Not every house has one, but, for those that do, the crawlspace can be a source of anxiety, or even fear. In some cases, it may be a font of pure, unadulterated terror. Not quite a basement--in fact, not really even part of the house--the crawlspace, as its name implies, makes one crawl, belly down, and vulnerable, in a close, confined space. Already, just thinking about such a situation, causes the hackles to rise. Maybe it’s not necessary, one thinks, to thaw the frozen water pipe under the house or to investigate the strange scratching, clawing sound that seems, when one is seated in the cozy comfort of one’s well-lighted living room, to come from down there.
One of the most frightening aspects of the crawlspace has already been cited--it requires that one crawl, belly down, vulnerable, in a close, confined space in which standing or, in many cases, even sitting, is impossible. The crawlspace is dimly lit, too, by only the flashlight that one has in hand (or mouth), and, dropped--or, perhaps, snatched away--the bulb could shatter, leaving one in utter darkness, with over a ton of house above one, the residence become, perhaps, a tomb. Another disturbing aspect of the crawlspace is that, often, it offers only one way out--the small square or rectangular opening through which one entered. To escape, should escape become necessary, one would have to go back the way that he or she came--and what if the thing--the animal or creature, or monster--is behind one? It’s a safe bet, in a horror story, at least, that whatever’s in the crawlspace with the character will be not only far stronger than he or she, but also much nimbler and sprier. It will be able to dash and dart around inside the narrow space, so that, regardless of the direction a retreating homeowner (or maintenance worker) takes, the thing would already be there, cutting off the escape route.
And, as TV game show barkers are fond of barking, “That’s not all!” Like the basement, the crawlspace has cthuluian associations. Psychologically, it is connected to the Freudian id or the Jungian unconscious, individual and, possibly, collective. In the depths of this underground world, so to speak, there be monsters--the uncivilized, impulses of our animal ancestry, bestial and untamed--and dead bodies--the dark, sometimes sinister thoughts, desires, emotions, temptations, and experiences we have rejected and “buried,” more or less alive and kicking. And, as Xander Harris tells Buffy Summers, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's “Dead Man’s Party” episode, one “can’t just bury things,” because “they’ll come right back to get you.”
The ground upon which one lies, the vulnerable belly exposed to whatever may lie beneath, is a thin skin between the everyday world of the normal and the ordinary, governed by conscience, reason, cultural traditions, laws, and social mores and a hidden, subterranean world of the unknown, the untamed, the uncivilized, and the alien, where anything may lie in wait, albeit, whatever form the buried bodies take, they will almost certainly be hideous, repulsive, and hostile rather than beautiful, attractive, and friendly. At any moment, whatever lurks below may penetrate this thin layer between sanity and madness, reason and absurdity, love and fear, hope and despair. Cut off from family, friends, and society, one is trapped, alone in the dark, in the confines of a space as close and inescapable as the grave. It would be ironic for a residence to be transformed into a tomb, but fate loves irony, and this same transformation has occurred not merely once, but several times.
The lowly crawlspace (sorry, but I couldn’t resist!) has appeared, as a major player, in several movies (and in one of my own short stories). One such film is Crawlspace, which was released in 1986. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) offers a succinct summary of the plot: “A man who runs an apartment house for women is the demented son of a Nazi surgeon who has the house equipped with secret passageways, hidden rooms and torture and murder devices.”
A crawlspace also played a significant role in another movie of the same title, released in 1972. In this one, a homeless youth takes up residence in the crawlspace of a lonely, childless couple who befriended him. When he makes enemies by destroying a store, local residents avenge themselves upon the disturbed youth and the parents whom he’s adopted.
In yet another Crawlspace movie, released in 2000 as part of Pendulum Pictures’ Mental Maniacs DVD set, a sadistic kidnapper, wearing what might be a mask of human flesh, torments first one, and then another, man whom he traps in the crawlspace beneath his house. The second is Mike, who awakens “to find that he is trapped with no way out. A 'phone rings and the games begin. The captor calls himself ‘The Director’ and he claims to be directing a reality show in which Mike's life is at stake. If Mike is alive after three days of mayhem, he will be set free.”
In the horror films to date, crawlspaces have been interpreted primarily as metaphors for helplessness and have been subsumed under the labels of the slasher film, in which a crazed serial killer stalks and slashes nubile teens, and the splatter film, which focuses upon blood, guts, and gore, both of which are sometimes called “torture porn” by critics who find little, if any, socially redeeming value in their exploitation of bloodlust and its effects. The most disturbing aspect of the crawlspace, however--and the one that qualifies it for inclusion as an “Everyday Horror”--is the simple fact that many houses--perhaps yours--feature one of these twilight zones in which the near and dear connect with the distant and the feared.
“Everyday Horrors: Crawlspaces” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured on Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.