Haunted Houses of Miniseries
(Picture above be the Rose Red House. It be big!)
Up until now, I have restricted my reviews of haunted house stories to those that came from the mediums of film and literature. The stuff of other media service providers I have ignored. It’s time to take a look at the haunted house fiction that has stemmed from some of these alternate service providers. Mainly, I’m referring to a trending phenomenon known as the “mini-series,” which is defined by Wikipedia as “a television program that tells a story in a predetermined, limited number of episodes.”
Yes folks, it’s time to branch out beyond the big screen, for exclusive programming from services such as Netflix and Hulu have in some cases eclipsed the popularity of traditional films. Likewise, programs from cable networks such as FX have successfully cemented themselves in the American psyche. The “miniseries” is a big factor in all this (Think Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things) Hell, I have to acknowledge that even traditional over-the-air television has produced some analytic-worthy miniseries about haunted houses. And acknowledge I do in this blog post that is dedicated to a haunted house miniseries that aired on ABC for three consecutive nights back in January, 2002. Okay, so this might not be the best example of a “trending phenomenon”, given that this aired seventeen years ago, but oh well, sue me, this post/review/article is about Rose Red, screenplay by Stephen King, directed by Craig R Baxley.
What are some examples of haunted house themed miniseries that are more current? Well, the most recent I can think of is Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which is very loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed novel. Another is American Horror Story: Murder House which aired on AMC. AHS has featured several haunted houses in there many seasons, but I believe “Murder House” is the most known. There are probably other haunted house miniseries stories out there, but these are the three that come to my mind as I write this article. I have seen all three. Which is the best of the three? Definitely The Haunting of Hill House. Which is the second best? Probably American Horror Story: Murder House. Poor ol’ Stephen King is bringing up the rear. Too bad, because he wanted his series to be a memorable tribute to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for his story is very similar to Jackson’s famous novel. Years later, Mike Flanagan (creator of the Netflix The Haunting of Hill House series) would succeed with this in ways that King’s story could not. Even so, Rose Red is an entertaining piece of work.
In the future I will write up articles on The Haunting of Hill House and American Horror Story: Murder House. But for now, it’s all about Rose Red. In fact, over the past month, I’ve hosted four watch parties at my Facebook Page, with the subject of each viewing being Rose Red. Four Sundays of October – Rose Red Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 was streaming to the world. This satisfied my craving to do something different this year to celebrate the Halloween season. A couple of people actually watched! For a few minutes here and there. The day after each viewing (those Manic Mondays, ugh!), I wrote a plot summary of the previous night’s story line.
To read up on the specifics of the story, follow the links below (there will be spoilers)
Since I have already detailed the plot, I will focus mostly on analysis, review, opinion and trivia in the paragraphs that follow. I will retread through some of the plot basics when it pertains to the analysis, or when it just insists on sticking its head into the conversation. Ah well, let’s just see what happens. Here I go!
Here begins the Plot-In-Brief (very brief)
(you mean it’s already sticking its head in the conversation?)
(yeah it is, deal with it!)
A professor of parapsychology pays a team of psychics to spend a weekend at a rumored haunted house. The professor, Dr. Joyce Reardon, theorizes that the collective sensitivities of the team to paranormal activity will work toward stimulating the house to behave ever so hauntingly. The goal is to obtain verifiable data from the haunting that will hopefully legitimize the science of parapsychology. So they get to work. Ghostly stuff happens. Things get dangerous. People die.
Here ends the Plot-In-Brief
(Intermission song – La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La La. Okay song and intermission is now over.)
The influences behind Stephen King’s Rose Red
Now my faithful readers, does anything in the “Plot-in-Brief” section seem familiar? It should if you’re a fan of literary haunted houses. The plot also describes Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” to a tee. This is no accident. Stephen King wrote Rose Red with Jackson’s story in mind. There will be more detail on this later. But his influences don’t stop there. No siree Bob! King also draws heavily from the legend surrounding the very real Winchester House; a (haunted?) house that was in a constant state of expansion (Rose Red expands – on its own supernatural accord!)
