009) Haunted Houses

So far, this blog has been mostly about book reviews and Cemetery Dance reviews. Yet I’ve added the word ‘Introspectives’ to the subtitle, and I’ve only done two of those.

Today I’ll add a third.

NOTE: I have a whole list of these Horror-themed Introspectives lined up for the future. If there are any specific concepts you’d like to know more about, tell me in the comments & I’ll bump it to the top of that list.


SERENDIPITY… OR SUPERNATURAL GUIDANCE?

Bentley Little's "The Haunted" [Favorite detail: That the ghost was actually a collection of ghosts.]

Bentley Little’s “The Haunted” [Favorite detail: That the ghost was actually a collection of ghosts.]

I recently read my first Bentley Little novel (shame on me for waiting so long). It was a Haunted House story called “The Haunted.” I also recently read my first Clive Barker novel (shame shame again). It was also a Haunted House story, this time called “The Thief of Always”.  

Clive Barker's "The Thief of Always". [Favorite detail: It's straight Y.A. Horror from a respected adult Horror author].

Clive Barker’s “The Thief of Always”. [Favorite detail: It’s straight Y.A. Horror from a respected adult Horror author].

There was no particular reason I chose those books, although I do admit I specifically chose to add those authors to my repertoire. The fact that they were both about Haunted Houses was a fluke. I picked them based entirely on popularity.

The Haunted House ride at Knobles Grove Amusement Park. [Favorite detail: Can't decide between the Truck Horn that blasts you out of your seat at the end of the long, dark, silent tunnel... or the three strands of horse hair dangling from the pitch black ceiling as you ascend the final riser, the end literally in sight].

The Haunted House ride at Knoebles Grove Amusement Park. [Favorite detail: Can’t decide between the Truck Horn that blasts you out of your seat at the end of the long, dark, silent tunnel… or the three strands of horse hair dangling from the pitch black ceiling as you ascend the final riser, the end literally in sight].

Weirdly, halfway through the 2nd one, I had also had a conversation with an old college friend about a Haunted House amusement park ride we had once enjoyed… one in which I laughed my butt off while she screamed bloody murder.

What exactly pushed me to choose reading & chatting about Haunted Houses so recently is unknown to me. It COULD be pure chance, but of course there COULD be something more sinister going on. Who knows… maybe I’ve actually been possessed by a malicious spirit.

Either way, I’ve definitely had creepy houses on the brain.

And what I got to thinking about most were the things which seemed to be similar in all Haunted House stories.

Let’s begin with the most important thing…


IT’S NOT ABOUT THE HOUSE

The first thing that struck me about HH stories is that they are rarely about the actual house. They’re about people… and never a single person, either. HH stories are about groups of people and how they interact with each other. The house is a mere catalyst.

EXAMPLE 1) The Little story involved a family who was going through the difficult decision to leave their old neighborhood in search of a better one. We see the thoughts & perspectives of 4 different characters & how they dealt with that move & each other throughout the novel.

EXAMPLE 2) The Barker story involved a pre-teen who had become bored with life & wanted an adventure. Once he gets to the house in question, we meet other characters who have been there for a while and have already gone through the progression he is about to (from enjoyment of the adventure to the sadness of missing home).

Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" [Favorite detail: The opening paragraph. Truly one of the greatest, ever.]

Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” [Favorite detail: The opening paragraph. Truly one of the greatest, ever.]

EXAMPLE 3) The best ever HH story, in my humble opinion, is Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. In it, a group of people have come to investigate rumors that a house is haunted. At no point in the story do we ever see a ghost. Yet the resonating eerieness I still feel to this day comes from the people who dealt with what may or may not have been supernatural events.

EXAMPLE 4) Even at the amusement park, it isn’t really about the scares built into the ride… our joy comes from how we interact with our friends & family… how they scream and jump at the gross mannequins, weird mirror warps, and sudden horn blares. Imagine sitting through one of these things by yourself, and you’ll instantly see how the entire experience would be changed. (For the record, I’d be bored. For my friend, however, that probably means she’d have a heart attack & die… my entire reason for being there was apparently to protect her from otherworldly harm).

To wit: Haunted Houses are about people.

In fiction, it means that some characters will believe quickly & thoroughly that the house is haunted. Meanwhile, others will deny deny deny until the horrible truth is thrust in their faces.

Also, some characters will flee the house (or try too… they are often locked inside, mwuhaha) while others will choose stay and figure out what’s going on/ vanquish or help the ghoul who resides there.


Also, some characters will show courage while others will be lost to their gut-wrenching fears.

All of it is just like in real life, in other words. Just like real people.

Only this is Horror, so all the regular life events have been amped up & shoved into a single, air-tight box.


THE MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTER IS THE DEAD ONE

If it’s true that HH stories aren’t about the house (and I assure that it is), and if it’s also true that there are all types & styles of people represented within them (and I assure you again that they are), then who is the most important character?

Conventional wisdom says it’s the protagonist. The guy or girl who has the strongest connection to the house & is the ultimate hero/ heroine/ tragic loss. But conventional wisdom would be wrong.

"The Others" was released in 2001. It is the first English-only film to receive the Best Film Award at the Goyas (Spain's National Film Awards).

“The Others” was released in 2001. It is the first English-only film to receive the Best Film Award at the Goyas (Spain’s National Film Awards).

Haunted Houses are always (ALWAYS) haunted by some kind of dead person or people. And they are always doing it for a specific reason.

Often they are stuck there, unaware they are even dead. (Think: “The Others”- great flick. Won no less than 8 awards… I didn’t know that before writing this post.)

"Beetlejuice" was released in 1988. It just might be the greatest non-scary ghost story of all time.

