A Haunting in Venice, Talk to Me, and the modern meaning of the seance

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A Haunting In Venice and Talk To Me contain their own twists on the seance – but both speak to our desire for connection in the modern world.

Note: The following contains spoilers for A Haunting In Venice and Talk To Me.

A group of figures gather around a table under a gloomy light. A medium asks the question, “is there anybody there?” and the guests hear two knocks for yes. They’re communing with the dead, and little good is destined to come of it.

Variations of such a cliched moment seem to be everywhere in horror cinema right now. The seance is back with a vengeance, in more respects than one. Derived from the French ‘to sit’, the seance has become synonymous with contacting the spirit world, both in fiction and especially in the realm of cinema. A Haunting in Venice, the latest Hercule Poirot film from director and star Kenneth Branagh, is simply the latest in a resurgent trend.

Branagh’s third outing as Agatha Christie’s iconic Belgian sleuth sees the actor-director embrace not only a new location and assortment of players, but an entirely different visual texture in loosely adapting Christie’s lesser known 1969 novel, Hallowe’en Party. As the trailers make clear, A Haunting in Venice wishes first and foremost to be a ghost story as opposed to a mystery  designed to tax Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’, and it does so by building such promotion around a central seance scene.

The seance serves as a binding moment for the film. Michelle Yeoh’s enigmatic medium, Joyce Reynolds, gathers Poirot and the fellow guests of widowed palazzo owner Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), who lost her daughter Alicia to suicide, to witness the seance. “Listening… listening…” Joyce intones, not to the sceptical faces around her, but rather the spirit of Alicia. The girl’s spirit insists she was murdered by someone in the room, as Joyce begins spinning in her chair and screaming, channeling the deceased’s spirit.

Read more: A Haunting In Venice review | what Haunted Mansion should have been

It will come as no surprise that the supernatural element ends up a bit of a parlour trick (although a touch of ambiguity remains). That A Haunting in Venice works to attract audiences by front-loading the seance that, presumably, goes wrong, is a telling factor about what currently appeals to audiences. The seance is back in vogue, after a long history.

First popularised by the growth of Spiritualism from the mid-19th century onwards, the seance crept into the earliest films you could classify as horror. These included 1916’s The Mysteries of Myra from Leopold and Theodore Wharton, with actress Jean Sothern as a woman plagued by a dark order who subject her to so-called ‘supernatural assaults’. Across the 1930s and 1940s, B-movie horror films tapped into similar themes, including Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands from 1941, with Boris Karloff as a scientist trying to contact his dead wife.

Night of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tournier in 1957, is a popular example from the the post-war era. Dana Andrews plays an American professor who travels to London for a parapsychology conference, only to become embroiled in the work of a Devil worshipper. The 1960s and 1970s saw a seance boom , with X-rated horror features such as Let’s Scare Jessica To Death and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils transforming the spiritualist into the lurid. Films like these appealed to sex and gore hounds, while moving beyond the initial, Gothic spookiness of the Victorian form. This continued through the 1980s and somewhat the 1990s, when interest in the horror subgenre began to fade.

By the 2000s, horror films again began to dabble in seances and the supernatural. Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001) saw spirits flicker in candlelight, almost hiding in plain sight, and similar can be said for J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007). Those films took a subtle approach, their stories filled with a quiet sadness and people crippled with loneliness or grief. By contrast, such jump scare horror as Ouija, Drag Me to Hell or The Conjuring 2 evoked the pulpier approaches to the sub-genre. In such films, the dead are always malevolent forces looking to corrupt and subdue the living. Often, we see a crossover into the possession genre of horror.

This is the case in 2023’s Talk To Me, directed by the Phillipou brothers, which has so far gained more pop-culture traction than A Haunting in Venice (which by all accounts has theatrically underperformed). A low budget Australian chiller, Talk To Me sees a group of Gen Z late-teenagers using the disembodied, embalmed hand of a spiritualist (the history of which remains largely opaque) to contact the dead, doing so by grasping the hand, as candlelight flickers, and inviting the spirit to “talk to me”. A modern fusion of the traditional seance with urban legend, it inevitably sees its young cast getting more than they bargained for.

Read more: Talk To Me review | tantalising teen horror

The lens of Talk to Me is an intriguing one, focusing on a youth culture obsessed with phones, with capturing events, with broadcasting their lives over social media platforms. Shaking the hand becomes a dare in the same way the Ouija board once was. How many of us were dared to do a Ouija seance as a teenager? Many of you might have taken it (I didn’t – I’ve seen too many horror films). Talk to Me’s kids don’t just take the dare but invite it in, allowing the spirit to possess them and record the results. It’s possession as dopamine hit.

That in itself is interesting twist on the subgenre. In other movies, possession is something to be feared; in Talk to Me, it’s actively sought. It’s the drug in a world where teenagers are more repressed, both sexually and in terms of their vices. They drink and take drugs less, and Talk to Me suggests they know it’s not normal. They need that rush. Possession, performance, theatricality, becomes that method of escaping a world that has dulled their senses and beaten them down. We’re a long way from A Haunting in Venice’s post-WWII medium channeling a wronged victim.

What connects both A Haunting In Venice and Talk To Me, however, is the nature of the dead. A Haunting in Venice presents Alicia as a metaphorical representation of what western society lost following the war. Beaten down by society’s “cruel indifference”, Poirot has retreated into his Venice palazzo, shaken by humanity’s evil. Reilly’s Rowena is so unable to let her daughter experience the possibility of a world changed by conflict, re-shaped heavily by American cultural influence, she poisons her to keep her close. It takes Alicia reaching out from beyond the grave (whether in reality or metaphorically) to wake Poirot from his own disenchantment. The haunted in Branagh’s film are not those being haunted, but those haunted by existential trauma. The ghosts are incidental.

Isn’t that always the way with the best horror? The monsters always mean something else. In this case, our modern interest in communing with the dead, and the overlapping obsession with them possessing us, suggests that these films are about our desperate need for connection and a sense or community which has been lost in the modern age. A Haunting in Venice approaches it in period terms, reflecting the existential conflict of our parents and grandparents’ age that still ripples down to our lives in the present. But as that moment recedes further into history, films such as Talk to Me suggest an entirely different existential anxiety.

The dead, however terrifying, now offer contact. They offer an experience. They offer the ability to feel something in an otherwise unfeeling world.

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