Monday, October 24, 2016

Monsterology: Monster Houses


In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.


Welcome home! You’ve had a tough day digging ditches in some inhospitable mound of dirt or hacking away at a keyboard in an even less homey office cubicle. What you need now is to hang up your boots and settle into your lazy boy. Your home is your castle, your one bit of security and privacy in an increasingly insecure and inprivate world. It is so inprivate that we have to make up new words like “inprivate” to indicate how inprivate it is.

But wouldn’t it be a stone drag if you were settling in to relax in your sanctuary and the walls started bulging unnaturally or bleeding even more unnaturally? Wouldn’t it simply ruin your night if that thing you haven’t even finished paying the mortgage on yet sucked your precious little daughter into the electrical system or made you want to pick up an axe and chop up your precious little son?

Monsters come in all shapes, sizes, and smells, but one thing that unites the mass of them from werewolves to robots is that they somehow resemble organic beings. One of the few exceptions is the monstrous house. The fact that it has no arms or legs or teeth makes the monster house highly unusual and really very wrong (though not completely beyond anthropomorphization, as we shall see). The fact that a house is such a mundane thing, a thing intended to protect and comfort, makes it highly insidious, especially when it turns against the children who dwell in it, as it so often does.

First of all, we must distinguish the monster house from the haunted house. In a haunted house, the monster is some form of ghost. It may make the windows rattle or the chairs fall over, but that ghost is the central threat, not the place it chooses to haunt. That would be like blaming Dracula’s castle for the vampire’s poor behavior, which would be unfair to a perfectly fine castle. The nasty things a ghost does can be accomplished by any breathing, visible asshole. Ghosts or other such entities may be responsible for making a monster house monstrous, but a true monster house takes on a life of its own; it is the threat.

The first truly enduring monster house remains the definitive one. Published in 1839, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” largely passed over specifics to dwell on off putting descriptions of the title building. The unnamed narrator approaches the house, and it instantly casts its spell on him, bashing him with waves of depression and unease. He has not even interacted with its weird inhabitants before getting a very strong sense that the House of Usher is a bad place. He even emphasizes its inherent monstrousness by trying to describe it in anthropomorphic terms, noting its “vacant and eye-like windows.”

Is it the house that has seemingly poisoned Roderick and Madeline Usher, both of whom suffer from odd maladies such as Roderick’s intense aversion to sound and his sister’s general malaise and tendency to lapse into catatonic states? Is it responsible for the subtextual moral decay of the siblings, whose relationship may not be entirely platonic? As the narrator drifts through the foreboding house, it reacts violently to the presence of one who might uncover its strange and dirty secrets. It begins cracking in disapproval. When the ultimate abomination comes to light—Roderick’s premature burial of catatonic Madeline—the house has a total nervous breakdown. As the short story’s title spoils, the House of Usher falls—quite literally. The building collapses, claiming the poisoned siblings as its victims while the narrator manages to escape the domestic tomb. In a perversion of home security, the house would rather self-destruct than allow its familys ugly secrets come to life, even if that means wiping out the family in the process.

The story’s reliance on descriptions of its bizarre exterior and interior and the unusual nature of its monster have made it difficult to adapt to film, though many filmmakers have tried. By far the best adaptations are Jean Epstein’s silent 1928 version, which relies on surreal imagery to convey the house’s nightmarish nature without bothering much with what little plot Poe sketched, and Roger Corman’s 1960 version. Corman was explicit from the beginning that the house was the film’s true monster, and screenwriter Richard Matheson even had Roderick declare, “The house lives! The house breathes! Matheson did an excellent job of building on Roderick’s perverse issues, and Vincent Price did an equally effective job of conveying the character’s wan demeanor. However, as fine as Corman’s visuals and Price’s performance are, the film does feel a bit like a ranch overbuilt into a mansion.

Jean Epstein used surrealism to convey the nightmarish nature of his House of Usher.

Shirley Jackson was much more concerned with using characters as actual people than mere plot pawns than Poe was, and the year before Corman released his Poe adaptation, she published The Haunting of Hill House. Hill House is both a haunted house and a monster house. The dead seem to walk its halls, but the ground upon which it was built was apparently toxic before the house claimed its first victim. The people who died there in the past take a back seat to the house, itself, when paranormal investigator Dr. John Montague arrives with his band of psychics and skeptics in the hopes of finding proof of hauntings. Like the House of Usher, Hill House has been a place of moral decay with its history of child abuse in the Crane family. Note how both of the underlying evils of these two houses—incest and child abuse—are domestic in nature, crimes that soil the family sanctuary. Eleanor Vance, a woman who had been the center of some bizarre phenomena in the past, becomes obsessed with the Crane’s crimes, gets over her fears of the house and its unruly behavior, and desires to become part of it. In the end, she is its next victim, the next apparition to wander its halls, but also, perhaps, a sort of nanny to the house and the ghosts of those who’d been wronged there. In 1963, director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding created a brilliant adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. The characters are full blooded, flawed, fascinating, and fun people to spend two hours with, but the house is just as well developed. In the doctors words, it is deranged, like Norman Bates. It watches” and writes messages to its inhabitants. Its angry thumps and breathing doors anthropomorphize it into a true, traditional monster. Upon arriving at Hill House, Eleanor  she says she feels like a tiny creature being swallowed whole by a monster the monster, of course, being Hill House.