Wikipedia provides details regarding The Haunting/The Haunting of Hill House/Winchester influences. And I will draw more from this article later regarding this subject (ooo, that’s the second time I promised this! Will I fulfill on this promise?) But I venture further than Wikipedia and argue that King borrows much from Robert Morasco’s Burnt Offerings, a story about a house that rejuvenates by killing its occupants.
Since the key plot points in these other works/situations play out so similarly in Rose Red, might the argument be made that King simply stole these ideas?
Before I answer that question, let me point out that my favorite novel by King, The Shining, was in fact the outcome of several influencing factors. The great tectonic plates of haunted house literature coming together to create the mountain that is The Shining. Such plates are Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Marasco’s Burnt Offerings, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death. In my article about The Shining, I defend King this way:
Yes, Stephen King borrowed from many sources. But this is not a criticism. The final product which he assembled from the various themes was indeed a masterpiece. He is like a chef that uses only the finest ingredients to concoct his stew. One does not bitch that the chef stole from the line cooks that prepped the meat, potatoes and carrots. Rather, one enjoys all the makings of this tasty treat.
(Oh yeah, going back to my “three haunted house mini series” declaration way at the beginning, I am now reminded of a fourth. This would be The Shining – not to be confused with the movie. But I already reviewed it, so there’s that!)
“Tasty treat” = “The Shining”, according to me. I continue to agree with this. However, I must clarify that sometimes a chef can throw together all these typical ingredients, creating a concoction that is distinctive and compelling; a unique mixture that is to die for. (People die in these works of King!) But there are other times when the chef mixes together the same ingredients and the result is something only slightly better than bland. This would be Rose Red.
In The Shining, King utilizes his influences to build on a story that has never been told before. But with Rose Red, the influences are indeed the same stories told in a slightly different way. This is the main difference. The result is a series that is entertaining but far from great.
So I guess those that insist that King stole these ideas have some merit to their argument. However, King’s main goal with Rose Red was all about replication. Originally, he wanted to write a remake of Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting (which is based on Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House), but one thing led to another, and he ended up rewriting the script so that it could be distinctive from Wise’s film. (This is part 1 of my promise fulfillment. And there will be a Part 2!)
If King is a “thief” (and for me that is too harsh a word), then the modern day master of modern horror stole from himself as well. As I was going on and on about “The Shining,” I failed to mention that its themes play out in Rose Red. For that matter, so do some of the themes in his first novel Carrie. How, you may ask? I’ll tell you what – I’ll describe how all the influences that I have mentioned find their way into Rose Red. Read on!
How is Rose Red like The Haunting of Hill House?
Here is how both stories play out. A team of investigators led by a professor stay at a house that is rumored to be haunted in an attempt to hopefully scientifically study paranormal activity. The team is made up of psychics or people that are somehow attuned to psychic activity. In both stories, the current heir of the house is present as well to either protect his interests or help the team to better understand the layout of the house. I know, I know, I covered much of this way at the beginning of the article. I’ll move on.
Both houses are said to be “born bad,” meaning that they are not a neutral object temporarily afflicted with ghosts. In Rose Red Professor Joyce Reardon uses this phrase to describe Rose Red, accurately attributing it to Shirley Jackson.
Both houses once belonged to a well-to-do families that suffered many tragedies over the years. The backstory of both houses are long and complicated and each house has quite possibly “worked on” its occupants over the years, causing them to die or disappear.
How is Rose Red Like Burnt Offerings?
Both houses in each story feed off of its occupants in order to rejuvenate or simply stay alive. The Haunting of Hill House does not necessarily actively seek out occupants to eat, to the best of my knowledge, even though some people, due to their psychic or emotional makeup, are more likely to become possessed by the house or lose their soul to it. The current owner of Rose Red, Steven Rimbauer , claims his house has eaten his relatives over the years.
Also, in both houses, dying plants blossom and come to life as its human occupants perish.
