Haunted, On Netflix: A Pseudo-Documentary Where Fact Is Possessed By Fiction

This pseudo-documentary behaves just like a character in a horror film: it does exactly that which it is asked not to do
Haunted, On Netflix: A Pseudo-Documentary Where Fact Is Possessed By Fiction

Haunted could have been many things. Developed by Propagate, it could have been an original horror anthology series (yes, yes, based on "true stories", if it insisted) just like Netflix's critically acclaimed The Haunting franchise. Or it could have been an actual paranormal documentary, with all the ghost-tracking equipment and an investigation team thrown in, without any dramatised re-enactments of real events. Making a paranormal potpourri using both of these elements is definitely not a good idea, because it merely results in the expectant viewers getting haunted by vague, inconclusive and obviously dramatised tales, and characters (some of them) who are as unclear as they come. But that's Haunted for you. This pseudo-documentary behaves just like a character in a horror film: it does exactly that which it is asked not to do.

Haunted has had only two seasons so far (Season 3 will be out soon), each comprising 6 episodes. Each episode follows the same template (one of the show's banes is its predictability): a bunch of people sits together in the same room, group therapy style, and a particular individual or a few of them discuss certain preternatural occurrences that they supposedly experienced (I will explain why I used "supposedly" here afterward), and how these affected their normal lives. Insert introduction, cut to the opening credits, cut to the fabled sentence, "The following is a true story", cut to random excerpts from the group conversation, which are constantly interrupted by photographs from the past that are dangled in front of us like they are supposed to make a point, and dramatised re-enactments laced with chilling music and clichéd jump-scares.

Haunted's (rather weak) defence of staying true to "real stories" is constantly contradicted by the makers' treatment of the source material. What should have been a means of catharsis for (again, supposedly) traumatised individuals has now been reduced to a show that wishes to make the horror more appealing, solely by claiming that everything that is being discussed is true. However, the overused jump-scare trope, the music and the dramatisation question the intentions of the series, crushing its credibility. Perhaps it could have been more believable had all these been avoided. Then again, the vague expositions of the harrowing events, the lack of concern for the ramifications of such confessions in today's world, and the several controversies surrounding the individuals involved in Haunted, all make us wonder whether this was purely scripted to satiate the creators' paranormal fantasies – which reek of geeky obsession instead of professionalism. There has been little to no transparency when it comes to the verification process, with allegations pouring in regarding the absence of a proper one for this documentary.

The narrations are always preceded by a sentence: "The following is a true story". Not "based on true events". Not "inspired by real events". The more the lines between reality and fiction blur, the more our desire to empathise with the individuals gets diminished. And that is not good. Shows like Haunted are pretty important, considering the rising significance of mental health in these times. Presenting even one false story is detrimental to the other participants, who might be divulging some very real fears and distressing experiences. This is not something that can be taken lightly, because fuelling scepticism and incredulity only assists in disregarding real trauma in other circumstances where compassion is necessary. However, the makers of Haunted lack the sensitivity and awareness required to make this show, for they are only interested in creating pretentious horror cinema.

Truly, from the bottom of my heart, I wished to believe all the stories that were being presented. It is not easy to come forward and disclose such experiences (if they are real, for that matter) when you know that the chances of being believed are nil. But some of the stories were absolutely absurd, or lacked necessary corroborating evidence (considering the magnitude of the revelations), or were vague, confusing, and contradictory, often all at the same time. Episodes like the infamous The Slaughterhouse shed light on some supposed important (and horrifying) cold cases that are worth investigating. But sketchy details, confusing statements, vague names and vague addresses only add to the obscurity of the events. It is understandable if there are legal or other complications that restrict the makers from revealing too much (though they have themselves declined to comment or have been annoyingly unclear regarding their course of action), but even then, the ambiguous tales lose all sense of purpose. If this had been a total work of fiction (which Haunted gives the strong impression of being), one could have at least remarked that it is full of "plot holes".

The ludicrous assertions of some of the characters make us wonder whether they were themselves inspirations for characters in actual horror films that prey on human asininity to provide cheap thrills. This is in the case of episodes such as Stolen Gravestone (I was trying my best not to roll my eyes, and not because of the story, but because of the individuals' interactions with each other), Ward of Evil, Spirits from Below and Demon of War. The rest of the stories are more or less passable, but what I found most peculiar were the listeners' reactions to the narrators' accounts. In some episodes with only one narrator (as compared to others, where more than one person was affected by the preternatural), nobody bothered recommending therapy to them. Nobody voiced a thought that there was an extremely high possibility that the paranormal occurrences, the apparitions and the like, were all probably psychologically motivated. All the entities mentioned were malevolent in some way or form, and most of the narrators previously belonged to dysfunctional families, or had lost somebody close to them, or were victims of abuse, parental neglect, bigoted ideologies and the like, or lacked a wholesome upbringing or a peaceful line of work; these may have affected their mental health later on. No matter what, none of the subjects lived completely regular lives; at some point or the other, agents of strife did haunt them (much like the preternatural beings they mentioned), directly or indirectly, with or without their knowledge. And yet, the listeners bought their stories much more easily than we, the viewers, who have the privilege of watching dramatised retellings that they cannot. Is it truly possible to believe something unscientific in its entirety when you are hearing it for the first time, without having been provided an iota of material evidence to support these claims?

