*NOTE: This was originally the second half of the post “Suspense with Respect to Horror.”
Before I pick the specific episode apart piece by piece, I recommend that you watch this episode, as well as the rest of Samurai Jack. No, really, go watch it. I’m going to deconstruct practically every single second of this episode.
The episode in question is the 9th episode of season 3 of Samurai Jack titled Episode XXXV and commonly known as “Jack and the Haunted House.” It opens on a forest at night, complete with crickets and creaking tree limbs. A full moon illuminates Jack’s path as a breeze wraps around him. Jack looks uncomfortable, and is paying a lot of attention to the noises around him. Jack is normally very calm (the benefits of prior character development), and we wonder why he has reason to be tense. An unsettling atmosphere has been successfully created.
Jack continues on a little more quickly, pausing at a tree when a bird calls out. He scans his surroundings, his gaze passing over a small cloaked figure that blends into the background, and for the first time that episode we hear music. The music for this episode is all rather low and disjointed, which is disturbing. It sounds wrong, and we still haven’t seen anything that proves there is something wrong.
Jack looks back at the lump, and begins to approach. We hear the sounds of a little girl crying, and see the cloaked figure holding a stuffed toy. Jack pauses behind her and says, “Excuse me.”
A jump scare is used as a close up of the figure’s eyes is shown, which is followed immediately by a shot of them running away, leaving the stuffed toy on the ground as the footsteps fade away. This is not a pointless jump scare, however, because that is not normal behaviour for a little girl. We don’t know why she (it?) is acting this way, and it adds to the sense of wrongness.
Jack, even though he is as confused as we are, nice guy that he is, picks up the toy and calls after her to wait. She doesn’t listen, and he runs after her. The music builds until he emerges on a hill in the forest, with a clear view of a Japanese mansion on another nearby hill. He stops, staring at the dark, backlit, angular building, then glances at the toy, and continues onward.
A caveat: Jack has been trained to face the personification of evil that currently rules the world for his whole life, and has frequently come close to defeating it. Him not just bugging out is because of his desire to help others and his confidence (justified) in his skills, rather than idiocy. He’s the type of guy that runs into burning buildings when there’s the possibility of someone being trapped in them. Why would he do any differently this time?
The music quiets again as he continues through the orchard surrounding the mansion, shadows passing over his face from the branches overhead. He reaches the base of the stairs to the mansion, where the solid front door, slightly open, creaks as it is closed by the figure. All of this detail, lengthening his approach to the mansion, gives us more time to anticipate the wrongness we are now expecting to come to fruition, and builds the suspense.
Even more detail is provided to us as the music cuts out completely and he walks up the stairs. We get to hear every creak of every step, until the railing breaks beneath his hand. The mansion certainly appears ill-kept. Abandoned. As with most buildings, the concept of no one being inside of it makes you wary of entering. The fact that we just saw someone go inside it is dissonant, and (you guessed it) builds up the sense of wrongness.
At the front door, Jack considers entering that way, but sees a moth flit to the side, almost seeming to beckon him, and decides to follow it. Cautiously, he peaks around the corner of the house before approaching the shogi doors on the side, where the moth continues to lead him. Again, we hear the boards creak under his weight as every step of his approach is shown. Light is coming from the doors, and we see the shadow of a woman kneeling before a fire. Gentle but not particularly soothing music plays.
Jack touches the door with the intention of opening it, and we get our second jump scare. Moths come out of the house. A frankly ridiculous number of moths, that all fly toward the moon and disappear in its light. This one comes with no music, just the sound of flapping wings. The light we had just seen inside the house can no longer be seen. Again, I would argue that it is not pointless, bringing up more questions than answers and reinforcing the abandoned status of the mansion. Why were there so many in one place? That’s not normal. And why were they trying so hard to, dare I say it, escape?
Jack is a bit freaked out by the moths, and reaches slowly for the shogi doors again. Another moth comes out, and he settles his nerves to slide open one door abruptly. There is nothing there but a few more moths and a statue, its face hidden in shadow while one hand is raised over the offering plate held in the other.
