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“I believe the most rational mind can play tricks in the dark.”—Samuel Daily (Ciarán Hinds) in The Woman in Black
As Halloween approaches, I thought it would be fun to look at a movie in the horror/thriller genre, and one that is available on DVD, rather than in theaters. The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe, fits that description nicely. Although its setting in Edwardian England may put off some teens, it has some interesting chemistry and Earth science teachers can use in the classroom.
Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a young London lawyer whose wife died giving birth to their son, Joseph, who is now four years old. Kipps is sent to northern England to examine the papers of a recently deceased client. Upon his arrival in the village near Eel Marsh House, Kipps receives a very cold reception, and the local lawyer tries to dissuade him from even visiting the house. Kipps goes to Eel Marsh anyway, “reawakening” the spirit of a woman who committed suicide in the house. I won’t reveal key plot points here, but Kipps’ exploration of paperwork is soon overshadowed by the deaths of several local children in mysterious circumstances.
Eel Marsh House is built on a tidal island: an island cut off from the mainland during high tide. A number of real places like this exist around the world, many in the United Kingdom, while one of the most famous is in France. Mont St. Michel, just off the coast of Normandy, can be reached via a causeway that is dry at low tide, and nearly covered at high tide. TheWoman in Black was filmed in part on the causeway connecting Osea Island to the mainland in Essex, England. I have visited Saint Michael’s Mount (Where have we heard a name like that before?) just off the coast of Cornwall in southwest England. The fact that Eel Marsh House is periodically cut off from the village is an important element in the film, and gives teachers a chance to discuss real tidal variations and periods.
Tidal isolation in The Woman in Black.
Students may have heard the Moon causes tides, but unless you have lived near the ocean and paid close attention, the details may be surprising. Tides are complicated by local conditions, even though the mechanism is fairly simple. The Moon exerts a gravitational force on the Earth, and that pulls the water in the oceans toward the Moon, causing high tide on the side of the Earth facing the Moon. That water had to come from somewhere, so when the tide is high in England, it is low in Louisiana and Bangladesh (places one-quarter of the way around the world from England). High tide in England also corresponds to high tide in the Pacific Ocean near Fiji. Since the Earth turns on its axis once every 24 hours, and the Moon orbits the Earth once every 28 days, high and low tides are not exactly six hours apart, as the Moon is in a slightly different place every time the Earth turns once. Also, at new and full phases of the Moon, the gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun combine to make tides larger. At first and last quarter of the lunar cycle, the difference between high and low tide is the smallest, because the Moon and Sun are pulling at right angles to each other. I spent a year living on a tidal estuary, which really brought the reality of the tides home to me.
About halfway through the film, Kipps holds a girl in his arms as she dies after drinking lye. In a modern home, most people wouldn’t store something like lye where a child could get it, but child-resistant caps and safety latches on cabinets are a 20th-century innovation. Lye is a caustic alkaline material, either sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH, which has been used as a cleaner and soap ingredient for thousands of years. Early soaps were made from ashes and animal fat, with the ashes providing the lye. Soaps work by making it possible for fats and oils to disperse into water, which means that they can be rinsed away. Bleaches, on the other hand, do not remove stains such as grass stains; they just take the color out so you cannot see the grass against the white fabric.
Lye has also been used to cure food for long-term storage, including things like olives and lutefisk. Though it has many uses, lye is a dangerous substance if not handled properly. Alkaline (basic) solutions cause chemical burns just as acids do, so skin contact is hazardous. Ingestion of solid or liquid lye would cause serious chemical burns to the digestive tract, and could certainly be fatal, as the movie depicts.
The Woman in Black is a spooky thriller, with the right dark and rainy feel for Halloween, and teachers can use it to discuss some interesting chemistry and Earth science topics.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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