Haunted Houses and American Exceptionalism

Recently, I settled in to watch the new Netflix special The Haunting of Hill House. Based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, it’s a great show in many ways, and its content about family dynamics felt fresh and original. But this was an accomplishment, because the bones of its plot were identical to several other horror movies I’d watched. I realized, watching it, how closely I knew the beats of the story. There are dozens of movies and TV programs that go basically like this:

A family has recently purchased a house. This house is often obtained at a lower price than ought to be expected–sometimes for obvious reasons, like a need for extensive repairs, or some bad local feeling around the property. And of course, gradually, it becomes obvious that the house is haunted, that it does not like its new owners one bit. Stories with this plot are everywhere, and include the following: The Conjuring, Beetlejuice (although our sympathies lie elsewhere), Sinister, The Disappointments Room, Insidious Volume I, We Are Still Here, A Haunting in Connecticut, Oculus, the first season of American Horror Story, and of course every adaptation of The Amityville Horror. Why do American horror filmmakers keep telling this same story? What is it about buying property that seems so fraught with hungry ghosts?

But no matter! The house is still desirable, and so is the story. We follow this family through the familiar rituals of unpacking boxes and exploring attics and cellars. We start to notice, as they do, the remnants of past residents: broken dolls, boxes of old photographs, loose bricks or hidden trapdoors. And finally, of course, we see the moment when the new homeowners realize that something is wildly wrong with their new house, and decide to stay anyway. All those children being comforted when they complain about old women watching them sleep, slamming doors blamed on the wind, or the house settling, old pipes. All those destroyed improvement projects, overturned packing boxes, spectral scrawlings on fresh paint are met with increasingly desperate chipper attempts to deny that the house does not want them here.

I think that we tell this story over and over again because it has meaning for us. I think that this is a story about class anxiety.

The house, in America, is the representation of the family. The house’s shape is also supposed to tell us something about the people it contains–whether they are rich or poor, old-fashioned or modern, stylish or dowdy, and the house itself shapes the way that the family lives, like pouring liquid into a mold. When a family takes possession of a new house, they’re putting on a new identity. Thus, a middle-class family moving into a sprawling Tudor manor are becoming wealthy and aristocratic, at least on the outside, at least in their shape. Which is desirable–there’s something wonderful about the idea that changing your outsides will change your insides. The American dream of homeownership is about the idea of getting wealthy in your lifetime, and moving into the big, impressive house can often feel like a shortcut to that imagined prosperity.

The Haunting of Hill House makes this striving quite explicit; the husband and wife duo are house-flippers, an architect and a contractor who move into and repair old homes for resale with their five children in tow. In a moment of glee, the father even announces to his brood (and to the house), “We’re gonna be rich!” Additionally, several moments of horror in the program are centered not around spectral presences but around homeowner woes: the discovery of black mold in the basement of the home, which would render it all but unsellable, threatens to trap the family in this glamorous but ultimately unsuitable home. The drama of the story, and other haunted house stories, is not just “will the ghosts get them?” but “will this family fail to recoup their investment?”

In haunted house stories, the ghosts often represent the aristocracy that the family does not belong to. They are often of a higher class status, and their objections to the family represent not just a rejection of the living, but of the nouveau-riche. In these stories, we see the family struggling to “read” the signs of the house–apparitions, noises in the night, artifacts left behind, slamming doors. These signs are indicators that the new inhabitants are unwelcome. But the families in these stories often fail to interpret these signs, or stubbornly stick them out in the hopes of forcing the situation to work. Either of these approaches can be perilous, since often at this point the house will escalate its activities.

This escalation leads to another danger for the middle-class striver: the danger of being digested. I would argue that American class anxiety is about wanting to be as wealthy as possible without developing the pathologies that we associate with the wealthy. As early as Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, American literature depicts the extremely wealthy (the kind of people who inhabit big ancestral estates, for example), as vampire-esque figures, plagued with physical and mental infirmities, living in dusty ruins, and sometimes, seeking fresh blood, either literal or metaphorical, to sustain them. The ghosts in haunted house movies are often pale, physically frail, emotionally tormented violent ghouls. Not so different, right?

Americans want to be rich as hell. What they don’t want is all of the stuff that they perceive as coming with that. They want to be fabulously wealthy sons of the soil. The threat of the haunted house story is that either a) they will not be able to be welcomed into the world of fabulous wealth or b) if they manage to become fabulously wealthy, they will do so at the price of their true nature, or possibly even their souls.

In the haunted house narrative, that cost is represented in a number of ways, but often as possession. In The Conjuring, a spirit pours itself into the mother of the house, taking over her body. In The Haunting of Hill House, the mother is followed around by the ghost of the house’s former mistress, an exceptionally beautiful, wealthy, and insane woman who murdered her children. In Insidious, the harmful spirit possesses a child; in Oculus, a beautiful woman seduces and then possesses the family’s patriarch through the fancy mirror hanging in the private office of his new home. Once the family member has been converted, they often attempt to either convert or kill the other members of their families. Familicide: another staple of imagined aristocratic life.

Why don’t the people in these movies run away? Why are they determined to stick out these increasingly intrusive happenings, even when they seem to threaten death? For sure, a home is an expensive investment, and though it’s definitely not worth more than a human life, often the homeowners in these stories trick themselves into believing that’s not the decision they’re making. In The Haunting of Hill House, the mother and father stay at the house longer than they should, even after they are warned of its dangers, because they need to turn a profit on the property. The black mold in the basement is as terrifying to them as the brief disappearance of one of their children, even though it’s clear that the latter should outweigh the former, because they’re in too deep financially to leave, so they repeatedly downplay the risks of staying. And that decision becomes, in some ways, as monstrous as any apparition.

I think that the families in haunted house movies choose to stay because they’re seduced by the idea that they might be the exception to the rule, that they might get to have it all: the wealth, the health, the unhaunted (or de-haunted) home. In A Short History of Progress, historian Ronald Wright proclaims that  “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” These families in haunted house movies attempt to stay in their increasingly hostile homes because they have the conviction that they deserve to be there, a conviction that often borders on delusion. They’re going to be the middle-class millionaire who gets the big house, without any of its oppressive spirits. Their newfound wealth won’t corrupt them as it has so many others; they won’t become vengeful or decadent, recommitting the same kinds of abuses that line the path to power.

At one point in The Haunting of Hill House, one of the house’s rooms is described as “a stomach…It put on different faces so we would stay comfortable as it digested.” The haunted house is exactly that: a Venus Flytrap that lures its victims with the promise of status and comfort while it begins its process of feeding. I think that’s why we can’t stop watching people get devoured by their houses in movies: because as much as Americans love the idea of getting rich in a lifetime, I think we know, deep down, how dangerous that path can be.

Header image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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