I’m going to go on a slight tangent here. That statue does literally nothing all episode, but you cannot comprehend just how much it disturbs me. I think it has to do with never seeing the face, and so never knowing exactly what I’m looking at, but I swear that it is one of the most disturbing parts of the episode for me. It’s obviously a religious artifact, so maybe it’s the concept that the god or goddess these people prayed to couldn’t help them that gets to me. Or perhaps I somehow think that the god or goddess is directly responsible for whatever happened in some way. Whatever the reason, the statue is incredibly disquieting to me, and other than its shadowed face, I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps you can discover why for yourself.
Jack enters the room, and accidentally kicks a small copper pot. The pot rolls across the floor, clanging, until slowing and coming to rest at the foot of the statue. It jars the nerves. And it is followed by something even more jarring.
The animation changes to a blotchy black and white, and we see a hand placing an incense stick into the pot. It’s some kind of vision that Jack has gotten of the past. He doesn’t know what to think of it.
This vision and the ones that follow could be considered a form of pay off, but they don’t actually spend any of the suspense that has been built up. This first in particular shows you that someone used to live there, but nothing else. It isn’t really a jump scare, and again, it raises more questions than answers. How and why did it just happen? It can’t be a warning; there was nothing significant in it. It is strange, and like the rest of the episode so far, the strangeness is a sign of the wrongness gathering on the horizon.
Jack approaches the pot, and reaches to pick it up, when an area next to him creaks unexpectedly. A demolished table there cues another vision, this time of bonsai trees being swept by some destructive force.
Jack is getting very tense, and so is the audience. He cautiously gets up, studying the next room suspiciously. A creak sounds from the dark corner he is studying, and he moves some debris out of the way in order to proceed. A candle that has been sliced in half is the source of another brief vision, this one showing the woman who had been in the shadow on the shogi door being approached by an unseen something and screaming before the sliced candle drops to the floor. Again, not really showing much other than someone lived there, they were attacked, and they are no longer there. It’s the way in which it is done, leaving the source of the horror a mystery by showing the visions from its perspective. Is it still there? Obviously it is, considering the episode name, but we have seen no sign of it, other than the visions. We don’t know what, or why, or how, and only vaguely when any of this happened, and the not knowing is starting to get to us.
Jack shakes the vision away and lights a piece of the candle, returning to the first room to study the abandoned and cobweb filled areas. Creaks sound on odd occasions, and we haven’t heard any music since he walked away from the pot. The lack of music is almost worse than having unsettling music at this point. It’s not something you would normally notice, but the absence makes everything feel just a little bit more disconcerting.
Jack hears a creak from an upper floor, and raises the candle toward it. It gets blown out by…a draft, I suppose, and the smoke wafts toward a different set of shogi doors. The music returns, and I am sorry I ever missed it, since the ambient, dissonant hums only make things more disturbing. The room contains a set of stairs to one side, and a trap door prominently in the foreground. If you’ve seen anything related to horror before, you’re probably screaming inside to avoid the trap door.
Not to worry. Jack scouts out the room a bit, examining a model boat that triggers another vision. A young man is carefully painting the model, when something between a roar and a whistling gust of wind is heard from the trapdoor. The trapdoor is blasted open, and we are treated to the evil-thing-o-vision heading up through the trapdoor, straight for the young man’s terrified face.
Jack drops the boat and rubs his head, getting frustrated with these visions. He looks over at the trapdoor before edging along the far wall back to the door he came in by, only taking his eyes off the trapdoor to run out of the room. Cue shot of trapdoor overlaid with creepy ambient music, which is standard, but works this time by giving you time to think. Your first thought is one of relief. “Oh thank goodness, he didn’t open the creepy trapdoor where the thing was.” Thought two is the disturbing one. “But if it got out in that vision of the past…is it really still down there?”
Jack goes to a different set of stairs and sees the figure he was chasing at the start at the top. He runs up them, reaching an abandoned upper room with windows. He searches it, but finds no one. He tries to convince the probably-a-little-girl to come out, but when she doesn’t, he sets her toy on the mantle with every intention of leaving. He is distracted by the painting above the mantle, showing a man on a horse shooting at a number of dark animalistic blobs. He gets a vision of a rider under a cloudy sky, who was apparently also attacked by the thing. Fed up, he says goodbye and turns to leave.
Footsteps patter behind him, and he turns to see the toy gone from the mantle. A shape is seen ducking behind a chair, and the music picks up with one of Samurai Jack’s more standard battle rhythms as he drags the figure out from behind the chair to reveal…an adorable little girl.
