“A house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing.” This quote from Guillmero del Toro’s latest instalment in horror, Crimson Peak, exemplifies the spirit of today’s genre spotlight. This is an exercise in the ancient and the incomprehensible. You’re extremely unlikely to find a haunted house horror set in a luxurious 1 bedroom bachelor pad.
The horror film provides a highly sensory experience, much more so than any other cinematic genre; the haunted house sub-genre is the pièce de résistance of this sensory and immersive film making. These films are all about the art direction. Special care and attention are made when filling every nook and cranny of the screen with decay and trinkets; cobwebs, creepy dolls, and grim portraits of harrowing looking women dressed in Victorian clothing all serve to exacerbate the basic fears created by the undeniable star of the film: the house.
There is much to fear from the haunted house film. Fear of the unexplainable, something that breaks the laws of nature and cannot be deciphered through science. Fear in our place of shelter, our homes are beacons of comfort -the notion that something dark and old resides within your own walls is undeniably terrifying. Finally, our basic and primordial fear of the dark. Our vision limits us as creatures of the day; in darkness, blurred and distorted shapes become sigils of danger and terror.
The stairs have become the playground for the haunted house horror film maker. A good stair sequence will utilise mise en scene, sound design, and score to create an atmosphere of foreboding that triggers the aforementioned sensory fears. As our character climbs nervously upwards, this feeling intensifies as our brains desperately try to determine what lies waiting for them just out of frame.
James Wan’s The Conjuring features a particularly memorable stair scene in which the mother of the home, Carolyn Perron, signalled by a haunting piano melody descends into the darkness of her basement. Confined by the spirit who haunts her home, Carolyn sits on the stairs clinging to the light of a quickly depleting match. The scene comes to an abrupt end when a ghostly clap extinguishes the flame and leaves Carolyn trapped, screaming, and alone. The recent BBC documentary Fear Itself offers a profound and mesmerising take on our connection with the horror genre. Currently on iPlayer and consisting entirely of clips from horror films, it is highly recommended for those of you who want to learn more on our relationship with fear and horror cinema.
The haunted house film tends to consist of 2 approaches. The first of these tend to be deeply psychological and cerebral affairs. A film like The Shining relies on the inner madness of its central characters to propel the narrative, whilst adopting the mantra that what lies in the viewer’s imagination can be far more terrifying than anything on screen.
The second tends to throw subtlety aside and goes for big jump scares over unsettling imagery. These films are inclined to be more tongue in cheek and fun outings, almost like exploring a haunted house at a theme park from the comfort of your cinema seat or living room sofa. The clear difference between these 2 approaches can be found in the sound design: The Shining relies on an absence of sound in order to unnerve and discomfort the viewer, whereas a film like The Evil Dead utilises a cacophony of noise to jolt and shock the audience.
Of course, with Halloween just around the corner, you’re going to want to treat yourself to some high quality haunted house horror scares. The below list comes recommended (bring a fresh pair of underwear, just in case):
Paranormal Activity 1+2
American Horror Story Season 1
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Woman in Black
The Evil Dead 1+2