Ever since 1944’s The Uninvited established haunted houses in film, the genre has been a perennial favorite of horror fans. As strange as it may seem, before 1944, most films involving ghosts were either comedic or sentimental. The Uninvited, with its eerie atmosphere and menacing ghost, changed everything. However, the innovations of The Uninvited quickly became clichés themselves, clichés that have persisted to this day. So, then, have other game-changers come along and, if so, what exactly did they do differently?
What Hollywood Loves Best: Formula
Just about everyone is familiar with the typical set-up. Someone, usually a family of someones, move into a new house. Usually, the house is Victorian or older, rambling, and creaky. Everything’s hunky-dory until the disembodied voices start yapping or the kid’s imaginary friends announce they want cookies before bed, too. Then, after a period of building tension, the ghosts come out to play. Scares galore ensue followed by the beleaguered family eventually uncovering whatever dark secret keeps the ghosts bound to the house and cathartically either ending the haunting or escaping it.
It’s a decent formula, which is why it has persisted. One could make movie after movie with it and, relieved of the need to come up with an original plot, focus on the scares that the audience was there to see. In the theaters, butts filled seats. In the studios, coffers swelled. It was a win for everyone. There was only one problem, by the mid-sixties, the formula was already becoming tired.
Nothing lasts forever, not even a haunting. However, it would take a while before Hollywood began to appreciate that fact. That said, there were some attempts to defy, or at least update, the haunted house film.
What Hollywood Hates Worst: Change
Perhaps the best early example of a push against the traditional haunted house was the 1963 film The Haunting, based on the novel by Shirley Jackson. In the film, a professor with spiritualist leanings gathers a group of people with psychic potential in the notoriously haunted Hill House, intending to use them to stir the proverbial pot. He succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. With its minimal special effects, disorienting cinematography, and nuanced performances, The Haunting elevated the haunting house picture to cinematic respectability.
It also subverted or even outright ignored many common haunted house tropes. For example, the characters never see any ghosts. Not one. Instead, they only hear them, usually in the form of loud banging noises or gibbering voices. In fact, it’s never really explained just what exactly haunts Hill House.
However, The Haunting still retained enough of the traditional haunted house trappings that it was only a partial escape. In particular, Hill House itself is still a rather stereotypical haunted house. It’s old, creepy-looking, and has a sinister history. While it works well in the service of the film’s narrative, it doesn’t do anything new. It’s still a wonderful film, but it wasn’t the revolution the genre needed.
That wouldn’t come until twenty years later.
A Little Context
In the course of those twenty years, both Hollywood and the greater part of the United States had seen radical changes. Hollywood, in particular, had spent the sixties competing with television and had finally lost its proverbial shirt when it tried to out-spectacle TV with a series of epic movies. While an oversimplification, it is fair to say that the financial failure of one dizzyingly expensive epic too many ultimately helped destroy Hollywood’s old studio system. In its place came New Hollywood, a new generation of directors who had, among other things, embraced the Auteur Theory of the French New Wave and sought to make movies according to their standards and not those of the studios.
This new generation of directors also included a few already-established filmmakers whose eccentricities (or left-leaning politics) had held them back in the old studio system. Filmmakers such as Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, and, of course, Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick Does It Again
After the financial and critical underperformance of 1975’s Barry Lyndon, Kubrick needed to recoup his loses with another project. Because Barry Lyndon’s experimental nature was mostly responsible for its failure, Kubrick elected to return to the genre fare that had helped make him famous. To that end, he elected to adapt the work of new young horror writer who had been gaining stature in American letters: Stephen King. The name of the novel: The Shining.
The story is simple enough (and quite well-known), but for the sake of completeness, we will recap anyway. Schoolteacher and aspiring writer Jack Torrance accepts a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, bringing his family with him. Everything is fine at first until the hotel begins revealing its sinister nature to its isolated inhabitants. Madness ensues.
While the Shining is less experimental than Kubrick’s previous work, it is only nominally so. The film still has all of Kubrick’s trademark weirdness. The long tracking shots, the narrative’s indifferent treatment of its characters, the slow dialogue. Like all his films, The Shining is cold and clinical, with Kubrick’s sweeping camerawork carefully dissecting every scene. Despite this, the film was successful.
Location, Location, Location
More than give Kubrick a success, though, The Shining offered a new spin on the haunted house. While the Overlook Hotel was still old (built in 1907) and remote (middle of the Colorado Rockies), it looked very different from every haunted house that had come before it.
The Overlook was spacious, well-lit, and modern. Aside from the garish shades of the hotel’s famously ugly carpets, white is the predominant color of the film. It also has no murky secret passageways, no creepy basement, no nothing.
That’s not to say that the Overlook isn’t weird, it’s very, very weird. For example, there always seems to be a strange geometry at work. Particularly, the layout of the hotel is almost non-Euclidian, with windows and doors existing where they logically shouldn’t. However, because the characters never take note of the strangeness, how much it exists in the world of the film is questionable.
Going with its bright, if sterile, colors, The Shining has few scenes in low-light and only one in darkness. Almost every visual encounter the Torrences have happens in bright light, from young Danny’s famous encounter with the Grady Twins to father Jack’s infamous scene with the woman in the bathroom. The only scary thing that happens in the dark is Wendy Torrance’s discovery of dozens of cobweb-draped skeletons occupying the Overlook’s spacious front lounge.
