You know that one about the lonely old woman who goes to bed every night and has her hand licked by a dog? Right, then she keeps hearing a dripping but the tap’s off? Yep – and after you have that message scrawled in blood? What did it say again? Mouth those words with me. Good. Did that bring back childhood memories of loudly whispering creepy tales in the dark?
Following a brief intro scene, and a distractedly flashy title sequence, it’s on this nostalgic image that The Enfield Haunting begins its three episode run. It’s dark outside and a young girl named Margaret uses this urban myth to freak out her even younger sister Janet (Worthington-Cox). Moments later and something really does go bump in the night. Based upon the Guy Playfair book This House Is Haunted, this miniseries looks at a (supposedly) well-documented instance of paranormal activity at a family home in North London. The chief setting is as far from Amityville as we’re going to get – beige two floor house, headed by a single mother (Cavaliero) with four kids and a drippy boiler. And whilst Mrs Hodgson is initially skeptical of her daughters’ claims, it’s not long before she sees something she can’t ignore and calls in the troubled paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse (Spall) from the Society for Psychical Research.
Perhaps the most notable thing about The Enfield Haunting is its normality. Along with the poltergeist the children fear everyday terrors such as being bullied and going through puberty (a point which expertly underlines the previously mentioned opening scene) while Mrs Hodgson worries about getting the kids to school and Mr Grosse thinks about a domestic bliss he’s lost. Importantly the characters treat each other like real people feasibly would. The surrogate father and daughter relationship between Maurice and Janet is played out very tenderly and all scenes involving the superb younger cast are first rate. Worthington-Cox does a particularly fantastic job of selling the scary bits (and there are some). The introduction of Macfadyen as fellow Society member Playfair (the initially skeptical author of the real account), may be almost entirely undermined by a narrative that explicitly revels in the ghosts being real rather than being the results of collective hysteria. Yet the sequences where him and Grosse debate the nature of the threat are also excellently judged without either side coming across as naive or delusional.
The dialogue is similarly impressive. It’s pleasingly colloquial, very well-paced and can be really rather funny too without detracting from the seriousness of the premise or some of the drama that ensues as characters spill their secrets in the second half. There’s a very British sense of sarcasm and irony throughout the episode, allowing the show to mostly evade the family-values sentimentality that can often bog down otherwise strong domestic horrors. In promoting their product I’ve seen actors and creative team distancing it from the genre as if it is more than just that. And while I’m not a fan of looking down upon horror like it’s some dirty little secret, I know what they mean. It really isn’t just another entry to the saturated haunted house market. Of course I’d say this is simply an example of a good horror show, as opposed to a good show that has horror elements (like an all too frequently cited psychological thriller with supernatural undertones), but the point we’d agree on is that it’s very good.
In terms of scary bits, this first episode is fairly light. However, it features a few very well done moments. These bits are mostly understated rather than the jolt-a-minute pacing of American Horror Story, and all the better for it. And while I’m not going to reveal their causes, I will say the conduits for the frightening parts are refreshingly every-day and one of them is a truly excellent reveal. There’s also a great tension to the quiet night scenes, where the investigators watch Janet sleep, and try to keep themselves awake and focused. As Grosse looks up at the clock to see it approaching half four we really feel his weariness and the otherworldly nature of the transition from night back to morning. In contrast, as the pilot gives way for episode 2 you’ll be on the edge of your seat, having seen a portrait of a family that could be your own disrupted by something subtle yet deadly. We fear it because we care about the people it can hurt. This kind of character and atmosphere oriented horror often gets called traditional, yet it’s really all too difficult to come across. It’s a shame since it can be extremely effective and highly engrossing. That and it’s also a darn sight scarier than the thought that ‘humans can lick too’.