Netflix’s ‘Haunted’ reveals and rattles.

Netflix’s ‘Haunted’ reveals and rattles.

Real or not, the “true” horror show is coming for us, and our reactions continue to expose just how skittish we are when discussing the afterlife.

May 2nd, 2021 at 11:01 am EDT

With recent exception, ghost stories and UFO sightings have rarely made for respected journalism. Even if reporters corroborate and distance themselves with a hundred uses of “allegedly”, publishing their own names alongside believers’ is tantamount to self-sabotage. Those with the tales to tell really aren’t “believers” in the conventional sense of the word, though. Some have dabbled in fewer conspiracy theories than have the skeptics criticizing them or the journalists hanging up. Paranormal investigations had been nothing to them but pseudoscientific ghostbusting. Yet what happened, they know, happened — and they are as incredulous about it as any other.

Haunted is Netflix’s “true” horror anthology series, where directors take reportedly real stories of supernatural events and film the survivors as they tell family and friends about their experiences, often for the first time.

Haunted inhabits a corner of journalism cobwebbed and long unoccupied. Its showrunners don’t assert perfect certainty; they report what others say they experienced, fact-checking verifiable assertions, but choosing not to squash the stories as their contemporaries would. Nonbelievers might say, they choose to exploit the ill.

What’s odd about the show, besides the obvious, is that the people are believable even if their stories aren’t.

While the tales unfold, the series offers re-enacted versions of these events. Unlike the faceless style offered in true crime shows, Haunted’s is a bit more big-budget; scenes unfurl like they would in a horror movie, with special fx to bring fictional terror to a nonfiction format. The formula has proved popular enough to spawn a spin-off, Haunted: Latin America, and with the next season’s release on May 14th, three seasons in total. 

Skeptics will find that with Haunted, they can more than have their fill. Cutaways occur somewhat conveniently as stories reach their climax, relying on actors taking untold liberties over the hidden storytelling of those commiserating and sharing back in the main, living-room set. 

What’s odd about the show, besides the obvious, is that the people are believable even if their stories aren’t. Psychopaths and pathological liars are common enough in the general population for some to have made their way into a vessel like Haunted, to propel themselves to fame, and many of these possible manipulators are often excellent actors, even, having to master faux-empathic mirroring to both survive and thrive amongst the rest of us.

But these people spilling their souls on Haunted are not all psychopaths, nor are all of their family members and friends. Though fame-craving and capable, psychopaths generally make more calculated decisions than those landing you on a show that will certainly be met with heavy skepticism and dismissal, sacrificing their entire reputations.

If the narrators are actors, they should be Emmy-nominated ones. For them not to have an IMDB page, even, or be regularly employed in Hollywood would be more of a mystery than the ghost stories themselves. Method, they are these people, and these are their family members. 

Other brands of skepticism abound, but never all at once.

Some of the oddities depicted on Haunted come after or around high-stress moments. Some don’t. Some leave the possibly of a narrator’s mental illness open. Others less so. Some events, despite a narrators’ reported sobriety, may have actually involved psychedelics. Others just don’t fit the bill for drugs: they’re too targeted, too abrupt.

Memory is regularly more malleable than we realize. Faux memories may even rest as more palatable replacements for traumatic ones. Witnesses, too, are widely unreliable, we know. But Haunted often speaks to different people’s same experiences, across houses, and across towns.

Real or not, the “true” horror show is coming for us, and our reactions continue to expose just how skittish we are when discussing the afterlife.

S1E5: “Alien Infection”

In “Alien Infection”, a woman named Lindsey claims she was repeatedly abducted by aliens. The first time an abduction occurred, she says, was after her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, a mammoth stressor. The treatments were difficult, and the cancer proved terminal. Her abductions never eased until after her mother had passed, she says.

The visages of the aliens themselves were faceless, she tells her confused family in the episode. A UFO investigator on hand interjects, explaining that what Lindsey is describing is apparently common: conveniently, abductees either don’t look directly at the aliens or can’t recall what the otherworldly faces looked like because they’re too “disturbing.” 

