Every time I see a trailer for a new horror movie, it appears to showcase the same exact narrative: someone dies in a house; a nice, ordinary family moves in; there’s a spirit in the basement; the children get possessed; and the family cannot leave the property because ‘it will just follow them’. However, no matter how many horror movies pursue this storyline, we remain consistently spooked by the use of the homely environment within such movies. From the first era of horror movies to more recent additions to the genre, the house continues to play an equally vital and terrifying role as the ghosts and demons themselves.
So what is it that creates a ‘horror home’ and why are they so terrifying? Well, where are you most likely to watch a horror movie? – within the comfort of your home. You can curl up in bed, snuggle under a big blanket, and cuddle up to the person next to you – unless of course you are brave (and crazy!) enough to watch them alone. This doesn’t sound too bad; that is until you realise that all the victims are ordinary people, living in an ordinary house, just like you. Suddenly, your own bedroom doesn’t feel quite so comforting anymore, and the coat hanging on the back of your door starts to look suspiciously like the Woman in Black…
The latest surge of horror movies based in the classic suburban home establishes a special type of fear that shakes us all to the core
This is exactly why horror movies continue to use a horror house setting: it takes us out of our comfort zone by violating our private space. The horror house is therefore created through exposing audiences to feelings of insecurity and peril. While the haunted house concept was originally presented more as a gothic fantasy – homes that we imagine would be riddled with the supernatural – modern horrors tend to resemble a more ordinary, suburban residence, occupied by a typical family. This all brings the horror that bit closer to home.
Unlike the classic gothic haunted house, the suburban home projects a sense of recognition and security; somewhere we can all find comfort in, away from the city where extraordinary events are more predictable. As film historian Leonard Maltin suggests, it is ‘not what you see, but what you think or fear you may eventually see’ that creates a terrifying sense of trepidation, as the audience anticipates the disruption to such normality.
It is, however, not only this violation of the safe and familiar suburban setting that creates fear, but also the deeper meaning behind many horror movies – most notably, their critique of modern anxieties. The horror house is used to resemble these contemporary issues, acting as a symbolic structure that reveals the dark truths of our existence.
The haunted house continues to evoke fear by addressing modern issues
An example of this is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which utilises the framework of the normal family living in an ordinary house (or in this case, a hotel). The hotel’s eerie features have a greater purpose than to simply be creepy; as argued by film writer Robert Levin, these features are ‘manifestations of Torrance’s mind as it rots amid the frustrations of writer’s block, isolation, and an unhappy marriage’. The hotel is therefore a reflection of Jack’s mind, and acts as a ‘troubling reminder of the fragility of happiness, the transience of success, and the fact that so much of our lives are beyond our control’ by showing us how even the most ordinary person is capable of being driven to their limit and committing murder.
Decades after The Shining, the haunted house continues to evoke fear by addressing modern issues. A recent example is Get Out (2018). Using the framework of the seemingly ordinary family suburban home, the movie’s features are used to expose the dark truth and horror of a prevalent issue in today’s society: racism. For example, Chris (the protagonist) and his use of cotton to resist Missy’s hypnosis is a discernible reference to slave labour. What is also particularly notable is the fact that the Armitage family are not the victims in this movie – rather, they are the villains. This shift in perspective, along with the familiarity of the Armitage’s suburban estate, highlights to the audience that there is a deeper meaning behind the movie. This is, that ordinary people, like ourselves, are the reason that we are repelling against forward progression and allowing racism to continue to flourish in today’s world.
The haunted house therefore remains a considerably well known concept and a popular staple that generates fear amongst audiences. As Maltin deduces, ‘it doesn’t take much to make us scared inside a haunted house’, as whether it be the creak of a floorboard or a bump in the night, ‘all we need is an indication or belief that something is there’. It is true that the classic archetype of the haunted house would still instil a level of fear in modern day audiences. However, the latest surge of horror movies based in the classic suburban home establishes a special type of fear that shakes us all to the core; the violation of the home and our sense of security, as well as the movie’s deeper and darker hidden meanings, remind us that we not only have outside forces to fear, but also our inner selves.
Trailer courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment via YouTube.
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