Horror On Television: Where Are the Scares?

Reviewed by Jeremy Billingsley

 

[Some SPOILERS for Castle Rock and The Haunting of Hill House]

 

With Stranger Things on hiatus this year, we are left with haunting reality shows where the hosts consistently yell at the ghosts and nothing more happens most of the time other than people “feeling” things, faux horror shows that confuse the term with merely supernatural, and the smattering of actual horror that we can ingest when we’re lucky.

 

I enjoy watching the old Twilight Zone marathons on SyFy on New Years and the 4th of July. I own the complete box set of the X-Files and will gladly argue the merits of seasons with the new agents, the two movies, and the new seasons – usually the most debatable part of the show. I’m an avid fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the spinoff, Angel. I like what I’ve seen lately of SyFy’s Channel Zero anthologies, and can forget the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock himself, who once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

 

And while I have a new season of Channel Zero to get caught up on, I want to focus more on two freshman shows and what they promise for the future of televised horror.

 

I’ve already waded into Hulu’s Castle Rock, but now that I’ve finished the series, I want to revisit my earlier column. As I said last time, “The key moving forward will be to keep the characters strong and grounded and relevant to the mystery unfolding, and both King and Abrams have at times succeeded and failed at these goals.” That to me was lynchpin of this show’s success.

 

As much as I admire both auteurs, I’m afraid the ending of Castle Rock left me frazzled. Bill Skarsgård’s “The Kid” was less monster than a twist on another character. The big reveal of this played against how his character was presented early on, acting as though he were some demon from hell that knew the damage he inflicted. Still, with his endgame in sight, and nothing that had been necessarily revealed to hurt the other major characters, but could have even potentially helped them, it is chosen that he is locked back up deep in his cage under the prison. If “The Kid” is an anomaly whose presence in this reality keeps the evil happening, then why not let him just go home?

 

Maybe the second season will delve more into this mystery, but for me the ending only serves as part of the problem. The series as a whole signifies another issue consistent in the productions of J.J. Abrams – the underdeveloped mystery.

 

I don’t fully trust that the mystery is understood by Abrams’ writing staff when they begin a show. They seem to throw a bunch of ideas and images that they think look cool to the audience, and halfway through the run, decide that they better start tying things together. There were a number of ways they could have suggested some of the wilder elements of this season. Instead, I’m afraid they hadn’t figured it all out for themselves when the series began. This isn’t a pacing issue, either. Each episode flies by and is enjoyable to watch. But knowing what I know now of “The Kid,” and of what happened to little Henry when he was a child, I feel a real disconnect with the actions and motivations of each character in the beginning of the season versus who they turn out to be.

 

Many could argue the same thing about Chris Carter’s development of the overarching myth of The X-Files, but Carter succeeds where Abrams consistently fails, not just with Castle Rock, but with a lot of shows under his purview. With Carter, one can easily follow the logic of the established mystery through at least an entire season. What was true at the first episode of the season is true in the last episode of the season, by and large. Exceptions to this are presented as big reveals that are carefully timed and twist previous facts on their heads. These reveals are spaced out, and yes, often add to the mystery even while answering a previous question, but Carter leaves himself enough wiggle room in the ambiguity of the mystery that he can make these changes.

 

But Carter at least has control going into a season over what we’ll see when the season ends. I don’t feel like, with Castle Rock, that the writers and directors knew where this story was going to go. I’d like to believe they knew, but even if they did, they didn’t allow the story to unfold fluidly. They didn’t stay true to their characters, and they didn’t trust the audience to tell us in a logical way what was going on.

 

I kept waiting for Henry to talk about whether or not he remembered what happened to him when he disappeared for so many days as a child. This was important enough for the audience to see his disappearance play out on screen, but no one addresses this when they’re adults. Alan Pangborn, the sheriff who found the boy, has quite a bit of screen time with Henry as an adult, but they waste time bickering over Henry’s jealousy of Alan’s relationship with his mother instead of digging into this central mystery.

 

I’m hoping with Season Two that they dig into this mystery some more. Make the characters engage with their own lives, their own stories, and each other outside of a superficial manner, and remember that the characters aren’t just there to drive some half-thought-out plot. I do like the characters, the actors that play them, and the potential for horror that comes with a town like Castle Rock, Maine. Author Steven King has left a lot of fertile horror ground for the writers of this series to play with, and I hope that they branch out and let the story go wild as they move forward.

 


 

Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House has sparked a lot of interest on social media, and for good reason – it is scary. The story centers on the Crain family: Hugh, his wife Olivia, and their children Steven, Shirley, Theodora, and twins Luke and Nell.

 

Years ago, the parents took their kids to Hill House to live in over the course of the summer while they flipped the country estate. Strange things begin happening, until the father rushes his children out away from their mother late one night. We are told early on that the mother died, and we see the kids again, this time as adults, as they must reunite to deal with another tragedy.

