Feb 16, 2022

I DON'T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS WITHOUT YOU: THE COMFORT AND CONSOLEMENT OF SAD AND SCARY CINEMA

I’m a sad person by nature. 

I always have been, even as far back as when I was a child unable to notice or identify the brood I carried for what it was. I wouldn't become acutely aware of it until I entered high school, the age at which, I believe, we begin to properly articulate those kinds of emotions for the first time through meeting other people who carry their own melancholy and with whom we’re able to find commonality in silent suffering; there was a comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone and that other people bore similar burdens.

I don’t know what causes that kind of sadness. Perhaps it’s undiagnosed depression or some other mental malady I don’t have the fortitude to psychoanalyze, though this unofficial self-diagnosis is supported by my constant feelings of inadequacy and paranoia that can often worsen my ability to fully trust those closest to me. Or perhaps I’m just a gloomy person too easily weighed down by the miseries of this world and unable to counteract that misery with all the goodness that’s purported to live here, too, with my feelings of inadequacy and paranoia the effect of simply having been burned by too many people I trusted too many times. Whatever the cause, others who feel this way sometimes say it can be a struggle to even get out of bed in the morning. Though I’ve never experienced that particular hurdle, I can attest there have been mornings when I’ve stood in my bedroom only to remain there, unmoving, staring at the wall and wondering if anything I was going to do that day was worth getting up for in the first place, disillusioned by the notion there wasn’t a single thing on the horizon to look forward to.

I often wonder what other people who think and feel this way try to do about it. A person inundated by constant gloom either external or internal may find ways to neutralize it, perhaps by gathering with loved ones or spending meditative time alone to immerse in their therapeutic artforms of choice, be it films, stories, or music, either as audience or creator. It’s easy to assume those therapies would be light and bubbly in their design, free of the heaviness and consequence that can weigh down someone’s reality. After all, when an infant or toddler is crabby or sad, we make funny faces or say silly words; we vanquish those negative emotions through sheer but shallow will — a band-aid on a bad moment that the inflicted doesn’t quite understand. Similarly, an adult, after a bad day, may come home, crack a beer, and click on one of their favorite comedies in hopes of having a laugh or two and chasing away the day’s hardships. Sometimes, for those people, that’s enough to lighten the load.

I can’t do this. I’ve tried it in the past, but the humor and escape that come from these kinds of dalliances are fleeting. That’s not to say I’m some humorless grump who grimaces at the nearest sign of levity as those around me laugh in unity because I adore comedy as an artform; finding a conduit toward laughter is a vital part of this existence, and there are titles I revisit with loyalty when I’m in the mood for a ridiculous cackle session. (In case you were wondering, The Brady Bunch Movie totally holds up and Jennifer Elise Cox’s take on Jan is genius — how’s that for random?) It’s just that, once the credits roll, all of that emotional oppression flows back in to reappropriate the stake it’s previously claimed. Instead, to corral the demons that prowl my subconscious streets, I lean into my sadness by exploring the sadness of others, or the sadness they conjure with their creations. Because there’s catharsis there, or validation, or the comforting communal acknowledgment that, yes, sometimes life just isn’t fulfilling. Sometimes life is scary, or isolating, or frustrating, or can feel entirely without hope and purpose — especially nowadays in the year 2020: Part 3. Sometimes you can surround yourself with family and friends and still feel alone, and sometimes the crushingness of life can feel so constant that it’s easy to believe relief will never come. So instead, you turn to a sad story to help you shoulder that burden, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. For me, finding ways to emotionally unload the bad mojo that shores up over time has become a new and at-times necessary component to an old and well-established pastime. I used to watch horror for the fear, thrills, and occasional silliness it offered, and though I still look to titles new and old for those things, I now also look to horror for a different kind of release.

