One of my favorite ghost stories is Oliver Assayas’s 2016 film, Personal Shopper. In it, a woman named Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart) searches for a way to contact her deceased twin brother while working as a personal shopper for a famous actress.
Why is it one of my favorite ghost stories? Because, at its core, it’s an intensely human story. It’s the kind of film that uses its supernatural elements to further elevate the core plot and character dynamics at its core.
The best horror movies are the ones that understand humanity. I don’t mean just on a superficial level; I mean films that genuinely understand what fear is and why we feel it. These kinds of films help grasp the abstract concept that is “fear” and helps put a face to it; more importantly, it explores these feelings in unique, complex ways.
This is part of the reason why Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House is so effective. Not only does it have some creepy moments (in fact, every episode of the show has at least one big horror set piece that is sure to make your skin crawl), its cast of characters, and the story of lingering trauma it is telling make this more than a simple ghost story. This series isn’t just about doors creaking and apparitions floating in the periphery of the camera lens; this is a difficult exploration of how trauma can affect children, even long after they have been removed from a toxic environment.
This is nothing new for Mike Flanagan’s work, either. While I have not been the biggest fan of his work, I have always respected his continuous effort to inject mature storytelling into the horror genre, which (thanks to franchises like The Conjuring) is becoming more juvenile every year. His stories are, as I put it earlier, intensely human.
You can notice this in the way he constructs every moment of this show (he directed all 10 episodes); the majority of his jump-scares are well crafted and representative of the childlike lens through which we are viewing them. The ghosts are grotesque and terrifying, but their design and their purpose are directly reflective of the struggles this family is going through. Ghosts are not used simply as antagonists in this show; they are visualizations of trauma.
It’s this kind of maturity and precise storytelling that we need in horror. We are seeing it more often (The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, It Comes At Night, etc.). However, I am hopeful that the success of Flanagan’s series gives other filmmakers the inspiration they need to tell different kinds of stories that have more tact, depth, and meaning.