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The Fall of the House of Usher’s Mike Flanagan Does Trauma Horror Right

“There’s still time,” coos Verna after removing her mask. When Prospero asks what she means, Verna responds, “Time to stop this.” Full of chemicals and the arrogance of the ruling class, Prospero laughs off the suggestion, but Verna continues. “Everything has consequences,” she promises. 

That speech not only foreshadows the imminent end of Prospero and his revelers but also captures the theme of The Fall of the House of Usher. More terrifying than even the sight of beautiful bodies smearing together into dripping chunks is the thought that our past stays with us, that our decisions matter and may have terrible consequences. 

Thanks to that approach, The Fall of the House of Usher continues within the modern horror’s favorite theme, the terror of trauma. But where most entries feel like tiresome bids for respectability, Mike Flanagan does trauma horror right, integrating themes of regret into the structure of his scares, working the two together without using one to prop up the other. 

The Fall of the Trauma Horror Genre

The 2022 surprise hit Smile has an irresistible visual hook. Before meeting their doom, victims develop a crooked smile, aggressive and menacing in its insistence on happiness. Director Parker Finn uses this conceit as a metaphor for mental illness, for the demand to put on a happy face and ignore serious turmoil inside. 

But instead of trusting the metaphor to do its work, Smile insists upon pounding audiences with its themes. The movie opens with a slow “oner” moving from open pills to a recently dead woman to a young girl standing in the doorway, unable to process what she’s seeing. An electric ring rips the scene and we hard cut to our protagonist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), 

To be sure, trauma is nothing new to horror fiction. The gothic literature of the 19th century, such as Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White or Poe’s oeuvre, treated ghosts as lingering regrets. America’s national sins crept into tales about Indian burial grounds and the unconquerable King Kong. Even the lowbrow slashers of the late ‘70s and ‘80s revealed the failures of white flight, as suburbanites learned their summer camps and mod-con-appointed homes could not keep their children safe. 

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