THIS JUSTIN: Mike Flanagan And The Haunting Past

Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. There may be spoilers ahead, so heads up.

The past as a haunting aspect is nothing new to the world of horror. Gothic writers told stories of family secrets hidden away in dusty mansions coming back to wreak havoc on unfortunate heirs. Lovecraft wrote of decades old pacts made with deities whose names were strings of gibberish being paid for by luckless protagonists who owned cats with questionable names. Stephen King made the idea of a small town with a dark history his legacy. The past coming back to ruin the present is a reliable narrative, especially in the genre of horror. And none working in the realm today embody this concept more effectively or tragically as filmmaker Mike Flanagan.

I’ve written about Flanagan focusing on past trauma before but I’ve never taken the time to really delve into Flanagan’s quasi-obsession with stories involving characters with traumatic pasts. For Flanagan, “the past” as a concept is often something that isn’t entirely separate from the present. His characters are often stuck in a horrible loop that keeps dragging them back. They are static in the sense that there is no real personal progression made for them. They try to move on with their lives and create new relationships, establish careers, move to new cities, but they’re always half-committed to what’s in front of them and fully bound to what’s behind them. They grow as people, and might even move on, but when seven years ago knocks on the door they are tragically cut down to their knees and everything between then and now is a handful of dust thrown into the wind. The future becomes the present and the past erases it all.

Absentia, Flanagan’s debut full length film, is a deeply melancholic (and woefully underrated) film about two sisters attempting to work through a personal tragedy. Tricia’s husband has been missing for over seven years. Her younger sister, Callie, has moved in to help during this difficult time. Tricia has signed the paperwork declaring her husband dead in absentia, and agreed to go on a date with someone new, when her husband mysteriously returns, haggard and confused, and horror is unleashed into the sister’s lives.

This film is ripe with ideas about how the past never goes away. When Callie is doing some classic horror movie internet sleuthing, she discovers that Tricia’s neighborhood has been plagued with disappearances going back at least a hundred years – people go missing on their way to the neighborhood store, from backyard BBQs; they seemingly vanish into thin air. This is a traditional device: the horror we are witnessing now is simply the newest chapter in a series of events stretching back into the years before. It adds a sense of dread and cold impersonality to know that your circumstances aren’t special and, instead, you’re next up for whatever weird thing is doing this.

Callie (played by the spectacular Catherine Parker) is an addict who has taken a number of positive steps to stay clean. Her tragic relapse, and the ensuing judgment by those around her, reveals that even though she has made numerous positive life changes and stayed clean, one slip up is all it takes for that progress to be for naught. But where Absentia truly shines is the idea of how new relationships can be hobbled by the re-emergence of some element of a past relationship.

Who amongst us hasn’t had an ex come back into their life at an inconvenient moment? I experienced something like this myself once. Months after a rather cataclysmic breakup I met someone new and, just when things began to get serious, my ex re-inserted herself back into my life. It erased all the progress I had made and eventually I ended my then-current relationship because I had devolved back into the same emotional miasma I had wallowed in for months. All because I hadn’t really dealt with things before moving forward. I think that that’s the common human core of Absentia’s story: threads we thought were properly tied can become undone and tangle us up again.

Tricia has spent the last seven years doing her best to deal with her husband’s disappearance. She has mulled over every possibility of why he is no longer in her life. She had adapted to a life without him. She has accepted the fact that he is gone and her life is going to be different moving forward. But just as she is ready to move forward, he reappears, and everything goes to hell. Her story gets more heartbreaking and horrifying as the film goes on, feeling more and more like a real world breakup. A story about a missing person becomes a vehicle for something else; something far more subtle, but more terrifying because of how universal it is. Past relationships aren’t always dead. Sometimes they can come back in hideously unexpected ways and mess up our present.

I’ve already written extensively about how Doctor Sleep is a story about abuse and unresolved childhood trauma which can be passed on and ruin the next generation of a family. The film was, however, not Flanagan’s first effort at adapting the work of Stephen King. In 2017, he directed Gerald’s Game, based on King’s novel of the same name. The story is about a woman, trapped in a loveless marriage, who finds herself handcuffed to a bed in an isolated lakeside summer cottage after her husband suddenly dies.

Just under the surface is a narrative about Jessie’s childhood. As she desperately tries to come up with an escape plan, she recalls the path her life took that led to this moment. It is at this point that we discover that she was sexually abused by her father as a child. While the moment is shown in the film, and the impact is discussed at length, the film somewhat waters down the lengths Jessie has gone to throughout her life to forget and cover up what her father did to her. Nevertheless, this aspect of the source material is still present in Flanagan’s adaption, and I think it’s what likely attracted him to adapting it in the first place.

