Read the book first – if you can/dare. ‘Tis the spooky season!
Jocelyn Beard, Teller of Tales
We're all mad here…
Read the book first – if you can/dare. ‘Tis the spooky season!
Towards the end of August, Halloween stuff started showing up in all the local grocery stores, looking wantonly ridiculous in the light of summer. But now, as we winnow through September towards October, the black and orange wrapped confections sitting proudly in their cardboard displays nudge that part of me that will always be a kid in love with ghost stories. Spooky Season has arrived!
To celebrate, I thought I’d share one of my darkest secrets: I’m completely addicted to paranormal “reality” shows. It’s true, from Ghost Adventures (referred to as the “Ghost Bro Show” in our house) to Deep South Paranormal, I’ve binged them all, gleefully.
Yes, they’re silly, formulaic syllabub, but I love them just the same. I find them in equal parts hysterically entertaining and sociologically fascinating.
Through the lenses of their film crews, we get to peek inside various homes of middle America where extremely average people absolutely DO believe in spooks…and shadow people, and demons, and even puckwudgies!
I mean, they really do believe. And they don’t have to wait for the Halloween displays of late August to start getting in the mood.
These families, who choose to allow their lives and homes to be laid bare for unforgiving camera crews and fairly unqualified interviewers, live in a perpetual state of terror. Shadow people are stalking their halls. Things scratch their children in the night. Unseen stalkers push them down their own stairs. They feel as though they’re constantly being watched. They hear voices, or worse they hear their own names being uttered by a guttural voice. They hear animalistic growls. They see full-body apparitions floating by the fridge. Their kids are possessed. They’re possessed. There’s a possessed doll in the house. There’s a possessed piano in the house. There’s a portal to hell in the upstairs hallway. There’s a vortex of demons in the guest bedroom closet. They’re suffering from mysterious ailments for which 20 doctors can offer no credible explanations. The list of their claims is as endless as the human imagination.
Ridiculous? Yes. But the fear, just like the struggle, is real. And so the paranormal experts/TV stars are called in. Most arrive in multiple SUVs with more gear than you’d take on an expedition to the Antarctic. Countless cameras are set up while family members are interviewed. Moms cry as they recount finding their 3 year-old talking to an invisible child named “Becky” in their room. Mascara runs and is smeared by multiple dabs by a tissue clutched in their hands, almost always sporting freshly gelled nails. Children are interviewed, and give up amazing stories that always sound memorized. The moms are generally cautioned that a demon will often appear as a child, which ratchets up the waterworks and destroys what’s left of the make-up so carefully applied for the cameras. The most oft repeated line uttered by the women? “This house is going to kill me.”
Now, isn’t that just the perfect freaking metaphor for most of us living in America in 2019?
The moms are almost always interviewed in the kitchen, before giving the paranormal team a tour of the house’s hotspots. The dads, however, when they agree to be interviewed (most are skeptical of their partner’s claims, go figure) are filmed in some kind of “manly” space, like the basement…or the garage. Those who believe, or who have experienced some of the reported phenomena, are vastly more matter-of-fact in their recounting. Although to be fair, some do get a bit teary towards the end. Their most repeated line? “I feel helpless. How can I protect my family?”
Bam! Another succinctly stated fear that we all share, regardless of whether we believe in ghosts or not.
What follows is always the same. The family and their pets are escorted to a local motel and the team dives into the house – at night, of course, because ghosts, demons, and puckwudgies have other shit to do during the day – armed with EMF detectors, Spirit Boxes, EVP recording devices, full-spectrum cameras, REM-pods, and even some dollar store toys for reportedly playful spirits.
They crawl around the house all night long, sometimes shouting provoking stuff like, “You think you’re tough, terrorizing women and children?” and often jumping out of their skins when the house settles in response. Their findings are, shall we say, controversial, to say the least…although to be fair, every once in a blue moon, some truly strange and disturbing thing is caught on camera that would make even the most hardcore skeptic say: “WTF was that?”
Sometimes, members of the clergy are summoned to bless the house and/or oust demons. My personal favorite is Bishop Bryan Ouelette, whose business card should read: “Bad Ass Exorcist.” He appears from time to time on Ghost Adventures to do battle with his immortal foe. I seriously like this guy, and should one of our jack russells start talking to me about a dimensional vortex in the master bath, I promise you that Bishop Bryan will be the very first call I make (after I check the THC content of my CBD oil.)
The evidence gathered by the team – usually consisting of a few questionable EVPs, and some shots of orbs – is presented to the family the next day. There are more tears, and then the paranormal stars pack it up and head back home to edit the show. The families, for whom their fears are extremely real, are left in their haunted houses and their haunted lives. Yeah, they signed off to appear on these shows, so any fallout from doing so is completely on them, but still…
Humans feel imperiled and helpless, a potential savior appears – briefly – filling them with hope, and then disappears down the road, having captured pieces of their souls for eventual display as entertainment content for people like me to gobble-up. It’s a perfect Ouroboros of end-times pop culture.