Later, in college, the abductions picked up again, she says. In one particularly violent one at age 19, a clichéd bright light shone through Lindsey’s window, the wall dematerialized, and Lindsey began a floating ascent towards a ship. Clinging to a ceiling fan, she fought back. She was able to resist at least momentarily before being taken overnight and returned unconscious to her bed. In the morning, she found her own finger treads in the fan blades’ dust.

Maybe these drags were from someone else, from years before? I don’t know. Her story, I don’t believe. Her, I do.

The initialism “UFO” has wrongly become synonymous with “alien spaceship.” The actual term unpacks for the military much more literally, with an emphasis on “Unidentified.” Unsure if “flying” and “object” were even the right words (if a magnet levitates an object, would you really say the thing is “flying”?), our military now uses the initialism “UAP”, or “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.”

Haunted, “Alien Infection

The recently founded Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, a division of the Office of Naval Intelligence, just this year released two high-profile military recordings of UAPs. The videos had previously been leaked to news outlets and publicly verified by the Pentagon. Genuinely unidentified, the phenomena may be adversarial and terrestrial, Russian, Chinese. Some form of the UAPTF has been active since at the latest 2007, according to documents now public in budget disclosures for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Senator Marko Rubio. A public report with further detail is slated for release this June.

Our narrator Lindsey, then, earns at least a thousandth of a degree of credibility, while the stories themselves feel, to every degree, the opposite: incredible. Her episode concludes with her explaining how what happened was common in her area at the time, with others claiming they too were abducted under the same wall-melting circumstances. Directors fill the screen with newspaper clippings as she finishes.

This woman would be Meryl Streep caliber, really.

S2E1: “The Mimic”

With “The Mimic”, skeptics will have to invoke “folie à deux”, an instance of group hallucination, to rationalize their way back to the ground. That may be relatively easy, though: like the one is this tale, old houses, some theories suggest, may emit hallucinogenic carbon monoxide.

The episode’s primary narrator Rebecca describes how upon moving into a turn-of-the-century house with several friends in her 20s, both she and her roommates were “tormented by a thing called ‘the mimic.’” Calm adults with careers on the line go on to recap on film what they went through: during the haunting, they watched each other do things the other didn’t do, say things the other didn’t say, be something the other couldn’t be. As if they were shacking up with a shape-shifting alien, three had their own awful experiences, blamed at the time on “paint fumes” among other excuses. 

“I was hearing all of you who lived there calling out to me on a daily basis,” Rebecca says of the mimicry in the house. “This was just constantly happening for me.”

Hearing auditory hallucinations is of course not uncommon. Her hazy encounters align with others’ accounts. Her friend, Brandon, explains how he encountered a version of Rebecca, seducing him, then biting him and disintegrating. The whole thing rings a little too close to a pregnant Mary telling Joseph that she totally didn’t cheat on him. There’s no one to trick, though. Brandon appears mortified to be telling his story on camera, scared more it seems of the potential damage to his reputation than of the mimic itself ever appearing in his life again. 

Haunted, “The Mimic

“Whatever it is that’s been talking to me for months,” Rebecca says of the time, “knows what we look like, knows how we dress, knows what we’d say.” Unlike their horror-movie, trope-bound kin, the roommates moved out, and the experiences stopped. The hallucinations, then, were dependent on the house as a setting, not exactly prime evidence for two or three ongoing mental illnesses, but possibly for carbon monoxide leaks.

Given the roommates’ ages at the time, of all the Haunted episodes, theirs is one that also stands the highest likelihood of having actually involved drugs. The established science counting against their story’s veracity looks something like this: a single hallucination happens all the time; two, coordinated, happen, but less frequently; three can occur, but are rare — with either self-administered or accidentally inhaled chemicals, though, all is as common as could be.

