Haunted (2018): "Supernatural schlock to true crime."

Netflix is treating its subscribers to several new original horror titles this Halloween season. The brilliant Haunting of the Hill House has been rightly gaining a lot of attention as the best horror series of 2018, but are the other spooky offerings worth a watch? Queue "Haunted."

The Premise

Haunted is a horror documentary series based on true stories, at least according to Netflix. Quoting here:

"Real people sit down with friends and family to share terrifying true stories from their past, re-created through chilling re-enactments."

Each episode centers around a person (or a family) telling their true supernatural horror story, which is then dramatically re-enacted as it's being told.

Fair enough, at least it is clearly stated that the people recounting their stories believe in them although the producers probably did not ruin a good story with too much fact checking. Whether that is true remains to be seen.

As far as supernatural reality TV-shows go, this is all bread-and-butter-type stuff. The only real twist in the format in the case of Haunted is the way the stories are presented. The storyteller is in the studio with friends and family who have either experienced the events of have actually never heard of the spooky happenings before, and we see teary-eyed discussions with strong reactions from the people close to the storyteller. This artificial "sitting room" scenario works fine and does help Haunted feel at least a bit different from the million other similar shows going on endless reruns on late night cable.

The re-enactments are often the weakest aspect of such shows because of low production values and hokey acting, and I have to give credit where credit is due: the re-enactments in Haunted are brilliantly done. The actors do an amazing job and the horrors they depict feel visceral. The told story is overlaid over the re-enactment and the actors themselves rarely have lines we get to hear, but the editing is done so well that the dramatizations and story work seamlessly together.


The Content

The first episode titled "The Woman in White", centers around a man telling the ghost story that has haunted him since his childhood. He grew up poor with an abusive father. Things got even worse when the family moved into an apartment where a ghostly woman in white started to make appearances in the storyteller’s life. The episode is well crafted, the people seem candid and, most importantly, the story is believable. A young abused child moves to an unfamiliar place and sees ghosts for the rest of his life. After hearing all of that delivered by a likable middle-aged man with tears running from his eyes does not make you question his story or his motives, only his interpretation. Is it the ghost of a woman in white (which, to be fair, is a very well-known horror trope) haunting her or is it post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by his traumatic childhood, rearing its ugly head even years later?

It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you like the reality TV supernatural shows, Haunted's first episode will not disappoint.

The second episode, however, is a different beast altogether.

"The Slaughterhouse" seems to set its tale solidly in this earthly realm with two sisters recounting how their childhood in a remote farmhouse in the early 70's was shadowed by their seemingly insane father. While the girls could not bring anyone outside the family to the farmhouse, their father kept dragging in "strays", drifters and other people who would not be missed and killing them with the help of his wife. The sisters remember there being "countless" murders.

This is the point where the episode starts to lose its credibility. Is it possible that such a prolific serial killer operated in the 1970's and 1980's and no one noticed? The sisters' story does not include anything about investigations or police. The storytellers do not appear with their full names and there is no mention of the identity of their father, the serial killer. The serial killer, who by the accounts of his daughters, would be one of the most prolific murderers in the US history. At this point the collective eyebrows of all viewers familiar with true crime literature rose in unison. But they are not done yet.

The sisters go on to describe how their father would conjure up demon spirits and how he was absolutely possessed. After his death son of the elder sister takes up the task of clearing the "slaughterhouse" and gets rid of his grandfather's kill trophies and vows never to dig up the suspected burial sites.

Oh, and after that the father's spirit (or a demon, whatever) starts to haunt the house, opening doors, leaving bloody handprints on walls and making a general nuisance of itself. But that's basic stuff in paranormal reality shows, and that's the caliber of story we hear in the later episodes.


The Controversy

It's the true horror story of "The Slaughterhouse" that manages to kill Haunted dead in 30 minutes. In committing to verifiable horrifying events that the storytellers have willfully covered up for decades. The story raised red flags for many, and as is the way, they all went to Reddit to mull it over. No one has been able to find out any record of the events described in the episode. The story the sisters tell is also filled with logical holes, such as missing siblings, unaccounted for time and not even a mention of life outside the house. 

This means that there are basically three options, which are not unique to this show, but can be applied to the analysis of most such reality TV shows. First, Netflix has been marketing an absolutely fictional show as "true stories." This would really not be a problem (in fact it is something of an industry standard with reality television) in this case if the fiction was good, but "The Slaughterhouse" is a major blunder on that front. The story is filled with holes, it is presented by people who pretty much describe how they covered up for their serial killer father (or grandfather) and it presents us with things that should have left a clear trail of evidence, yet it offers us none. The story claims to be true and sets up possibly dozens of recent murders ready to be investigated, yet actively does nothing about it. This makes the option of total fiction more than a little problematic at least in the sense that it lacks any credibility as fiction.

The second scenario is the one that is most often true with this genre of reality television: the people came to the producers with a story so good that the producers did not want to ruin it by fact checking anything. Instead they set the cameras up and let the people ramble on, either taking advantage of seriously disturbed individuals or paying charlatans to do their thing. Raises the same issues as option one, really, since the story is portrayed as being true without any fact checking. The producers of the show dropped the ball.

The third, and in this case the most horrifying option is that the story is true. Well, at least the part about the father being a serial killer. The demonic possession part might be a bit more difficult to find facts on. In this case that would mean that Netflix has broken a story about one of the most horrific serial murderers on a show about ghost stories, told by people how have failed to report anything to the authorities for decades, even after their father's death. In fact, the grandson has actively destroyed evidence that might have led to the identification of at least some of the victims. The story being told is presented as the truth and no mention is made of authorities being notified, not by the storytellers or the producers of the show.

If this is the case, it seems unforgivable and nearly criminal.

One of the producers of the show has since gone on to say on Twitter that the story is true and has been relayed to the proper authorities, but they have not heard anything back as of yet.

No evidence backs this up, of course, so it could just be legend-building for the show. Mashable has done some digging and New York State Police deny knowing anything about the case and Director of Public Information Beau Duffy told that the FBI has not been contacted about the case. Several Redditors have actually called Netflix's customer service number and asked about the show's truthfulness. Most have been told that it is "unscripted", which could mean anything from true to simply fiction that does not have a set script. Some Netflix customer servants have reportedly laughed and said the show is listed as reality TV and thus is probably not true.

Who knows.


The Verdict

If viewed as a piece of fiction Haunted is well edited and set up but horribly unevenly written and directed. Some episodes (like "The Woman in White", "Demon in the Dark" and "Alien Infection") are absolutely passable paranormal entertainment with very good dramatizations and might well be worth your time this Halloween season, but others seem laughably unbelievable and, frankly, feel like they were written by a child.

If viewed as a show about real life horror stories, it feels extremely irresponsible. If the story from "The Slaughterhouse" turns out to be true and the victims of the serial killer actually get justice in the future, Haunted will leave its mark in television history. That does seem quite unlikely.

Either way, Haunted is an interesting case study in the relationship between reality and reality television, which offers unique scenarios to ponder. As a piece of entertainment it is badly flawed.