I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve never witnessed anything paranormal in my life, bar the weird noises my cats make at night. Yet still, I lie there in bed some nights, covers pulled tight, imagining all manner of nasty things. Not necessarily things that can hurt me, but things I wouldn’t want to see. Visuals that would scar me forever.
That has never happened, thankfully, and I eventually go to sleep and then wake up for work, and life goes on. But it has happened in fiction, in ways that terrify me in otherwise banal films, books and video games.
I scare easily. I’ve stopped watching films because of jumps-scares, and the night was a little too dark. I got about five minutes into Silent Hill 2 before switching it off (it was too full of dread, and unbearably sad). I have enormous respect for the creators and artists of these works, who can affect us in awful ways. I think one of the reasons I’m always drawn to horror is because it does affect me. If it’s meant to be scary, it will probably make me cower. And I may not make it all the way through.
One of my favorite scary movies is The Haunted. Not the 1999 version with Liam Neeson, but a more obscure 1991 made-for-TV film that I caught by accident late one night as a teenager. It’s based on a true ghost story; a family in Pennsylvania that claimed to have been haunted by a demon. I will never claim it’s an amazing film, and the special effects are cheap and not-entirely convincing, but somehow the filmmakers managed to create images that have stuck with me for decades.
If you like haunted house stories, you’ll find nothing in the film that surprises you, apart from a scene where the father of the family is sexually assaulted by the entity. The acting is fine, but nothing to write home about. The ending, from what I remember, feels unsatisfactory, and it relies on genre clichés a little too much. But the ghost/demon itself is what gets into your mind.
We see it quite early in the film, when the mother (and main character) is doing laundry. The soundtrack changes and a bass rumble fills the speakers. The atmosphere has changed, so we know something ominous is about to happen. Strange occurrences have already unnerved us. We’re ghost story aficionados, ready for the next level. She looks up, and stares at a black shape floating through her living room. There’s no form to it, nothing that looks remotely human or recognizable. It sounds like squealing pigs as it drifts along, and we know it is pure malevolence.
Maybe people who’ve actually seen ghosts will correct me, but The Haunted frightens me because it looks like how I imagine a haunting to be. The rest of the film is well-made, but nothing special. It accomplishes what it sets out to do, and does it pretty well. However, I keep coming back to that ghostly, demonic shape. I’ve seen more terrifying films, for sure, and better stories about haunted houses. But I love how the entity in this film is presented. I love the lack of comprehension we get when we witness it floating through the house, its lack of humanity and even shape meaning there will be no easy reckoning. Other ghosts have stories, tragic pasts, human frailties. This is simply an amorphous thing—it exists only to scare, and make us think of the other. It’s the kind of thing I dread seeing at night. Even though I know I probably never will, I can still imagine it happening, just like I can imagine every creak and bang after midnight is actually done with malicious, otherworldly intent.
I don’t know how much thought went into the film, or if anyone else was affected by it like I was at sixteen. I’ve had a love of weirdness in fiction as far as I can remember, and there are better examples of it out there in books (such as House of Leaves, or the awful “funhole” in Kathe Koja’s The Cipher.) But I think it’s important to remember that some of the most effective horror out there works because it defies our understanding. Even before Lovecraft, we enjoyed exploring worlds and situations that made no sense, that defied all laws of physics, and that left us reeling with their lack of explanations.
And sometimes cheaply-made TV movies can be surprisingly effective in creating images that delight, surprise and scare.