The Haunting is the finest haunted house film and the finest monster house one, and when something is so successful, pretenders naturally line up. Richard Matheson followed its devices very closely with his 1971 novel Hell House, which John Hough adapted as The Legend of Hell House two years later. The film plays as a trashier version of Wise’s elegant Haunting. A mere dash of child abuse or murder will no longer do. The former inhabitant of Hell House was really nasty, dabbling in “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” The film remains cheap and unoriginal, but still good fun.

Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining throws a little twist into the monster house floor plan by constructing a monster hotel. Yet the Overlook functions as a house when the Torrance family becomes its sole inhabitants for one disastrous winter. In another interesting twist, the ghosts son Danny sees are not quite ghosts. They are more like residue of the horrific things that went down in the Overlook in the past, and Danny can only see them because of his supernatural ability to “shine.” Or are they ghosts? His father, Jack, interacts with them in ways one could not interact with pictures in a book. No matter what the nature of the Overlook’s haunts are, it is the building that takes possession of Jack and drives him to attempt filicide. Or is it his alcoholism? It is certainly the house’s monstrousness that transforms a fire hose into a striking snake and a topiary into real, vicious animals, and like the House of Usher, it ends the horrors by committing suicide and taking the tales other monster, Jack, with it in a  apocalyptic boiler explosion.

Just as Stephen King used the weird phenomena in a monster house as a metaphor for writer Jack Torrance’s alcoholism, screenwriter Ethan Wiley used writer Roger Cobb’s similar experiences as a metaphor for the horrors he witnessed during the Vietnam War in House (1986).

Many—including Stephen King— have criticized Stanley Kubrick for allegedly taking the ambiguities of the novel and making them explicit with his 1980 adaptation of The Shining. However, Kubrick deemphasizes some of the Overlook’s more explicitly monstrous traits by ignoring the killer hoses and bushes and making such monster house elements as an elevator that vomits blood more hallucinatory than realistic. Kubrick also introduces a classic bit of monster house folklore by having hotel manager Stuart Ullman casually mention that the Overlook had been built on a Native American burial ground, implying that this sacrilege is responsible for the building’s surliness.

At the same time King was publishing one of his most renowned works of fiction, Jay Anson was putting out a book he insisted was a work of fact that mirrored many of the themes in The Shining. The Amityville Horror relates the story of Ronald DeFeo, Jr., a father who managed to complete the act of familicide Jack Torrance couldn’t. DeFeo’s murder of his parents and four siblings is just the set up for The Amityville Horror, which turns a real tragedy into horror fodder by claiming a new family named The Lutzes moved into the house and suffered through a shopping list of paranormal phenomena attributed to the crime that had occurred there. These occurrences were not just the usual ghostly mischief. They included infestations of flies, weird rooms that did not appear in the house’s blueprints, slime dripping from the walls, and appearances of a pig monster. The monster house phenomenon really hit its stride with the Amityville Horror hoax and its lucrative series of films, much to the annoyance of the real house’s Long Island neighbors. As a former Long Island resident, I’ll admit to going on at least one pilgrimage to the house… though to be honest with you, neither me nor my friends were really certain that we’d parked in front of the right house.

The Simpsons had their own bad luck with real estate in an Amityville Horror spoof included in their first Treehouse of Horror special.

The 1982 film Poltergeist was unencumbered by questions of “is it fact or is it fiction,” though questions of authorship remain (who was the actual director: credited-director Tobe Hooper or producer Stephen Spielberg?) and the real tragedies that followed the film (one cast member died way too young; another died way too young and violently) made it a sort of reverse Amityville Horror. The Freeling house’s construction on a cemetery, its ability to transform its surrounding plant life into creatures who threaten kids, and its self-destruction, which recalls both the House of Usher and the Overlook, make it a perfect summation of monster house horror.

Nobuhiko Obayashi also put children in peril in his 1977 film Hausu (House), though with much greater whimsy than Spielberg/Hooper terrorized little Carol Anne Freeling. Even as the film was intended for and embraced by children, it does not spare its young cast the horrors of a house that literally eats its inhabitants. Gil Kenan’s 2006 computer-animated movie Monster House also realized the potential to lure children into the belly of a domestic villain. As for man children, few  can compare to Bruce Campbell’s Ash, and when he isnt doing bloody battle with his own hand in Evil Dead 2, he’s sharing a hearty laugh with the demon cabin in which he misguidedly decided to vacation with his girlfriend. At one point, the cabin seems to grow eyes and actually speaks to him (Join us!). As in The Haunting, chaotic, swooping camerawork builds the illusion of the houses physicality (and in an odd, perhaps unconscious, allusion, notice the exact similarity between the line readings of Richard Johnson in The Haunting and Sarah Berry in Evil Dead 2 when expressing their desire to find a way into another world). On the new series Ash vs. Evil Dead, the cabin’s anthropomorphic nature is even more explicit.

In 2000, writer Mark Z. Danielewski built the monster house to a more dizzying level with his labyrinthine House of Leaves, the very construction of which conveyed the grotesque construction of monster houses, his text cramping up, expanding, and moving into odd nooks of the page as characters pass through the title house’s ever-shifting rooms. The book is more of a fascinating experiment than a good work of plotting and characterization, but it is further evidence of the possibilities when dealing with that most atypical of monsters: the monster house.

Pages from House of Leaves.

Essential Viewing

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

House of Usher (1960)

The Haunting (1963)

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Hausu (1977)

The Shining (1980)

Poltergeist (1982)
Evil Dead 2 (1986) 
Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015)

Essential Reading

“The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839)

The Haunting of Hill House (1960)

Hell House (1971)

The Shining (1977)

The Amityville Horror (1977)

House of Leaves (2000)
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