Based on the novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg, The Haunted Airman is set in a mansion in rural Wales during WWII. The main character is a former RAF pilot who has been shot down and has ended up in a wheelchair due to his injuries. However, his injuries are not soley physical, it is implied that he, like at least one other similar man in the tumbledown manor house being used as a makeshift hospital, is also suffering from PTSD, then known as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”.
Having not lived through WWII and possessing only a limited exposure to England, I cannot speak on whether the portrayal of the facilities and technology at this particular hospital is a realistic depiction of institutions of this kind. But they are true to life in calling nurses “sister” and having them wear nun-like headdresses. And they are pretty spot-on as concerning some things that patients often experience in any sort of hospital. One of the early scenes in the movie shows the former pilot lying on a litter left in front of the hospital for what seems an indeterminate amount of time while people hurry by.
Yes, in real life, patients really do get left lying around. When he experiences incontinence and the nurse changes the bedsheets and tells him it’s nothing to worry about, but something that tends to happen “at the beginning”, that’s quite accurate too. (Real nurses are quite blase about things like this and talk about bodily functions openly, including the ones that embarrass most people.)
However, he’s got bigger problems than paraplegia or PTSD. It is hinted early in the picture that he is having or has the potential to have, an improper relationship with his aunt (aunt by marriage, at least), a thing that many people would find quite shocking, but it doesn’t seem to bother him, and the aunt seems amenable to it in the middle of the picture, holding hands with him and kissing him romantically during a visit with him. On later visits, she grows more distant, presumably on the doctor’s advice. By the end of the picture, she had repudiated that sort of relationship with him. When he makes sexual overtures to her, she is unwilling… and then his Oedipus gets even more complex.
Where the film starts to diverge from reality, however, is in depicting some of the frightening, hallucinatory experiences that he has.
It is true that the building in which he is in is an older building with a lot of dark wood and stone and shade trees is perhaps a theatre in which an overactive imagination can romp. Spiders are also prominently featured; perhaps they assume increasing importance to him because he is less able to avoid them with his present mobility-impairment and wheelchair use. The wheelchair they have him in is not the kind that he can push himself, and on one occasion when the nurse pushes it, she wheels him right into a big spiderweb. Another reason that spiders assume additional importance is because he has a situation of enforced idleness, and it is perhaps fair to say that he notices them more than when he was working.
Or maybe, there are just simply a whole lot of big, ugly spiders around.
In spite of the large and prominently featured spiders, insects in numbers make an appearance, too. At one point he sees a number of beetles walking by while he is in bed and he falls out of bed trying to chase them away. On another occasion when something like this happens, he drags himself away from his hospital room and into a bathroom, where he retreats to a bathtub, which (the viewer sees) has spiders in the drain. The doctor who is treating him (it is hinted that this doctor is acting as a therapist of sorts whether or not he is actually recognized as a psychiatrist) characterizes it as an attempt to retreat to the womb and the amniotic fluid in spite of the fact that the bathtub in fact had no water.
It can be hard to follow this picture because it is sometimes unclear as to whether some of the things they show are hallucinations on the part of the airman, or real but unpleasant things (like the spiders) just setting an uncomfortable and “creepy” atmosphere. I do not know whether this is deliberate on the part of the filmmakers or accidental as a limitation of the technology and/or the storyline. But it is a reason why one of the nurses in the beginning of the movie told him “we don’t use the terms ‘mad’ and ‘normal’ around here. Everyone here is a little bit psychotic”, she said, looking down through the window at one of the doctors, the one who would later endeavor to give him therapy.
For the teenage girls in your life, here’s The Haunted Airman 27 x 40 Movie Poster, featuring Robert Pattinson looking appropriately haunted.