Why the Haunted House theme? What is it about this supernatural subgenre of horror that is so appealing? Why do ghosts scare us?
I’ve always loved, and been most scared by, the ghost movies. I’ve had this macabre fascination with them for as long as I can remember. I know a lot of it goes back to being afraid of the dark as a kid, hearing the weird sounds in the night. Remembering when you first learned about death and mortality and trying to come to terms with what happens after. And of all of the monsters found in horror, which are the most likely to exist? Probably not the vampires or the werewolves or the zombies. Other than maybe the serial killers it’s the paranormal, the ghosts that are the ones that we can most imagine to be real.
Did you hear a weird creak on the stairway? Did that door just close by itself? What was that you just spotted out of the corner of your eye? Why does it feel like someone is watching you?
And once you believe in ghosts, it’s easy to believe that they may be angry. That they may have once been not very nice people. That they may be insane. And that they may want to take it all out on the living.
Why not? And once that fear becomes tangible, the adrenaline rush found in facing it becomes even greater.
The haunted house movies are great because so often you can’t even see what’s coming. They give us the suggestion and our minds fill in the rest. I feel like I say this often, especially when it comes to these horror movies, but most times less really is more.
And that’s one thing I’ll probably keep coming back to as I dive into exploring this sub-genre. Especially when I get to some of the newer ghost movies. Some people call it a dumbing down of the genre (in some cases they’re definitely right). It’s also just a move away from subtlety. Maybe it’s the fault of the filmmakers, maybe it’s the fault of the audience. Either way, as we move into the modern ghost film we often see more of the ghosts, get a lot more blood, and wind up with a much higher body count.
But old or new, there are some elements or combination of elements that are almost always present in the Haunted House movie.
First there’s The House. This one is kind of obvious. Of course there has to be a House in a Haunted House movie. Sometimes it’s not literally a house – sometimes it’s a spaceship or an insane asylum or a school or a cabin in the woods.
And while I’m mostly covering Haunted House movies this month, there are a couple that don’t actually meet this first requirement. But while they’re missing the house, what they do still have is that sense of isolation, the claustrophobia, the feeling of being trapped.
Because that’s the first important thing, one of the big drivers of the tension is the feeling that there is no escape. As long as a person is trapped inside the house, they are in grave danger.
In these houses, there are ghosts. Usually. But again, not always. As in 1963’s The Haunting, sometimes it’s hard to tell if there actually is a ghost or if the house itself is evil.
What happens once the characters are trapped in The House? Usually there are creepy noises, a wind will blow out of nowhere, a door will open or shut on its own, there will be a shadow or movement just out of the corner of your eye. These are the subtle things, the things that build the tension, that make us jump. And as the movie goes on, these things always get bigger, the threat always grows.
And then we may see the ghost. Which is sometimes good, sometimes not. That usually comes down to the quality of the special effects.
Now what about the people in these stories? What sorts of characters do we find in these films?
In some, we get the psychics and the paranormal researchers. Think Poltergeist’s Dr. Lesh or The Haunting’s Dr. Markway. More times, we get a family. It will come down to the parents protecting their children. Or sometimes the ghost will be the child.
A lot about the Haunted House genre is exploration of family and how a family reacts to a threat. I think the thing with kids so often being involved may go back to Henry James and The Turn of the Screw. A ghost story about a man being haunted? Okay, that can be a scary. A ghost story about a child being haunted? That’s like one turn of the screw. Two children? Another turn, the horror begins to become unbearable.
There’s a reason that’s still one of my favorite ghost stories. Although now that I’ve actually read The Haunting of Hill House, it has a close second.
What are some other common elements in these haunted houses? Faces in the windows, blood dripping down walls or out of faucets or bubbling in the basement. And they almost always have a basement. Or at least an attic.
There’s usually a lot of talk about how the house is mad. There’s usually a Heart of the house, or the place where the evil is most concentrated. Usually the haunting effects one character more than the others. Sometimes the people need to solve the mystery of the haunting in order to survive. Sometimes they solve the mystery and die anyway.
There may be an exorcism. Unless you’re that house from The Amityville Horror and then you scare even the priests away. Some of these movies turn to religion, some try to philosophize on the meaning of life or life after death. Some don’t bother to try to explain a damn thing, they’re just telling you a scary story and taking you along for a ride.
There are all kinds in this genre. In some ways, it’s changed a lot over the years. The movies now put more emphasis on the special effects and the gore. But not all of them. And however the Haunted House movie has changed, it’s still here and it’s still happening. Whether it’s Insidious or Paranormal Activity, The Woman in Black or The Innkeepers, our fascination with the Haunted House movie is alive and well.
Why is that? Why do we keep coming back these movies?
I guess, maybe, it’s because no matter how old we get, we can still hear the things that go bump in the night.