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A Bump in the Night, A Creak on the Stairs: Meditations on the Haunted House Trope

By Eve Reid

The phenomenon of hauntings in domestic settings carries a complex and profound historical significance that resonates throughout literature and visual culture. The recurring motif of the ‘haunted house’ often symbolizes the enduring impact of social memory on a specific location. When one undertakes the task of crafting a narrative involving a haunted house, it becomes an attempt to forge a connection with one's surroundings by projecting traces of the human or non-human presence onto built environments. Alternatively, a haunting within a structure can be interpreted as a manifestation of the fear that the human or non-human presences may intrude as representations of the symbolic self, a mirror of the one’s interior world in the Jungian sense. The occupation of space by a spirit or spectre is typically how hauntings are perceived in the Western imaginary. As Martyn Hudson notes in Ghosts, Landscapes and Social Memory (2017), hauntings exhibit three discernible characteristics: the Freudian archaeological excavation that uncovers hidden truths and forgotten histories, the ghost as a mobile presence that can coexist within the human world, and the presence of the ghost as the vessel for unravelling mysteries and revealing the unknown. Hudson speaks solely of ‘ghosts’ in his text, but I want to explore the multiple ways hauntings take place, particularly in film. From the unsettling confines of The People Under the Stairs, directed by Wes Craven, to the surreal landscapes of Nobuhiko Obayashi's House, the haunted house trope can give way to diverse interpretations, weaving its own narrative tapestry rooted in films’ respective cultural, social, and historical contexts.

The spirit or monster’s ability to inhabit or intrude upon the total ‘safe’ environment of one’s home is, of course, entirely frightening. But why do we keep returning to explore the horror story of the home inhabited by monsters? Hudson traces the origins of the haunted house tradition to an account of Roman scholar, Pliny the Younger, where in a letter describing an Athenian haunted house where rattling chains could often be heard, he seeks advice from Lucius Licinius Sura as to the nature of ghostly presences. In the nineteenth-century works of Horace Walpole and Charles Dickens, the trope of the ‘Bad Place’ becomes a Gothic motif for unexpiated sin reflecting sexual desire, guilt or jealously. The house, as a locus able to harbour dark corners and subterranean passages has since established itself as a psychological mirror as exemplified in Stephen King’s The Shining and films such as The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity.

It is interesting to consider the landscape of America in relation to this trope, something I often do when exploring how environments shape culture and vice versa. Understanding the topography of the States and its visual culture necessitates a consideration of the memory and legacy of Atlantic Slavery. With the endeavour to own property becoming a shorthand for attaining the American Dream following Thomas Jefferson’s definition of rights as ‘life, liberty and property,’ the institution of slavery marked architectural undertakings. Agency here is equated with property, but property is fundamentally tied to the ownership of the people that built America’s economy as Sarah Gilbreath Ford writes in Haunted Property (2020). Property essentially includes people. All notions of homemaking thenceforth are complicated by American dreams and nightmares; notions of stolen land and labour coalesce. The American Dream to own property is one that cannot be separated from death and exploitation affecting marginalized communities, particularly African American and Indigenous populations, whose histories of dispossession and subjugation inflect the pursuit of property with distinctive nuances and challenges. Within this framework, the ostensibly universal ideal of the American Dream emerges as a contested terrain, fraught with tensions between aspirations of economic prosperity and the haunting vestiges of historical inequities, notably colonialism and racial injustice.

I would like here to turn to 1991 horror/mystery film The People Under the Stairs directed by Wes Craven. The film uses the haunted house motif to exemplify intersecting themes of social justice and hidden histories. At its core, the narrative revolves around a young boy named Fool who ventures into the home of his landlords, only to discover a nightmarish reality lurking beneath the surface. The house, inhabited by the wealthy and twisted couple, becomes a site of terror and oppression, where the marginalized and forgotten are relegated to a life of captivity and suffering. Fool is determined to steal from their home to pay for his mother’s cancer treatment after his family has been threatened with eviction, but instead finds the landlords’ children locked in the basement having resorted to cannibalism to survive. Fool eventually saves these children after a terrifying sequence where he runs through the walls of the house, attempting to evade the killer landlords.

The People Under the Stairs can be classed as an ‘American Nightmare’ film, according to the Marxist theory of Robin Wood. These were movies made in the 70s and 80s that focused on horror as taking root in socioeconomic oppression. Stairs, according to John Wooley, also presented a reaction to 80s conservativism and the ‘New Christian Right.’ The landlords, known as “mommy” and “daddy” in the story, are an image of the twisted logic behind calls for a return to traditional values and the nuclear family. Fool, a child living in a Los Angeles ghetto, unravels their life of corruption from the inside out. Their haunted mansion is beautiful from the outside, but their family values are monstrous. In Craven’s film, the portrayal of the haunted house motif serves as a metaphorical representation of the hidden horrors lurking beneath the veneer of respectability and tradition. In this context, the house becomes a microcosm of American society, where systemic injustices and historical traumas are concealed beneath the surface of bourgeois propriety.

In comparison, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 comedy horror House presents the haunted house as a vessel to unpack the horrors endured in Japan following World War II and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The film follows a group of seven teenage girls who venture to a remote countryside mansion to spend their summer vacation. The protagonist, Gorgeous, is a young girl whose mother has recently died, leaving her feeling emotionally distraught and disconnected. In search of solace, Gorgeous invites her friends to join her at her aunt's secluded house in the countryside. Upon arriving at the house, the girls are immediately struck by its eerie and foreboding atmosphere. As they explore the labyrinthine corridors and eccentric rooms, they encounter a series of bizarre and inexplicable phenomena. From possessed household objects to carnivorous pianos and vengeful spirits, the house seems to be alive with malevolent energy.

One notable aspect of House is its use of imagery and symbolism drawn from Japanese folklore and mythology. The house itself becomes a metaphor for the collective unconscious of the nation, containing within its walls the buried traumas and unresolved conflicts of the past. The supernatural occurrences that occur within the house serve as a manifestation of this collective trauma, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Furthermore, House can be seen as a commentary on the rapid modernisation and westernisation of Japan in the post-war era, as symbolized by the intrusion of the supernatural into the domestic space. The film's surreal and psychedelic visuals reflect the disorientation and dislocation experienced by many Japanese people as they grappled with the cultural and social changes brought about by industrialisation and globalisation.

Although only an introduction to the topic, I have sought to unpack here, with reference to two ‘haunted house’ films, the disparate but striking similar utilisation of the trope to examine fears of the unknown and the loss of control over one's environment. Both serve as a commentary on broader social and cultural issues, both in Japan and the West. In Western horror, the haunted house trope often reflects deeper societal anxieties and historical traumas, ranging from the erosion of traditional values to the legacy of colonialism and systemic inequality. Through its transformation of the domestic space into a realm of terror, Western horror narratives challenge audiences to confront the darker aspects of their own history and culture while also exploring universal themes of guilt, grief, and existential dread. Similarly, in non-Western contexts, the haunted house motif takes on new dimensions, infused with cultural symbolism and mythological resonance. By drawing on indigenous folklore and historical traumas, films like House offer unique perspectives on the haunting of domestic spaces, inviting audiences to explore the complexities of memory, identity, and cultural heritage.

Further Reading

Wood, R. Hollywood from Vietnam To Reagan. Columbia University Press, 1986.

Ford, Sarah Gilbreath. Haunted Property. Reprint, University Press of Mississippi, 2020. 


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