Our pal Mickster's "Post-childhood" traumafession regarding THE STRANGERS got me thinking about all the movies that rattled my own bearings as an adult. There are more than a few to choose from but my mind keeps flipping back to the 1991 T.V. movie THE HAUNTED (thanks largely to THE CONJURING dredging it up no doubt!) I realize I have already confessed to this particular trauma in our comments section but I thought it might be interesting for me to examine, in closer detail, just how and why a modest TV production got under my skin in a way that many seemingly more likely films failed.
Hopefully a big takeaway from this site is the understanding that different people are scared by different things; one person's meat is another's poison, there's no accounting for taste and perhaps a zillion factors come into play (life experience, timing, mood) that are impossible to gauge. Some try to attach value judgments on scares (gore and jump shocks are lowly as slow burns and subtlety are lofty) but these after the fact assessments mean nothing when the lights go out. Which isn't to say I don't have a favorite type of scare...
My preferred scare is when you realize too late that you've popped a hole in the movie (and or book) and it's currently leaking all over you. Holy crap, something has changed in the space you're in and the genie is way too fat to fit back in the bottle! I'm talking about movies (and or books) acting up like Ouija boards and those dreaded intangible guests who won't take a hint and vamoose. How could I go to sleep after watching THE HAUNTED when the swirly black mass that inhabited the movie could, at any second, materialize before me? I'm an adult and I'm rational. That means I've got plenty of legitimate sounding excuses for being freaked out by THE HAUNTED.
1. It was late at night.
Nonexistent scientists estimate that it takes countless dozens of conscious brains to keep the walls of reality standing firm. The more sleeping brains you have in your neighborhood the more likely it is that a wily, interdimensional entity might take advantage of the weakened barriers and slide through. Moreover, watching scary movies, reading about Bigfoot on the Internet and/or dabbling in ghost hunting shows, no matter their level of ridiculousness, acts like a magnet to these creatures. You are basically making yourself a lighthouse in the fog. Through years of research I have learned that the closest you can get to supernatural entertainment after 2 am while still remaining safe is SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH.
2. It's based on a true story.
Adorable as it may seem now, prior to the release of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake, the term "based on a true story" still held some small bit of weight with me. The family depicted in THE HAUNTED was a real family. They went on talk shows and tainted their existences delivering their tale of ghostly woe. If they were crazy, I found small comfort in that. If you are a ghost (or a demon)I don't care if your return address is heaven, hell or my sick head, the point is you need to leave. I guess I could hope the family was lying but that would mean the grandma was lying too! Lying grandmothers are scarier than ghosts. I can't win.
3. KIRKLAND sold it.
I'm no aficionado of thespian pursuits and I pity the horror fan that is, that's asking for a whole lot of pain. On the other hand, if you look at truly successful works in the genre they are almost always strongly connected with at least one sterling, performance. Although they are rarely properly acknowledged, they are often the galvanizing glue that holds the entire shebang together (I started a list of examples but boy, did it go on.) I have to hand it to SALLY KIRKLAND in THE HAUNTING if for no other reason than that she made me believe her. (This cannot be said about her performance in FATAL GAMES). I'm not saying I'm going to run out and start a fan club or anything, I'm just saying that against some serious odds she convinces you of her genuine turmoil. No matter the authenticity of the actual story, within the confines of the teleplay , KIRKLAND is telling the truth.
4. It played upon my pariah complex
STEPHEN KING tagged some of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR's angst power on relatable "economic unease" and I'm so right there with him on that. But I have to point out an infrequently sung about undercurrent that tends to hitch a ride on "true story" haunted house tales â€“ the fear of being ostracized by one's community and (so frequently in these stories) rejected or failed by one's church. Families that do the right thing, care for each other and mind their P's and Q's suddenly find themselves outsiders unable to reach the base goal of belonging. They are for unknown reasons unwelcome to buy into the suburban dream and eventually must abandon everything they've worked for and move on, usually to a place where similar (but of less interest to the public) events occur. Apparently ghosts do more than turn your hair white, they have a way of making you feel homeless in your own home and shunned by your own community. Boo!
5. That weird shadow thing gets to me!
Who would guess that an amorphous, black splotch of roving something or other could upstage THE HAUNTED's signature raped by a face-morphing hag demon under a disco strobe light scene? (Yes, I really just wrote that sentence.) But upstage the hag rape the undefined darkness does indeed do! (And that one too!) Fabrication or not, a nebulous cloud perpetually on the brink of transforming into something your mind doesn't realize it's horrified by yet is scary stuff. Besides forcing you to stare like a slack jawed idiot trying to attach some known shape or meaning to it, the inky entity additionally reeks of something too familiar- that blank slate of apprehension we've all stumbled upon in the dark, the instant before we're able to recognize what it is before us. (Huh?)
I don't know what it is but I know I don't like it. It drives me crazy because it's a traveling stain! It looks like a cross between a Rorschach test and the faceless being that rummages through my recycling bin every Tuesday night! According to the story, this merciless tear in sanity's pants will even follow you when you go camping! Light-hearted marshmallow roasting will not dissuade it! It can walk through walls! It can appear anyplace at any time! I didn't even mention the noise it makes! It sounds like a pig in a garbage disposal!
6. My guard was down.
I am a co-conspirator! I was happy to find something of interest on TV and I was completely open to it. I wasn't thinking, "This better be good!" I didn't scrutinize its every move and I didn't look down on it. I wasn't trying to use the movie to validate myself as an astute critic or a super fan. Forming an opinion was not my #1 priority and I was engrossed in the movie rather than myself. It's like in THE BREAKFAST CLUB when ALLY SHEEDY is all, "Why are you being so nice to me?" and MOLLY RINGWALD is all, "Because you're letting me." The biggest reason this movie freaked me out is that I let it.