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American Gothic

On Netflix, the haunted house gets saged

I do not believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. Why should the dead hang around? They’ve got other things to do. But that spaces hold onto something seems self-evident—some events can leave scars and stretch marks on them, as it were, in the way that walking through a doorway can cause you to forget what you came for, and walking back to where you started can remind you. A good haunted house story knows how to suggest the difference between haunting and spectral visitation, how to say that haunted houses, like haunted people, become so through an accumulation of events, usually bad ones, in a single place.

Beginning with The Haunting of Hill House in 2018—loosely related to Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name—Netflix has greenlit and adapted three classic haunted house novels: Hill House, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (as The Haunting of Bly Manor), and, finally, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. These all, as it happens, have definitive film adaptations: Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. But Hitchcock aside, it’s fair to say that most people encounter these stories first as books.

While the two Haunting shows are the products of horror auteur Mike Flanagan (Bly Manor less so than Hill House), and Rebecca is directed by Ben Wheatley (a folk horror veteran turning his hand to gothic romance), the new adaptations nonetheless share several traits. They all have a certain clean, cool color palette. (When I watched the trailer for Wheatley’s Rebecca with my mother, we both immediately remarked how much it looked like Netflix’s The Crown.) Everybody is beautiful and—unless explicitly written as addicts—only dysfunctional in the normal human ways: through lying, emotional distance, infidelity, and so on. They all lack the sense, pervasive in the originals, that something could be wrong with a person in a deeper, unfixable way, the kind of gnawing loneliness that the women in each book are ruled by.

Transforming one gothic masterpiece into a feel-good story looks like carelessness; transforming three looks like an exorcism.

But most importantly, all three have happy endings, a quality that neither the books nor their most famous adaptations share. The governess in The Turn of the Screw kills one of her charges, but the children come out of Bly Manor quite alive and not particularly emotionally shaken thanks to their governess’s self-sacrificial love. Hill House is transformed from a dark, manipulative force into a way of doing an end run around mortality and death: If you die in the house, your ghost has to stay, so why not arrange your affairs accordingly and dwell forever with your loved ones? Rebecca ends with an ode to the power of transformative love, its nameless heroine helping to clear her husband of murder; he actually committed the murder, but that’s not important. As the saying goes: transforming one gothic masterpiece into a feel-good story looks like carelessness; transforming three looks like an exorcism. What’s going on?

Part of the answer surely lies in how much easier it is to get something made if it’s an existing intellectual property. Evan Romansky, the script writer behind Netflix’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel Ratched, has said that he wrote the first version of the script in 2016 and “was, at the time, just trying to write something that would get me representation. I really set out to find some intellectual property that I could put my own spin on, that representatives would recognize the title and at least just read it.” Ratched makes no sense as a prequel (and barely makes any sense on its own terms, it must be said). But its incoherence doesn’t really matter: it has brand name recognition. You could make a new swoony gothic romance involving a man with a dark past—you could even simply choose a new book to adapt—but it wouldn’t be Rebecca, a work firmly established in the bookish girl adolescent’s canon. Bly Manor makes itself thick with allusions to James’s work and other adaptations (including, strangely, The Nightcomers, 1971’s trashy bondage take on The Turn of the Screw), such that the absence of any Jamesian sensibility is camouflaged. The Haunting of Hill House would lose almost nothing in becoming a wholly original story, except a built-in audience.

But IP can only be part of the story. If it’s easier to sell adaptations of known properties than original work, there is still the question of why these stories, this way. Adapting The Turn of the Screw and leaving both the children alive at the end is a choice that IP alone can’t really explain.

Of course, there are happy haunted house stories; Beetlejuice comes to mind. There are cozy ghosts and feral ghosts and sexy ghosts and everything in between. But the three books discussed in this essay all share certain qualities. They are paranoid masterpieces. Their ghosts never have anything so lofty as a motivation or clear reality. And they are all narrated to us by “extra” women, of ambiguous class position and dim prospects: governesses, spinsters who have spent their adult years caring for a parent, ladies’ companions. Two of them do not even have names.

These women have survived by cultivating within themselves a toxic dependency—they are vines that cover the trees which give them shape, sometimes with fatal results. They are sensitive to the atmosphere of the houses they dwell in because they understand the house knows they are fair game, but also because they and the house have this kind of dependency in common.

Let’s go back to Rebecca, which is only arguably a haunted house story, since its ghosts really are psychological. Its premise is that our nameless, painfully socially conscious narrator falls in love with an older widower, Maximilian de Winter, who doesn’t treat her very kindly. Once they arrive, newlywed, at his family estate, Manderley, she discovers that the touch of his mysteriously deceased first wife seems to remain on everything. Things in the house either remain precisely as she arranged them or, as in the case of her rooms, are sealed up like a kind of memorial. Clearly, her husband still pines for his perfect lost wife.

