Netflix’s Haunted and Trauma

Trauma is often at the heart of horror stories. Alien is about the trauma of being physically violated, Get Out is about the trauma of living with modern day racism, and The Shining is about the trauma of living with an alcoholic parent. The monsters in these films are manifestations of trauma. Living with trauma can feel like you’re being chased by an alien, or racists, or an axe murderer. An exact opposite of this approach is the paranormal experience genre of T.V. Shows like A Haunting, Paranormal Witness, and My Haunted House which depict “real people” talking about their “true” paranormal experiences intercut with dramatic reenactments. With few exceptions the paranormal entities in these shows don’t represent much. Their ghosts aren’t reflections of trauma, they’re just ghosts.

Paranormal experience shows typically have low budgets and feel even lower effort, but they still have their value as entertainment. The reenactments are campy and over the top in away that’s easy to mock. Even beyond any sense of ironic enjoyment though, there are loads of people who watch these shows and like them for what they are on the surface, modern day ghost stories.

Typically, paranormal experience shows don’t try to tackle anything deep or serious. So, what happens when a paranormal experience show tries to be something more? Netflix’s Haunted is what happens, and the result is more depressing than scary. Haunted wants to be so much more than it is. Without fail, each story told on Haunted attempts to be ‘about’ something bigger than just ghosts. The paranormal entities on Haunted are not just ghosts and aliens, they are representations of depression, illness, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

On the surface this might appear interesting. Giving a monster greater thematic depth is almost always a good thing. Where Haunted crosses the line is by presenting its stories as true. To be fair, I don’t believe in ghosts, so I already have a problem with paranormal shows claiming they depict true events. I can usually brush this off because the stories are so goofy that it’s difficult to take any of it seriously. I laugh at something like Paranormal Witness because the “real people” that appear on these shows don’t even sound like they believe the story they’re telling.

Photo: Courtesy of A&E

I can’t say the same for everyone who appears on Haunted.There are, of course, those who appear to be blatantly lying. An episode about a woman who grew up with serial killer parents is so outlandish that it becomes apparent why none of the people featured give their last names. About half of the episodes have stories that just don’t add up. The other half are different though. The other half are heartbreaking, and the format doesn’t help.

One of the things that immediately sets Haunted apart from other shows in its genre is its format.Most paranormal experience shows feature the story’s narrator facing the camera and recounting their experience in front of a blank background. In contrast, Haunted has its narrator sit in a circle surrounded by friends and family like it’s an intervention. If the intent was to make you feel bad for doubting the stories, it worked.

I don’t believe the literal truth of these stories, but I do believe in their emotional truth.It is easy to say that people who claim they’ve seen a ghost or an alien are just lying. To be fair, they often are. Human memory and perception are fickle things though. How many ghosts are memories corrupted by time or bad dreams that seemed too real?

It’s this middle space that makes me wonder about some of Haunted’s more challenging stories.One story is about a woman who believes alien procedures are responsible for her reoccurring reproductive health issues. It sounds ridiculous but makes a certain amount of sense when you learn that she started seeing these aliens around the same time her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Aliens did not give this woman reproductive health issues, but seeing your mother go in and out of hospitals and then being in and out of hospitals yourself could absolutely feel like you’re being experimented on by aliens.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Another episode is narrated by a veteran who claims to have been haunted by a demon during his service. The episode goes out of its way to show us exactly the kind of hell this soldier lived through during his time in the military. This man displays the same level of vulnerability when talking about the demon as he does when talking about watching his friends die.

Two separate episodes feature women who claim possession is the reason they attempted to murder their husbands. They talk about their isolation and difficult childhoods but blame it on paranormal entities. They’re both so disgusted at what those entities made them do. Hearing their stories, can you really blame them for believing a ghost or demon made them do it?The end result of these stories is horror, but not the sort that Haunted intends. I’m not frightened by the monsters, I’m frightened that some network executive thought it was a good idea to exploit these people for a bad T.V. show.

The best and worst episode of the show is also its least supernatural. Cult of Torture is about a man who endured conversion therapy when he was very young. The torture this man went through is more despicable than anything else on the show. I was angry at the structures that allowed this to happen, but I also felt angry at Haunted itself.I was angry that this man’s trauma was being put on display with laughable effects. I was angry that his story is being told on a show about ghosts and aliens. I was angry that the episode implied that a real demon might be behind his torture.It’s all so exhausting. Haunted wants to bring prestige to the paranormal experience genre but ends up making a case for the genre to stay schlock.

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