tracks to save Joseph. Then he looks up to see the now deserted platform and his dead wife Stella. As he realizes that they both have died, he explains to Joseph that this is his mummy, kisses him, and takes his wife's hand. All three are now reunited in death and walk along the tracks together, as the "Woman in Black" watches their reunion.

Cinema Alchemy

17-year old Kevin came to see me to work on his low self-esteem and his shyness. The sensitive teenager was the only child of an overprotective widowed mother, Linda. His father had died shortly after Kevin was born. Because the teenager felt concerned about his mom, he generally tried to meet her expectation.

My initial work included sessions with his mother during which we addressed her grief as well as her parenting style. Linda contemplated that she might have - unconsciously - used her son to replace her late husband. Eventually she understood how this might have affected Kevin and became determined to give him more space.

During my subsequent work with Kevin, he told me that he would like to develop friendships outside school. He thought that kids at school liked him, but his mom always encouraged him to stay at home and focus on his schoolwork. Now, since Linda was willing to give him more space, we brainstormed how Kevin could initiate activities outside school. He thought of going out to movies with some schoolmates and explained, "Everybody is into vampire and other horror movies".

Initially I was a little skeptical of my client's choice of films. I wondered about the quality of horror films and their effect on a sensitive boy who had lost his father. But Kevin knew from past experience that "horror movies are just a lot of fun". He went with some boys and girls from school to see The Woman in Black and reported: "What a cool movie! There were some really creepy scenes like when door handles rattle, when the floorboard to creak, or when Arthur sees the "Woman in Black". The girls in our group were shrieking and held on to each other. Lily even grabbed my hand. It was really great!"

This movie outing helped Kevin bond with the group. Because he had initiated it and demonstrated that he is now available outside of school, the teenager felt more accepted by his peers. Therefore he started to feel more socially confident with male friends as well as with girls, which increased his general self-esteem. For the first time, my client considered asking Lily out.

Because I had noticed that Kevin was very responsive to positive psychology interventions, I asked him whether he recognized strengths in Arthur that he sees in himself too. "Yes, of course", he said proudly, "Arthur is very committed to his family as I am." This character helped him also recognize some other strengths, such as determination and endurance.

Subsequently, we also contemplated one of Arthur's weaknesses, which Kevin identified in himself: a lack of awareness of his environment at certain times. His increased confidence through appreciating his strengths gave Kevin the confidence that he will be able to successfully work on this weakness and eventually overcome it.

Theoretical Contemplations

Films need to be chosen for their therapeutic benefit even if they lack artistic excellence. The collective viewing experience in a theater can enhance the emotional impact of a movie in a powerful way and support bonding with friends who share the viewing experience.

While watching horror movies, the threat of death often makes viewers feel alive in a paradoxical way. O thers intuitively sense that scary movies, viewed from a safe observer perspective, help them work through old fears and trauma.

Character strengths are portrayed in numerous films. The most common positive psychology strengths found in movies are creativity, bravery, persistence, hope, humor, and love. These strengths lend themselves nicely to a visual modality like film.

Movies that are effective in Positive Cinema Therapy are not necessarily lighthearted. They can be dark, intense, and potentially upsetting or graphic as they drive home important issues of the struggle of human suffering, and the painful acceptance of reality. Positive psychologists know that negative emotions and unpleasant experiences matter, and it is the integration of the pleasant and the unpleasant, the dark and the light, the comic and the tragic that allows us to map the ingredients for improving the human condition.

These "shadow" or "dark" side films can teach clients about strength by portraying the antithesis of the virtue or strength being considered. For example, pessimistic characters illustrate the importance of hope and optimism; from the angry and resentful we learn about challenges of forgiveness and mercy.

Questions for Work with Teenagers

•  Which movie would you like to see with your friends?

•  How would you feel about suggesting a movie outing to them?

•  How do you feel toward your friends after you saw the movie together?

•  What strengths and what weakness did you recognize in Arthur that you can identify in yourself?

•  How can you develop these strengths further?

•  Which first step could you take to overcome the weakness?


Birgit Wolz wrote and co- wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy