Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
The architecture common to horror stories, whether novels, short stories, or movies, is conducive to the evocation of fear. Although this statement may seem something of a truism, it may be less obvious that it seems. What, precisely, makes a building evoke fear? By using the Aristotelian approach—that is, by analyzing mages of haunted buildings—we can identify the exact mechanisms of this evocation.
Size matters. Large spaces, especially when they appear labyrinthine, disorient us, confuse us, frustrate us. When we're not sure where we are, we don't know what places—what rooms, for example—are safe or in which direction our escape lies. Therefore, our ability to fight or to take flight is hampered. Spacious buildings of uncertain layout are frightening because, well, they could be the death of us.
Probably the best-known example of “size matters” is Stephen King's Overlook Hotel (The Shining ), the mansion in his Rose Red, or the house in the Spierig Brothers' 2018 movie Winchester. (Full disclosure: the house in Winchester and the house in Craig R. Baxley's 2002 television miniseries Rose Red, written by King, were both inspired by the Winchester Mystery Mansion in San Jose, California.)
Books in print, including The Shining; Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959); and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), an early Gothic novel that, when it comes to haunted houses, was one of the prototypes that started it all, are first-rate examples of the principle that size matters.
Darkness matters. When it's dark, we can't see; we are blinded. We rely most heavily on our ability to see. When we cannot see, we are handicapped; our ability to observe, to conduct visual surveillance, to reconnoiter, is impeded. What we can't see could be dangerous, even deadly. We could be attacked. We could run into a wall or fall down stairs. We could lose our way.
Many horror stories are shot mostly in the dark, including Alejandro Amenábar's 2001 film, The Others; Victor Zarcoff's 2016 movie, 13 Cameras; and Wes Craven's 1991 film, The People Under the Stairs, to name but a few.
Stephen King's novel 'Salem's Lot (1975), Dan Simmons's novel Summer of Night (1991), Bram Stoker's short story, “The Judge's House” (1891), H. G. Wells's short story “The Red Room” (1896) are excellent examples of printed works that take place largely in the dark.
Isolation matters. When alone, we are cut off. There are no emergency medical personnel, no firefighters, no police, no military. We do not have access to stores, utilities, or repairers. Our society is sophisticated and complex. None of us knows enough to be entirely self-sufficient. We rely on experts. We're helpless without them. When no one's home but us (and the monster), we're in a whole world full of hurt. Here, King scores again with The Shining. Other stories in which out-of-the-way buildings evoke fear include The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Psycho (1961), Wrong Turn (2003), and The Cabin in the Woods (2012).
For in-print stories of horror in isolated settings, try Stephen King's novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) or his Despeation (1996), James Rollins's novel Subterranean (1999), and Denise Lehane's novel Shutter Island (2003). Sir Winston Churchill's short story “Man Overboard” (1899), H. G. Wells's short story “The Cone” (1895), Edgar Allan Poe's short story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1845), and Charles Dickens's short story “The Signal-man” (1866) are superb examples of the isolated horror story as well.
Neglect matters. If someone cannot (or will not) look after his or her own home, he or she probably won't look after us, either, should we need help. Neglectful people are usually careless people. Think about that for a moment: careless people = people who care less; in fact, they may not care at all. People who don't give a damn are not survival assets; quite the contrary, their negligence could get us killed.
Of course, a building, especially a house, in a state of neglect, suggests a negligent resident or owner. Do we really want to trust our lives to such an individual. The answer is simple, and it isn't no; it's hell no! The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (1997) is an example of what can happen as the result of neglect, as is the movie Hide and Seek (2005).
Neglect also happens in Stephen King's novels Carrie (1974) and in Bentley Little's novel The Ignored (1997).
Disrepair matters. Disrepair may be caused by neglect, but it goes well beyond the effects of inattention and laziness. It suggests unsoundness verging upon collapse. Symbolically, a building in a state of disrepair suggests madness. A house in such a state implies that its resident or owner may also be unsound, verging upon mental collapse. Certainly, that's the case in Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and a host of other haunted house horror stories.
Location matters. We've already mentioned how isolation can evoke feelings of helplessness. A house on a hill can dwarf us. Looking up at something implies that we are smaller (and lesser) than it, that we are inferior to it. That's why judges and legislators sit on high, to impress us with their superior status, to help us remember our place, our subordinate positions in society. Elevation confers status and authority, weheras the lower the station, the less importance and standing one has. The house in Psycho (1961) suggests its de facto owner, Norman Bates's “mother,” rules the roost; Norman, her caretaker, works for her, much of the time in the motel on the grounds below.
Personification matters. Most of the buildings we've considered are frightening, each in its own way. More frightening than most—perhaps all—others, however, is the house with a personality of its own. A house to which human attributes (in the case of horror, horrible ones) have been assigned are more than just creepy; they can think, feel, and, worst of all, accomplish their will through action. They can injure, maim, or commit premeditated murder. The house in The Amityville Horror (2005), we can tell by the “eyelike windows,” to borrow a phrase from Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” indicate there's a twisted, maniacal madness to the place. It's a house with a personality. It even has curb appeal. To enter, though, is tantamount to suicide.
As the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House indicates, her haunted house is also personified:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
In a later post (maybe the next one), we'll take a look at the interior of buildings built to evoke fear.