SurrealEstate (CTV Sci Fi, 2021- ) and
Three Pines (Prime Video, 2022- )
By Melanie A. Marotta.
“Houses don’t kill people. People kill people.”–Armand Gamache, Three Pines (2022; episode 3)
On October 25, 2022, the Syfy channel’s social media accounts posted a video of Tim Rozon (Luke Roman) and Savannah Basley (Zooey L’Enfant) announcing – and reaffirming – the filming of SurrealEstate season two, due to be released in 2023 (date to be announced). During its run almost one year before, the Canadian show was cancelled for reasons unknown. Upon cancellation the creator of the series George L. Olsen declared that he was searching for a new network for the series. The renewal that happened May 2022 was not given a reason for occurring, but it was welcomed by fans. Olsen conveyed that his television series differs from others because of his desire, and that of the network, to present a character-driven plotline to viewers: “SYFY has, from the first day, said we want to feel the characters and we want to see what they’re really like. They really challenged me and my wonderful writers to come up with those moments and those backstories and those quirks, and those irrational things that make people people, and bake them into the scares and the horror” (Jackson). Equivocally, SurrealEstate is an accomplished addition to the haunted house subgenre for both its redemptive qualities for characters and for presenting a forward-thinking series about women. In addition, the streaming television series that was released in December on Amazon Prime, Three Pines, starring Alfred Molina as Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, is also Canadian. This series, comprised of two-part episode released each Friday, is an adaptation focusing on Louise Penny’s series of mystery novels about the fictious Québec town of Three Pines and its inhabitants. What is curious is that two of the newest additions to the American gothic tradition of the haunted house are Canadian.
For this discussion of a subgenre that began in Europe, a recognizable and influential starting point is in order. Cinematic gem House on Haunted Hill (1959) stands as the quintessential haunted house film so much so that it has been adapted many times including the cartoon series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! One of the leading experts in the American gothic haunted house subgenre, Dale Bailey, documents that there are two types of haunted houses. Bailey poses that haunted houses must result in one of two endings. The first type of house must be destroyed in the end, thereby rendering it inhabitable for others, while the other must remain standing, waiting for future inhabitants to torture and even kill (Bailey 62). In American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, Bailey elucidates that while haunted houses may meet two different ends, the characters have had them built for the same reason, namely the houses are the culmination of greed.
Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) eloquently highlights the house and its connection to greed in the film, House on Haunted Hill. As the characters are driven in hearses up to the house in which they will spend the night, Loren describes Dr. David Trent, asking his audience, “But don’t you see a little touch of greed there?” (03:26-8). As many viewers are well familiar, the premise behind the film is that Loren has asked people tempted the most by money, luring them to the house with the promise of $10,000 if they spend the night. Trent arrives under the premise that stories regarding the supernatural persist because of personal “hysteria,” terminology that not only reveals the age of the film but also the need to place the blame on the person experiencing the horrifying incident. The victimization of women happens with the hysteric label, which is what Trent tries to place on Nora Manning when she enters the parlor panicked after encountering a ghost. He and the others brand her a hysteric, a fantasist until it is revealed that the ghost is a real person; upon this revelation, they temporarily change their minds. The entity that Nora has seen in the wine cellar is Mrs. Slydes (Leona Anderson), one of the caretakers.
Tellingly, Nora is also the character that Jonah (Howard Hoffman) attempts to save, letting her know that she is in danger while down in the wine cellar, separated from the rest of the guests. Nora is both the most afraid of her surroundings, thereby the easiest to scare, and the one character that is asked to be at the house due to her employment positionality – Loren is her employer. By making Nora a female employee of Loren’s, writer Robb White offers social commentary about the unequal power balance in the workplace for women and men. The progress White makes here continues when he shows Loren’s abusive conduct towards his wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). While Annabelle dresses, Loren and Annabelle discuss the impending party that has descended on the house, symbolically exposing her to the viewer as vulnerable and Loren as physically abusive. The viewers come to learn through gaslighting of the characters, Nora in particular, and that of the audience that Annabelle and Trent are plotting to murder Loren but that Loren knew all along. This cinematic adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has women who are just as corrupt as men (see Julie Mitchum’s performance as Ruth Bridgers the gambler), but they lack their agency. It is here where the viewer witnesses a change with the continuation of the subgenre.
SurrealEstate is good television because it appears to embody the Syfy channel’s new desire to include strong and powerful women as leads (also see Resident Alien).”