Standing out a bit from the crowd, is The Dead Files, which, like Ghost Adventures, airs on the Travel Channel.
The show’s formula is similar to the others, but with a twist: the house is explored at night by psychic, Amy Allan, who eschews gear like EMF detectors in favor of her own ability to communicate with the dead. Amy is great. She swears like a longshoreman and has probably been bleeped more than any other Travel Channel regular. Is she acting? Is she for real? Don’t know, don’t care. She’s great. She can make a nighttime stroll through a mid-century farm house in Illinois into something that Dante wishes he’d remembered to put in The Inferno.
Her partner, retired NYC homicide detective and former Marine, Steve DiSchiavi does the interviewing during the day. Women in their kitchens, men in their manly spaces. The tears flow, but DiSchiavi runs his investigation like a pro. For example, if the family complains of lights going on and off, he calls in an electrical inspector to go over the entire house. He spends most of his time researching the house’s history and the area surrounding it, working with local police, historians and genealogists. Sometimes he makes an amazing find, like the house was used as a morgue during the Civil War, or there was a horrible triple homicide on the property in the ’50’s. He always gathers photos, death records, and newspaper articles to support his investigation.
Meanwhile, Amy sits down with a local sketch artist, who creates, from her vivid descriptions a scene or two of what she saw in the house.
Everyone then gathers in the house at night by candlelight and Amy describes what she experienced while Steve listens and often validates Amy’s claims with the evidence he’s gathered about the house’s history. There are always a LOT of tears when the sketches are presented, but then Amy actually tells the harried house owners what they need to do to take care of business. She has and will recommend anything and everything from a Voodoo priest to a male shaman between 20 and 30 years-old with a mild temperament. If things are totally fucked up, she’ll sometimes offer to send in her own team of spiritual house cleaners. It’s all show business, but Amy and Steve are Bosses.
So, if you’re feeling the pull of the Spooky Season, but can’t make yourself watch another Friday the 13th marathon, I highly recommend binging one of these shows. When you get past the formula and the on-camera personalities, what you’re left staring at is a true American Gothic landscape as bleak and terrifying as anything from T.S. Eliot’s eternally haunting The Waste Land. Listening to people who look and sound exactly like you and your friends discuss summoning shadow demons, being sexually assaulted by a non-existent entity, and possession as if it’s happening in every home, is truly frightening…and intriguing as hell.
Happy Spooky Season!
(I never said that I don’t believe in ghosts.)
Stephen King, who kinda knows his shit when it comes to horror, declared Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, “The Haunting of Hill House” one of the “most important horror novels of the 20th century.” I’ll see Mr. King’s assessment and raise it to one of the most important novels of the 20th century, period.
Those of us of a certain age who love horror, had already been thoroughly terrified by writers like Lovecraft and Jackson before King blew into town, and indeed, “The Haunting of Hill House” remains, for millions, the consummate tale of a haunted house.
Who could guess that terrors unimagined awaited readers inside such a harmless looking book?
It’s as though the artist couldn’t bring her or himself to present Hill House in more than an outline form and then covered it with a jungle’s worth of foliage, lest the house notice the effort and…object.
Shirley Jackson’s place in the pantheon of horror masters was won fair and square, and “The Haunting of Hill House” remains the haunted house story by which subsequent efforts are judged.
Why, oh why, then, did Amblin Television/Paramount Television and producer/writer/director Mike Flanagan conspire to take this pristine example of American Gothic literature and crap all over it? And why did Netflix take a look, shrug its corporate shoulders and say, “Yeah, sure why not?”
There be spoilers ahead, matey.
If you’ve already watched this catastrophe and loved it, just…go away. If you haven’t watched, but are planning to because you love Jackson’s book, or Robert Wise’s perfect 1963 film adaptation, go back! If you’re determined to proceed, beware.
Jackson’s creepy and ultimately terrifying Hugh Crain, whose titanic personality infests every inch of the house he built for a wife who would never set foot inside the monstrosity…alive…has been morphed by Flanagan into an oddly jejune flipper of houses played to perfection as a young father by Henry Thomas.
And played to equal perfection as the older, world-weary and perennially haunted, PTSD survivor by Timothy Hutton.
A flipper of houses? Yes, dewy-eyed Hugh and his somewhat wifty wife, Olivia (the excellent Carla Gugino) have somehow acquired Hill House which they intend to renovate (over a mere summer!) and sell for YUGE money. I guess Mr. Flanagan forgot what happened to real estate in the ’90’s.
The entire re-imagined Crain clan, which includes Hugh and Olivia’s five children, Steven, Shirley (!), Theodora, Luke and Nell, move into Hill House and the haunting begins.
