The Enduring Creepiness of Haunted House Films

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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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Universal

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.

To see where the genre's at in the 21st century, take a look at the influential Paranormal Activity series. The 2007 original, an enormously popular word-of-mouth hit, employed the "found footage" technique to tell the familiar story of a couple tormented in their picturesque home by ever-worsening supernatural presences.

Katie (Katie Featherston), the loving but terrified girlfriend of Micah (Micah Sloat), insists that the ruckus is being spurred by a demonic presence that's haunted her since childhood. Micah, naturally, will have none of it, and his ignorant perspective leads to disaster. Paranormal Activity 2, a far less impressive achievement, nonetheless effectively enhances the tragedy of Katie's unwilling culpability in the horror, when it's revealed that her brother-in-law has transferred the demon to her from her sister Kristi.

The Paranormal Activity series is not interested in an obvious statement about real estate greed or the perils of homeownership. There are no evil lenders or conspiring politicians tricking innocents into moving into a bad home. Its existential message cuts deeper: We are the haunted ones. We are responsible for the misery, the strain, the terror.

Katie is an everyday, likable woman, imbued by Featherston with naturalistic charm and charisma. She's no Jack Torrance, who comes complete with Nicholson's distinctive demeanor before he starts losing his mind. That such an ordinary person could be so strongly driven to shatter an idyllic existence and commit a shocking murder is a troubling reminder of the fragility of happiness, the transience of success, and the fact that so much of our lives are beyond our control.

At the same time, operating without much of a budget and coming complete with time code and often-shaky, first-person handheld camerawork, Paranormal Activity stands apart from its predecessors by serving as the ultimate film for this democratized, digitized, YouTube cultural era. The craft is strong enough that the movie looks and feels exactly like an amateur production, as if the story being told might be your own. That personal emphasis is framed differently, but powerfully felt, in this year's non-Paranormal haunted house productions.

Alarms blare, windows slam, and other mysterious housebound sounds fill Insidious. But the film, in which characters played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne must save their son who is genetically pre-disposed to a form of possession, incorporates an intimate sort of horror. The tagline: "It's not the house that's haunted."

Tiny demonic creatures live in the basement of the 19th century estate being restored by Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. But the movie is really about the way those creatures exploit the insecurities of Alex's lonely 10-year-old daughter Sally (Bailee Madison), the child of a divorce, who has been sent by her disinterested mother to live with her absentee father, in a strange new place. It's a movie about how it feels to be a friendless, sad young girl. The demons and the highfalutin, "dark house" setting are secondary. There was no Sally in the original film.

Finally, the trailer for Dream House strongly implies that it's not Daniel Craig's new home that's haunted, but the man himself. While it hasn't been screened for critics, the film appears to be a work of psychological horror in the tradition of The Shining, offering this troubling thought: If James Bond can't fight his way out of things, we're all in trouble.

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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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