When Is A Ghost Not A Ghost?

The Haunting of Hill House, which dropped on Netflix shortly before Halloween, is an amazing achievement, and not because of the scary elements (of which there are many).

Matching the show’s duelling timelines – now and then – it’s gone back to the past, to the age of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, when horror was made for grown-ups, with deep themes and symbolism, where the supernatural was a metaphor for real-world concerns.

And after so many years of dumb, funfair ride horror, it was so refreshing to discover something that had real depth.

What is The Haunting of Hill House about?  Not ghosts, not really.  They sweep by on the surface, terrifying and driving the plot, but it’s what they really mean that is truly horrifying.

A be-hatted spectral figure whose face can never be seen, always a few steps behind you – that’s a scary image.  But as a symbol of addiction, that honestly makes the blood run cold.  Depression, mental illness, family breakdown, childhood trauma, these are the ghosts that really haunt Hill House – and that is why the series is so affecting.  Emotional – sad, uplifting – rather than just creepy.

It talks about the human, not the supernatural.

I could go on at length about Mike Flanagan’s tour-de-force.  It’s a show that people will be talking about for ages, because of that meaning and depth married to a chilling tale.

Some complain about the ending.  I think it’s perfect for a series that is a drama about people.  It’s all a matter of perception, which is one of the themes The Haunting of Hill House plays with so effectively.

And it has an attention to detail in its construction that you rarely see in a tale in this genre (which these days producers cynically think is there for a not particularly discerning audience).  The layering of the mystery, the resonances that leap back and forth across the entire series, the excellent performances (particularly from the three female leads who knock it out of the park in their individual story episodes), these are things you usually find in TV dramas aimed at, well, discerning viewers.

Let’s talk about Mike Flanagan’s amazing direction in the ‘single-take’ (really five takes) episode six.  Or that attention to detail in the clockwork story construction. Ponder for a moment the discarded ‘sinister’ ending and why that choice was made.

But mostly praise the decision to reclaim horror for all those people who prefer a little meat on old bones.

Unconvention 2010: Forteana And Fiction

Thanks to the people at Fortean Times magazine, here’s a recording of the panel I was on at this year’s Unconvention in London, alongside Adam Nevill, Natasha Mostert and host Nick Cirkovic. We talk about ghosts, night terrors, our experiences of the paranormal and writing.

Empty Houses

Every area has its share of eccentric characters. When I used to drive past a row of old, rambling family houses on the run in to my local town, I’d nearly always see an old lady out at the front in all weathers, pruning her roses and trimming her hedge, or turning over the soil with a rusty spade. She had wild hair and wore a threadbare cardigan that was several sizes too large for her. Most people round here recognised her, even if they didn’t know her name. Suddenly she wasn’t there any more, and word filtered out that she’d passed on, been found in her bath by someone or other. Those houses are huge. Most get turned into flats these days, part of that modern, dismal attrition which strips the aesthetic out of provincial towns and turns them into the merely functional.

Some friends of mine with a large family were looking for a new home. They trawled through all the bigger houses in their price bracket around town, including the one that had belonged to the eccentric woman. Afterwards, the mum asked her four-year-old which one he preferred. He replied that he liked the one where the old lady was smiling at him from the bath.

The Death Of The Ghost

A few weeks back I wrote how our increasingly rational society was behind the growth of fantasy as people sought out their irrationality fix. Some people wrote to decry any idea that we were getting more rational, citing everything from medievalist religious views to the growth of New Age-ism.

But when the Society for Psychical Research starts to get worried, you know you’re on pretty firm ground. According to the SPR’s Tony Cornell, reports of ghost sightings have declined from two a week to none at all in just a few years. The SPR bizarrely blames it on the rise of mobile phone usage – read the article, I’m not going to begin to explain the ‘science’.

But the interesting thing is, the number of ghost sightings has remained pretty constant for centuries, according to Cornell. And now…nothing.