The Art of the Haunted House

From Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982) to The Haunting of Bly Manor (Mike Flanagan, 2020), haunted houses have always been a classic staple in many horror films. Dubbed somewhat of a cliche, there is no doubt that it is one of the most common tropes in a scary movie. I mean what could be more scary? I live in a house. Chills. There are many elements which frequently appear in a good old fashioned scary movie, ranging from: a creaky gate, the mirror scare, a dark basement and the infamous ‘ignoring a wise elder’s advice’ trope. All of these elements are often perfectly encompassed in a haunted house film; a static setting in an oftentimes sleepy town, which tends to hold a dark secret.

The haunted house style of horror film is especially appealing due to its ‘closed room’ element which is prominent in many classic crime novels (see: any and all Agatha Christie novels), which is particularly apt at the moment since we are all stuck in our houses. I myself am particularly excited about the hopefully numerous amount of films that will show some spooky entities taking over while people are in lockdown (how will they survive? what survival equipment will they have to do without? will they have enough toilet paper? SO many questions).   

Figure 1 credit: Saturday Evening Post

One of my personal favourites has to be The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979) which in many ways jumpstarted the haunted house genre and has remained a favorite cult classic. The premise is perfect in its simplicity; a family with three children move into a large suburban house that should be way above their price point, but due to crimes committed on the property they get it at a great bargain. It makes one wonder, IS the original wainscotting worth the ever looming sense of dread from knowing someone died in your house? In this economy, maybe! 

The film instigated what became a genre in its own right, with twenty nine films and counting being based around this particular house and film, which range from 1979 up to 2020. The original, however, remains one of the greatest productions, partly because it is the original, but also due to its spine chilling elements without the dramatisation of the overuse of special effects. A cynical eye could see this as a pure tale of a family breakdown, where the children are allowed to terrorise their baby-sitter, the husband, George (James Brolin), has a failing business and the couple, George and Kathy (Margot Kidder), are very divided on areas of faith and appear to have increasing marital tensions. That is what allows this film to last and be just as gripping today – until the more obvious supernatural elements come in, such as the black ooze coming up from the basement and the glowing red eyes of the house, it could almost appear to be a family drama. 

This film remains conclusively in the genre of horror, however, complete with a nun who cannot even enter the property due to the malicious evil she senses there, and the priest, Father Delaney, (Rod Steiger) who attempts to bless the house but gets chased out by an evil spirit and swarming flies, who ultimately ends up going blind and subsequently losing his faith. This haunted house is one that has many consequences for the community as well as the family involved. Adhering to further cliche, this film is actually based on the true story of the DeFeo murders, when in 1974 twenty-three year old Robert DeFeo Jr. took a .35 caliber rifle and murdered his parents and his four siblings who ranged from eighteen to just nine years old. Robert was ultimately convicted and was sentenced to serve six life sentences to fit his crimes. After this event, it became known as a murder house and no one would buy it until the Lutz family moved in.

They moved in the week before Christmas 1975, and ended up spending a mere 28 days in the house before fleeing in the middle of the night without any of their belongings, citing psychokinesis, apparitions and eerie window and door slamming. It may not be as paranormal as it seems, however, as people have said that the real Amityville Horror is the abundance of lawsuits surrounding this case and the fact that many locals have thoroughly debunked the tale, including policeman Edward Lowe, who when asked for comment proclaimed “Its all bull. What would you do if your doors were ripped off and your windows broken and $1,500 mysteriously disappeared? You’d call the police, right? Well, the Lutzes never contacted the police until after they moved out.” (Kernan, 1979). George Lutz had an answer for this however, as he claims that people simply wanted to distance themselves from the event. The book by the same name which the film is based on was written by Jay Anson and published in 1977 leading to numerous lawsuits and controversy. There are hundreds of articles doubting its truthfulness, and some even claim that the Lutz family concocted this tale in order to monopolises on it (I would highly recommend reading Joe Nickell’s Investigative Files article on this subject as he breaks down the lore and the reality behind the house and the horrors it holds). Regardless of the veracity of this haunted house, it is definitely one of the most infamous and the popular horror franchise series The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013) is loosely based around Anson’s novel. 

The haunted house genre of horror itself has spawned (pardon the pun) many series in American film such as the Insidious (2010, James Wan) film series and Paranormal Activity (2007, Oren Peli). This Halloween while we are all stuck inside our houses, I could not think of a better genre to indulge in. Happy Halloween, and make sure to check under your beds. 

Bibliography: 

Kernan, Michael. (1979). ‘The Calamityville Horror’, The Washington Post

Nickell, Joe. (2003). ‘Amityville: The Horror Of It All’, Investigative Files, vol. 27, no. 1.

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