Tales of Houses that Eat People

Some of my favorite movies are all about houses that eat people.  I think it’s an underrated genre.  I mean, anyone can make a zombie movie.  People eating people, that’s nothing.  It’s the old “Dog bites man isn’t news, but man bites dog is.”  People don’t eat houses, of course (except for Hansel and Gretel), but houses eating people is still something unusual.

Let’s examine some of the stories where houses eat people.  First up is Poltergeist, which as anyone who’s read this blog can tell you is one of my favorite movies ever.  In the movie, Carol Ann, a six year old girl, is sucked through an inter-dimensional vortex into the world of the dead.  She’s still in the house, as evidenced by speaking through the television and the scene where she runs through her mother to escape the beast.  Later, Diane, the mother, rescues her daughter by passing through the vortex and out through another in the living room, but the house isn’t done yet, and eventually collapses in on the vortex between the worlds.  One would assume the house still exists in the realm of the dead.

Another example of a house eating someone is the aptly named film, House.  A witty dark comedy, House (not to be confused with Hugh Laurie’s medical drama) is about a successful horror writer whose aunt commits suicide, leaving her old Victorian home to him.  The author’s son disappeared two years before while playing at the house, and after the author (played by Greatest American Hero’s William Katt) moves in, he discovers that the house is, in fact, alive.  With the help of his bumbling neighbor (George Wendt), he eventually defeats the house and gets his son back.  The movie is also noteworthy for the appearance of Richard Moll (best known as Bull from Night Court) as the main bad guy.

A third cinematic feature where a house devours, literally in this case, its visitors is Monster House, an animated film where a man’s dead wife possesses their home and gobbles up people.  It’s a cute movie for kids, but the premise is still the same – a house that is alive and eats people.

Other examples of the genre include the remake of House on Haunted Hill (one girl is reduced to a smear of blood that runs along the floor, up a wall, and into the ceiling joint), and the remake of The Haunting (here it’s the ghost of Hugh Crain and the children trapped in his sprawling manor that make it come to life).  The Haunting is particularly of interest, because it’s Shirley Jackson’s original classic story, The Haunting of Hill House, that introduces us to the concept of a house as something to be frightened of.

Unlike the recent movie (which didn’t fare well with critics or audiences), Jackson’s original 1959 novel posits that it’s the house itself that is alive and attempting to possess poor Eleanor.  This is summed up beautifully in the opening paragraph:

“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 so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Stephen King elaborated further in his teleplay for the made of TV special Rose Red:

“A house is a place of shelter.It’s the body we put on over our bodies. As our bodies grow old, so do our houses. As our bodies may sicken, so do our houses sicken.

And what of madness?

If mad people live within, doesn’t this creep into the rooms…and walls and corridors? The very boards? Don’t we sometimes sense that madness reaching out to us? Isn’t that a large part  of what we mean when we say… a place is unquiet, festered up with spirits? We say haunted … but we mean the house has gone insane.”

It is stories like these that have always fascinated me, and I’m clearly not the only one.  For what ghost was ever so frightening as the home it inhabits?  And what worse fate could you meet than to be eaten by your own home.


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