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Part 1: Mike Flanagan and the Horror Melodrama

By Madison Jamar  May 19, 2024 

In October 2020, ahead of the first Halloween in a world with COVID-19, I purchased a metallic skirt from Forever XXII, and with my recently shaved head and ZERO shirt, I became Billy Corgan. My roommates dressed as Tony Soprano and Pee-Wee Herman, respectively. A dedicated effort was put into our looks despite knowing the majority of people would only see it online, though perhaps that was what made our dress-up feel most crucial. And besides, more often, it now seems that Halloween costumes are conceived with a virtual audience in mind.

 

Our plan for the evening, to watch television, was a common sacred affair for our household, even before lockdown. We’d invited a few close friends to watch Oculus, a 2013 horror movie about an evil haunted mirror haunting a young family. The ghost story and haunted house, already my favorite subgenres of horror, were particularly fitting for our collective anxiety of being fixed to our homes. The questions of how to cope were pervasive. How could we make sense of the fact that spaces of communal reprieve were now sites of potential danger and the home, often a place of shelter and retreat, restrictive?

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In Oculus, Tim has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for the murders of his parents as a child. Upon his release, Tim’s sister, Kaylie sets out to exonerate him by proving their family’s mirror and the spirits it holds are responsible. The siblings’ return to their childhood home unearths not only the supernatural malevolence of the antique but also the memories of their once idyllic parents as they become corrupted by ghosts reflected in the antique.

The stars of Oculus are at times, unconvincing in their acting, especially in the moments that require an emotion beyond fear. Perhaps this is due to the stiff dialogue that better serves to further the story to its next twist more than it does to clue us into any depth of personality. Yet while watching, we were all terrified. Every onscreen bump elicited an expected jump or yelp from us on the couch. As the credits rolled I saw the director’s name.

 

Oh, it’s that guy?! I exclaimed excitedly.

That guy, writer and filmmaker, Mike Flanagan, created the Netflix hit, The Haunting of Hill House, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel. In Oculus there are the seeds of themes common to Flanagan’s work that are prominently exemplified in Hill House. Both works deal with familial loss, the terror of loved ones becoming unrecognizable, and the ramifications of parents failing in their duty to protect their children. But with the chillingly atmospheric Hill House, the story of a family dealing with the aftermath of their mother’s suicide, more attention is paid to the messy etchings of grief and survival.

 

I’d binged most of the series in one sitting two years prior. I watched it again at some point during lockdown, and last fall with my boyfriend who’d never seen it. In each viewing, my feelings on its successes and pitfalls shifted. It was frightening but also wrenching. Upon my second viewing (after reading Jackson’s novel and watching the Robert Wise adaptation) I’d wondered if the sentimentality of Flanagan's rendition was misplaced. Instead of the story of a neurotic, lonely woman who becomes more isolated, the Hill House of the so-called Flanaverse is a family drama, revolving between characters and their tragic subplots and connected tensions.

 

But regarded not just as a drama but a melodrama the tenor of the show, and of other Flanagan media, is better understood. Like horror, melodrama is often derided for its genre tropes—its extravagance, its cliche ques to incite emotion, and its penchant for unlikely happy endings. Their willingness to embrace excess, together with horror and melodrama allows for an unabashed confrontation of subjects, filmmakers like Flanagan, set out to explore.

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In his more recent projects, Flanagan’s characters don’t labor through bland, plot-driving dialogue as much as they engage in stinging banter and long-winded speeches that are supposed to offer profundity. When watching Midnight Mass I groaned whenever a character in conversation suddenly turned, gazing away from the camera, because I knew we were on the precipice of a monologue.

 

Yet seeing these moments through the lens of melodrama, I think of studio movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood where films still seemed more like live extensions of theatrical plays. Hollywood stars dramatically inflected their lines, their voices loudly carrying as if speaking to a hall of people and not a co-star a few feet away. These old films often reflected on morality through the simple lens of good and bad. They weren’t necessarily reflective of real life but sought to depict real understandings of right and wrong.

 

Of course the melodramatic horror is not always successful. Sometimes the sentimental undermines the catharsis already found in unsettling horror. In Gerald’s Game (based on the novel from the prolific Stephen King) a woman, Jessie, is handcuffed to a bed alone in a cabin after her husband suddenly dies during sex. In the novel, the majority of the story takes place in her head as she tackles memories of abuse she’s long repressed. Flanagan does well enough with visualizing the psychological tenants of the plot but regrettably retains most of the end of the novel, in which Jessie narrates her coming to terms with her abuse and even facing an abuser in court. The swiftness of the ending and the neat tidying of the story undercuts the awfulness of the memories and realizations she’s unraveled. Sometimes the terror is simply terrible. 

 

Perhaps it is the realism of the plot of Gerald’s Game that makes the blend of horror and melodrama less compatible. The two genres best converge when journeying the realms of the supernatural and improbable, offering outsized sensations to match a disconcerting world.

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Madison Jamar is a New York City-based writer from Columbus, Ohio. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Angel Food, Black Lipstick, 68to05, Catapult and more.

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