Flanagan’s story toggles back and forth between then and now. Then, he focuses on the children’s experiences in the house, and now he focuses on what those experiences have produced. Luke has become a heroin addict. Shirley has become a mortician. Steven has become an author of books about hauntings. Theo has become a child psychologist. Nell has become a widow. Hugh has become estranged from his family, and Olivia has become dead.
Every episode alludes to the terrible events of the family’s last night in Hill House in which Olivia’s life was claimed by the spirits that literally prowl the carpeted corridors with abandon. By the time I groggily fired up the final episode and observed Flanagan’s big reveal, my only response was: Oh.
Here’s the deal: Jackson’s story was so freaking terrifying because you never SAW anything. You heard things, disturbing things. Who could ever forget the pounding on the walls? “God! Whose hand was I holding?” remains one of the scariest lines ever committed to paper. (Spoiler: Flanagan decided we need to SEE the ghostly hand in question. Sigh.) Jackson’s characters THOUGHT they saw things, out of the corners of their eyes. The phantom black dog that leads half the group out of the house on a chase, leaving the real Nell and Theo alone and ripe for an epic ghostly encounter. The breathing doors…I’ve literally got goosebumps. Jackson knew that the suggested unknown is what really wriggles into our hypothalamus and gets it to command our adrenals to start blasting out cortisol and adrenaline.
Not so with Mr. Flanagan, who has populated his Hill House with an army of corporeal ghosts, some straight out of the Asian horror film handbook, and some from Mr. King’s inviolate cabinet of spooks. Some are menacing, and some are just silly. But poor Hill House is lousy with them. Here’s the kicker: if you don’t LOOK at them, they’ll pretty much leave you alone, so just pull those covers over your heads, kids.
A word about the Dudleys.
Mrs. Dudley gave birth to every single crazy old man or woman who warns the Scooby Gang not to proceed. As created by Jackson and portrayed by the great Rosalie Crutchley in 1963, Mrs, Dudley convinces us from the beginning to GET OUT. Her husband, Mr. Dudley is a nearly silent presence of menace. Flanagan decided that the Dudley’s needed reinvention. His Mrs. Dudley, played by the always amazing Annabeth Gish, is a kindly soul, who happily interacts with the family, while her husband is a somewhat goofy aged hippie who is also always around to lend a hand. In one scene, Gish is placed front of an angel statue so it appears that the celestial wings are actually hers. Flanagan, you bastard!
Anyhoo, Flanagan plucks elements from Jackson’s novel like the last vulture to arrive at the rotting corpse. He takes unforgettable lines and moments and tosses them into his word salad teleplays to whatever character can catch them. He averages 2.5 thoroughly horrible theatrical monologues per episode. His characters are completely uneven, and most are just cyphers. Nothing about the family Crain is ever truly explained, leaving us with overly drawn out examinations of moments in characters’ lives that have little to zero interest because so much is missing from their backstory. We know WHAT they are, not WHO they are.
But Flanagan’s biggest crime was his casual omission of the main character in Shirley Jackson’s story: Hill House.
Jackson’s Hill House is a living breathing entity. It sits in the New England forest, waiting, patiently. It allows the Dudley’s to keep it running – during the day – and it keeps it’s own counsel during the night…in the dark. Hill House is often portrayed by artists as having eyes, so palpable is its personality. A house born bad and now ruled by a single entity: Hugh Crain. Hill House is larger than life…
…and it certainly isn’t something that a house-flipper would buy and renovate in a freaking SUMMER. As described, Hill House is at LEAST 8,000 square feet, probably closer to 10. It would takes YEARS to renovate such a beast. Flanagan’s Hill House is merely a work in progress. There’s black mold to contend with. Windows to replace. Blueprints to create. It’s a container of spirits, but is, itself, without life. And therein lies the ultimate shame of this truly terrible adaptation.
That, and Flanagan has – for whatever reason – provided his adaptation with a relatively HAPPY ENDING which plays over COUNTRY WESTERN MUSIC. What the literal fuck? AND he has decided in his delusional hubris to change one word of Jackson’s final line that morphs the entire project into a treacly salmagundi as usually found in more wholesome fare like, “This is Us.”
The acting is superb. The scripts suck (especially those monologues). The production design is a boring monochromatic mush. (I smell Tisch grads.) The omnipresent video flare (which prevents true black) is unforgivable. The acting is superb.
Mike Flanagan: you suffer from the presumption of interest. I suggest you make a pilgrimage to Shirley Jackson’s grave in Vermont (in which she’s still spinning, trust me) and apologize.
‘Tis the season. I highly recommend watching or rewatching Robert Wise’s faithful 1963 adaptation, staring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom for real scares that stay with you. And no matter what Mike Flanagan says, Hill House remains a solid part of our collective unconscious. It’s that inexplicable place that is just bad because it was always meant to be bad. And whatever walks there, walks ALONE.