Then again, the narrators' audience (while diverse) is primarily composed of friends and family members (with the occasional ex-husband thrown in), as well as certain "experts" who may insert their own opinions from time to time. This is not the most objective group in the world, particularly for instances like these, but perhaps their presence was a source of comfort for the distressed individuals (therefore, the listeners may have kept their cynicism at bay). They all do the same things, such as nodding, wiping a tear, exclaiming in horror every now and then, expressing their sympathy, or mourning their inability to help during such terrible times. There are instances when disbelief is apparent in some of their eyes and they wish to communicate a different point of view, but instead, they choose to grudgingly agree with whatever is being said. However, digging up buried truths that are intertwined with one's existing relationships is a matter of great concern, and this has consequences. I could not help wonder whether springing these sudden revelations was actually a good idea; after all, we, the viewers, are merely watching pre-recorded conversations and some spiced-up portrayals of actual events, but we never come to know about the outcome of all this. How do the narrators carry on with their daily lives after such confessions? In episodes like Children of the Well, Stolen Gravestone and Spirits from Below, the fact that the concerned individuals were still on talking terms itself seemed to be a miracle of sorts. Despite repeated contact with entities from invisible realms, is it really that easy to believe all this and disown one's pragmatic attitude, something that we have been conditioned to possess since birth? Were there no efforts made to confirm any other sensible possibility, and if any, were these simply omitted from the series? And what about the people involved? How will they face each other after all this? The show appears to be counterproductive. The makers' myopic vision has jeopardised the daily lives of those involved, whether their stories are true, fake, or somewhere in between.

But let us give the Haunted team the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that all the stories are true. Even then, the show fails as a documentary and a horror series, due to its vagueness as well as its predictable horror. The graphic depictions in some extremely disturbing scenes merely paint Haunted as a malicious, exploitative creature itself, feeding on traumatic tales for its own profit and pleasure. On the other hand, it unintentionally highlights something extremely important as well. Almost all the narrators were unable to speak of their experiences before this, fearing the reactions of their family members, their friends, and society in general. This shows how insensitive people have become, so much so that we have ceased to care about the little fears of people. Be it in the case of ghosts or mental health, humans continue to fear the stigma that they might have to face once they disclose their deepest, darkest secrets; thus, they remain closeted, allowing the darkness to take over and consume them. Often, the horror does not involve the preternatural. It may involve quotidian occurrences, such as abuse, war, and discrimination. These are the real demons in today's world. Ironically, I was more invested when these issues were mentioned, and when the larger part of the runtime focused on them. Social evils are humanity's responsibility, because we have planted the seeds that engendered these.

A noteworthy episode in the show, and perhaps the one that moved me the most, is the third one in the second season, titled Cult of Torture. A scarred man speaks of the hellish gay conversion program he had to undergo as a result of his parents' orthodox beliefs and the diabolical tenets of The Worldwide Church of God, which they had chosen to follow. It is perhaps one of the most horrifying stories of the lot, and, in fact, the most believable one. The survivor, James Swift, details the torture he underwent, as well as the cathartic rebirth that followed once he was freed of it. While he speaks of having seen a "demon" during one of those gut-wrenching sessions, he does not attribute it to anything paranormal. In fact, he implicitly considered it to be a symbol of sorts, which is a major deviation from the beliefs of his counterparts in previous and subsequent episodes. He was the only one who placed emphasis on psychotherapy, and he was the only one who saw the horror in human beings rather than in otherworldly forces. Ironically, the fraudulent "exorcisms" he was subjected to were perpetuated by living, breathing demons dressed in human skin.

A quote from The Haunting of Hill House goes like this: "A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they're just what we want to see." Now I am neither somebody who can decide what exactly defines a ghost nor someone who can clearly distinguish between the preternatural and the psychological. But I feel that this quote speaks volumes about human beings, whether they belong to this world, or whether they have passed on to another. Every episode in Haunted follows the same route: the beginning of the horror, its escalation, and finally, the gradual recession (which is sometimes followed by a resumption). But they all have another thing in common – the troubling indifference, distrust, or abusive nature of the parents, who are actually supposed to be individuals worth relying upon. These guardians are either absent from their child's life, or disregard their troubles, or abuse them mentally and physically, or fall prey to bigoted principles of society. Whether they were part-time serial killers, or fanatics who went as far as to molest their children, or parents who raised their callow kids to fight in wars, most of them barely contributed to the narrators' mental well-being. Therefore, if there are any lessons that Haunted does unintentionally propagate (pun intended), they are that of love and empathy, something that the individuals involved in this show deeply lacked in their lives. It does make a difference when we have faith in people and when we properly listen to them.

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