For Mike Flanagan, there’s a lot to love about the ’80s. As someone who grew up in that decade, he’s happy to indulge in nostalgia. That’s partly why the creator of new Netflix horror anthology The Haunting of Bly Manor set the latest installment of the series in the era of his childhood.
The best part of the ’80s, he says: “I never have to deal with the goddamn phone.”
Flanagan hates cellphones. Not because he thinks they’re rotting people’s brains, but because anyone who writes horror set in the present day is obligated to find a way to dispense with the device. A device that could easily summon salvation from whatever supernatural baddie is at hand.
“You’re always about five minutes from the police,” he says, standing on the Vancouver set of Bly Manor’s grand, wood-paneled entry in January. “You can go on the internet and find, ‘oh hey, six people died here.'”
The Haunting of Bly Manor is an adaptation of Henry James’ gothic ghost stories, including Turn of the Screw. In this version, a young woman becomes an au pair for siblings who lost their parents and happen to live in a haunted house.
In the past decade and a half or so, writing cellphones out of horror scripts hasn’t been Flanagan’s problem alone.
James Kendrick, professor and undergraduate program director of film and digital media at Baylor University, and an expert on the horror genre, says cellphones have become pretty inescapable.
“Cell phones have become an extension of our bodies, so their absence is felt and noticed as much as a character missing a limb,” he says. “Writers have no choice but to deal with them somehow.”
By now, it’s practically a trope: The protagonist’s battery dies, or they happen to be in a place where there’s no signal. YouTube has montages of characters in horror films realizing their phones are useless. In 2017’s Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya’s character was mystified when he kept finding his cellphone unplugged from its charger.
The question then becomes, how creative can writers get?
On the whole, Kendrick says, “it’s almost like something they just have to get out of the way.”
To be sure, writers have had to deal with phones before, though landlines never posed the same narrative dilemma cellphones do, Kendrick also says. You might see a mysterious hand cutting the line to a house or pulling the line out of the wall. In 1978’s Halloween, Michael Myers strangles one character with a telephone cord while she’s trying to call for help. And In 1979’s The Amityville Horror, when Margot Kidder’s character tries to phone the priest, static takes over the line. In cases like these, the severing of communication could be tense and isolating.
Cell phones have also worked their way into the genre as a source of horror, like in 2008’s One Missed Call, where characters get voicemails dated with the time of their future deaths, or 2016’s Cell, where a pulse via cellular networks turns people into vicious hordes.
That’s fine, but Flanagan isn’t messing around with tech this time around. When a character sees something they can’t explain at Bly Manor, there’s no phone to whip out, no way to document the terror. For this batch of hauntings, at least, Flanagan didn’t have to worry about characters shattering their screens or dropping their phones in convenient bodies of water. And he was glad for it.
“Cellphones are kryptonite for the genre,” he says. “They are the worst, worst thing.”