There are vengeful ghouls, demented witches and cannibalistic serial killers aplenty in the reel and real world out there. The forests and bars seem to be practically teeming with creatures and creations out to harm you in the most gorily gruesome ways possible. So then common sense would dictate you stay home. Fortify your castle against all malign influences and chill with a cosmopolitan and Carrie till kingdom come.
However, that is not to be no? How many times have we seen characters run and run from evil beings, barricade themselves at home or distinctly sinister cabins in the woods only to realise to their horror (and our unbridled delight) that they have locked themselves with the horrid creature? What about houses with supernatural squatters? The kind that makes one’s stay an existential nightmare? There are houses that are just nasty by themselves and others that have supernatural visitors with unfinished business.
Little house of horrors
With Haunted Mansion, a needless reboot of the 20-year-old Eddie Murphy starrer, which was an adaptation of theme park, (sounds like the house Jack built) sputtering on a screen near you, let us take a look what happens when our safe spaces turn against us. An old, mansion/castle with a history of violent death and unhappy spirits wandering about the musty, dusty, fusty corridors is as old as time itself. Remember Hamlet encountering his father’s ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore castle? Shakespeare was not above haunted mansions and gloomy ghosts murmuring about murders most foul.
Shirley Jackson’s frankly terrifying The Haunting of Hill House (1959), long considered one of the best literary ghost stories, was adapted twice into film, The Haunting (1963, 1999) and once for a streaming series, The Haunting of Hill House (2018). The gothic novel speaks of a paranormal investigator renting Hill House to study supernatural phenomena. Two very different women, Eleanor and Theodora, accept the investigator’s invitation. Luke Sanderson, the owner of Hill House completes the party.
The ‘63 film directed by Robert Wise was fairly close to the book and succeeded in spooking one and all including Martin Scorsese, who has given it the top spot of scariest movie of all time. The 1999 version, starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and directed by Jan de Bont, incidentally was quite dreadful.
Lost in space
Ghosts seem to be like cats attached to a space rather than people and houses seem to inherit the bad karma of wicked deeds and pass it on to the next occupants. It would be nice if it worked the other way too, with good luck, health and wealth being transferred through brick and mortar.
The Amityville Horror (1979) was based on Jay Anson’s eponymous 1977 novel detailing the experiences of a family that moves into a house where mass murders took place and being terrorized by malignant spirits. The book has spawned a never-ending series of films, 29 at last count.
Steven Spielberg showed one does not need a derelict mansion to rustle up scares with Poltergeist (1982) while Tim Burton tells the haunted house story from the ghost’s perspective in the horror comedy, Beetlejuice (1988). The Conjuring universe and Paranormal Activity movies also have evil spirits hanging about homes and terrorising the good folk within.
Us and them
Jordan Peale’s Get Out was confined to a home with bigots rather than malevolent spirits doing the hell raising. Peele’s Us in 2019 used devilish doppelgangers to tell a cutting tale. Even The Blair Witch Project (1999), which kicked off the found footage genre, ends in a cottage with no chance of escape for poor, haunted Heather. One must not let Crimson Peak (2015) Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous take on the gothic, slip between cracks. Starring Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston, the movie is a visual tour de force.
Feeling at home
All horror need not be in a house, it could be in a hotel like the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), in space with Alien (1979) and Event Horizon (1997) being prime examples. What is Ridley Scott’s Alien but a haunted house in space with the awful face huggers and chest exploders prowling the clanking corridors of the abandoned space ship?
Ghost Ship (2002), by Steve Beck, who also directed Thirteen Ghosts (2001) about a mansion with 12 furious ghosts trapped in it, uses a ship to stand in for a haunted house. Incidentally, the film has the most effective opening sequence.
In Indian films
In India too, the haunted house is a favoured option for filmmakers. The venerable Ramsay Brothers had haunted havelis galore in their films. Earlier this year, we had the Malayalam film,Neelavelicham, Aashiq Abu’s perhaps too-faithful tribute to the iconic Bhargavi Nilayam (1964). Based on a Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s short story, ‘Neelavelicham’, the film talked about a writer (a dashing Madhu) who forms a bond with Bhargavi (Vijaya Nirmala) who dies under mysterious circumstances. The film was a smash hit and is so entrenched in the collective unconscious so as to contribute the term bhargavi nilayam to mean an abandoned, spooky house.
There is something compact about horror within four walls, where one logically assumes one is safe. The subversion of that expectation is what creates that frisson of terror. In practical terms, a single location makes for cheap thrills in more ways than one. Throw in some winding corridors and flickering lights and you are set for an electrifying time at the movies.