The Enduring Creepiness of Haunted House Films

The spooky-home trope lives on in Daniel Craig's Dream House, Guillermo Del Toro's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Why?

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The haunted-house film may just be the perfect subgenre for today's economy, where real-life real-estate ownership has led to plenty of horror stories. After all, a mortgage you can't pay off is a scary, but not as scary as a mortgage you can't pay off for a home populated by ghosts.

How else to explain the boom in haunted houses on the big screen in 2011? Dream House, opening today, is the third such prominent flick released since the spring, with a fourth on the way next month. Co-opting a familiar premise—a big-city family moves to a quaint New England home that was the scene of a grisly murder—it stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz with direction from Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot). Before it this year was Insidious, an April release, and August's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of the 1973 TV movie that co-writer/co-producer Guillermo Del Toro considers the scariest telefilm of all time. Also, Paranormal Activity 3, which Variety's Joe Leydon deemed "stealthily creepy," bowed at Austin's Fantastic Fest this week before hitting theaters next month.

In a few different ways, the latest crop of haunted home flicks remain true to the age-old archetypes while tweaking them to fit modern anxieties. To understand just how they've achieved that, it's best to start at the genre's beginning.

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Most of the earliest haunted house movies resemble the vision laid out in 1932's The Old Dark House, which also inspired a wealth of future Halloween attractions. Typically, characters would spend the night in a large, sinister mansion as a sort of endurance test, possibly to earn a cash prize (House on Haunted Hill) or to recover a familial inheritance (The Cat and the Canary). The estate is inevitably haunted by madmen, ghosts (13 Ghosts), or some other form of deadly spirit.

Filmmakers turned away from that classical mode as the studio era ended in the early '60s. Domestically, the genre descended into a B-movie abyss for most of that decade and the next, before a one-two punch revived and re-legitimized the form. The Amityville Horror (1979) propelled the haunted-house movie into the headlines by capitalizing on the true story of the Lutz family, who in 1975 left their Amityville, Long Island home after claiming they'd been spooked by paranormal occurrences there. Amityville, which spawned a lucrative franchise, arguably marks the first time the familiar template had been applied to a regular family, living in a regular home.

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) took Amityville a step further. The story owes a lot to the "old dark house" concept, following writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family as they oversee the vast, empty Overlook Hotel during the offseason. But Kubrick transforms the template into a drama that's part sadistic fairytale and part psychological thriller. The usual touches—creepy little girls, a ghostly ballroom—are manifestations of Torrance's mind as it rots amid the frustrations of writer's block, isolation, and an unhappy marriage.

Today, 31 years after Kubrick's masterpiece and decades after the first film of its kind, the haunted house remains a poignant symbol that's often used by horror filmmakers. After all, a man's home is his castle, as the idiom goes, and there's no more visceral way to spook than to take a place that's supposed to be secure and make it insecure.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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