Subtext in Modern Haunted House Movies

In a new video essay, contributor Zach Devroy connects the recurring themes and tropes of modern haunted house horror films to the 2008 housing crisis.


Every few years fans and critics look back on the spate of horror films that came previously and begin seeing the patterns and trends that defined what those films were about sub-textually. It is about time for that same re-evaluation of the haunted house movies of the late-2000’s to the early 2010’s.

First we must back up and understand a simple truth about horror movies: the monster, or entity, in nearly every horror movie is a reflection of societal fears or concerns of the time. Dawn of the Dead=Thoughtless consumerism. The torture porn genre= a reflection of Bush era “enhanced interrogation” tactics. 28 Days Later=Bio-terrorism. And nearly every slasher movie during the 80’s is a reactionary rhetoric to the sexual revolution of the 70’s. And now the recent onslaught of haunted house movies can be seen as a reflection of America’s fears during the housing crisis.

The haunted house genre has had a significant resurgence in the past decade or so. Some of these films have been quite good while others were immediately forgotten after leaving theaters. While these films were dominating the horror genre another horror was dominating real life.

Once the financial crisis hit it would seem that audiences would find scary movies to be the least frightening thing in their lives. Cheap thrills couldn’t compare to the giant lingering beast of foreclosure, right? What would normally be detritus would in fact become a mirror to the everyday horrors of the average American.

The film to kick off this trend would arguably be Paranormal Activity, a found-footage film about a couple, Katie and Micah, who move into their new home. Shortly thereafter, the couple set up a camera in their bedroom to capture the strange occurrences that they have been experiencing. It is then revealed that they are being haunted by a demon and at one point Micah advocates that they flee the house and stay in a hotel. Yet, they put the thought behind them and stay in the house which proves to be the couple’s undoing. Filmed in 2006 and receiving a wide release in 2009, Paranormal Activity acts almost as a canary in a coal mine for the way many families would be driven from their homes only a year later.

2008 would see the biggest economic threat America had faced since the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Part of the financial crisis would stem from a housing bubble, which begins when the value for property reaches increasingly high levels due to massive gains in demand with a lack of supply to back up that demand. Eventually the demand for property begins to stagnate as the supply of property increases and the prices begin to crater. This can oftentimes lead to homeowners left with mortgages that outweigh what the home now is worth. They cannot make the payments, they default, the bank then takes the house, and the family now has to vacate their home.

Paranormal Activity has Katie and Micah stuck with this giant house and have an invisible albatross around their necks that keeps them from leaving entirely with a clean break. In this case it is the demonic entity causing the couple to stick around, but if the couple were in the real world it would most likely be the threat of debt, contractual agreements, and foreclosure keeping them from just leaving in an entirely clean break.

This is where the haunting movies following in Paranormal Activity’s steps begin to appear. The Haunting in Connecticut, The Conjuring, etc. all feature families who just bought a new house and then shortly afterwards begin to notice things are not quite right. By the end of each film the family is fighting against the antagonistic force to remain in their home.

Nearly all the houses in these films reflect the economic status of its occupants: middle to upper-middle class. Almost all the houses in these films are at minimum two floors with an attic or a basement. You rarely ever see a ghost haunt a ranch house, because the ground level, in theory, is the safest and least threatening floor in the house. These haunted properties not only reflect economic status, but also reflect a sense of time. Very rarely are these houses in a modernist style; they are often of a Colonial, Greek Revival, or Victorian style due to the impression of an extensive and longstanding history these styles convey.

The economic status of these families is why they decide to buy these houses in the first place. They want to live out the middle class American dream: a nice big house where they can raise their several children. But in these movies the American dream is untenable and often times ends up causing nothing but strife, grief, and arguments over what lies ahead in the future.

If this all seems like just a coincidence then we must go back several decades to see that during the late 70’s/early 80’s recession we also received two classic haunted house movies in The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. Again they feature families having to fight supernatural spirits to keep their home and family. Interestingly enough, we would receive remakes of both films: The Amityville Horror starring Ryan Reynolds in 2005 and Poltergeist with Sam Rockwell in 2015. The original films serve as warning signs of their era’s recession while their remakes function as bookends to the Great Recession.

These films became a trend because what was scary to audiences at that time was seeing a family trying to fight an invisible, uncaring force that cannot be bargained with, cannot be reasoned with, and cares about nothing more than ridding these people from their home.

Author: Zach Devroy is a senior at Columbia College Chicago where he is studying Cinema Arts and Sciences. This summer he is the Media Archivist Intern at Facets.

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