Shudder Secrets: Martyrs Lane: A Ghost Tale Full of Grief
I’m a sucker for ghost stories and a well-spun Gothic tale. In fact, they just might be my favorite subgenre of horror, if I had to pick one. Martyrs Lane, written and directed by Ruth Platt, and based on her short, feels like a Gothic British horror film from the 1960s or 1970s. There are no cell phones and no computers. The troubled family lives in a clergy house with creaky floorboards and lost souls. Martyrs Lane is a movie that relies on atmosphere more than anything else, and while the ending may be predictable, there is still a lot to unpack before the final minutes. Even if we’ve seen films like this before, we haven’t seen them told quite this way, specifically from a child’s point of view.
A Child’s Perspective
Martyrs Lane centers its point of view around 10-year-old Leah, played by Kiera Thompson. Typically, these slow-born ghost stories with grief and buried secrets at the center are told from an adult’s point of view, often a parent. But that isn’t the case here, and that’s what makes this film so arresting. Leah doesn’t understand why her mom, Sarah (Denise Gough), is so detached. She also doesn’t know a thing about her family’s painful history. Slowly, she discovers these secrets through the help of a strange visitor who appears in the form of a child around her age.
Further, there’s a divide that exists in the family. Leah is closest to her father, Thomas (Steven Cree), a minister who spends most of his days organizing mission drips and tending to his flock. Leah possesses the same type of devout faith that he does. Her older sister Bex (Hannah Rae) frequently torments her, mocks religion, and has a closer relationship with Sarah than she does with Thomas. Ultimately, it becomes clear why this divide exists, but Leah first must follow the clues that the visitor offers.
Leah’s Strange and Unusual New Friend
Not long into the film, Leah meets this strange girl (Sienna Sayer) wearing a lacey white dress with angel wings. They encounter each other in the woods, which Bex claims is the site of a historical massacre. Each night, the girl taps on the bedroom window and asks Leah to let her in. Leah complies, and the girls continually play a game of two truths and a lie. As the visits grow more frequent, the mysterious visitor tells Leah where she can find what she lost. Each item unravels aspects of her family’s upsetting and storied past.
The girl’s main function, at least initially, is to help Leah understand her personal history, especially the reason for Sarah’s profound sadness and fragile emotional state. She’s a welcome guest, at least at first, because Leah is lonely. While the old rectory bustles with churchgoers in the day, Leah doesn’t appear to have any friends. No schoolmates visit her, and she’s never shown playing with kids her age. Her sister constantly torments her, and her mother rarely shows her affection. While Leah and Thomas have a close relationship, he’s always busy tending to church matters. So it makes sense why she’d want to befriend the uncanny girl at first.
Leah’s Anxieties and The Blonde Locket
It’s clear from the outset that something bothers Leah. She has nightmares involving her mother, and she hears strange whispers in the shadowy hallways of her home. These grow louder whenever Leah thinks about or looks at a golden locket her mother wears. It contains blonde hair. This seems odd since Leah and Bex are brunettes. Leah dreams of the locket and is puzzled by its importance as if it contains all her family’s secrets that she struggles to grasp. Perhaps if she better understands its significance, then she’d have a clearer sense of why her mom is so distant.
This is part of what makes Martyrs Lane such an intriguing tale. How often are we presented with a film in which the protagonist is a child who fears her mother doesn’t love her? That’s the source of Leah’s anxiety and her frequent nightmares. Whether or not the rectory is haunted is another matter. The whispers Leah frequently hears are echoes of the past that she doesn’t understand until the conclusion.
Is the Visitor an Angel or Demon?
Martyrs Lane works best when it’s a bit ambiguous, and it would have worked better overall if it didn’t fully reveal everything in the last act. At first, it’s unclear if the nighty visitor means to harm or help. Leah lets her in because she believes in acting hospitable towards other people. This idea is reinforced in an early scene when the camera zooms in on a quote from Hebrews 13:2. It reads, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing so.” This quote presents the idea that hey, maybe Leah has a guardian angel.
At one point, even the visitor says that she’s growing angel wings. However, as the film progresses, the girl turns paler. Her voice drops to a growl, and black veins mar her face. Look closely, and you’ll also notice her menacing yellow eyes. Leah starts to fear her, and rightfully so. She also possesses some sort of supernatural power. She can slam shut the bedroom door and launch objects through the air with a mere look. This isn’t exactly angelic behavior!
The Painful Past Leah Unearths
Each night, the visitor tells Leah where she can find something that she lost. Most of the items are single letters meant for a bracelet or necklace. She also helps her discover a button missing from her mom’s cardigan and even baby teeth. At first, none of these items make any sense. Why would Leah care about random letters buried in the backyard? She’s obsessed with her mom’s locket, that object that constantly appears in her dreams/nightmares, not the alphabet. So why does the visitor have her dig up random letters and other odd items?
Well, it’s obvious from the get-go that grief and mental anguish consume Sarah. In the closing minutes, she tells Leah that she had another daughter, Rachel, who died before Leah was born. We eventually learn that a driver hit her while she was riding her bicycle. This reveal circles back to one of the film’s earliest scenes showing a quiet road and a brief glimpse of Rachel, riding her squeaky bicycle moments before death. The letters Leah discovers spell out Rachel, and they were from a bracelet she wore, created by Sarah. Every single item, not only the letters but also the button (Rachel liked playing with it and touching it as a baby), reveals something about the deceased daughter. Finally, Leah understands her family’s pain and why her mother and Bex act so funny around her. They miss Rachel and they’re harboring profound grief. Sarah clings to the past and even keeps a strand of Rachel’s hair in her locket.
Martyrs Lane and Sarah’s Decision
Rachel appears one more time after Leah says her name. Leah pleads with her mom not to go with Rachel, but she does. Essentially, she chooses her deceased daughter over Leah. It’s difficult to tell what to make of this decision. Does Sarah die at the end? Does she join her dead daughter on some sort of spiritual journey? There are a few clues that point towards yes.
In the closing scene, Leah overhears Thomas tell movers what to take and what to leave. He orders them to leave the piano. In the final shot, Leah sees an image of her mom playing the piano with Rachel as a white curtain billows around them, making them appear ghostly. Perhaps, Sarah succumbed to the pain and couldn’t live without her daughter any longer, so she joins her in the afterlife, or whatever you want to call it. That’s what the final shot seems to indicate. It’s also why Bex warned Leah to stop unearthing memories of Rachel and keep them buried. She knew Sarah couldn’t handle it. Leah, meanwhile, will continue living with her father, the parent she always felt closest to.
While the final act of Martyrs Lane spells everything out a little bit TOO much, it’s still an incredibly unique story told from a child’s perspective. This is one release not to be missed if you like a good ghost story. Fresh off its debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival, the film comes to Shudder on September 9. To discover more of the streaming platform’s latest releases, read my other Shudder Secrets columns.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his fiancé, or curling up on the couch and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.