The Scooby-Doo adaptation of the film, House on Haunted Hill, acts as a reflective vehicle of 1970s gender construct restructuring caused by the second wave of feminism. In the Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! episode, “A Night of Fright is No Delight” (1970), the gang goes to a haunted house on an isolated island. The episode includes nods to the film such as the self-playing organ and the coffins (without guns but with effigies of the participants), thereby appealing to the film’s fan base. Scooby-Doo’s presence at the house and a group of familial beneficiaries has been requested by the estate’s lawyers, Mr. Creeps and Mr. Crawls, at the reading of the will. The tale of Scooby-Doo (pun intended) is a traditional one in American television and cinema concerning dogs: in an act of heroism, the Great Dane has saved Colonel Beauregard Sanders from drowning. In a further test of courage, Scooby and the gang are tasked with spending the night in the haunted house; their reward for doing so will be a portion of one million dollars, and their continued reputation for bravery. Throughout the series which lasted from 1969-1970, the morality of the gang is unquestioned, except in cases of food theft concerning Scooby and Shaggy. Further, the running gag throughout all incarnations of the series have Scooby and Shaggy running from confronting danger unless tempted into courageous acts by Scooby Snacks.
It is the female characters’ inclusion in this series that is notable for past and current viewers. While Daphne is portrayed as an uncoordinated and passive woman (she defers to Fred for his planning skills and is shown as the emotional female), the characterization of Velma is one of capability and intelligence. After Fred decides that Scooby and Shaggy should be bait in the trap to expose the Phantom Shadow, the duo hides outside on a drainpipe. Velma – unsuccessfully – attempts to rescue them from their precarious situation, only to have the drainpipe fall, casting the trio into a cave full of clues. After Velma tries to instill courage in Shaggy, “Now, be brave and lead the way” (12:36), he attempts to flee only to be stopped by Velma. It is the character of Velma that acknowledges the falseness of the supernatural through her observation that spirits cannot leave physical evidence like footprints of their existence. Velma is also the character that deduces the response to the riddle of the organ which saves the gang from being crushed between moving walls. On the one hand, it was a questionable choice to transform the gaslit Nora into Scooby-Doo, having the dog being the character doubted for their experiences with the supernatural when his bathtub tips and he finds himself face-to-face with the green supernatural entity. On the other hand, Velma is the realist that calls attention to not only the improbably of actual ghosts but to Beauregard’s Confederate fetishism and greed. The writers showed the progressive nature of a children’s cartoon by including both a female character that has influence over others and political commentary regarding the discriminatory nature of the Confederacy. Notably, the Scooby and Shaggy trick the two ghosts when they are dancing with them to “Turkey in the Straw,” a notorious American song with links to the minstrelsy. In the end, Scooby inherits Confederate money, reflecting the crimes of the Confederate states, but his real reward is the gang’s apprehension of the villains. The house, various incarnations of such appear in the initial series, lives to fight another day as they do in the Syfy channel’s haunted house series.
Filmed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, SurrealEstate takes advantage of the location in Eastern Canada, focusing on Queen Anne style houses and waterfront properties. In the pilot, viewers meet Luke, the moral center of the series, and the head of the Roman Agency. The actor, Rozon, is recognizable to viewers due to his roles on Schitt’s Creek (CBC; 2015-2020) and Wynona Earp (Syfy; 2016-2021). In fact, co-star Melanie Scrofano (Wynonna) guest stars in episode 3 and directs episodes 5 and 6. The series begins when Luke’s soon-to-be love interest, Megan Donovan (Tennille Reed), experiences a supernatural event and on this rainy night flees the house and encounters Luke standing on her porch; she screams. He proceeds to introduce himself, state his purpose for being there, and lists her house’s sellable aspects, to which she offers, “The house wants to kills me.” Their meet-cute is a combination of unsettling and humorous: Megan looks Luke in the eyes and says, “Who are you? Are you a priest?” to which he responds, “No ma’am…I’m a real estate guy” (03:15). The premise of Olsen’s series is not one that viewers are not familiar: Eddie Murphy starts as a real estate agent in Disney’s film, Haunted Mansion, one based on the Disneyworld ride. The film is one based on an income-driven format – commodify the ride; the series has no known association with merchandizing but with the wave of cancellations does need to peak the interest of viewers in order to survive.
Luke and his Scooby gang are an interesting bunch, each one given a backstory and a distinct personality. Former priest Phil Orley (Adam Korson) is the researcher, August Ripley (Maurice Dean Wint) is the tech-genius, Zooey the acerbic wit and administrator, and Susan Ireland (Sara Levy) the money-making real estate agent. Together the group learn how to work together as a team from their offices in Charon Plaza (reference to Dante’s Inferno) and to clear houses from their (mostly) demonic possessors. Throughout the 10-episode first season, viewers come to know that each member of the team is special in some way: Luke speaks to ghosts, Susan is telekinetic and highly successful in the real estate market, and Phil is religious yet questions god because he is gay and not accepted by his church. SurrealEstate is good television because it appears to embody the Syfy channel’s new desire to include strong and powerful women as leads (also see Resident Alien). Susan discloses to Luke and later Zoe while they sit in a haunted house to see if there are really ghosts (there are), that she had an affair with her married employer. He remained with his wife and fired her for the affair, so she uses her abilities to set fire to his office. When she encounters a telekinetic young woman, one that is causing her house’s haunting, she offers sage advice about accepting herself and not permitting a man to doubt her self-worth. At the end of the pilot, Susan questions how Luke has become aware of her abilities and also that she does not believe in ghosts. She later changes her mind after experiencing hauntings while trying to sell houses. Tellingly, in a genre that embodies the secret, the characters tell one another theirs over the course of the season, making the viewer feel that the characters are realistic and approachable. In episode 6, Ft. Ghost Child, the agency exposes the Catholic church’ secrets, namely that children were taken away from unmarried mothers – separated forever. The Roman agency is upfront about its motivation, which is to put spirits to rest and to sell houses. The agency’s staff cleanses the houses for future generations by exposing the disreputable secrets of others along the way. While this series gives pithy code names to its real ghosts – “the roadie” who acts as a hanger-on in episodes 7 and 8 offering some humor in an otherwise humorless genre – the hauntings in Three Pines act to magnify sordid moments in Canada’s past.
