Halloween Special: Haunted House Retrospective

Paranormal Activity, The Woman in Black, The Conjuring, Insidious… the haunted house movie is back from the grave and more popular than ever.

It’s the revival of a tradition as old as cinema: considered the oldest horror film, Le Manoir du diable (The Haunted Castle in America) was released in 1896, even if it doesn’t have too much in common with what we’d recognise as a horror movie today. But then neither did many of the ghost films of the early 20th century, which tended to be more romantic than scary – the ghosts of deceased loved ones, present but unreachable.

It took until the start of the 1960s for haunted house movies as we know them to break through, with Vincent Price vehicle The House on Haunted Hill, Henry James adaptation The Innocents and (perhaps the first great haunted house movie) 1963’s The Haunting. Released within the span of four years, these films laid down a framework that influences supernatural cinema to this day.

Similar to The Shining, The Haunting is resolutely ambiguous: despite the title, it’s unclear whether the film even contains a ghost, and the threat to the characters remains more psychological than physical. With almost no violence, the film relies on its claustrophobic sets, the imposing exterior shots of its abandoned manor, and the unstable psychology of its characters to create an atmosphere of menace and dread. As would become traditional, the house itself becomes the real monster: the fear comes from being trapped inside a structure that is actively out to get you. Despite only achieving a modest box-office, The Haunting has become a cult classic, and with directors Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg ranking it among their favourite horror films, its long-term influence is undeniable.

This tradition of atmospheric horror continued through the 70s but there was a move away from the old haunted-house formula, and the end of the decade saw the entrance of the more explicit slasher movies and technically impressive sci-fi horrors that would dominate the 1980s.

While Spielberg’s Poltergeist and the Amityville Horror franchise indicate a brief resurgence of interest, it almost completely dried up by the mid 80s. The advent of home video meant horror films could be more violent and sexual than ever before, and between the slasher boom and the video-nasties, it became hard for anything more understated to stand out. Attempts to make hauntings more graphic usually failed: even the popular Poltergeist looks hokey today (its ghost effects have not aged gracefully) and the 1999 remake of The Haunting, which removed all the original’s subtlety and used CGI to make its house literally come to life, is notoriously awful.

So why is there such a resurgence now? Partly it’s because mainstream horror films have actually been getting less graphic – perhaps the ‘torture porn’ of the early 2000s (Hostel, the Saw sequels) pushed gore as far as anyone was willing to take it.

A lot has been written about how trends in horror films reflect the fears latent in the society that consumes them, particularly how these ultra-violent American films are a reaction to the then-recent attacks on the World Trade Centre. As those began to fade into the past, and the financial crisis of 2008 turned concerns inward to the home and family, what we wanted from our horror films changed.

The massive success of Paranormal Activity, then filmed in 2007 but released in 2009, was largely a matter of coming at the right time. Insidious too seems to play on a very domestic set of fears: The worry that your children might be in danger because of something in your new suburban home is a fear of a society that is outwardly unthreatened but inwardly concerned – people who are more scared of being unable to put their kids through college than they are of being bombed.

Whatever the reason, it seems like the genre’s going to hang around. Insidious, The Conjuring and The Woman in Black all have sequels on the way, while upcoming independents- Housebound and It Follows– offer different answers to the common question “if your house is haunted, why don’t you just leave?” (In Housebound she’s housebound and in It Follows… you get the picture.)

Perhaps even more promising is Aussie chiller The Babadook, which has been receiving rave reviews from its festival screenings and is in UK cinemas now – just in time for Halloween.

[Neil Weaving]

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