Architects of Fear: How Haunted Houses Build Nightmares Out of Trauma and Evolving Societal Fears

     November 5, 2018

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One need not be a chamber to be haunted
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.
–Emily Dickinson

The symbolic representation of a house has taken on multiple meanings over time, but it always maintains the facade of being a home– a place of solace, safety, and status. Its primal purpose is to shield and protect. When the home is compromised, when a house is haunted, an invasion of mental, physical, and emotional anguish follows, and one’s strength and sanity slowly wilt like a dying flower. A place of safety transforms into a labyrinthine chamber of chaos, summoning traumas that manifest in unpleasant forms. And like the human body, houses wither and eventually decay. In film, haunted houses explore these themes of safety, constructs of fear, and emotional decomposition through distinct architecture and genre tropes that embody personal horrors while mirroring the stresses of the times.

Creaky floorboards rotting away with the impressions of those who last walked on its surface, cobwebs delicately spun into the corners of rooms with rich oak walls and tattered wallpaper, dust gathering like a coven of witches over sentimental relics of the past — the familiar imagery of haunted houses is solidified within our minds courtesy of horror literature and film, founded on an iconic motif inspired by the Victorian style of architecture. Named after Queen Victoria, the Victorian era bears the styling of her life, which was filled with sadness and elaborate rituals of grief. The queen wore black garments for decades to mourn the passing of her husband, and under her reign, where the fascination with and handling of death were more personal, and spiritualism grew into prominence.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Crowds flocked to seances in hopes of communicating with lost loved ones, many passed away in their homes instead of hospitals, and postmortem photography was widely accepted. The manner in which individuals embraced and mourned the dead bled into the blueprint of their homes. Parlor rooms were used for seances or wakes while sculptures of funerary urns and heads of Medusa, who was said to ward off evil, were carved into the decor. Architecture veered toward ornate structural design, including details like the gingerbread trim seen in Leatherface’s home in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, stained-glass windows of Whipstaff Manor in Casper, and foreboding turrets towering The Addams Family mansion all typify detail work of the Victorian archetype. There is an entire taxonomy of haunted houses, each part possessing various trademarks like geography, history, and even possession elements that can alter the house’s physical purpose within a film’s plot depending on which characters come knocking at the door.

Robert Wise’s The Haunting and John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House exemplify two of the most notable haunted Victorian homes. Both embrace the notion that location is central to its evil and that the occurrences that happened within its walls are soaked in tragedy, making the house a character in and of itself. Both exercise a narrative structure in which paranormal investigators quantify supernatural phenomena in the hopes of solidifying proof of an afterlife. Their plots imply a history that reverts to the Victorian fascination with the spiritual realm. The presence of ghosts is obscure, and the context shifts to an emotionally and psychologically driven allegory, suggesting that the characters’ desires and traumas are imprinted onto the location. The house itself works as a catalyst that feeds on their misfortunes while personifying their pain or guilt through paranormal activity. Atmosphere and tension drive most of the fear, not the visual display of apparitions. This directorial style depicts the grief and loss that is haunting the house’s inhabitants all along. Therefore, people can be just as haunted as physical places.

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Image via MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

While Victorian homes tended to be isolated, accompanying a winding widow’s path to the front door (as seen in Burnt Offerings and The Others), haunted houses crept closer to neighborhood familiarity when introduced into the suburbs. The American Dream of homeownership became a target of the genre in films and franchises like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror franchise. In Amityville, the aesthetic is still rooted in Victorian style, decorated with attic windows eerily reminiscent of glowing eyes, but the Lutz family is tormented by unexplained activity and feelings of toxicity in their new home. The tropes of location, cyclical violence, aesthetic, and patriarchal possession are at play; but the cultural relevance really hits home.

Likewise, the Poltergeist films similarly conveyed the recessionary subtext of economic catastrophe and financial insecurity alongside a desire to restore the traditional patriarchal household. Abandoning Victorian elements, the Freeling family moves into a commonplace middle-class ‘80s home within a planned community, unknowingly developed over a graveyard. The spiritual presence is visceral and brash, an external force of terror that the characters have to battle, rather than an internal one. Following the Great Recession in the early 2000s, those same fears of economic downfall and the crumbling American Dream were regurgitated in a new haunted house trend. A spike of haunted house films, led by Paranormal Activity in 2007, provided a cold, modern touch to these particular American anxieties within the suburban setting.

The turmoil of grief lingers like a stain on the human heart while the residual energy from a tragic event can play like a broken record. In The Changeling, composer John Russell retains the grief of losing his wife and daughter after he moves into a macabre mansion; his corrupted new home. Small reminders of his family trigger memories of the past and their fatal last day. He sees a child’s face reflected in water and hears loud banging in the dead of night. His grief and anger repeat and remind.

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Image via A24/Reid Chavis

Similarly, Ari Aster‘s Hereditary expresses remnants of death and loss through repetition and recreation. In the midst of mourning the loss of the grandmother, the Graham family suffers an unexpected tragedy, leaving them haunted by the traumatic accident. Toni Collette‘s Annie, already grieving the loss of her own mother, meticulously constructs a replica of her home in order to help stabilize herself against a descent into madness after she begins seeing specters in the shadows. Her miniatures are a window into her state of mind. The concept of a home is therefore destroyed and simultaneously reconstructed as a coping mechanism.

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