Some tropes refuse to die. Already dead, ghosts are in and poised to take the top spot of horror trends, right next to the occult. With Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House adaptation captivating audiences everywhere, it’s no surprise that creators are taking this time-worn trope and fashioning something new and fresh in ways that are deliciously creepy. Ghosts and haunted houses never really went out of fashion, and though the Ghost-Hunter style found footage series kept haunted houses, ghosts, and the paranormal front and center, that form of entertainment has oversaturated the market to the point of parody. Yet, there’s something endearing and everlasting about that old dark house down the street that keeps us walking up to the door and turning the doorknob to get inside again and again.
The haunted house is one of the oldest tropes, featured in Arabian Nights, and from some of the best writers in classic literature, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ann Radcliffe. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, as well as Richard Matheson’s The Legend of Hell House are three of the best known and most influential stories of this trope and define the genre. Of course, Stephen King was using the imagery to great effect in both ‘Salem’s Lot, and IT, and even took it to the extreme with The Shining. Bram Stoker’s Dracula shifted the home to a creepy castle to great effect with his vampire novel. An excellent modern take on the old dark house story is Brad Anderson’s film, Session 9, filmed in a small part of the infamous Danvers State Asylum before it was demolished.
Why does that old dark house capture our imagination in such ghostly ways? Outside of our jobs, we spend much of our lives at home, even more if we work from home. It makes a lot of sense that ghosts haunt homes. Naturally, ghosts can haunt other places, even your place of employment. But home is where the heart is, as the old saying goes, and it is there, the most sacred of sanctuaries, where the eerie and often startling effect of ghosts have the most impact. At home, we run the roost, and control everything from the central air-conditioning to the state of the lawn. As with anything else, we begin to take things for granted. When that status quo crumbles, and our world is invaded by something different or unwelcome, it shatters the sense of order we’ve established. If the unwelcome is paranormal, ghostly even, not only is the home now out of kilter, but it’s likely become personal.
Every dark old house that is haunted disrupted the lives of those that lived there before. Something happened to those people that stained the walls, that permeated the very foundation of the home. The family before could have just left, or the house could have swallowed them whole. We often don’t think of it in those terms, mainly because the dark old house story structure usually adheres to a formula—an dark old house is for sale or rent, new family moves in, the rest of the story is discovering who is haunting it, and why. This formula is tried and true, tested thousands of times across all media. Maybe the family doesn’t move in to the house, but it’s an old dark house down the street. We’ve all heard the stories about how madness reigned in that house. And yet we often find ourselves on the porch, our hand on the doorknob, eyes closed, too afraid to even take a peek or step inside. All your friends call you chicken while they hide behind the bushes out front, safe from whatever evil lurks inside. Regardless, someone has to go into the house, because that’s what starts the whole story. It helps if the reason to go inside is organic, but even at this stage in the game, the trope is so ingrained in our brains we only hope the scares that follow are worth it.
The key to this trope is realizing that almost anything goes. Hauntings take all kinds of forms, though the best rely on memories and how they affect people, especially those left behind after the death of a loved one. Some memories are strong and vivid, while others are light and feathery, slipping from our fingers just as soon as our mind snags on it. Often these memories are hallucinatory with disturbing imagery, while others are like watching a video of events in our lives. Too often we think of ghosts as these fleeting images, all spectral light, quick to disappear. Ghosts can occupy the physical realm and linger on, reverberating again and again. That creak you heard on the stairs wasn’t just the old house settling. Perhaps that wind you keep hearing at night is whispers of the dead. And those shutters couldn’t be swinging on their hinges like that in broad daylight, could they? When you combine this ‘anything goes’ aesthetic with compelling characters, especially characters we typically don’t see in a haunted house story, things can get very interesting. Imagine the surprise of a gang of burglars when that old dark house at the end of the lane is awakened by their stumbling in the dark. They’d better think twice about taking those jewels they found in an old box in the basement.
Sometimes the house is damned, evil without the help of ghostly departed souls. There are so many good entries here, especially The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. Here we have a relatively new home that is just plain evil. Writing the novel with a level of ambiguity allows it to be more relatable, as many of the situations that arise in the story could easily be chalked up to dysfunctional family dynamics run amok. Robert Marasco’s excellent Burnt Offerings is one of the best properties in this sub-trope, as is the film adaptation. It’s not too far-fetched to feel as though our homes have a mind of their own. When our sanctuary becomes the most dangerous place we know, it can be quite unnerving. And just picking up everything and leaving isn’t always an option, and if it is … well, that’s another column for another time.
Regardless of how the dark old house became haunted, or if it is, in fact, haunted, people will always react to the imagery in the same way. There’s just something inherently creepy about a spooky old house. It’s an archetype that creators have been using since storytelling began because it works. It sets the mood, taps into an atmosphere of the unknown. Our home, our sanctuary, usually our best defense against the evils in the world ‘out there’, is nothing if invaded by strange and ghostly entities determined to drive us mad, or worse. As long as there are homes for us to spend our lives in, there will always be stories about that dark old house down the street to give us nightmares.