This film effectively creates a sense of malaise and provides at least a couple of jump scares by combining a dramatic storyline with layered characters and an evocative setting. The spirits haunting the Claire family in Things Heard & Seen are sufficiently spooky, and there is one chillingly violent scene, but viewers should expect more of a complex, character-driven slow boil than an edge-of-seat thriller. The characters and ambience are what give this film its soul and ultimately its suspense. Charming and handsome college professor George looks perfect on paper, but the film doesn't take long before raising doubts about him and the young couple's marriage. The floppy-haired, khakis-clad Norton is perfect for the role, but Seyfried is the film's real star. As the wide-eyed but world-weary main character, she does a skillful job expressing Catherine's emotional evolution over the course of the film. There are layers to Catherine that complicate and deepen the character, such as a history of disordered eating and a bristling against gender expectations of 1980, including the impetus for her marriage, the abandonment of her career, the gradual distrust of her husband, and a timid exploration of feminism.
Another rationale behind the film's period setting is to allow for a time before cell phones or internet research, absences which further isolate the characters and keep them in the dark. Catherine begins unraveling the mystery of their seemingly-haunted house by visiting the local historical society, going to the library, talking with neighbors. This is where supporting cast come in, to provide explanations, support, and warnings. F. Murray Abraham and Rhea Seehorn, who play two of George's colleagues drawn to a deeper connection with Catherine, bring gravitas to the cast. The younger locals, played by Stranger Things' Natalia Dyer and Colony's Alex Neustaedter, are sketched more superficially and used mainly as plot devices; Dyer's character practically disappears mid-film. Academic life also feels a tad stereotyped here, but George's specialization in the work of nineteenth century painter George Inness, who flirted with the mystical ideas of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, provides the entrée for supernatural themes. These inform the film's ending, which could disappoint some viewers, especially after such a patient, detailed build-up of story and characters.