Over the past several months, we've seen the release of two high profile haunted house movies (Dream House, Woman in Black), and two indies (The Innkeepers, Silent House). Meanwhile, last season's most talked-about new TV series, American Horror Story, was focused on an extremely haunted house in Los Angeles. Could it be that our anxieties about the housing and mortgage crisis have finally found expression in pop culture? Let's find out.
The trope of the haunted house (or haunted shack, castle, stable, etc.) is hardly new — it dates back centuries in Western folklore. So obviously the mere appearance of haunted house stories doesn't necessarily mean we're seeing a response to the housing crisis. However, it's all about how the stories are told. Houses get haunted for a lot of reasons, including sexual transgression (Wuthering Heights — no she's not a ghost per se, but she definitely haunts), family abuse (The Shining), revenge (The Grudge), accident (Beetlejuice), and even just Eddie Murphy needing a paycheck (The Haunted Mansion).
So what is motivating the hauntings in recent pop culture? If these flicks are touching on housing crisis fears intentionally or unintentionally, we'd expect to see a lot of people freaking out over losing their houses. We'd also see a lot of references to real estate development (or lack thereof), as well as intense longing directed at gorgeous homes (AKA house porn). Here's what we find . . .
Dream House was the ill-fated flick starring Daniel Craig as a psycho who gets out of a mental institution and starts haunting his own trashed home, searching for answers about who killed his family. He starts seeing the ghosts of his murdered wife and kids — but is it all in his mind? We don't really care about whether it's in his head or not, because we want to know about the house. Obviously it's haunted partly because the murders took place there. But the house also has a special meaning to Craig's character because it was the place he and his wife bought to affirm their family-ness and get away from the city. He isn't just haunted by memories of his family, but of the house looking fixed up. He clings to the house, and fears losing it, for the same reason he fears losing touch with the ghosts/memories of his family.
Housing Crisis Anxiety Score: 4 out of 10, given for representing fears of losing a house and for all the house refurbishing porn we see in flashbacks.
The Woman in Black just came out, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a real estate attorney who needs to settle the legal papers related to a scary, crumbling mansion haunted by a woman who lost her child — and now makes it her business to kill a ton of other kids in the local village. This movie is intensely focused on questions of house ownership, and its protagonist is in fact dealing with a literal housing crisis in terms of who will inherit the thing. The ghost who haunts the place is pissed off that both her child and her house have been taken away from her. People are leaving the local town because she keeps killing their kids. So she's even causing a kind of supernatural suburban blight. The movie is also packed with insanely huge amounts of house porn, as Radcliffe walks slowly down the richly-draped hallways of the haunted house.
Housing Crisis Anxiety Score: 7 out of 10, for making real estate management a central issue, lurid house porn (damn that's a seriously gorgeous Victorian mansion — drool), and for the suburban blight symbolism.
The Innkeepers came out earlier this year — it's a terrific indie about two people working in an old New England inn that's about to be shut down. That's right, the economic and real estate crisis have turned this once-bustling inn into . . . a ghost inn! The tattered beauty of the inn is said to hold the ghost of a woman who killed herself while waiting for her duplicitous fiancé to show up. One of the workers uses "ghost recording" equipment to track down the ghost, and hears some pretty freaky shit before falling prey to the inn's ghosts. Or is it all in her mind? Again, I don't care if it's in her mind. This movie is all about an inn whose scariness is predicated almost entirely on the fact that it's being torn down due to economic circumstances. Its freaky emptiness is part of what makes this movie twang your nerves as you watch.
Housing Crisis Anxiety Score: 8 out of 10, for scariness related to soon-to-be-demolishedness. Also for featuring slackers with low-income jobs who will never be able to afford mortgages.
Silent House is about a woman who thinks she's stuck in a boarded-up cabin with a murderer or ghost, but it's all in her mind and she's actually the murderer. This movie does not contain house porn, nor does it really deal with real estate except in the sense that this family is engaging in housing maintenance by boarding up the cabin for the winter. All the haunting comes from childhood trauma issues.
Housing Crisis Anxiety Score: 0 out of 10
American Horror Story is pretty much a textbook example of housing crisis anxieties twisted into a haunted house story. A recurring character is the real estate agent who is mourning that she has to sell this amazing house at below market because of its tarnished history (murder, murder, murder, plus Satanism!). Our main characters buy the haunted house because the price tag fits, and they're haunted by the kids of a lady next door who feels the house should rightfully be hers (there's a whole subplot where she flashes back to a scheme to marry a guy who inherited the house so she can have it again). Two of the most compelling house ghosts are a gay couple who squabble, even after death, over how to decorate the place and how the hell they'll afford their mortgage payments. And OMG the house porn — holy crap. This house is gorgeous. I can't count how many times we are treated to real estate tours of the place, where the stained glass is lovingly described and the kitchen fixtures fetishized. Of course there are a ton of ghosts in this place who are motivated by issues that go beyond real estate — mostly sexual transgression — but we are never allowed to forget that this house is one sexy piece of property. Unfortunately, it has a dark past.
Housing Crisis Anxiety Score: 10 out of 10 for having ghosts argue over mortgages, families agonize over home ownership, and endless discussions of how to sell the damn place.
BONUS ROUND: Cabin in the Woods is an upcoming movie about a scary cabin packed with young people ripe for the picking . . . by some kind of super elite cadre of people who control every aspect of the environment around them, including a force field around the cabin. And that's just the non-spoilery part you can see in the previews. In rank speculation mode, I'm going to say this flick reflects the fear that our housing options are being controlled by a secret, superpowerful group who can destroy our futures with the flick of a switch. Hey, don't yell — it's just a theory!
Likely Housing Crisis Anxiety Score: 7 out of 10 for our homes being secretly controlled by an evil cabal.
Want to see the housing crisis reflected in horror novels? We've already talked about that here!