Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film
By Barry Curtis. London: Reaktion Books, October 2008. U.S. Release: Feb. 2009. Distributed in U.S. by University of Chicago Press. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-86189-389-5, $16.00. 256 pages.
Review by Kevin M. Flanagan, North Carolina State University, Raleigh
A perennial trope in horror and suspense cinema, the “haunted house” is a perfectly ambivalent figure through which to assess mankind’s fears. Sometimes the source and subject of a film’s terror—as in such diverse offerings as The Amityville Horror (1979) and Monster House (2006)—other times peripheral, as one part in a differently figured ambiance of dread (as with Buffalo Bill’s lair in The Silence of the Lambs ), the haunted house has been present during most moments of cinematic history and has been articulated by many cultures throughout the world.
Rather than merely point out uses of the haunted house figure throughout film history, Barry Curtis’s Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film synthesizes a variety of technological, thematic, and literary sources in tracing the continued popularity of the old, dark house to audiences, critics, and filmmakers. Eschewing an over-reliance on the haunted spaces of Gothic literary tradition—Curtis gives them their due, but the temptation would be to chart an easy transition from horrific literature to film—Dark Places instead draws extensively on studies in architecture and critical theory.
The book’s chapters are organized around a cluster of ideas, or of convergent traditions which have been consistently articulated by numerous films. In Chapter 1 (“The Haunted House”), Curtis explores the iconographic and spatial dimensions that have characterized the haunted space. Though Curtis reminds that “all houses are haunted” by historical events and their relationship with their residents, he succinctly ventures that these places all posit a kind of showdown between inhabitant and the house itself, usually over a loss, “something excessive and unresolved in the past that requires an intervention in the present” (34). Curtis locates the main thrust of the haunted house film as residing in Victorian notions of material possession (accumulated goods, to which Freud would attribute overvaluation and cathexis) and in notions of fantastic interiority, which is amplified by the Gothic tradition, though actually rooted in the moral and practical function of the single family home (40-44). These ideas—along with the theoretical prospects of Gaston Bachelard and Walter Benjamin—play out against The Haunted Mansion (2003), Rose Red (2002) and Dead of Night (1945). This variety of examples analyzed (dare one say, the uncanny selection) is a real strength of this book.
Chapter 2 (“Gothic and the Uncanny”) provides a slightly different historical foundation, one which traces the Gothic’s simultaneous interest in the mysteries of the occult with the reasoned path of science and technological mastery. Curtis explains one of the impulses behind early horror cinema (notably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu ) as being its reliance on “a full range of technical devices,” including the superimposition of images, stop-motion photography, and the use of ornate studio sets, at once a celebration of the rational and technological and the wildly imaginative. This is placed within the larger context of visual haunting, from the fifteenth-century magic lantern (“the earliest images in printed books and in the slides used in magic lanterns featured skeletons and images of the afterlife”) to nineteenth-century dioramas and panoramas (90, 94). In short, early cinema audiences were already familiar with illustionistic terror and in supposed communication with the dead (96-97). The issues brought up in these cultural formations and their attendant technologies continue through the history of haunted house cinema, yet are morphed by emergent concerns, such as with the digital ghosts in The Net (1995) and Pulse (2001) and Fear Dot Com (2002). Again, the range of examples is impressive, but belies what could be seen as the central fault of Dark Places. In his minute attention to the widest variety of thematic and theoretical issues associated with the haunted house in film, Curtis treats historically important films such as Citizen Kane (1941) with the same reverence as such exploitative and trashy fare as Thir13en Ghosts (2001). This is not an inherently bad thing, but it is debatable whether the book should focus on the best instances of the haunted house or with the widest range of examples. Curtis opts for variety, but some of the films could use a more sustained and linear examination.
The third chapter (“Film – ‘A Fragile Semblance’”) further connects cinema technology itself to ghosts and haunting, showing (for example) that the fixity of the photographic image is often a preoccupying theme of haunted house films, such as with the final image of Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) (125-126). Chapter 4 (“Unreal Estate”) combines many of the issues from the previous chapters, and highlights the accumulated importance of Curtis’s wide-ranging arguments from previous sections. Dark Places is fairly unconventional in approach and is rather circular in its presentation of its arguments. The chapters do not present straightforward theses or direct teleological sections, but rather expose nuance and connections to sometimes unlikely precedents.
Dark Places is a valuable work for film scholars focused on the horror genre or otherwise. In considering the widest possible legacy for the haunted house on screen—and by bringing theoretical and multi-disciplinary sophistication to bear on such an unlikely topic—Curtis has fashioned a noteworthy exploration of one of cinema’s unsung icons.