Every year for the past couple of years, a bunch of articles listing the top 10 scariest films according to science go viral. They hook folks up to heart rate monitors and make them watch horror movies because that’s a job apparently. You might ask yourself, “Do we really need to demystify our very personal experiences with art to make lists and get Film Twitter all mad?” The answer is yes. Sinister (2012) currently holds the title and that scene in Insidious (2010) where Darth Maul pops up behind Patrick Wilson is the scariest scene. What terrifies me? The clickbait works every time.
Most casual moviegoers know how jump scares work. We, the audience, are given a piece of information that the character on screen doesn't have, the tension builds as the character fucks around, then we all get startled when they — LOUD NOISE — find out. The rubber band is pulled and pulled until it snaps. Then, on to the next rubber band. Do this enough times in a movie and you're bound to see some changes in your EKG. Horror is meant to hijack these primal physiological mechanisms, but truly great horror is a bit more complicated than that. From a filmmaking perspective, the horror should be rooted in character and help drive the story. The stakes are higher when you care about the people on screen, which makes for better scares. If the scares hit hard enough, they linger. They’re there when we look in a mirror, turn a corner, or try to sleep. But more important than that, they force us to confront something about ourselves — ugly memories, mistakes we’ve made, relationships we’ve neglected or ruined, our deepest fears, our darkest desires. They can make us feel disturbed, disgusted, or even sad. When I think of that kind of horror, there’s one scene that comes to mind and it's not from a movie. It's from The Haunting of Hill House.
Mike Flanagan — director, writer, and editor of Hill House — stepped onto the scene with a string of really solid low budget horror films. He then took a stab at a franchise film with Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016). But the major turning point in his career was his adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game in 2017. He has since directed Doctor Sleep (2019) — a sequel to The Shining that impossibly manages to satisfy Kubrick fans and King himself — and he is developing another King adaptation called The Life of Chuck. But I think that Flanagan’s emergence as a contemporary horror auteur is most evident in his long form storytelling. His love affair with Netflix post-Gerald’s Game has spawned five limited series. Incredibly ambitious character-focused stories with dense gothic atmosphere, usually borrowing from beloved works in horror literature, using a lot of the same cast — kind of like what Ryan Murphy was trying to do with American Horror Story, but good. There’s typically time jumping, and Flanagan is committed to casting multiple actors as the same character at different stages of , instead of resorting to the uncanny-valley shit that’s all the rage right now. He usually finds some of the most incredible child actors you’ve ever seen. Oh, and everyone gets a thick, juicy monologue. I wouldn’t be surprised if casting directors see dozens of Flanagan riffs daily.
With a keen eye for horror aesthetics and a steady hand on adaptation, Flanagan has developed quite the alchemy for limited series. “In 90 minutes, you can get away with scaring someone three or four times. For something like this, over ten hours, the rules are quite different,” Flanagan says in one of the featurettes for Hill House. He can grab a handful of rubber bands, wrap them around each other, and pull for hours till they can’t bear it anymore. And when you’ve spent so much time watching these rubber bands, seeing them weave together and feeling the forces tugging at them, you start to care, so when they do snap it isn’t just startling. It hurts.
Although there’s a lot to love about these “Flanaverse” series — Netflix’s term, not mine — none of them execute this idea quite as beautifully as Hill House, which just so happened to be the first of the bunch. Adapted from the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House follows the Crain family and the very traumatic, highly publicized “haunting” that took place in their home. Each of the first five episodes focuses on one Crain sibling — who they are now, their strained relationships, the ghosts that haunted them when they were children, the ghosts that haunt them in the present, and the fragments of what happened at Hill House seen through the eyes of childhood. It’s a brilliant structural move by Flanagan to give us so much time to live with these characters, and it captures the mechanism for the trauma they’ve experienced. Their memories are pieces of a bigger story encoded in the language and emotion of children, raw and full of holes that can only be filled with half-imagined terrors.
When the youngest Crain sibling, Nellie, is found dead in the ruins of their childhood home, it becomes clear that the ghosts residing there are calling out to them. In episode six, what’s left of the Crain family gathers for Nellie’s wake, and the anger, guilt, resentment and fear that’s been brewing in each of them boils over. Imagine a kettle whistling in your ear for an hour straight but enjoyably so. The episode is shot in these excruciatingly long and elaborately staged takes, with a total of five cuts in its 57-minute runtime. It’s an undeniable feat of filmmaking perfectly suited to the story’s subject matter and emotional stakes. And the kettle keeps on whistling because one of the Crains, Nellie’s twin brother Luke, goes missing after the funeral. He’s headed for Hill House.
This brings us to episode 8. The big one. The one with the scariest scene of all time. Oddly, the majority of this episode takes place in the car on the way to Hill House. In one car, eldest boy Steven and Crain patriarch Hugh ride together. Steven lets a lot of the resentment he has for his father loose and opens up about his marital issues. Hugh listens intently, empathizes, and shares stories of his own. It’s painful, but beautiful. The first truly productive exchange we’ve seen in the family.
His sisters Shirley and Theodora follow closely in another car. You’re hoping they get as much out of the drive as their dad and bro are. Instead, communication breaks down. Theo opens up, but Shirley can’t get past her own anger. An apology. A recoil. Then, an argument erupts, and just as the fight reaches a frenzy, it happens. Nellie appears in the car, scaring the living shit out of Theo, Shirley and I.
What’s so good about this scare? Well, we were disarmed. The drive takes almost the whole episode up, and we’ve just seen two other characters talk nice on the road. With this setup, pretty much any loud noise or flash of grotesquery would spike your heart rate. But Flanagan continues to pack as much narrative, emotional and thematic resonance into the jump as he can. Nellie has been trying to call out to her siblings from the other side, but no one can hear her. Or maybe they don’t want to. But this time she yells so loud it’s deafening. Shirley and Theo swerve to the side of the road, and eventually keep arguing, but now they’re really talking. Then what do we get? A monologue. A Flanagonologue. Gut wrenching and wet with tears.
“A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory. A daydream. A secret. Grief. Anger. Guilt. Most times, a ghost is a wish.”
Steven tells us this in the first episode of the series — it’s his rationale for believing ghosts aren’t real. By the show's end, this line reads more like an affirmation than a denial. And that’s the bit of Flanagan’s philosophy that makes his work in horror so affecting. Sure, the ghost itself is scary. But so is the memory. So is the secret. A ghost is the way you feel when you aren’t seen or heard. It draws Nellie to her tragic death. These ghosts are real, and more than that, they’re opportunities primed for horror that is rich in narrative, thematic, emotional and philosophical meaning. All of these things can be stacked, interwoven, pulled apart, stretched and snapped. They’re all rubber bands. But in Hill House, when those rubber bands snap after being stretched across ten hours, and it’s 4 AM and you and your roommate just screamed then cried then cried some more, they’re re-tied. And that catharsis hits just as hard as the scares.
Written by Roberto Ramirez