From 'Castle Rock' to 'Hill House': How Horror Series Showcase Real-World Fears

The Haunting of Hill House-Publicity Still-H 2019

The producers behind TV's most frightening series share how there's "a sense of existential ease" at the center of their stories.

Ultimately, horror series on TV are kind of like the demonic characters at the center of their stories. They're terrifying. They just keep coming at you. And it usually turns out that they were completely misunderstood.

"That was one of my favorite challenges with this project — the genre has a history of not being appropriately understood," says Mike Flanagan, creator and executive producer of the Netflix limited series The Haunting of Hill House, the story of a family coping with the trauma of growing up in a haunted mansion. "[Horror] isn't necessarily required to have the same integrity of characterization and theme that is expected from a drama. However, horror has an amazing power to take very heavy themes and mix them up in the aesthetic of the genre."

After all, fear is one of the first emotions we feel in life and becomes "one of the most intense emotional reactions that's ingrained in our DNA," he notes. "So horror speaks to something primal, and once you tap into that, everything is amplified, and it's a great canvas to explore the darker sides of our nature."

However, it can be difficult to discern these thoughtful takes on humanity amid all the bodies piled up by masked camp killers, all-powerful aliens and wisecracking demons. That's why Flanagan figures the key to doing horror on TV right is creating "a sense of existential unease."

For Sam Shaw, executive producer of Hulu's Castle Rock, that means channeling the very real fears and insecurities that plague our daily lives. For his limited series, which is based on the collected works of Stephen King, he says the key to both the author's work and the show is the horror genre's ability to lay bare "what it is to be human and mortal, knowing that these things that you love, you're eventually going to lose them." That's why one of Shaw's favorite Castle Rock episodes was "The Queen," the season's seventh installment, which honed in on the dementia of the elderly mom (Sissy Spacek) of a central character.

The point of the episode, Shaw says, was to get personal and "tell a very different kind of horror story. The idea was to reproduce for the audience the feeling of terror and dislocation you'd experience if suffering from advanced dementia." That sense of dread became very real for him while writing the episode because he experienced his own real-life horror — the sudden, unexpected death of his mother.

"It became a very personal and cathartic experience, mourning and reckoning with my feelings in a way I hadn't had a chance to before," says Shaw, who previously worked on Manhattan and Masters of Sex. "In some ways, that felt like the scariest hour of our story and, in another way, the most emotionally honest. The episode was uncomfortable to watch, and it had to be. We connect to the horror genre so deeply to shock and surprise, but there's something gratifying about the depths of the journeys [horror characters] make."

Flanagan took an equally intimate approach to Hill House. Even though the limited series was based on the 1959 Gothic horror novel by Shirley Jackson, he wanted to make it his own by having all his writers "pour out our own family stories into the show." So, even though his series featured plenty of unsettling things such as a specter known as The Bent Neck Lady, Flanagan discovered that "people who'd recently lost a parent or sibling all said the show actually gave them a sense of peace and hope. That's why the best horror has to very much function like a drama. If you take away the horror elements, would we still care about these people?"

This dramatic touch certainly gives series like Haunting of Hill House and Castle Rock emotional resonance. At the same time, without the threat of ghosts and serial killers and assorted hell spawn that characters have to survive, these horror shows wouldn't provide nearly the vicarious thrill that the audience expects.

"We gravitate toward entertainment that is scary or full of anxiety because ultimately, it ends," says Flanagan, whose horror film credits include Before I Wake, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Gerald's Game. "These shows tell us that the intense moments in society that we deal with will come to an end, that we can sign up for this voluntary stressful experience since it's got a very fixed duration — as opposed to the stress we deal with in real life. So the genre offers a great exercise for us to immerse ourselves in intense discomfort or fear and then have it be over."

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.