Grappling with my sadness has enhanced real-world fears I’ve always had, or created new ones never before considered until my aging awareness looped them into the fold. My brain antagonizes me on the daily, reminding me that all the things I’m scared of are an inescapable inevitability. On some days, it seems as if my brain can’t wait to bully me with these reminders, springing up out of nowhere when I’m mentally occupied on the other side of the room. On some nights, when I’m asleep, my dreams mutate into nightmares and flood with the kinds of images and themes I do my best to evict from my conscious thinking. As each day passes, I become more and more aware I’m getting older, which means everyone else around me is getting older, too. And as these passing days become months and years, I’m haunted with the knowledge that, eventually, I’ll have to say goodbye to them all — these people who have always been part of my life, who make up the crucial elements that give life its own definition. Living with death isn’t just suffering from someone’s permanent absence, but it’s also living forever with the change it brings, from the intensive to the every-day mundane. For whatever reason, I already seem to be suffering those absences before even having lost those closest to me. When I think of my life now, and how massively heavy it can sometimes feel, I then morbidly measure what that life is going to be like once those people are gone, and I wonder how I’m going to navigate life without them. And that scares me. A lot.

The concepts of passing time and sad inevitability have infiltrated my writing before, sometimes by design, like comparing a tween kid’s pure excitement for the Halloween series’ first anniversary sequel with 1998’s Halloween: H20 versus an adult’s melancholic look at its second anniversary sequel with 2018’s Halloween, or sometimes those concepts emerge completely by surprise, like in what was supposed to be a mere celebration of Joe Bob Briggs’s storied history and his latest endeavor The Last Drive-In before it began wading into waters dedicated to romantically honoring a long life lived embracing the horror genre. What it proves is these thoughts and fears are always on my mind, and every so often I have to find ways to purge them. I have to take these emotional obsessions and somehow spin them into something positive (and schmaltzy), because otherwise, what good are they doing for me?

Thankfully, for someone like me who prays nightly at the altar of the horror genre, there are so many stories waiting in the wings of cobweb-ridden manors high on their haunted hills to offer a comforting embrace and a crackling hearth to warm myself by after coming in from the rain. In spite of the creaking floorboards and the glimpses of a specter’s face in dark corners and the nightmares that swirl like cemetery mist behind every closed door, it's a place where I feel most at home. It’s a place where every kind of monster, maniac, and murderer can say, “It’s okay. We know. We get it.” And they’ll close that manor door behind me, cutting off the cold winds, sheltering me from the outside miseries, giving me haven to confront the fears and sadness that hound me, and save me from having to face those demons alone. Instead, we do it together — and together, it’s not so bad. 

[Note: The titles for the films and series to follow are mentioned before their spoilers come into play, so the cautious reader has time to skip titles or bail out.]

If there’s such a thing as a cinematic soulmate, my own would be writer/director Mike Flanagan. A fan of his since seeing his indie feature Absentia following its home video release (I messaged him on Facebook to inquire where to find it in our recently post-video-store world and he was kind enough to respond), I’ve made it a point to see every one of his directorial efforts. As someone who has spent an entire life plunging deep into the horror genre, watching the films of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George A. Romero, I can say with confidence that Flanagan has remained the only artist with the capability of scaring me viscerally and existentially while also tugging at my heartstrings. From Oculus and up to Midnight Mass, his films and miniseries have consistently given me the creeps while also bringing me to tears, sometimes with stirring lead-up and sometimes out of nowhere. The shining example is his masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House, which I’d unhesitatingly describe as not just my favorite Flanagan creation and not just my favorite Netflix production, but one of my all-time favorite anythings. It’s one of the very few slices of cinema I both love and fear watching in equal measure, even though I’ve run through the series four times now, due to certain aspects that force me to confront not just being haunted by inescapable emotional loneliness but also the very real possibility that what’s awaiting us on the other side of death is absolutely, positively nothing. 

