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They Don’t Build ‘Em Like They Used To: The Decline of the Haunted House Movie

The new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle House at the End of the Street is just what you’re hoping it’s not: a bad amalgamation of all the slasher movie clichés that can be crammed into an hour and a half.  Plucky heroine who nonetheless can’t save herself when it counts?  Check.  Creepy shut-in next door with a basement full of secrets?  Check.  Intimations of something nasty/potentially supernatural running around in the forest?  Check.  Bad acting, worse writing, and unforgivable plot holes?  Check, check, check.  Even Lawrence, with her respectable acting chops (see Winter’s Bone), can’t save this trashy, disappointing flick. So, rather than spend any more time bemoaning the state of current big-budget horror, this column examines the “house” in the modern horror film, hoping a look back will inspire at least a modicum of hope for the future.

Let’s begin with Psycho (1960).  As critics from the popular (see David Thomson’s “The Moment of Psycho”, 2009) to the academic (see Slavoj Zizek’s “Looking Awry”, 1992) have long pointed out, Norman Bates’s family home plays a key role in the film, almost functioning as a character in its own right.  (I always find the scene in which Lila (Vera Miles) explores Mother’s bedroom, with its many mirrors and creepy tchotchkes, to be one of the scariest in the whole film.)  The place of the basement in Psycho has achieved nothing less than legendary status and led Zizek, in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) to construct an entire theory of the house as being divided into Norman’s id (basement) ego (ground floor) and superego (second floor), with the relevant parts of the story thus occurring in the appropriate parts of the house.  It’s no accident that detective Arbogast is murdered at the top of the stairs, as he’s about to break into Norman’s superego zone.  (The superego strives for perfection, according to Freud, and for Norman would be the place where the discrepancies in his split personality—and anyone finding out about them—would be the least tolerable.)

Psycho may have been the film that really cemented the house itself as a fixture in the horror film, but another film from the same year, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, did just as good a job of making home sweet home into the ultimate horror show.  The protagonist’s profession as a photographer gives him the perfect cover for getting close to women who catch his fancy, and also allows him to construct a darkroom in his apartment where he menaces his girlfriend and his landlady (her mother).  These scenes are nothing less than spectacular, both for their perfectly choreographed use of light and shadow and for their sudden cuts to the living room just outside which, jarringly, appears welcoming and at least somewhat normal.  Like the cavern in the basement of Silence of the Lambs, Peeping Tom’s darkroom is a cabinet of horrors nestled skin-crawlingly close to the seat of domesticity.

Isn’t this really what’s frightening about haunted house movies—the collision of something foreign and threatening within a space that’s supposed to be completely knowable and safe?  I think so.  This foreign, threatening force can take many different forms, however, from an intruder lurking out of sight (When a Stranger Calls [1979], Black Christmas [1974]) to an invading supernatural force (Poltergeist [1982], A Nightmare on Elm Street [1985]) to the idea of the house itself being alive, possessed, and malevolent (The Amityville Horror [1979], The Shining [1980]).  Sadly, with so many role models to choose from, House at the End of the Street settles on precisely none of them.  While it gestures towards the unseen-intruder trope several times, nothing ever comes of it, and though there is a secret room in a basement, it proves not too difficult to escape from.

Though its most obvious progenitors are the slasher films of the early to mid-80s, House at the End of the Street doesn’t even have a fully-formed commentary on gender dynamics to offer, something that can often be found in the best films of the period.  (Those who haven’t seen the original Black Christmas should; its politics are so far ahead of its time you’ll be checking the box to make sure you’re not mistaken.)  The slasher cycle gave rise to what theorist Carol Clover (“Men, Women, and Chain Saws”, 1993) termed the “Final Girl,” a female character who isn’t sexualized as much as her compatriots and—partly because of this—manages to outwit the aggressor and kill him in the end.  Though this is the general arc that Lawrence’s character follows in House at the End of the Street, the story is so tired and the characters and dialogue so clichéd that her eventual triumph and escape are not only not a surprise, but downright disappointing in their simplicity and predictability.

While there have been a few haunted house movies in the past few years that approached the greatness of some of the classics I’ve mentioned—The Orphanage [2007] and Insidious [2010] spring to mind—the subgenre as a whole has been woefully anemic.  Unfortunately, even with a compelling lead actress, House at the End of the Street does absolutely nothing to reverse this trend.  Here’s hoping that Lawrence gives horror another try in a better film sometime soon.

By Lita Robinson

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About Lita Robinson

Lita Robinson holds a B.A. in Film Studies from Smith College, and an M.A. in Cinema Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. She currently works in sales and distribution, and consults as a story editor on the side.

5 comments

  1. Great article. I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection between the haunted and the locus of the haunting (e.g. the house) so I loved this piece. I think the “collision of something foreign and threatening within a space that’s supposed to be completely knowable and safe” is exactly what Freud hit upon with his notion of the uncanny — to my mind, the best explanation we have for why this collision sits so uncomfortably within us. I had a long talk with Corinne May Botz (Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, Haunted Houses) about it here: https://therumpus.net/2011/02/corine-may-botzs-haunted-houses/

    One question I’d love to ask Robinson: what is your opinion on the original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1974) and the Guillermo del Toro remake? The neurotic woman-as-house trope was, I thought, rather well done in the first film and evoked the tension of the 1963 version of The Haunting (though not as superbly, of course), but this same tension was totally destroyed in the remake by del Toro’s choice to transmute the lead character into a little girl (https://www.joansdigest.com/issue-1/article-9). I wonder if I’m alone in this….

    Again, great article. Too bad House at the End of the Street sucks 🙁

    Cheers,
    A.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Andrea! Unfortunately I’ve yet to see the Del Toro remake so I can’t comment on it, but your analysis of the switch from adult woman into female child seems right on the money. Sad that Del Toro chose to take this rather regressive step, when his protagonist in PAN’S LABYRINTH was so audacious and interesting.

      For a great look at the subject of women and dwelling spaces in horror, see Mary Ann Doane’s excellent piece, “The Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address” (Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams, eds. Frederick MD: University Publications of America, 1984. pp. 283-298).

  2. I love and miss these types of horror films. In my view, one of the best, and yet most neglected films was The Legend of Hell House, eclipsed by The Exorcist: https://www.theofantastique.com/2008/04/01/the-legend-of-hell-house-as-neglected-and-eclipsed-classic/. The Fall of the House of Usher is another great example. No doubt the retreat of Gothic sensibilities as part of our cycle of horror has played a part. Perhaps the recent effort by a resurrected Hammer in The Woman in Black may give new life to this expression of horror.

    • WOMAN IN BLACK does indeed seem like a step in the right direction, but I have to say I found that film to be pretty disappointing in and of itself. However, if it’s the first in a series of neo-Hammer films which harken back to the glory days of weird, postwar Gothic horror, well…count me in!

  3. I think what really makes it so hard to make a great haunted house movie is the medium itself. There are quite a few haunted object (house, boat, jewlrey…etc) novels out there that are very satisfying. I think with the advent of Paranormal Activity and other quesy self-shot horror is that there is so much emphasis on the reveal – the searching, as oppossed to back story or a sense of a creeping haunt. I think it’s hard not to seem so “been there done that” anymore. Perhaps movies like Insidious and the Orphanage, can sort of bring back the fuller, more realised aspect of the haunted object, but I think with most horror, gems are unfortunately few and far between.

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