“Think of the bills,” a woman sitting behind me in the theater moaned at one point – Stephen King, Danse Macabre
The fictional haunted house is nothing new. It predates cinema itself and has been told countless different times in countless different ways.
Early haunted house movies tend to follow a similar pattern to that set out in The Old Dark House (1932). Often characters are invited to stay overnight in a spooky Gothic mansion maybe to investigate strange goings-on, or earn a cash prize or secure an inheritance. The house is haunted by Ghosts, Demons or madmen. Movies like House on Haunted Hill (1959) and the Cat and the Canary (1927).
We know that horror films often speak to contemporary anxieties, a reflection of societal fears and concerns. So it’s interesting to observe how the haunted house sub-genre of horror movies is evolving. And also how popular these movies currently are at the Box Office!
Horror to me often seems to find public pressure points, triggers, phobias whatever you want to call it and exploit (is that the right word?) those fears.
So in a way, it’s not surprising that the recent run of haunted house movies deal not with drafty, old mansions, but act as a reflection of the economic anxiety many everyday, ordinary people consciously or subconsciously feel. After years of Recessions, financial meltdowns and housing crisis. And in the UK at least, years of austerity.
So you have Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Conjuring, etc and more recently the excellent Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s – The Haunting of Hill House. All featuring some variation on families who bought a new home, often one they can’t really afford, and then when the haunting begins, can’t really afford to leave.
Perhaps it’s something you can only understand as an adult. Not being able to pay your mortgage is scary! So I imagine are ghosts literally tearing your house apart! … And not being able to afford to pay your mortgage.
Stephen King said of The Amityville Horror in Danse Macabre:
“The Bad House’s most obvious effect-and also the only one which seems empirically undeniable: little by little, it is ruining the Lutz family financially. The movie might as well have been subtitled The Horror of the Shrinking Bank Account.”
And that brings me on to (or back to I suppose) the late ’70s/early ’80s another time of recession that produced two classic haunted house movies in this vein. The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. Actually, both of which have been remade.
If horror truly does reflect our subconscious fears, then perhaps this evolving template for haunted house movies which arguably started with The Amityville Horror – ordinary families fighting against an invisible and uncaring force, a faceless entity that can’t be bargained or reasoned with, suddenly feels rather familiar. It’s just supernatural possession instead of repossession (sorry!).
…. Also, the jump scares in those movies are pretty good. Right?