The Haunting of Hill House is an ambitious and revisionist adaptation that reinvents the characters from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, preserving their core constructions while transforming them into estranged siblings of the Crain family who are brought together following the suicide of their youngest sister, Eleanor (Victoria Pedretti), and who must then confront their family’s tragic and untold history that led to her untimely end. To unearth that mystery, The Haunting of Hill House explores two time periods concurrently; while the past centers around wife and mother Olivia (a devastating Carla Gugino) and her crumbling mental wellness after being gradually infected by the earworms of Hill House’s sadistic ghosts, the present portrays how every Crain was forever changed the night they fled Hill House, and how one of their numbers could no longer carry the weight of the horrors they faced living within its walls. In that present, Crain family patriarch, Hugh (Timothy Hutton), says the family is still being haunted by the hungry supernatural forces of Hill House, while Steven (Michiel Huisman), his oldest and most combative child, lays the blame for the family’s suffering at the feet of mental illness. It’s not that the truth is somewhere in the middle; the truth is it’s both. The novel by Shirley Jackson and the 1963 adaption The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, left the ghosts to the imagination, in some cases suggesting there may be no ghosts at all, and the miniseries maintains that ambiguity to a different but no less substantive degree. Make no mistake: while Flanagan’s Hill House is filled with specters, many of them with horrifying visages, the ambiguity comes into play when deducing how often someone in the Crain family is actually interacting with those walking specters versus the ghostly depictions of their own internal fears, all of which can hide in the night, in the dark, and pounce when they are alone and most vulnerable. In the series’ opening episode that introduces Steven as a writer of “preternatural” phenomenon, even while not believing in it, he explains that ghosts aren’t limited to the spirits of the dead, but are often “...a memory, a daydream, a secret; grief, anger, guilt,” and most times, “...a wish.”

Though every episode contains scary setpieces and emotional moments, the now-famous episode “Two Storms,” primarily assembled from just five unbroken shots across fifty-seven minutes, ingeniously wafts back and forth from present to past — sometimes in one continuous camera movement — from Eleanor’s rain-soaked viewing to the thunderous night she went mysteriously missing in the darkness of Hill House, leaving her family scrambling to find her. In the present, the Crain siblings squabble amongst each other in the funeral home, unable to set aside their personal conflicts even while saying goodbye to their sister, so consumed with their own dramas that they fail to see Eleanor’s bent-neck specter standing just behind them; and meanwhile, in the past, little Nelly (an inexplicably soulful Violet McGraw) is gone — disappeared by Hill House’s malevolence with no one coming to her aid. Whether in the past or the present, Eleanor needs help; she needs her family to see her, hear her, and rescue her from the encroaching dark. “I was right here the whole time. I was right here and I was screaming and shouting and none of you could see me. ... Nobody could see me,'' little Nell says in the past with accusation in her voice and tears on her face once she reappears, standing in the very Hill House foyer where she’d vanished into thin air; these ominous words, a portent of things to come, echo off her open casket in a future she’s mercifully unaware of...or maybe she is. The juxtaposition of young Nell’s words alongside the still form of her lifeless adult counterpart would be enough to shake any attentive viewer, but when watching this scene through my own eyes and processing it with my saboteur mind, the concept of a person needing help — of begging to be listened to but being summarily unheard by those around them — doesn’t just hit close to home; it obliterates the front door on its way in. Though Eleanor suffers the most from her words unheard and her fears dismissed, at some point during the miniseries, every member of the Crain family says the words “I’m fine,” trying to reassure the worried and concerned in their immediate proximity that all is well, but none of them are remotely close. Everyone is fighting their own ghosts and everyone has something they need to say — to the living and the dead. 

Either its own separate beast or possibly intertwined with the storm clouds that live over my head, I don’t know, but I exist in constant fear of death — of my loved ones’ and my eventual own. The rational part of me tries to kick in and assure me I’m still a few years away from my forties and those kinds of fears are premature, but that hardly ever gives me comfort. Friends of mine have already suffered the loss of a parent, and in most cases from specific health issues that had nothing to do with old age, but yet each instance has made me hyper-aware that such things are coming. I try to take comfort in remembering that three of my grandparents made it to their mid-nineties, with my grandfather living until an almost unfathomable 102 years of age, and maybe my family has inherited those longevity genes, but that doesn’t stop me from sometimes bolting upright in the night from a full-on anxiety attack after having allowed the bleakest perceptions of death I consciously keep at arm’s length to get too close. I wrestle with the reality of living without those I love most, but I also wrestle with another possibility that equally plagues me: that death is eternal black, a forever of nothing but perpetual and shackled awareness I’ll never escape. Though every single horror story is about facing mortality in some capacity, I’d never witnessed something which showcased that particular fear like The Haunting of Hill House.

