Dirt: Expensive haunted houses
What are ghosts compared to a steep mortgage?
Magdalene Taylor on a regular theme in horror films: being trapped in a literal haunted house because you can’t afford to leave.
What’s so scary about the haunted house? Is it the rhythmic knocking on the ceiling? The floorboards oozing with black slime? The way its evils are slowly transferred from the walls to those surrounded by them? Sure, of course. But what makes any of that horror actually compelling is that it’s your home, you paid for it, and now you can’t afford to leave.
The home has long been a powerful setting for the horror genre. The House of the Devil, considered by many to be the first horror film ever made, establishes this in cinema as early as 1896: in the three-minute long movie, two cavaliers enter a medieval castle in wonderment before being subject to various tricks by the Devil and his assistant in an attempt to get them to flee. While this early incarnation emphasizes the idea that even Satan requires the comforts of a structured abode, the home has been most saliently represented just as most of us understand our own. The home is a place of safety, a refuge of familiarity from the unknown. What makes it such a salient location for horror, then, is that this sense of security can so easily be disrupted. And what often underscores the terror is the reality that housing precarity is what traps people in these hell houses to begin with.
The housing market is a central theme in two recent horror projects, Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series The Watcher (based on Reeves Wiedeman’s viral New York Magazine story) and Zach Cregger’s film Barbarian. In the former, we’re given a common premise: family moves into a new home, bad things begin to happen. Despite written threats against their lives, The Watcher’s Brannock family is unable to move for the simple reason that they can’t afford to. They’ve already purchased a grand home beyond their means, and to leave so soon would result in a loss capable of yielding a bankruptcy. It’s a plot repeated throughout the history of horror: characters attempt to evade both death and financial ruin, and it’s often unclear as to which one might be worse.
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It’s a concept we’ve seen in shows and films like The Conjuring, several seasons of American Horror Story, Insidious, The Shining (it was a hotel, but still), and the many The Amityville Horror films. Like The Watcher, the Amityville films are based on real crimes: Ronald DeFeo, Jr. did commit the 1974 murders of his parents and four siblings in their Long Island home, and the alleged “true story” of the paranormal experiences of the Lutz family that moved into the home afterward were documented in a 1977 book. The 1979 film and 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds center on the Lutz family and the narrative of the book, and offer a compelling housing narrative, fictional or otherwise.
In these versions of the story, a middle-class family purchases the Amityville home as a rare opportunity for homeownership in the area, as the home is being sold well under market value due to the murders. It is a stretch for the Lutzes, but not an act of hubris. Nevertheless, it’s this financial commitment they’ve undertaken that keeps them in the house as a variety of ghostly events occur (rooms suddenly become infested with flies, windows open on their own) and the family’s patriarch grows increasingly aggressive and unstable. Amid all of the supernatural elements, however, are financial ones: money goes missing, and the father is continuously tense over the burden of his mortgage and the responsibility of providing for his family. As The Amityville Horror demonstrates, the monetary pressure of maintaining the American dream of homeownership is as powerful a weight on people’s psyches as the threat of being overcome by malignant spirits.
Barbarian, meanwhile, points to a new turn in how housing is being utilized as a horror theme. The terror of Barbarian hinges on Airbnbs and the vacation rental market, as well as the neglect of a neighborhood in Detroit. The film first highlights the absurdity of the Airbnb system, its potential for abuse and the artificiality of the sense of home it is marketed to provide. At one point in the film, we see negligent landlord AJ, played by Justin Long, excited to have discovered a secret torture room in his home—the additional square footage might increase the value. Later, the protagonist’s struggle is worsened by the fact that the neighborhood her Airbnb is located in is otherwise entirely abandoned. When police finally do answer her calls, they assume her to be a squatter and addicted to drugs. Other recent films have highlighted housing inequality in similar manners, including the Don’t Breathe series (which also takes place in Detroit) and the Candyman remake. As Nour Abi-Nakhoul wrote for Catapult last month, films like Parasite and Ex Machina demonstrate a stark divide between those with wealth and those without by establishing glossy, minimalist mansions as the contemporary equivalent of the gothic haunted house. Barbarian illuminates that the bare and impersonal gray-toned Airbnb is another worthy contender.
With both rent and home prices increasing dramatically year over year, the housing instability we see on screen becomes all the more recognizable to viewers. And how much is a haunting worth to us, really? Between moving costs, brokers and the fees for breaking a lease, would it really be worth it to up and leave an apartment over a little demonic possession? If you’d just cashed out your retirement savings in order to buy your dream home, couldn’t you just let a few threatening letters slide? Such is what this legacy in horror asks us to consider. Really, the haunted house doesn’t become scary until we’re financially obligated to live in it. — Magdalene Taylor
The Dirt: The rent is too damn high. Maybe a murder house wouldn’t be that bad.
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