 

The show was created by Mike Flanagan, who wrote or had a hand in writing most episodes, and directed this first season. It follows the family through the choices made for the kids and the repercussions of what they deal with as adults. It stars both Timothy Hutton and Henry Thomas as old and young Hugh Crain, Carla Gugino as his wife, Michael Huisman as the eldest son Steven, Elizabeth Reaser as Shirley, Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Luke, Kate Siegel as Theodora, and Victoria Pedretti as Nell. Speaking of the X-Files, Annabeth Gish, who has starred on the later seasons of that show, has a recurring role here as well.

 

Unlike Castle Rock, the show feels solid and planned out right from the get-go. We meet the family as adults and learn throughout the season how the experience at that house has impacted them even into their adulthood. Each character has his/her own traits, each tracing back to their experiences when they are younger. Luke is a drug addict and his twin, Nell — her full name is “Eleanor” — is in therapy, manic and suffering from night terrors. Steve is a best-selling author who apparently cashed in on the family horrors just to secure a living and has made a career out of writing about “haunted places and haunted people.” But, when pressed, he doesn’t believe any of it, and he is thoroughly convinced his family is nuts. Theodora works as a counselor by day but shows self-destructive behavior in her own personal life. Hugh (played in the present by Hutton), is a mess of a human, having never pulled himself together since the events years earlier. Finally, Shirley, a mortician who has her family live in the funeral home where she works, is intent on controlling everyone else’s behavior and holding their lives together even as she seems put out with the lot of them.

 

Of course, the names of the characters aren’t random. This is an adaption of the novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, and so the characters here share the names with the characters in the book — in the book they aren’t all related, and Shirley is most obviously a nod to the author. It is interesting then, given Shirley’s role in the series, that when others like Theodora start criticizing how her big sister treats her, that we have a meta commentary on the author’s control over her own characters.

 

There is a cast shift in the child actors who play the siblings when young and, obviously, when they grow up, but one might wonder why the role of Hugh Crain goes to Henry Thomas when he’s young and Timothy Hutton when he’s old. Why not just have Thomas slap on some makeup and prosthesis and “act” older. The answer becomes apparent as the season unfolds. Though it is the same character, just aged, Hugh is not the same person. The house so fundamentally changes who he is that he is a different man in the present than he was in the past. In the past he was strong, the head of the household, convinced he could fix anything. In the present he is crumpled and unable to look out for any of his kids. It isn’t until the inevitable return to the house for a final showdown that Hugh is able to recover that part of himself that he lost so long ago.

 

There are some amazing scares in this series, as well. Ghosts linger in the background of most scenes at Hill House, often unnoticed by the characters and even by the viewers unless you’re paying close attention. Jump scares are a few, but most of the time Flanagan allows the horror to creep over the viewer like a slow drift fog. Atmospherically the show picks and prickles the flesh, leaving the viewer unsettled even when nothing is happening. The best of the horror comes in the reactions of the characters themselves. How might any of us act when confronted by a ghost or strange noises or unsettling sights? The characters reflect that well. The most earned jump scare for me (and I’m not a fan of the cheapness of jump scares) comes as a bit of a misdirect towards the end of episode eight, as Shirley and Theo drive toward Hill House to meet their brothers and father. It is a well-timed scare and really impacts the argument in which the sisters are embroiled.

 

The dialogue is on the mark, reflecting the characters as they interact with each other, revealing their traits, and is occasionally lifted straight from the novel. A lot of the expositional narration is lifted out of the book itself, also. Jackson, such a master of prose, translates well to the screen no matter who is speaking the line.

 

But what we have here, more than just the names and some lines out of the book, are examples of a better use of allusion in this Netflix series than what Castle Rock offered us. The Haunting of Hill House works so well because we care about these fully developed characters. We know what they know or what they believe they know, and we are thusly drawn into the conflict. The terror is relevant to the story, the horror is personal, and the overall narrative is tight.

 

Each of the first five episodes are told from a different sibling’s perspective, and often we get the same scene played out, just from another character’s perspective. Steve is in denial over all they experienced. Shirley is angry at her brother and each of her siblings. Theo, as her training allows, looks to the signs that they should have seen to clue them in when the tragedy takes hold, and has shaped her whole professional life around looking for those signs of pain and hurt and loss in others. Luke, battling his addiction and, so his family believes, is losing that battle, is really battling his depression. Nell, after years of torment, finally accepts the fate that the house holds for her. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Sure, each of the characters touch on these stages of grief as the episodes press on, but they mainly personify each trait until the very end, when they are faced with their fears and the idea that they may never escape Hill House.

 

I’m going to continue watching both shows. Flanagan has said that if Netflix renews the show, the Crain’s story is done. He’ll move on to either another chapter in the life of the house or move on to a different location altogether. Abram’s should have followed a similar approach. Either way, both shows still have my attention, and I look forward to seeing how both shows progress moving forward.

 

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