In “Witness Marks,” one of the miniseries’ final episodes, the remaining Crain sisters are driving back to their former childhood home when an ominous and shocking appearance of Nell’s specter causes middle sister Theodora (Kate Siegel) to suffer a mental breakdown where she lays out her ultimate fear: no afterlife, a neverending death, the same forever-nothing by which I’ve been haunted for a long time. Her ensuing monologue is my every fear up there on the screen, presented with stunning specificity and personified with Siegel’s blistering performance. Though it forces me to directly confront this thing I often try not to think about, there’s a solace in knowing many of us grapple with our mortality — at least those of us who don’t believe there’s a shimmering afterlife for us to ascend to, something better than this complicated holding pattern of a world where meaning and happiness can consistently feel out of reach. In the past, I’ve found that engaging with people I know when it comes to these kinds of existential fears sometimes returned unintended belittlement regarding why I’m wrong to fear or believe what I do, so seeing that other people I don’t know out in the world share this fear, either the writer who chose the words or the fictional character who unburdened herself of them, was like being hugged by a stranger. It was a show of empathy in the most unexpected place — on the side of a cold and dark road with knees deep in the muck. It reminded me of the day my family and I were in a fleet of limousines driving to the cemetery to bury my grandmother, and as I happened to look out the window, I saw someone on a bike pull up to the main road and stop, observe the hearse pass by, and make the sign of the cross. This perfect stranger who wished my grandmother well on her final journey has no idea how much that meant to me, let alone that I noticed him at all. Though the aloneness of death and what comes after remains a paralyzing agent for me, moments of compassion even among strangers is a consolation that helps counteract those feelings of futility. (Besides, Flanagan would later offer me hope in 2019’s Doctor Sleep with a single but recurring line: “We don’t end.”)

Another title I love but which gives me pause to revisit is 2018’s Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster, which didn’t just disturb and horrify me in ways no other horror film ever has, but rendered me emotionally catastrophic in ways having nothing to do with spookshow terror. After suffering the accidental and violent death of her young daughter, Annie (Toni Collette), who has already been emotionally on edge following the recent death of her mother, finally has the nervous breakdown she’s been resisting. Her mourning hits her like a freight train as she unleashes indescribable suffering in the face of her loss, but this isn’t the cinematic version of mourning we’ve so often seen. This isn’t someone covering their eyes with the back of their hand and collapsing onto a bed or falling into the arms of someone’s comfort. This is something primal, something brutal, something that cuts in such a way that my first time seeing it left me shell-shocked and feeling like I was seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing, like I’d walked into the wing of the hospital where the dying lay and their families watch, and that’s because when Annie is doubled over in her bedroom, her body convulsing, her arms splayed across the floor in front of her, sobbing and screaming in anguish at the top of her lungs that she just wants to die because of how much it hurts...I believed her. Grief had never before been portrayed in such a way, not in any genre, because this is what true grief looks like. It’s unhinged, ugly, honest, and raw; it escapes from us without grace, and without that dramatic filter that can so often make on-screen grief look phony and melodramatic.

Capping this sequence is the fluid movement of the camera, the protective surrogate for an audience that’s been caught off guard by this animalistic show of pain, which slowly pans out of the room to give those of us witnessing this moment a reprieve. We’ve trespassed on the most intimate moment a mother could suffer, and either from that impulse to show respect and decency or to preserve our own mental homeostasis, the camera guides us away and leaves Annie to her sorrow. Hereditary offers more than a handful of horrifying moments, from standard supernatural to shocking sadism, but for me, there was no scene more terrifying than a fly’s-eye view of a person’s genuine anguish. It’s the uneasiest thing I could ever think to witness again, but I’m grateful it’s there now, burned permanently into my memory and cinema history, because in a medium used for make-believe, that moment was true, and ugly or not, the truth is crucial. The truth makes us human. 

Though not strictly horror, and perhaps barely touching its hand (it does have a monster, so give me a break), 2016’s A Monster Calls holds the dubious honor of being the first and only film I’ve ever seen that had me spilling tears in its first thirty seconds, during which twelve-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougal) is peering at the grave of his not-yet-dead mother (Felicity Jones) in a cemetery that begins collapsing in on itself; soon, that grave becomes a vortex, sucking her in, leaving her unseen except for her flailing hands grabbing at his, putting on him the unimaginable burden of trying to save her from a very decided fate. Free from this nightmare and back in Conor’s waking world, his terminal mother is still alive, though her time is running out, and in that waking world, there’s no hope. No miracle cure will save her, and the power of love won’t be enough to snatch her from the brink for a happy storybook ending. To rid himself of this pain, Conor repeatedly escapes into a fantasy world inhabited by an ancient, massive yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) who offers to tell him three stories…with the caveat that Conor must tell him the fourth — not one of princes and kingdoms, but one containing the very ugly truth Conor has been denying.

