Haunted is a cynical attempt to spin entertainment out of real-life delusion, and the scariest thing about it is that people will let it get away with that.
Since watching all six episodes of Haunted, Netflix’s new, ostensibly factual original series, I’ve been wondering how best to ridicule it without offending any of the people involved. On the one hand, it’s full of outright rubbish, obvious embellishment, and flagrant manipulation, designed explicitly to trick and exploit people who are emotionally vulnerable or otherwise susceptible to hoary horror horseshit. But on the other hand, the one thing that all the folks who regale us with their otherworldly stories of ghosts and ghouls all share is a history of trauma, extreme stress, abuse, neglect, or some combination of the above. And while it’s all too easy to mock ridiculous mumbo-jumbo, it’s somewhat less fun to unpack the instances of very real, very human unpleasantness at the root of such delusions.
In each half-hour episode of Haunted, a storyteller settles into a handsome leather armchair in a tastefully-appointed study, and explains how they have been haunted or possessed or whatever else. Their friends and family sit around them, occasionally asking leading questions or tearfully reinforcing their outlandish reasoning and theories. This is interspersed by dramatic re-enactments brought to life by actors of wildly uneven ability and an evidently not-insignificant budget. It should come as no surprise that the fictional sequences are endlessly more believable and compelling than the real-life accounting.
The overall impression is that Haunted would have been better served as an anthology of creepy capsule vignettes. But the repeated insistence that these stories are true gives the series an additional responsibility – one which it repeatedly fails to meet. At best it’s deliberately misleading, but at worst it’s openly, proudly irresponsible, and perhaps more unforgivably reliant on ensnaring a curious audience in the simplest possible way.
There’s every chance that these stories are completely untrue, in which case Haunted is just dramatically fraudulent. But there’s just as much chance that these people believe – or have at least believed at some point – that their stories are real, in which case Haunted is a predatory betrayal of victims who have been scarred by past abuses and traumas. Even when one episode, about a woman growing up in the home of a serial killer, seems to be moving in a more authentically chilling true-crime direction, it quickly morphs into a story about a woman growing up in the home of a serial killer who was also apparently possessed by the devil and began summoning demons.
This type of pabulum is well-suited to genre fiction, but not to genre fact. Either Haunted is attempting to hoodwink an audience with a flaky veneer of authenticity, or it’s cynically peddling delusion as entertainment. Either way, the scariest thing about it is how many people will lap it up regardless.