Three Pines does not sensationalize the residential school system, preferring to bring the horrific abuse that indigenous children suffered at the hands of the Catholic church to an international viewership.”
Penny, one of Canada’s most famous writers, published her 18th Gamache novel, A World of Curiosities, in November 2022. The Three Pines series is not the first time that Penny’s work has been brought to the screen. In 2013, Acorn released Still Life: A Three Pines Mystery, with British actor Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley Mysteries) cast in the role of Gamache. Based on her late husband, Gamache in the novels is French-Canadian, thoughtful, and inspires confidence in others; he surrounds himself with police officers that others have rejected as ill-suited to the Québec police force, the Sûreté du Québec. The novels feature the hidden town of Three Pines, one built on community and cozy houses and Penny’s real life town. In the novels, after the unexpected death (murder) of one resident, Gamache and his wife, librarian Reine-Marie, buy a home in Three Pines, quickly becoming part of the community. Penny’s houses are not haunted in the supernatural sense but rather retain secrets that will one day get out or be found out by Gamache. The Three Pines series takes on a more sinister tone with its emphasis on the indigenous residential school system, calling attention to Canada’s haunted past.
The initial adaptation led by Parker and an English-speaking cast did not embody the spirit of Penny’s characters or series. There appears to consistently be concern from the television-powers-that-be when Canadian series are brought to American television, that their sheer Canadian-ness will be literally be a turn off for the audience. With series like Schitt’s Creek and Coroner (CBC/CW; starring Serinda Swann and filmed in Toronto), viewers prove television execs wrong again. Whereas the initial incarnation of Penny’s novels was unsuccessful, the newest has promise primarily due to its emphasis on Canada’s discriminatory practices against indigenous people. The Left Bank-produced series (the studio that produces The Crown) begins with an adaptation of the second novel, A Fatal Grace (2009), one that revolves around the death of CC de Poitiers. The two-part episode is divided into an investigation of CC’s murder and into the disappearance of an indigenous woman named Blue. The haunted house looms in the background of the initial two episodes, becoming front and center with the next two, The Cruelest Month, which revolves around the atrocities that have been committed against indigenous children in Canada. The house in this case is the embodiment of not only greed, but colonization. It is a former residential school that CC has purchased, turned into her home that sets the tone for what is to come. Three Pines does not sensationalize the residential school system, preferring to bring the horrific abuse that indigenous children suffered at the hands of the Catholic church to an international viewership. Viewers can hope that the next episodes continue to do such important work.
Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
House on Haunted Hill, Directed by William Castle, performances by Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart. Allied Artists Pictures, 1959. Amazon Prime. 7 Dec. 2022.
Jackson, Matthew. “SurrealEstate Returns as Tim Rozon Celebrates Season 2 Production Start in Set Video.” Syfy Wire. 25 Oct. 2022. https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/production-kicks-off-on-season-2-of-surrealestate
“A Night of Fright is No Delight.” Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Season 1, episode 6, 1970. Boomerang, Oct. 2022.
SurrealEstate, performances by Tim Rozon and Sarah Levy, Blue Ice Pictures, 2021.
Three Pines, performances by Alfred Molina and Tantoo Cardinal, Left Bank, 2022.
Melanie A. Marotta is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Language Arts at Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD). Marotta’s research focuses on American Literature (in particular African American), Young Adult literature, the American West, Science Fiction, and Ecocriticism. She has a monograph, African American Adolescent Female Heroes: The Twenty-First-Century Young Adult Neo-Slave Narrative, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi and part of the Children’s Literature Association Series (April 2023). She co-edited Critical Pedagogy: Diversity, Inclusion, and the Visual in Higher Education (Routledge, 2021 with Susan Flynn) included in Routledge’s series, Race and Ethnicity in Education. Her collection, Women’s Space: Essays on Female Characters in the 21st Century Science Fiction Western, was published in 2019 as part of the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy Series. Marotta is originally from Ontario, Canada.