Why We Love Stories Set in Haunted Houses

There is a compelling, elusive, “something” about the image of a dark, looming Victorian mansion that seems to conceal something beastly in its vast depths. The vision harkens back to childhood, and of the collective experience of cowering under the blankets, shrinking at the slightest unfamiliar sound. In the dead of night, the size and arrangement of one’s home twists until familiar corners and hallways lose their geometry, becoming predatory places hiding an unseen threat.

Whether it’s a Victorian mansion, a suburban home, or an apartment, many will attest to the acute fear of encountering something horrifying in the dark of their homes. As with any human emotion on the larger gamut of the human experience, people have learned to distill this experience and write stories about it. That’s what has produced the prolific “haunting” genre of film, where paranormal forces turn places of comfort into living nightmares. These films have their own history, conventions, and genre tropes. The genre’s popularity has fluctuated in different decades, but has always remained a compelling enough mode to deliver legendary stories like The Shining, Monster Houseand The Haunting of Hill House. Here’s why we love stories set in haunted houses.


Related: 13 Scariest Scenes from The Haunting Series That Terrified Us on Netflix

Comfort, Light, and Geometry

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Legendary Pictures

Homes are symbolically and literally supposed to be places of comfort. Part of the appeal of making oneself a home is the freedom from stress and the difficulty of living. Stories about hauntings draw on the undoing of that principle: what if the place that brings someone comfort became the source of fear and potential violence? Some of these stories, like The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House (both the books and the television series) toy with the layout and physical structure of a space to create fear. The upcoming movie The Deep House puts a clever twist on the principle by setting the story underwater. After all, part of the comfort of a home is that it’s a steady, recognizable space. In these stories, the layout of these grand spaces becomes confusing, unknown, and mutable. It’s a tool of the storyteller that counts some of the most basic instincts of the mindof consistency and dependability.

During the daytime, people depend on sources of light and their shadows to determine things like shape, depth, texture, etc. Scientists call these binocular cues. In the dead of night, when shadows reign and the eyes fail, familiar objects and spaces take on an eerie, unknown quality. Because the eye can not discern what it sees, the mind fills it in with sinister suggestions. If the mind can not rely on consistent geometry, doubt and fear will threaten to unravel everything that one considers sensible and natural. Despite humankind’s best efforts to refine and perfect indoor spaces, the darkness of night still has the power to re-purpose comfortable sights into potential nightmares. Good writers and filmmakers capitalize on that reversal, and use all of their storytelling tools to heighten that uncanny tension.

The History of an Old House


Many haunting stories, which sometimes fall under the category of gothic horror, begin with the arrival of a family or an individual in a new home, typically a home with a worrying past. Something horrific took place within the confines of the home, likely a death or deaths of some kind. Because the past is inherently unknowable, it becomes a canvas for the imagination, allowing these characters to project their own fears onto their surroundings. Another common trope of haunting stories is the lingering trauma and violence of these spaces. In many stories, murders and other grisly events are part of the history of the home and become the source of paranormal activity that affects the home’s current inhabitants. This idea, that past harm lives on in the bones and foundation of a home or a space, gives these stories a mystical, larger-than-life quality that has compelled audiences for generations. It allows authors to describe paranormal forces from the perspective of ignorant characters, building off of shaky and unreliable information to create the mystery of the evil force.

Related: 11 of the Scariest and Most Important Horror Movies of All Time

The Limitless Imagination of Children

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Intrepid Pictures

Although these stories frequently involve children, the atmosphere of dread and late-night tension is enough to conjure those sleepless nights spent wide-eyed, glancing around darkened surroundings. Before the brain matures and begins to grasp the difference between real life and dreams, nightmares and fanciful daydreams become part of the fabric of reality for children. An adult might grasp the source of an unfamiliar sound quickly, while a child might spend longer speculating and worrying about the unknown quality. Still, this heightened state of tension is still very much a part of the adult mind, evidenced by moments like the heart-pounding terror of a figure in the corner of the room in Hereditary.

Paranormal forces in these stories love to prey on the warped imaginations of children, bringing those awful fears to life. For cultures with strong moral beliefs about the innocence of children, these stories will be doubly effective. Again, storytellers use clever inversions of cultural beliefs and judgments to create the perception of evil, of forces that capitalize on the undoing of goodness and healing.

The Threat of Mental Decay

Warner Bros.

The works of great horror creators like Edgar Allen Poe and Shirley Jackson frequently explore the nature of insanity and mental deterioration. Ghosts and other paranormal phenomena become symbols of the destabilized minds. These stories bring out the acute fear that the logical qualities of the mind will fail, and the senses that guide human beings will become untrustworthy. Haunted houses, sometimes portrayed as being inherently evil, exacerbate the faults and cracks of human perception by undoing the processes that convince people that real life is bound by certain rules and restrictions. The most horrifying implication of these kinds of stories is that not only is human perception limited, it can introduce people to horrors beyond comprehension.

Some haunted house stories imply that the insanity is a product of the imagination, some others describe forces of evil as real, and still others leave that question unanswered. Because there is rarely one “truthful” perspective, the audience is kept in a state of uncertainty, becoming as cynical and paranoid as the characters themselves. Almost all good storytelling relies on the alignment of the audience with the characters, and that principle is incredibly effective in haunted house tales where the audience and the characters share uncertainty and fear.

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