The film ends with Jessie writing a letter to her twelve year old self, discussing how she told the police and doctors that she didn’t remember the ordeal. She writes about how victims of abuse often block out painful memories for their own well being, She ends the letter by telling her younger self that she is the only one who understands and the only one who matters. Despite the past being the place where her horrible ordeal began, she goes back to it in an attempt to gain understanding and catharsis.

It’s something of a happy ending but a grim lesson nonetheless: we are what our experiences have made us. When the necrophiliac serial killer who had visited her one night and whom she had assumed was a hallucination is being arraigned in court, she sees the faces of both her father and Gerald imposed over his. She approaches him, looks him in the eye, and remarks, “you’re so much smaller than I remember.” The past has been confronted. It has been faced down. But it still lives with us.

The Haunting Of Hill House, arguably the work that put Flanagan on the radar of non-genre fans, is a loose adaption of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name. Rather than a traditional haunted house story, however, Flanagan divides the narrative into two timelines, both involving the Crain family. There’s the present, in which Hugh Crain and his adult children live their separate lives – some seemingly happy and successful, others not so much. And there’s the past, taking place twenty-six years prior when the family was forced to flee from a mansion they were renovating after Olivia, the matriarch, died inside. All of the children are affected in some way by this. Luke, the youngest boy, has become a drug addict. Theo, the middle girl, has become a child therapist who is cold and distant to anyone but her patients. Nell, the youngest girl, is deeply depressed and suicidal and is plagued by visions of a ghost she refers to as “The Bent Neck Lady”. Hugh, the patriarch of the family, is barely on speaking terms with his children. Only the two eldest children, Steven and Shirley, seem unaffected by the events of that night.

After a death in the family brings them back together for the first time in years, they are all forced to confront what happened that night and how it has shaped their lives. While the novel that serves as the source material features the theme of the past never really going away, it’s more of a classic haunted house story featuring what Stephen King refers to as a “bad place”. In Jackson’s novel, Hill House itself is the focus of the story. In Flanagan’s adaption, the focus is shifted away from the house and onto a family that had once lived there. Hill House is still spoken of in hushed and fearful tones, and is undeniably something of a character itself, but the bulk of the story centers around how the Crain family dealt with (or in some cases didn’t deal with) that one tragic night in 1992. As that story progresses, the Crains are forced to confront what they all have been ignoring in some way for the last twenty-six years. They are all drawn back to the house until past and present cease to be different from another.

In one case, a character realizes that they themselves are the specter they saw as a child, and that the vision they were seeing was their future death. The past literally devours them, using them to haunt their child self. On visuals alone the scene is nightmarish. With the implication of the character being helpless to avoid such a tragic fate and then forced to relive the most terrifying moments of their life it becomes borderline hellish; something out of a parable on the dangers of sinful living and what awaits those who do so in the afterlife. Much like in Gerald’s Game, this character’s past child-self was the only one who understood them, the only one that mattered. The past is, for better or worse, all that matters, and they are forced to relive it.

To an extent the entire family is a victim of this, and in the end it is the past that destroys them as a unit. It wasn’t so much the death of their mother that ruined them as people; it was their inability to move on that hobbled them and ultimately cripples them as a whole. Nell, the youngest child, seems particularly affected by her time in the house. In the first episode, her calls to her siblings for help go unanswered, and we find out later she was in deep distress over something involving the house they grew up in. She is, quite literally, the past calling to them, and as per usual they go about their daily routines ignoring it until it becomes impossible to do so.

We own what we do, we own what happens to us, and what we own always comes home. We cannot undo what’s happened to us any more than we can prevent the tide coming in and it is a meaningless gesture to try and do so. Mike Flanagan, perhaps better than any living genre filmmaker, understands this and uses the idea to great effect. His characters are, in a way, doomed from the moment we meet them. But from that struggle to escape whatever fate might lie ahead for them, because of what lay behind them, great stories emerge. It’s a universal struggle, and by building on such a concept Flanagan fills these stories with equally wonderful characters. Instead of houses haunted by ghosts, we meet people who are haunted by their own pasts. Whether it’s siblings trying to make sense of how an antique mirror caused their parents to murder one another, a young boy who cannot understand the death of his mother, or a nurse coping with a childhood he barely remembers (save for one horrific winter in Colorado when his father tried to murder him and his mother), Flanagan knows that although we may be through with the past, the past is rarely through with us.

Justin Lore
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