Mike Flanagan, destroyer of worlds, uses grief, family and home to remind us that we can’t have nice things.
The work of Mike Flanagan has often explored themes of grief. In his latest series, Midnight Mass (2021) is set to release on September 24th, 2021. The trailer for the multi-hyphenates third Netflix series is brimming with beautiful imagery, but spares us much detail about the plot. While little information is available about the series yet, Flanagan’s existing oeuvre of his own original content and distinctive reimagined adaptations may provide some hints as to the direction of the new series. Spanning through his seven features and two series, Flanagan has consistently tortured his characters through similarly foundational methods by using their grief and pain to warp conventionally comforting things into lingering, noxious horror.
A plush plague doctor is judging me silently from a box of Chen’s things. It’s been sitting on a low table to the left of my workspace for a week and a half and I know I should sort through it, select which pieces of ephemera from a life cut way too short stay and which go. I can’t quite bring myself to. It feels too absolute. She died abruptly earlier this summer, and in the strange undercurrent of grief and shock, I functionally stopped sleeping. The nights are long when you’re unable to rest and sooner or later, you need something to fill that space. Being alone with your thoughts...well, let’s be honest, it’s awful. On a whim, I decided to re-watch The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), a series I had enjoyed during my initial viewing, but felt slightly underwhelmed by. I was at the time and still remain a Mike Flanagan fan. I had been astounded by The Haunting of Hill House (2018), wildly impressed by Doctor Sleep (2019) and Oculus (2013), and was ready to fall in love with The Haunting of Bly Manor. I did like it! It simply did not move me the way Flanagan's previous work had.
An interesting thing happened while watching it this summer. I still enjoyed the narrative and the intricacies, no one pays attention to detail the way Flanagan does, but as I watched it, I stepped back and let my eyes blur a little. I began to see the pet themes of the Flanigan's universe and beneath the weight of my own grief, the picture changed. If the vast majority of horror ensures on the fear of potentially dying, Flanagan’s brand of horror rests in the absolute certainty of losing.
Imagine, if you will, the conspiracy board of a manic individual with the string and thumbtacks, all the trappings of breaking a case wide open. There would be three core headings for a Flanagan property, specially the themes of loss, family and home. The inciting loss is almost always off-screen, present long before the viewer has arrived. The characters we meet and grow to love are already haunted. The surviving loss of the Crane matriarch, Olivia (Carla Gugino, Gerald's Game) lingers over the family from the very first episode of The Haunting of Hill House. Dani (Victoria Pedretti, You) carries the loss of her fiancé, with her to Bly Manor. Similar to Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) at Bly Manor, Kaylie (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites, The Giver) are already mourning the loss of their parents when Oculus begins.
Take note, a theme is emerging. Jack Torrance is long dead in Doctor Sleep and Danny is still sleep-walking through the grief over the Overlook Hotel claiming his father. The ladies of Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) are sans a beloved patriarch when the film begins. None of these losses are fresh or new. The grief sits like an increasing weight on our protagonist shoulders, informing their actions like a world-weary Jiminy Cricket character whose own moral compass has gone catawampus.
Let’s return now to our conspiracy board and follow the red string to tack number two. The family heading. I’ve chosen this somewhat arbitrarily, because sooner or later, all of our strings are going to overlap into one big mess feeding off itself in a beautiful sort of chaos. It makes sense for Flanagan to focus his films and series so heavily on familial love. There is a certain shared language in even the most dysfunctional of families. Though each member of a family may react differently, there is an exclusivity, a common familiarity with a potential loss that exists both with the person lost and with the events and circumstances leading up to the a shared grief. Mourning is extremely singular. It’s a lonely, isolating process, that is unique to every individual.
Returning to the central thesis of Flanagan's horror being the certainty of loss, I noted that what turns grief from deep, interior sadness into existential terror is not the inevitability of it, but it’s permanence. There is no hope of, maybe we’ll get out of this and there is no victory in being the final girl. Loss is absolute and all you can do is gape at it. Flanagan’s families know that, but still rage against it. Familial love, beyond providing a foundation for shared grief, also offers a unique set of stakes. The horror that haunt these families focus on them, specifically. Their unique grief, the shared loss of their loved ones, it makes them vulnerable. Theodora (Kate Siegel, Hush), Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser, Twilight), Steven (Michiel Huisman, Orphan Black) and patriarch Hugh (Henry Thomas, E.T.) willingly return to Hill House to save Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Invisible Man) because they failed to save Nell. They all know what it means to lose family and when their grief, the horror that they all share, calls them home, it uses their familial love to do it.
The Overlook uses Danny’s (Ewan McGregor) love and ache for his parents to cloud his mind and make him susceptible to the poison of the hotel. Bly Manor uses Flora to lure Miles back, relying on their shared sadness over their deceased parents and desperate need for familial connection. The Lasser Glass knows that Tim and Kaylie would never abandon each other to face death alone because they are doubly bonded by a shared grief and a sibling relationship. Two connections that are absolutely dependent on each other. Family is horror in its own right, especially in Flanagan's stories, where the threat of losing each other patiently looms. Family may serve as a kind of comfort in Flanagan’s world, but more than that, it is a trap. It is the very source of grief, thus the terror, as well as the motivating factor that invariably drives our heroes back to the third point on our map, home.
Flanagan's stories consistently involve a house that is deeply entrenched in a family's personal mythos. Hill House is where everything goes to absolute hell for the Cranes. It is also where Nell returns, the last place they were all together as a family and the place that their fractured unit returns to in the hopes of saving the remaining members. As toxic as Hill House is and despite the Crane's intention to flip it and leave, it is clear that Hill House is their home. The Red Room adapts and changes for each family member, providing them with a personal and specific respite. This house knows them and the blueprints Olivia draws of Hill House increasingly match those of the 'forever home' she designed for her family. Hill House keeps those who call it home and die there in an wraithlike state. The house, as a living thing, builds its own family, one that can never abandon it.
Bly Manor operates in a very similar fashion. Those who die on grounds of the estate can never leave. They wander there, until they’ve forgotten themselves and everything they knew. Much like we do not get to choose our families, the denizens of Bly Manor do not get to choose their home and much like the Cranes flee but return to Hill House, Dani flees but ends up returning to Bly Manor because it is her home. In Flanigan's stories, home is a smothering, suffocating mother. Even the house in Ouija: Origin of Evil has a sort of oppressive hold on the family. The menace ostensibly comes from the Ouija board, but the house’s dark history of horrifying medical experimentation breathes tainted life into it as does the new family living in it.
Pulling on our conspiracy board threads, the grief that young Doris (Lulu Wilson, Becky) feels for her lost father inspires her to use the board in the first place. When the board wakes up whatever restless spirits are in the house, they lead her to hidden money that facilitates the family staying in their home, a home that very much wants to keep them. Beyond his recurring literary and cinematic motifs, Flanagan’s use of the same cast across multiple projects suggests a certain inescapability. There is the sense that these people and thus we, as the viewer, are trapped by loss. Set to repeat a cycle of escape and return; catch and release. Home won’t let us go. We may change time periods, locations, names and hairstyles, but we will always end up tangled in the web of loss, family and home.
The Lasser Glass has appeared in every Flanagan project. The architecture of Hill House is very similar to the architecture of Bly Manor. These worlds stutter and repeat, perhaps because some things that are lost can never be found and we have to carry that with us for the rest of our lives. What could be more terrifying? We will see how and if Midnight Mass fits Flanagan's carefully crafted formula. It's certain that no one has a more assured hand at finding the nuance and complicated horror in the things we love than Mike Flanagan.