Suburban Horror: From 80s Fantasy to Paranormal Activity
The Paranormal Activity franchise is like the Ikea furniture of film: they’re minimalist, functional, and completely disposable. Even when it’s not the greatest thing in the world, it works. My former roommate and I went to see the 4th installment last night at the Alamo Drafthouse. Back when we lived together, we watched the 2nd and 3rd in the series, and now that she’s visiting town for Halloween, we saw the latest for old time’s sake.
There’s a big difference between watching these movies at home and watching them in the theater. Watching at home, I was hyper-aware of the movie’s generic, domestic interiors because we were also surrounded by drab walls, cabinets, closet doors, the cookie-cutter accoutrements of modern living. My roommate and I huddled on the sofa, covering our faces with blankets when we knew something scary was going to happen.
Watching the movie in the theater was scarier in some ways; the big screen is more immersive, but when surrounded by other movie-goers, you also have your pride to consider. I will not jump, cry out, or cower, so I steel myself extra hard. On the other hand, in the theater I lost that sense of identification between my home and the home on the screen. Also, it’s hard to be too scared when you’re eating pizza. That’s just science, folks.
Architecture has always been an important component of horror movies and fear itself. I grew up in a very old house (pre-Civil War era), and as a girl who was often afraid of her own shadow, it was like living in a real-life horror movie sometimes. So many dark corners and hidden spaces: attics, chimneys, crawl spaces, hollow walls. It makes sense that the traditional haunted house is a very old one that creaks at night. The older a home is, the more likely that someone died there. It also makes sense that ghosts, demons and evil forces would attach themselves to older structures, that ancient beings would feel a kinship to homes with history.
So it’s interesting, then, that so much horror of the last few decades has been set in shiny, anonymous suburban homes. I have a weakness for movies that play with this juxtaposition of the old (evil forces) and the new (tract housing) even though I have never lived in the suburbs, myself. This is part of the reason why I liked Ringu and Ju-on so much; there wasn’t anything inherently creepy about the plain and modern-looking Japanese homes, but the setting threw the horrific images of the ghosts into sharp relief. (As a side note on effective juxtapositions, I also have mad respect for films that set their scariest sequences in broad daylight.) As I’ve mentioned before, Poltergeist was my favorite movie when I was a kid. Maybe it wasn’t the first house-built-on-an-Indian-burial-ground film, but I think it’s had a large influence on how horror films deal with the tension between modernity and antiquity.
I just watched The Gate, a 1987 movie about a couple of kids who discover a portal to hell when their favorite tree is cut down. It ticks off all the Poltergeist boxes: suburban home, underground evil, magic tree, creature under the bed, people trapped in the walls. I liked the movie a lot. People have complained about how cheesy-looking the demons are, and they are somewhat comical but the movie was still unnerving due to a weird dream-logic that pervades every scene.
Another movie that’s a blatant rip-off of Poltergeist is the 2010 movie Insidious, although it seems to be more loving and knowing homage than shameless forgery. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series also belongs on a list of suburban horror; Joss Whedon went to great lengths to contrast the sunny California neighborhoods and the typical American high school against the torments unleashed by the underground Hellmouth.
In suburban horror, we see the uncanny at work. The dilapidated old mansion is scary because of its otherness; we don’t necessarily recognize our lives or routines in its vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors, or vintage wallpaper. But when evil spirits invade our modern houses, the cozy and familiar places we call home suddenly become unfamiliar.
Home is where Hell is.