“Beetlejuice” was released in 1988. It just might be the greatest non-scary ghost story of all time.

Often they are stuck there b/c they truly belong there, as in: That house is their true home. (Think: “Beetlejuice”… Yes, I know it’s a comedy- and a great one- but the Maitlands are also ‘at one’ with their house. They belong there & at the end they continue living there quite comfortably alongside the Deetzes).

"Poltergeist" was released in 1982. Jesus... even this single image is freaking me out. And don't get me started on the clown scene. WORST. NIGHTMARE. EVER.

“Poltergeist” was released in 1982. Jesus… even this single image is freaking me out. And don’t get me started on the clown scene. WORST. NIGHTMARE. EVER.

Most most often, however, the dead people are horrible evil monsters using the house as a conduit to the living world so they can kill innocent humans on their way to reclaiming some kind of control over the world they no longer inhabit. (Think: “Poltergeist”. The greatest HH movie ever? Maybe. I still get creeped out when I see a TV screen filled with snowy static).

But whether the dead thing is benign or malicious, whatever happens & whoever needs to deal with it, it’s the dead entitiy(ies) who rule the roost. And at some point our human protagonist needs to figure out WHY they are haunting this house before having any chance of survival.

So next time you read/ watch a Haunted House story, pay careful attention to the dead guy. He’s the real story behind all the smoke & mirrors.


SOMEBODY GOES CRAZY

Another very common trope is that there is usually ONE character (maybe the protagonist… maybe not) who loses their sanity. This comes in 2 formats:

  1. He/she may be possessed by the ghost haunting the house
  2. He/she may be pushed to perfectly normal human insanity by the horrors presented therein.

Two different covers of Stephen King's "The Shining" [Favorite detail: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."]

Two different covers of Stephen King’s “The Shining” [Favorite detail: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”]

But whether this human character becomes an even smaller abode for a thing of evil or has been pushed to their own personal breaking point, that human is almost always going to do 1 of 2 standard things with their insanity:

  1. They will try killing off the other characters.
  2. They will try killing themselves.

Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they both murder & commit suicide. But trust me, somebody is going to lose it, and they’re going to go postal in the process. (I’m thinking of you, Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s “The Shining”).


THE HOUSE USUALLY “DIES”

One final observation I had is how often the climax of the story involves some kind of destruction of the house itself. Windows are shattered. Roofs are collapsed. Floorboards are ripped apart. Doorways are imploded. Sometimes the entire building is sucked into a vortex (“Poltergeist” again)

Ok, this single image can't do justice to the awesomeness of this implosion, so here's a gif of the whole sequence: http://giphy.com/gifs/poltergeist-oa2GCItMMQYyQ

Ok, this single image can’t do justice to the awesomeness of this implosion, so here’s a gif of the whole sequence: http://giphy.com/gifs/poltergeist-oa2GCItMMQYyQ

Whatever happens to the people in the story, the house is pretty much destined for complete demolition.

But… why?

Well, it’s an indication to the readers/ viewers that the ghost is truly gone & the evil within has finally been thwarted. (And take note when/ if this doesn’t happen… a sequel is therein certainly in the works).

But moreover the destruction of the house is also a metaphor.

Remember, it’s not the house itself that’s the problem. The house is simply a location that some spirit is either stuck in or using as a connection to the living world. In either case, when the house is gone, the prison/ connection is gone as well.

For the ghost who inhabits the house, the destruction of the building = the metaphorical secondary deaths of themselves. They may now either rest in peace or are forced to find another locale to bridge the gap to the living world. This one, however, is closed.


FINAL THOUGHT

I’m sure I missed not only a famous Haunted House story (or stories) to use as an example, but also some kind of essential theme/ common event within the HH story framework. But to my mind (and within the walls of this blog’s limited word count… which I’ve stretched to it’s limit once again), the above are the most important.

  1. It’s About People, Not the House
  2. The Dead Guy is the Most Important Character
  3. Somebody Goes Crazy
  4. The House Will Be Destroyed

The next time you read or watch (or RE-read/ RE-watch!) any great or even mediocre Haunted House story, trust that you’ll see them all.

You might even see it happen when you sit in that red cart, strap on that seat belt, and feel those metal wheels begin to roll you through the wooden doors into the darkness beyond.


Agree or disagree with any of this?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

-K. Edwin Fritz

K. Edwin Fritz

K. Edwin Fritz

Official Horror Blogger of the Fiction Vortex

Keith Edwin Fritz entered this world on Halloween. The year, 1974, was the same as when Stephen Edwin King published his first novel. Keith prefers to think neither the date nor their middle names were a coincidence.

Today Keith teaches 7th Grade Language Arts and writes to his heart’s content during his "spare time". The best of these moments are nearly always by moonlight. The worst of them are also by moonlight.

Keith lives with his wife, Corina, in Lawrenceville, NJ.

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1 reply
  1. Don Gavron
    Don Gavron says:

    Nice analysis. You broke down the categories well. I agree: Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” was my fav haunted house story (the movie scared the living …. out of me!). Matheson’s “Hell House” is also very good. There’s a film called “The Uninvited” (1944), with Ray Milland, that is one of my favorite ghost tales. They usually show it on TCM. It’s based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle (which I haven’t read).

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1 reply
  1. Don Gavron
    Don Gavron says:

    Nice analysis. You broke down the categories well. I agree: Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” was my fav haunted house story (the movie scared the living …. out of me!). Matheson’s “Hell House” is also very good. There’s a film called “The Uninvited” (1944), with Ray Milland, that is one of my favorite ghost tales. They usually show it on TCM. It’s based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle (which I haven’t read).

    Reply

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