Thursday, November 10, 2005

A HAUNTING BLOGGING: "Hell House" and Beyond

I hope you've had the opportunity to catch the new Discovery Channel paranormal series, entitled A Haunting. So far, two episodes have aired: the premiere (entitled "Hell House") and last week's "The Haunting of Summerwind," which reruns this Friday night at 11:00 pm. The third new installment, "Echoes from the Grave," debuts an hour earlier on Friday, at 10:00 pm.

Here are my thoughts on the show at this early stage. Firstly, I think "Hell House" was a really creepy mini-masterpiece, thanks in large part to the aggressive editing and canny use of horror movie techniques. I particularly enjoyed the effective atmospheric and location shots intercut throughout the drama, and felt that the piece moved at such a pace that I was often left feeling breathless.

At least one moment -- involving an endangered character in her bedroom, and a high-angle shot looking straight down at her as something black and amorphous whooshes under her bed -- was downright terrifying. Therefore, from a visual and stylistic viewpoint, I appreciate how the episode was handled and suspect that a talent very schooled in understanding "horror movie" grammar is ensconced in the editing bay.

Secondly, I noticed that the creators of the show have taken special pains, at least thus far, to remain accurate to the literature concerning hauntings and parapsychology. They get all the lingo absolutely 100% correct - "rapping," "automatic writing" and the like - and that's rewarding.

When I wrote my monograph about 1959-1961's One Step Beyond, another paranormal anthology for a very different age, I reviewed the series based on its accuracy in vetting the principles of the paranormal, not whether or not I actually believed in the phenomena depicted. I submit you must utilize the same test in assessing A Haunting. If you're not inclined to believe this stuff, the breathless approach, the ominous-toned narrator, the carefully-arced tales, and the hellish depiction of the supernatural probably aren't going to meet with your approval. However, if you've studied the paranormal, you'll detect that the series remains quite faithful to case studies, and furthermore, nicely explores all these great little tangents of the supernatural world.

"The Haunting of Summerwind" felt like a more unconventional, more surprising narrative than "Hell House," though it didn't quite jell at the same level of nail-biting suspense. It wasn't a story I'd seen a hundred times, so even though the denouement wasn't at the same fever pitch as "Hell House," I enjoyed the show overall.

Frankly, my biggest concern about A Haunting is that the series focuses purely on - as the title obviously suggests - hauntings. It seems like it will be tough to treat similar material differently after a few seasons. After all, One Step Beyond had all of the paranormal world (spirit possession, bilocation, astral projection...) to investigate in its 96 episodes, and still repeated some tales, so the makers of A Haunting will have to prove exceptionally clever so as not to tell the same story twice.

I had the opportunity to get back in touch with Joseph Maddrey, associate producer on A Haunting, and wanted to get his thoughts on these matters, how the program is going, and how it's being received. He was kind enough to grant me another interview, and answer all my questions.

MUIR: Now that "Hell House" has aired, what has been the response from the real family and the investigators involved in the case?

MADDREY: The Beckwith family was very happy with the show – Bonnie said that it was more accurate and more frightening than she had expected. Investigators Lorraine Warren and Mike Roberge were also pleased. They hosted a paranormal-themed event on Halloween night and showed clips from the episode, and I hear they got plenty of “jumps” out of the audience. These individuals put a great deal of faith in us to tell their story, and I’m glad we could do it justice in their eyes.

MUIR: One of the things I really enjoyed most about A Haunting was the aggressive, skillfull and gonzo horror movie-style cutting. Can you tell me a little bit about the editing? One sequence involving a moving shadow in the bedroom actually made me and my wife jump...

MADDREY: Andrew Monument is the supervising editor on A Haunting. He cut the first episode and established an aesthetic that has come to define the entire series. Among all the technicians who worked on the show, his contribution is probably the most obvious onscreen – and he deserves to be recognized for it. From day one, Andrew was eager to take the project to the next level – not just because he’s a great editor, but because he’s a big fan of the horror genre.

The scene in which a moving shadow disappears under Jennifer’s bed was well edited, but it’s worth noting that the scene was also well conceived (by the humble team of writers and producers). Jennifer explained that she was awakened one night by the feeling of a fist coming through the bed and striking her in the back. She stipulated that it did NOT feel like a fist striking the underside of the mattress, but like it was punching THROUGH the mattress. She never physically saw anything. This was problematic for us since we’re working in a visual medium. Our solution: The audience sees the shadow go under the bed… so we know there’s something under there, even though Jennifer doesn’t. It’s a tried-and-true horror movie tactic for generating empathy and suspense.