For reference, we are just about halfway through the episode, and only now are we getting a bit of pay off from the start. You don’t really get much time to feel good about this reveal, though, because she asks in a voice that is both cute and creepy, “Did I scare you?” Jack’s “Um…no” in response is probably only true for him. He starts asking about the house that has been freaking him out, if she has been living there, and the little girl immediately starts crying again. Jack asks what is wrong, but she claims that it’s nothing. Nope, not a bad sign at all.
The music starts up again as Jack and the girl both look around suddenly, as if something is there. Jack suggests that they leave. As Jack says, “I think we have been here too long already,” the metaphorical animation camera focuses on a close up of the very demonic eyes of a dog in the painting over the mantle, which seem to be looking straight out at them and possibly seeing them.
Jack hauls the little girl downstairs, intending to take her back to the shogi doors he came in by. He uses the statue as a landmark, its face still shadowed even when he lifts the candle towards it, and as mentioned before, it disturbs me. Jack is cheerfully detailing to the girl all the good things about the outside, and encounters a literal brick wall. Understandably, he freaks out, saying, “What is this? There was a door here!” The little girl just looks up at him, then away again, and he stops yelling.
He very quickly hauls her back upstairs, trying for the windows and finding another solid wall. The unknown evil is irrevocably starting to take action. Jack freaks out about the windows the same way he did about the door, but is interrupted by the little girl crying. He takes a breath and calms down, trying to understand what is happening but failing. The girl says that she is tired and cold, and Jack suggests that yes, sleep would be a good idea.
We come back from commercial with some seizure-inducing visions. They include colour-shifting images of specific features of the house, of a sketchy Jack in trouble, and of a something. A something with a snout and claws and teeth. You only see it very briefly, but it’s not really something you want to see again.
Jack wakes up, and finds the little girl gone, her blanket left behind. He starts to walk elsewhere in search of her, when he hears music. Nice, legitimately soothing music. It’s coming from a well-lit doorway, which Jack approaches, battle-ready. He sees a clean, well kept room where the little girl and what must be her family sit, drinking tea.
It is the most unsettling part of the episode. This is so far from what is expected that your mind can’t keep from screaming how wrong it all is. It cannot be real, you think in disbelief. There is no way this can be real. It doesn’t help that you recognize the mother, older brother, and father from Jack’s visions.
Jack agrees with the audience on that count, demanding to know what is going on, what kind of illusion this is. He is quite hostile, even drawing his sword, as the father very kindly tries to talk him down and offers him tea. He even offers a matrix-like choice: “Drink the tea if you don’t believe we are real.” He introduces his family, and everyone is very calm and polite. Jack has trouble staying hostile, likely because of the familiarity of such a scene and the loneliness he’s had to deal with since being flung out of his own time. He drinks the tea.
Tea is evidently the way to his heart (unsurprising, given how much of it we’ve seen him drink previously in the series), and he sits down with them, chatting about where the tea came from. Jack asks about the state of the house, and the father quite obviously doesn’t have an answer. “There was a storm,” his wife offers nervously. The father agrees with a smile, saying that they’ve tried to make the best of things, turning to his son for agreement.
This is where the nightmare begins to be fully realized, and all that suspense that was built up pays off.
The son doesn’t answer, his eyes starting to roll back into his head. The father tries to laugh it off as shyness, sweating all the while, and prompts his son to talk about his studies instead. The boy shakes, and the pupils that where half-hidden behind his upper eyelids roll back even further to leave his eyes completely white. The room around Jack flickers in colour. The son starts foaming at the mouth, and the mother isn’t far behind him. The father laughs faintly again, still sweating, and tries to claim it as illness. All the while, that gentle music is still playing. The little girl says, “I’m sorry,” and even the music begins to skip, slowing down and distorting until it is gone. The father also succumbs to the “illness” while the illusion of the room continues to flicker. Jack jumps away, horrified, as the room changes back to a destitute wreck. The little girl runs away to hide behind a pot. Black, blotchy evil begins to pour out of the other family member’s mouths, merging in midair to reveal the monster.
There is more to the episode, but it’s all pay off, and that’s not what this post is about. Even though the episode continues to do so in a way that supports small scale suspense, the main breakdown is complete.
A. C. F.