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“Houses don’t have memories.” ~George Lutz, Amityville Horror
For me, Halloween is a time for binge-watching horror movies. Lately, I’ve been delving into the subgenre of haunted houses: The Shining, The Amityville Horror, The Awakening, The Conjuring, The Others, The Changeling, The Pact, and Poltergeist. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are very few excellent, original haunted house movies. They’re so rife with clichés that I made a bingo game with 25 of my favorite recurring plot elements.
Haunted house movies rely on these tired old tropes because all the movies explore the same theme: a dysfunctional family and how its secrets tear it apart. Despite the terror and gore, and any attempts to put a new spin on things, this disintegration follows predictable patterns.
Let’s start at the very beginning
As the film begins, a family moves into a new home, hoping for a fresh start. The viewer shakes her head, knowing this is a horror movie, so the worst is yet ahead of them. That’s because, wherever you go, your secrets go with you.
The secret that’s fracturing the family lies in the heart of the parent. It could be as mundane a horror as the fact that Dad is drinking again (The Shining), as bloody as a parent abusing or murdering her children (The Others, The Awakening, The Changeling, The Pact), or as bizarre as Daddy knowing that their housing development was built on an Indian burial ground (Poltergeist). Sometimes the parent is possessed by the preexisting evil in the home (The Conjuring, The Amityville Horror). Whatever it is, this secret festers at the center of the family, poisoning everyone’s happiness.
The result, inevitably, is a victimized child. When a parent is violent or scary, or fails to protect the child from someone who is, children have few tools at their disposal to defend themselves. Often, they will retreat into fantasy or resort to passive-aggressive tactics to manipulate or deflect the parent.
Child abuse is one of the most painful and terrifying topics in our society, and unfortunately it’s pretty common. According to the CDC, most Americans have suffered at least one “adverse childhood experience”: a traumatic instance of abuse or neglect. Haunted house movies depict this abuse in graphic, exaggerated fashion. But the emotional truth is real — there is nothing more frightening, no deeper betrayal, than a parent harming, or allowing harm to come to, his or her child. Every child, no matter how beloved, is at the mercy of the parent, and even loving parents can have secrets that scare children. All of us can identify with that primordial fear.
Variations on a painful theme
There are as many iterations of the terrorized child as there are spins on this genre. Sometimes the child develops a relationship with a deceptively friendly supernatural being (Carol Anne with the TV People in Poltergeist; Amy with Jody in The Amityville Horror). In other stories, the child is grown, but is harrowed by the secret later in life, when revisiting the family home (The Pact). The saddest, and often scariest, type is when the child has died, almost always at the hands of a parent, and his or her ghost haunts the home, striving to have his or her death set to right (The Others, The Conjuring, The Changeling).
It’s no wonder, then, that the children in the haunted house movies resort to allying with the supernatural for help — what other recourse do they have? Those forces may betray them, too, or be the vehicle for their vindication. If the child has died, he or she becomes the dark force, and only the revelation of the abuse will allow the child’s soul to rest in peace, which is sadly sometimes the best the viewer can hope for.
And this brings us to the most famous cliché of haunted house movies — the house is clearly evil, but the family doesn’t leave. It seems ridiculous, but there are valid psychological reasons why they stay: Nothing can be remedied until the truth comes out.
The family’s underlying secret is symbolized by the hidden room, an element present in every haunted house movie I’ve seen. This room is a wound, a place deliberately blanked out, walled up, locked away. Nothing can be healed until this bubble of tabooed truth is ruptured, exposed for all to see. Usually it’s in the basement or attic, which in symbolic terms are the darkest places in the psyche.
To the rescue
The out-of-control family, unable to extricate itself from this crisis, appeals to a mystic to come and exorcise the ghosts. There’s a classic scene in which the psychic, priest, or professional ghostbuster enters the home and validates the family’s horror. The explanation for the haunting may link the family’s plight to an underlying corruption — an older evil that has seeped into the cracks made by its dysfunction. This taps into the way abuse is cyclical and chronic, welling up from an ancient place in our family culture.
The magical person’s insight helps deliver the family from evil, just as in reality, the intervention of a therapist, clergyperson, or even the police is necessary to end a destructive family dynamic. With the evil dispelled and the child made safe again, the family can finally recover from its trauma.
These movies are all allegories. The Amityville Horror isn’t about a haunted house — it’s about the psychological trauma of a mother’s recent remarriage to a volatile man. The Others is about a mother’s nervous breakdown after the loss of her husband in World War II. The Changeling is the tale of a disabled boy cast aside by an ambitious father. The Shining is about the relapse of a father into violent alcoholism. And so on. The story is only supernatural when viewed through the irrational lens of a child’s fear.
Despite being macabre and terrifying, haunted house movies are also perversely optimistic. In real life, many children suffer at the hands of their parents and the truth never comes out. By watching the metaphorical process of horror and healing, the viewer vicariously experiences relief from a personal angst and achieves the catharsis that is the hallmark of horror movies.
And so, at last, the family’s long nightmare is over…or is it? ::cue scary music over the credits::
Top right: James Brolin and Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror (1979). (© 1979 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All rights reserved)
Midlle left: Alakina Mann in The Others (2001) (© 2011 – Miramax)
Bottom righ: Zelda Rubinstein as medium Tangina in Poltergeist (1982). (© 1982 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved)
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