MUIR: When last we spoke, you mentioned an edict about A Haunting episodes, one that you share with the writers. Can you share it with us?

MADDREY: This is a quote that series producer Larry Silverman often makes reference to. It’s from Francois Truffaut’s book of interviews with Hitch:

“There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath the table. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

MUIR: I know there has been some criticism on the Net that A Haunting is airing on The Discovery Channel, and well, it's obviously a gung-ho, go-for-the-throat dramatization not an objective, staid documentary. Any thoughts on this? Is it a valid complaint?

MADDREY: One reviewer bitterly complained that “you won’t hear a skeptical voice in this alleged documentary.” Aside from Jennifer’s tongue-in-cheek comment that she didn’t know what to think of “ghost busters” coming to visit, this is a fair statement. I suppose it’s also a fair criticism from someone who expects a more traditional documentary.

It seems to me that, in recent years, most documentary filmmakers have made fewer efforts to appear objective. (It’s worth adding here that I don’t believe any documentary can be objective, which kicks off a scientific / philosophical debate about subjectivity and objectivity…. A debate that is also applicable to enquiries about paranormal activity but which, for the sake of the reader’s patience, I will avoid.)

Many documentaries reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the filmmakers (see Fahrenheit 9/11). By comparison, each episode of A Haunting is intended to reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the interviewees. Our Internet critic writes: “This would be a good ghost story for Halloween if it weren't being passed off as the truth.” To which I respond: We are conveying the stories of real people, without judgment. For them, the stories ARE true.

MUIR:
I would just point out here that One Step Beyond walked the same line, only using the techniques and styles popular in its day. It always treated the paranormal as "real," and its dramatizations didn't strive for objectivity, but for chills.

MADDREY: A Haunting is a strange hybrid of documentary and drama, but this is nothing new and it’s certainly not an anomaly on The Discovery Channel. New Dominion Pictures also produces The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science and The FBI Files similar reenactment-based shows that have headlined the network’s Tuesday night lineup for years. The current lead-in for A Haunting – a program called I Should Be Dead – is cut from the same cloth. I’d argue that the reviewer’s real criticism is of the beliefs of our interviewees, rather than the show itself.

MUIR: In "Hell House," I guess there was also a question of logic that we should talk about. Lorraine Warren indicated that the spirits might follow the family from house to house, but this was an idea that wasn't pursued in the episode.

MADDREY: We presented Lorraine’s explanation that “the ghosts will follow you” at face-value, but some viewers have asked for a justification of this... so here it is: Lorraine says that spirits are attracted to a human being’s aura – a kind of energy field that derives from an individual’s state of health, emotions, and spiritual well-being. I interpret this to mean that the family experienced the haunting partly because of their own specific auras, and that different individuals may not have experienced the same things in the same house.

Readers who want to know more about the beliefs of the “Hell House” investigators can refer to Ed & Lorraine Warren’s website, www.warrens.net, or Mike Roberge’s website, www.drcri.com. Details of the specific investigation can be found at http://www.warrens.net/main.htm -- click on “Investigations,” then “Recent Cases,” then “Stamford.” Names and locations have been changed in this document. Mike is the webmaster for all of these web pages, and he’s always willing to provide candid responses to honest questions.

MUIR: Your second episode repeats on Friday night. Can you set that up for us?

MADDREY: The idea for “The Haunting of Summerwind” came from a book called “The Carver Effect” by Wolfgang von Bober. I think it’s one of the most atmospheric episodes so far. The art director, Jack Ryan, did a particularly good job on that one.

MUIR: I've seen that one, and quite enjoyed it. It was different enough from "Hell House" to have its own unique energy. I liked the setting, and also the surprising turn involving a family's return to the house.

And now the third new episode debuts on the same night too. How about that one?

MADDREY: The idea for “Echoes from the Grave” came from a book called “Show Me One Soul” by Nancy L. Stallings, and it features world-renowned investigator Hans Holzer. I’d love to talk more about it after it airs...

All right then, "Echoes from the Grave" airs this Friday night at 10:00 pm, eastern standard time on the Discovery Channel, and I'll be blogging it (and more of A Haunting) right here!

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