Not Your Daddy’s Haunting
There is also a lack of the usual signs of a haunting. There are no mysterious sounds, no cold spots, or unexplained drafts. Just apparitions that (usually) look like ordinary people. Apart from a few of the scarier encounters, the only real hints that the people the human characters interact with are sprits are their cryptic dialogue and the way they inexplicably enter the story. The Torrances are, after all, supposed to be alone at the Overlook.
As radical as it was, as well as never truly replicated, The Shining still bowed to the haunted house formula in two important ways. First, the family moved into a new home, which is the inciting incident in nearly every haunted house story ever told. Second, while a hotel isn’t a house, it still fulfills the demand that a haunted house must be large and opulent.
Two years later, though, Steven Spielberg would produce a film that would defy even more of the haunted house conventions while remaining recognizable as a haunted house story.
Horror Comes Home, Courtesy of Spielberg
That film was Poltergeist. Directed by Tobe Hooper and set in an idyllic, and brand-new, California suburb, Poltergeist is the story of a typical American family that falls prey to a terrifying haunting.
In telling its story, Poltergeist upends all most all of the classic tropes. The first and most obvious way it does so is with its setting. The suburban house located in the fictional neighborhood Cuesta Verde is possibly the most ordinary house ever to play host to a ghost. It is new, cookie-cutter, and inhabited by a loving family whose inoffensive blandness would be the envy of anyone in Reagan’s America.
The Cuesta Verde house has none of the sinister Victorian beauty of Hill House or the unnerving Modernist sterility of the Overlook. It is a home, in short, that just about anyone (assuming they were middle-class and probably white) would have, which is why Poltergeist’s scares are so effective. It literally brings the horror home. Moviegoers in 1982 came away from the film looking askance at their own very ordinary dwellings, wondering what horrors they could hold.
It’s Mixing the Familiar and the Uncanny that Gets the Best Scares
By removing any exotic qualities, Poltergeist creates the sense that hauntings can happen anywhere and for reasons that are both inexplicable and beyond our control. The family in Cuesta Verde are not trespassers like the ghost hunters of The Haunting, nor are they emotional cripples like the Torrences of The Shining. They are just an All-American family that has done nothing to earn what happens to them, and their moral innocence does nothing to protect them.
The haunting itself, meanwhile, is extreme almost from the outset. The slow build lasts all of twenty minutes before a tree reaches through the window of the children’s bedroom and snatches the family’s young son from his bed. A frightening event that proves to be only a distraction so that the ghosts can pull the family’s young daughter into their world through a portal in the children’s closet. The contrast is almost dizzying. The ordinary suburban home becomes a nightmare funhouse its inhabitants cannot understand and can only endure.
The contrast between the almost banal familiarity of the setting and the bizarre haunting is almost comical. Only of few of the ghosts that feature in the film are even vaguely humanlike. Not to mention, they also have a visceral aspect to their appearance that is still unusual in films about ghosts. In some cases, that visceral quality is made literal, such as a scene of a raw steak pulling itself across a kitchen countertop like an inchworm or a closet transforming into a vaguely vaginal passage of flesh. This all serves to make the haunting as immediate and threatening as the filmmakers can make it.
Never Trust a Relator
It’s possible to read Poltergeist as a criticism of Reagan’s America, then two years into its existence. Culturally, one of the major goals of the eighties was the negation of the turbulent sixties and seventies and a return to a romanticized version of the fifties. A return which included all the trappings of the post-war period, such as suburban living and a nuclear family. However, the suburbs in Cuesta Verde nearly destroy the families they were supposed to nurture. More damningly, the reason behind the hauntings is the real estate company’s dishonest and shortsighted decision to not only build their new neighborhood atop an old graveyard but to move only the headstones out of the way while leaving the bodies where they were.
They try to bury the past but only succeed in removing the most obvious signs of its presence. The issues that created those signs haven’t gone anywhere and can now fester beneath all the quaint suburban charm.
Descendants and Precedents
While this hit-‘em-where-they-live approach has in no way become common in film, Poltergeist has seen its ideas reused in a few films. Perhaps most famously in 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which merged Poltergeist’s use of an unremarkable setting with the found footage format invented by The McPherson Tape and made massively famous, to the point of cliché, by The Blair Witch Project. In horror terms, the combination turned out to be a winner because mixing the suburban setting and the POV technique made the scares even more personal for the audience than Poltergeist.
Poltergeist’s use of unremarkable America as its setting arguably owes a debt to another famous horror film, John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween. While a slasher film, maybe even the slasher film, Halloween uses the same trick Poltergeist does: it brings the horror home by setting itself in a place that, to quote the Dead Kennedys, could be anywhere. The characters even acknowledge as much by making several indirect references to how boring they find their town. This all changes when Micheal Myers, the murderous child of a very ordinary American family, decides to return to his hometown for some bloody fun on All Hallows Eve.
Whatever the influences, one cannot deny the power of a film like Poltergeist. Both as a potent game-changer and as a horror tale. After all, when horror comes home, nowhere is truly safe anymore.
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