Already prone to thinking that everybody is mocking her behind her back, our narrator goes round the bend altogether, only to discover that Maxim killed Rebecca and never loved her. Overjoyed by this discovery, she comes into her own in the marriage, asserting her authority over the household servants and standing by him when he’s accused of the murder. Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s personal attendant, retaliates by burning Manderley down. Maxim is reduced to a broken-down man, and his wife flourishes as his nursemaid and secret-holder.

It’s hard to get people today to admit they really do want what’s bad for them, unless that thing comes in the form of drugs or alcohol.

In the novel Rebecca, you are thoroughly brought into the new wife’s mood: paranoid, jumpy, constantly looking for signs she isn’t measuring up. Maxim’s mix of forward come-ons and complete emotional distance makes the basis of her attraction to him clear; she can only ever disappoint him, even though pleasing him should be simple. In the book, that Maxim is not very physically intimate with her is made clear through how much our narrator resents people who she thinks wonder if she’s pregnant. In the Hitchcock movie, we never see the couple kiss, except briefly in memory, until after our narrator finds out the truth.

Ben Wheatley, the director of the new Rebecca, has commented that he views Rebecca as a story about privileged people getting away with murder. In an interview with Polygon, he stated that “the proper version of this movie is much more like a Miss Marple thing where Maxim de Winter is led off in handcuffs and the star of it is really Danvers, who’s like a detective.” Yet Wheatley’s Rebecca is all sunshine. If it was meant to be a cynical black comedy, the comic notes are hard to find. The second Mrs. de Winter, played by Lily James, is attractive and certainly more independently spirited than Hitchcock’s Joan Fontaine. Her relations, physical and otherwise, with Maxim (Armie Hammer) are easy. It’s not really clear why she becomes so paranoid when she arrives at Manderley, since Maxim continues to be open and affectionate, and it’s also not clear that she’s precisely the kind of woman for whom violence would be attractive. Like everybody else in Wheatley’s Rebecca, Maxim included, she’s far too self-actualized to end up in the situation she winds up in. It’s hard to imagine Armie Hammer not simply divorcing his wife before things got to the point of murder. Maxim avoids divorce because he fears scandal, but Hammer projects too much self-assuredness for this to seem like sufficient motivation. (Given recent news about Hammer’s alleged proclivities, it’s surprising he can’t make Maxim seem at least a little sinister.)

Rebecca is a compelling story partly because it’s about wanting what’s bad for us, about being smothered by beauty and cultivating poisonous devotion. It is a story of intense sensuality that ushers you into its swooning, perfumed paranoia without giving you a chance to breathe healthier air. It gives discomfort with the existence of the past a name. Twilight, one of the novel’s many trashier grandchildren, understands at least that this is a story about unhealthy cravings and pursuits.

But it’s hard to get people today to admit they really do want what’s bad for them, unless that thing comes in the form of drugs or alcohol. They can confidently say they’d never crave sacrificing their sense of self-worth on the altar of an adored other: not because the urge is gone, but mostly because we’re better liars now, made clever by therapy or at least its pop culture simulacrum—people who can thrill to Rebecca but not reproduce it. Even an attempt as weak as Twilight had to be accompanied by years of handwringing over whether or not the story was bad for girls. That being bad for you was the point seemed to be unsayable.

It’s really never clear what happened to make the house in The Haunting of Hill House what it is, though the Netflix miniseries tries by implying it has something to do with a dead baby. In The Turn of the Screw, the suggestion is that the ghosts of the previous gardener and governess haunt the premises, and particularly the children. There is a bare whisper of a suggestion not that the children were molested precisely, but that they were perhaps exposed to sexuality too early. Already deep in her conviction that the children are contaminated by some wicked force, their new governess exclaims at one point that the children “haven’t been good—they’ve only been absent.” Part of the story’s bitterness is that it’s not at all clear her belief that the children are haunted, even if only psychologically, by these past servants and their sudden deaths, is false. It is just that she is unable to see that she is hurting the children, too. Neither sweeping things under the rug nor her fevered purification are going to work.

In Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw, the past is the realm of the unspoken and unbearable; it is constantly, oppressively, bearing down on the naïve interlopers who thought they could just show up amidst all this history without having to learn it. And much like Rebecca dramatizes our desire for what hurts us, The Turn of the Screw dramatizes a broken relationship to the past itself—the conviction we can either ignore it or fix it, rather than trying to understand the present it created. If one could cut the infection out from the children, then maybe that would be a kind of solution, even if it killed them. But if the past can’t be fixed, what would we gain from paying attention to it? Things happened, but they’re over now. Best to proceed as if they didn’t happen at all.

The Haunting of Bly Manor presupposes that you can, in fact, fix the past, at least insofar as it affects the present. In Flanagan’s adaptation, nearly all of the horrors can be traced to a single very irritated, very murderous ghost who lives in the manor’s lake. This ghost is not too hard to avoid—she walks the same route every time she comes out of the lake and will only kill you if you happen to be directly in her way—but eventually she kidnaps one of the children to take down into the lake with her. To save her charge, the governess, Dani, heroically invites the ghost to possess her permanently, freeing both the children and the manor. But carrying the ghost becomes too much over the years, and she ultimately returns to Bly to drown herself. The children do not remember her, or indeed anything from this period of their lives. By taking the past upon herself, Dani has freed them from the burden of understanding it.