A Monster Calls, director J.A. Bayona’s remarkable adaptation of the novel by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who died of the same illness featured in the film before she could turn her concept into a finished product, uses on-screen depictions of fantastical art and storytelling as a means of coping with the death of a parent, and though it was conceived for young readers, it doesn’t wear kids’ gloves when presenting the trauma inflicted and the cross-generational impact on those left behind. A young child losing a parent is, of course, a tragedy, but a parent losing a child, which flies in the face of natural order, is equally tragic, and that’s what A Monster Calls explores. Given its themes and its dark but gentle approach, it’s essential viewing for the same young age group to whom its novel was targeted, and made with the same daring spirit as The Neverending Story and Where the Wild Things Are. Like other stories where fantasy and reality collide, A Monster Calls shows real-world aspects infiltrating Conor’s land of escape, brought to life with beautiful watercolor characters and backgrounds, but with sly symbolism that remains unacknowledged, from the blink-and-miss-it cameo by Liam Neeson in a family photograph as Conor’s departed grandfather to the yew tree he voices, which is known both for its healing properties as well as its potentially poisonous ones…like those in the cancer drugs coursing through the veins of Conor’s mother. Though A Monster Calls is assembled using purposeful fairytale tropes, its narrative is informed by the real world that exists in millions of gray shades, where there is no such thing as all-the-way good or bad, nor definitive right or wrong. Eventually, fantasy and denial crumble, leaving nothing stable to cling to, forcing Conor back into the real world to embrace that complicated balance, accept there is no escape from hard truths and tremendous pain, and understand that what he feels and what he does are very different things. 

Also starring the genre’s beloved Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother, portrayed as the archetypal evil-ish queen of fairytale lore until her own grief is finally realized, this allegory packaged in escapism and fantasy offers every real kid in the throes of losing a parent, with all the very complicated emotions that come from that, an invaluable lesson they should hear and take to heart: they’ve done nothing wrong, it’s not their fault, and whatever they’re thinking and feeling is perfectly normal. (I’d also recommend 2017’s kindred I Kill Dragons, starring The Conjuring 2’s Madison Wolfe as the child in mourning, which explores the same escapist themes in comparably emotional ways.) 

Had I been told before having watched 2008’s Lake Mungo that it wasn’t a very clever and authentically made narrative film but a bonafide documentary, I might’ve believed it – that what I was seeing was a genuinely mourning family’s true account of their loss of daughter and sister, Alice (Talia Zucker), and their subsequent haunting by her spirit. Written and directed by the elusive Joel Anderson, Lake Mungo is presented not as your usual found-footage compilation, but an after-the-fact sit-down documentary regarding the Palmer family’s strange experiences in their home following Alice’s drowning at a holiday outing. There are enough spooky images and moments scattered throughout to properly offer a creepy experience, but Lake Mungo isn’t interested in being outwardly horrific. It doesn’t ride on the kind of hardcore scares essayed by other similar fake-o documentaries like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, and for long stretches at a time it’s not even a horror film, but that’s because it’s more interested in chilling, atmospheric, and lingering unease.

Equal parts ghost story, true-crime mystery, and every-day drama, Lake Mungo effectively depicts the Palmer family (the surname being an ode to Twin Peaks, which also deals with the mysterious death of a young girl) as they come to terms with never having known Alice as well as they’d always thought, with this conflict especially exemplified by the relationship with her mother, June (Rosie Traynor). Even in the face of Alice’s spooky appearances around the house, in grainy video footage or photographs, Lake Mungo, really, is about regret, how those regrets manifest, and how those manifestations can alter one’s perception of reality. While June has the luxury of offering her measured and carefully curated regrets directly to us, the camera and the viewer, Alice’s own regrets are shared in different posthumous ways, making them scattershot, hazy, and ambiguous in their meaning. But during the finale when the offered words of mother and daughter finally mingle, overlain to retroactively have that conversation long overdue, the pain of regret and missed opportunities comes through, ultimately making Lake Mungo as mournful an experience as a mysterious one. As the film comes to a close, even while still revealing more secrets, the smallest part of you might believe what you’ve seen is real — because if just a fraction of your brain allows for the existence of magic, it could’ve been — and that’s far more frightening than any witch in the woods. 