S2E2: “Ward of Evil”

The science behind mass hallucination can insulate a skeptic pretty thick, but probably not when those involved are medical staff shuffling their way through their 9 to 5 gig. Staff are likely to be sober in the daytime at work (though they do have access to prescriptions), so as the experiences multiply among several, credibility slowly begins to arrive. Haunted explores a nursing home in the episode “Ward of Evil”, one of the most disturbing stories of the show’s two seasons. Former nurses recall one patient, Jackie, who did and had things done to her that they just couldn’t explain then, and still can’t now. A dismissive owner of the nursing facility makes several appearances, too, playing the part of the skeptic for us.

Exorcism-genre staples like an abnormally cold room; guttural, inhuman sounds; speaking in tongues; are all here in spades. More formally known as “xenolalia”, speaking in tongues in a language unfamiliar to the speaker constitutes one of the more widely debunked spiritual claims, with a bunch of random syllables ending in vowels often passing for intelligible Latin, among other languages.

“It wasn’t Jackie’s voice — it wasn’t human,” one of the nurses says.

A picture of Jesus makes its way into the tale, too. The frame apparently kept dropping off the wall in Jackie’s room, as if it were being lifted up, then pulled out. The nurses kept hooking it and, short of an earthquake, there would be no way for it to have fallen off the wall, they say. Horrified, one went to the owner, who huffed and puffed and begrudgingly walked down to the room to deal with it herself. Still, the picture wouldn’t stay. What sounds like an R.L. Stine plot point, these adults seem to very much know actually happened.

“After a while, [Jackie] stopped eating and drinking. No meds. No bodily functions.” Narrating, they continue, “By now, she hasn’t eaten and dranken [sic] or urinated anything in weeks. This woman should not be alive.”

Haunted, “Ward of Evil

An attendant is bitten and quits. A spontaneously occurring puncture wound appears on one of the nurse’s bodies. Disturbed herself, the owner does a complete 180, calling in the big guns with the Catholic Church, who in turn send exorcists to verify and end the possession. In the climax, the two nurses both report having seen the woman levitate off the bed. 

After Jackie eventually, allegedly did die weeks after she should have, the room came to host new, healthy occupants. Several developed ailments without warning, leading to quick deaths. The swiftness and severity was more than unsettling. The owner had the room boarded off.

The nursing home as it’s named in the “Ward of Evil” doesn’t exist, the name perhaps changed for the narration to avoid slander suits; or, to lie. Armchair skeptics have found that a handful of the storytellers on Haunted are in either the horror entertainment or supernatural investigation industries. The showrunners’ lack of disclosure of this fact is perhaps more damning than the fact itself: you might expect people who experienced the strange to ingratiate themselves to it, staying close for answers. Mashable dug into a season-one episode, more on a serial killer than on the supernatural, and couldn’t corroborate many of the episode’s central claims.

Executive producer Brett-Patrick Jenkins acknowledged to Decider, “There have been some fans and viewers of the show who have been upset because, as you said, they found out ‘This person had directed a horror movie’ or ‘This person was involved in the paranormal scene.’” Jenkins plans on having a “Where are they now?” episode that gives “all of those people an opportunity to talk and answer questions.” All of it is real, he says.

We should have already ruled the absurd out of the odd.

Two seasons in, the people on screen in any given episode are not all flocks of coordinated psychopaths. They are not all secret actors. They are not all paparazzi-magnets. Most appear exactly as you’d expect an honest human to appear after such encounters: shook. With us instead assuming the worst, out of habit, culture, and comfort, we are likely failing as journalists, as scientists, as doctors, as family members, as friends — as humans. These humans likely experienced what they describe, whether induced from paint fumes or otherwise. To validate the worry, though, would require far more journalism and research than is available, and to make these resources available, as a culture, we need to ease up on each other — not in burdens of proof, but in common-sense concessions, concessions like, “This person had and has had since no history of mental illness,” or “It is actually pretty weird that multiple, sober, unrelated people had similar experiences.” Acknowledging the phenomena, but still not outlandish and unverified culprits, is the start of the scientific method and what should be a point of pride for a twenty-first-century culture. Likening it all at first glance to hallucination is science-averse, not science itself. We’d be poor scientists if we were to look at our current, clearly dismissive and even offensive explanations, and think “we’re absolutely certain.” The instinct activating seems to be a relic of mental health stigmas: “They’re just crazy,” we think.