How is Rose Red like the legend surrounding The Winchester House?
The Winchester House is a real house that was owned by the heiress of the Winchester Rifle fortune. It was under constant construction as new editions were being added all the time. Some of the designs were rather arcane, such as doors and stairways leading to nowhere.
Why the never ending construction? One theory suggests that the heiress was super generous and just wanted to keep the construction crew employed. Another theory offers a simpler explanation: the heiress was batty as fuck.
Ahh, here comes the more fun theory. It has been rumored that the ghosts of those that died by the bullets of Winchester rifles haunted the house. In order to make room for all these spirits, the heiress had to constantly build and add on. It didn’t matter if the interior layout made sense or not, just as long as the house was in a state of perpetual building.
If this ghost theory is to be believed, would it be that much of a “stretch” to say that the house just builds itself and constructs its own rooms, hallways and wings? (see what I did there? I used “stretch” and when something expands it stretches and…oh hell, I’ll just move on). Well this is what happens with Rose Red. Steven Rimbauer states that no one knows at any given time how many rooms the house has because the number is constantly in flux. The investigative team at Rose Red witnesses the house changing before their very eyes. Hallways change, turning the house into a maze of sorts. Walls suddenly erect. Scary stuff.
How is Rose Red like The Shining?
Both stories have houses (or hotels) that siphon psychic energy from a psychically gifted child. In The Shining it’s Danny Torrence who reads minds, sees visions from the past, and mentally calls out to people mentally that are far away physically. In Rose Red it’s Annie, an autistic thirteen-year-old who possesses strong telekinetic powers. She is the key to awakening Rose Red, Professor Joyce says. Likewise Danny is the battery that charges The Overlook Hotel and brings it to its most haunted state.
How is Rose Red like Carrie?
In Rose Red, a girl (Annie) with tremendous telekinetic powers creates a shower of boulders to fall from the sky upon a house. Diddo Carrie White. Eleanor Lance in the Haunting of Hill House had also created such a phenomenon when she was a child. But Annie, with the power to open and shut doors with her mind, most resembles Carrie. At one point Annie, using her powers,prevents s the doors and windows from opening, trapping everyone inside the house. Carrie keeps the doors and windows of a school telepathically sealed while she burns the place down, trapping the teachers and students inside.
Let’s “redescribe” the plot of Rose Red while summing up these influences – all in one paragraph!
A Professor of parapsychology invites a team of psychics to study a haunted house that was born bad and has a history of tormenting the successive generations of a prominent family (The Haunting of Hill House). They will learn that the house “eats people” and siphons their spiritual energy so that it can rejuvenate. (Burnt Offerings). This house has the ability to redesign itself and expand at will. (The Winchester House). At the beginning of the study, the house is supposedly depleted of energy – a dead cell. Professor Joyce Reardon hopes to recharge the house by using a psychically gifted child as a battery (The Shining ). She will succeed, and the girl , who once made boulders fall upon a house , will fall under the house’s spell and telepathically seal all the doors and windows to prevent the visitors from escaping while bad things happen to them. (Carrie)
Any Other Influences?
For the hell of it, I’ll throw in Poltergeist for the modern touches the Rose Red series brings to the otherwise classic haunted house themes. By this I mean the special effects. Rose Red has scenes where unbound energy causes electrical jolts and flashing lights, with the scared and wowed faces of the team reflected in these flashes. With the few glowing ghosts added in for extra measures, we get a toned down production of The Spielberg caliber.
This is not too far fetched, because Stephen King originally wanted to collaborate with Steven Spielberg on a remake of the Robert Wise film The Haunting (which of course is the screen version of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House). King would contribute his talents (the writing) while Spielberg would his kind of genius ( the production). The two ran into creative differences (a Steve Squared equation ended up a null set, awwwww!) and Spielberg ended up assisting in some way with director Jan de Bont’s remake of The Haunting (1999) while King revised his script, which then was used for Rose Red. As it turned out, Spielberg hated the final product of The Haunting so much that he had his name removed from the credits. I opine that Rose Red is significantly better than The Haunting 1999. (And see, I fulfilled Part 2 of my promise to give more detail on the why’s concerning the specifics King’s influences).