What kind of ghost story tends toward resolution?

The pop culture product Mike Flanagan’s television shows most closely resemble are the many seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. (Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn the short pitch for the Haunting shows was “American Horror Story, but tasteful.”) But Murphy’s show makes the decision to root many of the ghosts and horrors of its plots in actual history, with, it has to be said, mixed results. Its third season, Coven, starts out by examining the horrors of slavery but somehow ends in a supernatural race war in which we are meant to root for the white witches.

Far be it from me to suggest that people who prefer Flanagan’s restraint to Murphy’s extravagant tastelessness are completely mistaken. Even when it’s good, American Horror Story is often proudly stupid. And Murphy has turned out too many howlers of his own, including, recently, on Netflix, to be held up as an uncomplicated success. But what he does understand is what it means to live with pasts that are constantly intruding into your present, sometimes violently. Crucially, he understands the allure of those pasts as well as their horrors, that a gothic story requires attraction as much as it does dread. The evil house has something you want; that’s why you stay.

Like Bly Manor, Hill House has no space for these desires. Take the Eleanor of Flanagan’s show. This Eleanor dies in Hill House, as she does in the book, and she dies under the influence of an illusion, as she does in the book. But she is a kind and warm person whose death is terrible to the people around her because they love her and will miss her. Jackson’s Eleanor is a person whom nobody loves or misses, a lonely woman prone to sudden violent fantasies, whose greatest romance is with the house that kills her. She is awkward and needy and precisely as embarrassing to the people around her as she fears. There is no family to heal in the book; the people who gather at Hill House are strangers when they arrive and when they depart.

Mike Flanagan is a sentimental storyteller, which isn’t always a bad thing. In movies like Oculus and Absentia, he weaves his stories of families broken apart and the quest for healing in ways that feel moving and true, and perhaps most importantly, unresolved. In his Netflix shows, however, he can’t help but fix things. But what kind of ghost story tends toward resolution?

Its speculative, of course, but it feels unlikely that these sanitized ghost stories, with their easy healing narratives that avoid the task of trying to see the past for what it really was, have no relation to events of the last few years, in which white Americans have had to take a hard look at the ghosts they’d prefer to ignore. There’s a reason the most visible gothic tradition in American culture comes from the South: a place where history cannot be ignored or escaped. The deformations produced through history, through landscape, through bigotry, through poverty, through even the extremes of the weather—these are the subjects of “Southern gothic.”

In national politics, it is often proposed that the solution to America’s ills is to “heal” with “a national conversation,” or something along those lines. But the problem with America is not that it needs to be healed. The problem is theft—of money, of opportunity, of freedom, of land—from some people to accrue to the benefit of others. Still, it is nice to think that we could just talk it out, over dinner tables and on the election trail. In Bly Manor, if you want to invite a ghost into yourself, you yell: “It’s you. It’s me. It’s us.” A campaign slogan, ready-made.

It’s the makers of these adaptations who can’t stand telling a story where we don’t know who is good and who is bad.

Living with reality, as The Haunting of Hill House notes in Jackson’s famous opening lines, is, for some of us, a quick road to insanity. Living with the past—really living with it—is not easy either. But a haunting is an insistence that we owe the past something, that it would behoove us to give it our attention. Sometimes ghosts can be laid to rest, but sometimes they are just there to say that they are not fixed and they can’t be fixed, they can only be lived with. And to admit a relationship to the past that is neither innocence nor woundedness is not very appealing right now, either.

If we want to tame the gothic, maybe it is because we do not trust ourselves with the expression of desires to submit and to dominate, to have community and to be alone, with the elation of feeling superior and feeling like a worm. Or rather, we don’t trust these stories without an author willing to call the shots. Henry James doesn’t tell you if the governess in The Turn of the Screw is good or bad. Daphne du Maurier doesn’t condemn her nameless heroine’s poisonous desires. Shirley Jackson allows her Eleanor a full range of humanity, including loneliness and a propensity to fantasize about violence.

But then, who’s “we”? People are still reading and enjoying all of these books. Netflix may carefully monitor its watchers to see what they are mostly likely to put on and craft new programming accordingly, but while that’s one measure of success, it’s not really a measure of the audience, which is capable of zoning out to all manner of mediocrity while cooking dinner or falling asleep. It’s the makers of these adaptations who can’t stand telling a story where we don’t know who is good and who is bad, and who, in their high-gloss cynicism, try to simplify these disquieting stories into something that can go down easily—that are, if not precisely “ambient TV,” still not artistic products meant to unsettle or provoke, to linger after they’ve gone. They cannot haunt; after all, they are not haunted.