It’s surprising that American audiences still get a thrill from seeing a haunted house on screen. Hasn’t the subprime crisis, with its predatory lending and underwater mortgages, caused enough real-life home-related terror in the last few years?
But last weekend, “Paranormal Activity 4,” the latest in the popular movie franchise that mines horror from everyday life in a suburban tract home (a scary enough premise), topped the box office.
Weeks earlier, another horror movie, “House at the End of the Street,” grabbed the top spot. And in April, “The Cabin in the Woods” opened strong, proving that four walls and demonic activity within them are all that is needed to scare the bejesus out of us.
From these recent examples to “House on Haunted Hill” in 1999 and “The Amityville Horror” 20 years before that, the haunted house has been a Hollywood mainstay for decades.
In literature, the genre dates from at least the 18th century, with the publication of “The Castle of Otranto” by Horace Walpole — long before Edith Wharton published her ghost stories or Stephen King transferred the ghoulish action to an isolated hotel in “The Shining.”
What accounts for our continuing fascination with “the old dark house,” as John Tibbetts, a media studies professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “The Gothic Imagination,” calls it? In both literature and film, he said, it endures because it plays on our collective notion of home as a safe space.
“That’s your sanctuary,” Tibbetts said. “When that barrier is breached, you’ve had it.”
And it doesn’t take much to accomplish that.
Oren Peli, the writer and director who created the “Paranormal” franchise, said one of his favorite moments in the first film is when the bedroom door of the couple being harassed by evil spirits moves a few inches. Audiences always gasp, Peli said.
“Compared to a typical horror movie, where guts spill out, you’d think it would take a lot to shock people,” he said. “But the gasping confirms that any kind of evidence that something is inside your house is a very unsettling feeling.”
In “House of Leaves,” Mark Z. Danielewski’s intricately creepy 1999 novel, a family’s life begins to unravel after the discovery that the dimensions of their historic Virginia home are three-quarters of an inch larger on the inside than on the outside. A carpenter’s nightmare, surely, but a powerful source of terror?
As Danielewski explained: “House and home go beyond the material architecture. As soon as we question the walls, we start questioning how our family or our larger society is organized.”
There’s a familiar architecture to a haunted house, creepy Victorian being the preferred style. Dark basements, creaking attics and strangely cold rooms abound. Indian burial grounds seem to be a common building site.
You almost never see a modernist haunted house, no scary movies bearing the title “The Ghosts of Case Study House No. 22.” Perhaps that’s because the starkly furnished rooms and the transparency don’t offer the creepy patina of accumulated history that Danielewski was referring to, only a kind of existential dread.
Families in these stories are always escaping to the quiet suburbs or the countryside, as they do in “The Changeling” and “House of Leaves,” and scooping up a historic showplace at a bargain price, without ever asking the real estate agent why it’s a steal.
The owners of these cursed homes are astonishingly flinty, too, refusing to pack up and leave long after the oven pukes blood and the kitchen cutlery flies across the room of its own accord. As Ariel Schulman, a director of “Paranormal 4” with Henry Joost, said: “They never get out of the house. I’d call my broker. ‘Put it on the market. I’m moving to Flushing.“’
But in recent years, a new kind of haunted house has become increasingly popular, one whose style could be described as suburban banal.
Mark Tonderai, who directed “House at the End of the Street,” which centers on a home where a gruesome family murder has occurred, said the film presents the house as emotionally scarred victim.
“You know how you can go into places and feel that bad stuff has happened there?” Tonderai said. “The residue of that bad event has seeped into the masonry.”
But the director shot the movie in a home in Ottawa that was outwardly unremarkable, although it hadn’t been fully finished. “Because the guy who built it wasn’t a great carpenter, it was just a little off,” Tonderai said. “It made you feel a slight discomfort.”
Peli adopted the same approach when designing the set for the first “Paranormal Activity” film, which was shot in his home, a typical tract house in San Diego. “I was never tempted to do anything to make the house look creepy,” he said. “So the audience thinks, `If it can happen in a normal house, maybe it can happen in my house.’ ”