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Shudder Secrets: They Live in the Grey Explained: Ghosts, Grief, and  Clairvoyance

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I’m a sucker for haunted house films and/or literature. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite novels. I weep for poor Eleanor whenever I re-read it, and I like Robert Wise’s film adaptation, The Haunting, nearly just as much as Jackson’s book. I enjoyed Mike Flanagan’s take on the story, too. The Amityville Horror, for all its over-the-top acting, is one of my favorite horror films from the 1970s. The real horror lies in the family’s economic woes, this creeping dread that they won’t be able to afford the house and its numerous repairs. Never mind the ghosts. Who’s going to fix that toilet that spews black goop, and how much will it cost?

Haunted house/ ghost stories, when done right, can reflect a lot of our anxieties, be it grief, like The Changeling, or economic distress, like Amityville. So I was pleasantly surprised after watching Shudder’s latest original, They Live in the Grey, directed and written by Abel and Burlee Vang. This is a film with sorrow at its center. The ghosts are a manifestation of the protagonist’s pain. But it’s also a film that features two couples’ real anxiety, one over finances and some deeper issues, and the other over the loss of their son. While no means a perfect film, it does follow a certain type of narrative that uses ghosts and/or haunted houses to dig at something deeper, real human anguish and profound sadness. The ghosts aren’t the true frights here. Rather’s it’s terrifying to imagine how we’d manage if something goes really, really wrong in our life. How do we keep living?

Claire’s Grief in They Live in the Grey

The film hooks you from the opening shot. The protagonist, Claire (Michelle Krusiec), tries to hang herself. She fails and her body crashes to the ground. She wheezes but eventually gets up. Soon, we learn that grief paralyzes Claire. She’s emotionally numb after her son, Lucas, was found dead in a field three days after a hit and run. He walked home from school because his mother was over-medicated and forgot to pick him up.

Krusiec’s performance here resonates. You can feel her character’s pain, her desire to cut everyone off, including her husband, Peter (Ken Kirby). Krusiec’s acting as an emotionally ravaged mother is powerful. To worsen matters, she sees ghosts…everywhere. They haunt her rickety old home. She sees them in the car. She even sees when hospitalized. Wanting to avoid them, she medicates. But it doesn’t work. They appear and appear again, menacing apparitions with vague messages from beyond the grave.

This film’s anchor, though, lies in the emotional territories it explores. Flashbacks reveal moments when Lucas was alive, and even the moment that Peter and Claire picked his name. Even in the present, his death torments Claire. She keeps his drawings pinned to her cubicle walls. Yet, she also tries to resist the pain and/or numb it. But the past continues to resurface, through the film’s excellent pacing of flashbacks and the various other ghosts that Claire sees.

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Further, Lucas’ death drives an immense wedge between Claire and Peter, who blames her for not talking about her emotions, specifically the pain. They teeter on the edge of divorce. In one flashback, he barks at her, “What do you do with all the damage? How do you hold it in? I can’t do that.” Each parent processes their pain differently, though their failure to share their emotions leads to destructive qualities. Claire shuts the world off. Peter takes a 3rd shift because he can’t sleep at night. In another flashback, she breaks down over making a decision about casket lining. All of these little things remind her that her son died. It’s a raw and honest portrayal of grief.

A social worker, Claire is assigned to a case where a young girl, Sophie (Madelyn Grace), is haunted by a paranormal entity. Because she blames herself for Lucas’ death, Claire is determined not to allow anything to happen to Sophie. If she couldn’t save one child, maybe she can save the other.

The Lang’s Marital Problems

Sophie’s parents, Giles and Audrey, have their own problems. Something haunts their house, a woman who eventually reveals her secrets to Claire. This makes for a wild final 15 minutes that shouldn’t be spoiled here. They, too, flirt with divorce, especially because Giles cheated on Audrey. The paranormal stuff only worsens their woes. Like a lot of parents, the two can’t just up and sell the house. As Audrey explains, they have everything tied up in the mortgage, similar to the Lutz family in Amityville. The house and its expenses trap them.

The tension is best exemplified during one dinner scene. The camera’s middle-shot shows the three seated at the table, none willing to talk to each other. Giles breaks the silence when he finally asks, “Are we always going to eat without talking?” Yet, the conversation becomes forced. Sophie, meanwhile, pleads to escape to her room. The real problems aren’t addressed and instead fester in a house with spooks.

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Claire and Audrey, meanwhile, share a unique bond. Audrey quit her career aspirations to raise Sophie and only works part-time. At one point, she confesses that she wanted to make something out of her life. Having a child derailed that. Claire, on the other hand, mentions that she often feels like she can’t control anything, including the numerous ghosts she sees. Eventually, Claire says the only solution is to live in this type of pain’s shadows, realizing you can’t control everything.

What it means When They Live in the Grey

The film’s title is a brilliant play on the turmoil both the living and dead undergo during the two-hour runtime. In one flashback, Peter says to Claire, “I can’t live in this grey with you.” He means that he can’t feel the same numbness that Claire feels. She sleepwalks through life to avoid confronting Lucas’ death and to avoid seeing the dead, as fruitless as that may be, pills or not.

The Lang family lives in this grey area, too. The parents can’t cope with their marital problems. They don’t talk openly about Peter’s sins. Audrey, meanwhile, bottles up her feelings, too. This includes her desire to have a more meaningful career than working part-time at a travel agency. The ghosts also live in this grey area. They linger among the living, seen by clairvoyants like Claire because they cling to their past lives. They’re stuck, refusing, or unable to move on. It’s not a good place to be!

While the pacing at times can feel a little long, They Live in the Grey is a raw and honest look at grief and marital woes. The haunted houses are manifestations of the human characters’ severe pain and their unhealthy coping mechanisms. Sure, this movie has scares. More importantly, however, it has human characters at its center going through intense issues. These include the loss of a child, economic anxieties, and marital problems. The best ghost stories always hit at something deeper than a late-night fright. They Live in the Grey grounds itself in these relatable human emotions, the sometimes painful experience of living and losing loved ones.

The film premiers on shudder on February 17. For more of the streaming service’s latest exclusive and original content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.