Rose Red has his flaws. Aside from the regurgitation of plot material, I couldn’t get past some of the story logistics. Professor Joyce Reardon’s determination to scientifically validate the reality of paranormal phenomenon turns obsessive, neurotic, and finally, psychotic. She ends up losing her sanity in Rose Red and causing others great distress and even death. All this, and yet she has a team of psychics, some of who have powers that would put the mutants of the X-men series to shame. Isn’t that proof enough? Also, the backstories are a bit complicated, and when the series wraps itself up and tries to tie these backstories into the main story, the knots aren’t all that tight. In other words, the “revelations” are a bit “meh” and even “huh?”
But overall, it was entertaining, and that counts for something. And I should mention, if I haven’t already, that those that die or get lost in Rose Red come back as “zombified” ghosts. They are under the spell of the house and they will prey upon any one who enters. That bit of the story was interesting.
When I wrote my weekly plot summations, I gave the impression that the story I was having such a great time enjoying the series! I described the plot with enthusiasm, tried to make the story seem as suspenseful has possible. Was I lying? No. I did enjoy the series and it was suspenseful at times. In other words, I enjoyed the ride. But when it was all over, and I put on my reflective hat, I realized that it was , well, as I stated earlier, a little bit better than bland. I don’t know about you, but when I start on a meal that is tasty but could be tastier, I finish it. And that’s what I did here.
Let’s conclude this article with fun trivia! Question: What other television programs did the actors of Rose Red star in? I won’t go through the whole list, just a few. Okay only three!
Professor Joyce Reardon is played by Nancy Travis and she went on to star as Vanessa Baxter in ABC’s Last Man Standing, wife of Tim Allen’s character Mike Baxter. Since I don’t watch that show, I’ll say no more and move on to shows I like – classic TV shows.
Rose Red features a character named Victor Kandinsky, played by Kevin Tighe. Victor is a psychic with precognition. Victor is the most physically fragile of the team of investigators. He is the oldest of the crew and he’s almost always on the verge of a heart attack. He takes medicine for this condition. This is quite the opposite of the character he played thirty years prior, a young and hearty, able-bodied hero. This would be paramedic-firefighter Roy DeSoto on Emergency!
Ya gotta be a certain age to remember that show! I was real young when it aired, just a wee little boy under the age of five. My mom watched it and so therefore I watched it, and tried to play along with the story with my action figures.
The biggest surprise for me came when I researched actor David Dukes who played Professor Carl Miller, the “bad guy” of this series who tries to sabotage the efforts of the psychics studying paranormal activity at Rose Red. Please don’t confuse him with the racist politician David Duke; Dukes (with the “s”) has experienced enough unjust hatred over the years on account of a character he played in the late 70s. On a brief but memorable appearance on the show “All in the Family,” he played an unnamed character who tried to rape Edith Bunker, who at that time in 1977 was seen as America’s most innocent (naive) and beloved housewife. This was the first portrayal of an attempted rape on television and Dukes suffered for his performance on this Emmy winning episode. He received death threats from fans who just were not able to separate reality and fiction. That being said, I’m not blameless either for this stigma, for when I discovered that he starred in the episode “Edith’s 50th Birthday”, right away a voice in my brain shouted out “Hey, you’re the guy who tried to rape Edith!” No brain, he is not. He is a guy who portrayed a fictional character who tried to rape another fictional character.
The other actors of Rose Red had interesting roles in other media as well but I won’t go into all of those. Discover for yourself what other roles these actors played! I will however point out one nameless character that popped into the Rose Red series for a few minutes – a pizza delivery guy who delivers a pizza to the team at the haunted house. “Gee, that guy looks familiar,” some viewers might say upon his arrival. Others will know his mug right away – it’s none other than Stephen King himself!