Researchers should want to examine the story of a woman who survived without water for weeks. As with the Salem Witch Trial visions, which are now understood as a mass hallucination from fungus growing on crops, researchers should want to know what exactly happened in a town in Louisiana where abductions were reported en masse.

To start, we could do worse than Haunted. Jenkins told Decider, “it’s very rare that you meet someone that they ever feel safe to share a haunted story with you. It’s usually after you’ve known them a few years, you’ve gone on several dates, you’re in a relationship, or you open up to your best friend.” The show sidesteps the lengthy courting process of sharing our weirdest with a confidant, and in the process gets at least some semblance of a distorted reality to screen.

One narrator on the show described what it was like to speak about the experiences in the past: “[Others] just brushed it off. They just made me feel like… like shit. I attempted to talk to my friends about it, and they laughed at me. So I learned to stop talking about it.”

None of this is surprising. How many experiences are people sitting on? To what near or distant ends does this hidden data pool span? We should have the answers to these questions by now. Instead, we laugh.

What the show is, is journalism, possibly bad journalism, possibly excellent, but either way, of a kind in need of more careful curation than it’s received in the past. Haunted‘s are a type of report journalists just haven’t bothered to report on, well, ever, and we’re flying blind. Other strange things that happen in a community make it to print, but not these. 

With no researchers to stop us, we still enjoy undeserved leeway to pose the wildest explanations. Aside from ghouls and ghosts, it may be equally plausible, if not more so, that a good deal of this, from mimics to exorcists, is just a bunch of pranksters toying with others for kicks. Why would we think that demons are more likely than a slapshit version of ourselves? In 2021, with several centuries of accruing, hard scientific inquiry, I shouldn’t be able to sit here and pose such cartoonish possibilities. We should have already ruled the absurd out of the odd. 

According to neuroscientists, what we term “reality” is our world’s most agreed-upon hallucination, our senses conjured out of data our organs receive, broadcasting “us” as both experiencer and experience, a present, realistic fiction out of the noise, in which we are able to navigate and survive. Despite their being here, we don’t hear actual radio waves or see in gamma, but we hear sound waves and see light in wavelengths on our visible spectrum; all are happening simultaneously, and our senses either filter out or never register that which would be too much to process at once, or that which is irrelevant to our survival. Those whose brains were born with stronger or malfunctioning antennae didn’t exactly stay present enough with the rest of us to make their way to the gene pool for a drop-off. 

How many self-appointed logicians would prematurely scoff at even bothering to organize studies? Whether the phenomena are debunked or not, the bothering is perhaps the fastest way to the next stage of the intellectual development they champion. We may come to find the demystifying research into the preternatural may be a kind of silver bullet to the vampiric assumptions we make about an afterlife and other dimensions. Bill Maher should be cheering for it. The research, then, is a call for every atheist to make, at least, when their evidence and rhetoric has otherwise failed so spectacularly to sway a calcifying, if diminishing percentage of our population.

About religion and the afterlife, we have seemingly an entire world who want answers but are too afraid to offend someone with an unwelcome interpretation, too afraid to amend the explanations we’ve each inherited. In the joy of curiosity, we should be having the time of our lives exploring things unbelievably new. In a world as redundantly dystopian as ours, it could be just the kind of common goal we need to rally around what we explorers in body vessels share, rather than what we don’t — even if we can’t believe it.

THE STIFF

All strange phenomena is worth ignoring.
THE SIFT

Strange phenomena is worth investigating if only to put the issues to rest.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist, a Journalism and AP English teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'