Having assembled these particular titles revealed a completely unintended brotherhood between them, all of which cement the universal themes of death, grief, and loss that many of us will inevitably experience throughout our lives and the ways in which we’ll deal with those experiences. A Monster Calls leans symbolically on storytelling as a means of passing on our spiritual essence to our lineage, but it’s also about the fiction we follow to fool ourselves when we can’t reckon with the reality. “Stories are wild creatures,” the yew tree explains. “When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?” The Haunting of Hill House is more direct, having Olivia comfort young Shirley (Lulu Wilson) as she buries her perished kitten by encouraging her to eulogize her loss, explaining, “When we die, we turn into stories, and every time someone tells one of our stories, it’s like we’re still here for them. We’re all stories in the end.” The Haunting of Hill House links to Lake Mungo in its depiction of a young girl with a need to tell her family who she really is while fleeing the fear that lives within her shadow, and who is also being haunted by premonitions of her own walking death — Nell’s bent-neck lady and Alice’s cell phone footage, which somehow captures a foretelling of the crime scene photo presenting her barely recognizable cadaver’s face. Lake Mungo and Hereditary share the concepts of secrets revealed by someone’s death, from their inward suffering to their outward show of influence and dominance, from the emotional ties that bind to the nefarious harm they can still do even in death. But really, all four titles, from the dramatically driven A Monster Calls to the cynically sadistic Hereditary, present the nature of grief and how it can transform a family, for better or worse. Their commonality isn’t just death, but the way it ripples across generations and how it can lead to rot and ruin when not confronted and reconciled with the reverence it deserves. 

“Why horror?” gets asked a lot, by critics, scholars, audiences, and fans. Generally, that curiosity comes from wanting to know why we willingly subject ourselves to images that cause fear and revulsion — things, in any other situation or venue, we spend a lifetime trying to avoid. In response, it’s been repeatedly said, so often that it’s become a cliché, that horror films are rollercoaster rides, and we buy a ticket to ride because we want to feel that rush of fear and excitement. Wes Craven said horror films are boot camp for the psyche and there is something contained within those ghastly images and concepts that’s necessary for our psychological wellness. John Carpenter often said that horror is the most unifying genre of them all, in that what scares you is what scares me, that we’re all afraid at some point during our lives, that fear will be the first and last sensation we ever feel. Every genre has its own motives and characteristics, but horror is the most honest of all because once you peel away its surreal and sensational layers, it presents, bravely, what’s in store for us, either during the formation of our lives or at their very ends. It shows us the pain we’ll endure, the lives we’ll lose, and the moments we’ll fear. Though it may be filled with all the ghosts and goblins we’re told from a young age don’t exist, horror also shows us the reality that lives behind them. It shows us there are certain things, in spite of the otherworldly imagery, we should believe — and belief, like Conor O’Malley says in A Monster Calls, is half of all healing. 

Cinematic horror has been haunting the world for a hundred years. It’s conjured demons into our nightmares, ghosts into our houses, and boogeymen into our lexicon. But it also gave us a scene where one mourning sibling says goodbye to another who now walks in between worlds: 

“I don't know how to do this without you,” says Luke Crain in the final moments of The Haunting of Hill House

“I learned a secret,” the departed Eleanor responds. “There's no without. I am not gone. I'm scattered into so many pieces, sprinkled on your life like new snow.” 

Horror can be repulsive at times, but it can also rejuvenate the soul. It’s the light that disinfects the darkness. If those outsiders who ask “why horror?” can’t understand the concept of wanting to be scared, they’d be downright baffled by someone wanting to be scared and saddened by an outcast genre with the power to do both. For them, horror is disposable. 

But I couldn’t live without it.