More than any other country, America loves its sub-classifications in regard to its entertainment. Maybe it’s out of the same kind of rugged individualism that informs the country’s political reality and drives Americans to define themselves as individuals, or maybe it's because America likes nothing more than a creative sales pitch. Whatever the reason, no one genre of any kind of entertainment is defined solely by its larger umbrella title. Because of this, there are an infinite number of ways to classify horror films; there are slasher films; there are zombie movies; there are even “psychological thrillers.”
One of the most interesting sub-classifications of American horror is the haunted house film. A staple of fiction predating cinema itself, the story has been told countless times, in countless ways. But the way the American haunted house film has developed is interesting in that it has evolved to reflect the economic anxiety of America’s middle class, the country's largest consumer.
As noted, the idea of a haunting, or the presumption that something might be haunted, predates cinema itself, with gothic writers like Edgar Allan Poe capitalizing on the idea to help spread its popularity as in his "Fall of the House of Usher" (itself later translated to cinema by Roger Corman in 1960). The earliest example of this sub-classification on film played off these gothic writers and their stories to develop the Old Dark House movie. The ODH movie was the first type to find widespread appeal in cinemas throughout the world. An Old Dark House movie typically involves a group of people, often strangers, being forced to spend the night in a supposedly haunted location to earn some type of reward. Films typical of this type include the aptly titled The Old Dark House (1923), at once a parody of and template for later movies operating in this area even if the villain isn’t spectral in nature, and The Cat and the Canary (1927). Another iteration finds an individual discovering an inheritance, typically the haunted house itself, that leads them to the haunted site; examples of this range from William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960) to TV movies-of-the-week like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).
While this type of haunted house film was popular, it was also somewhat distant from the realities of everyday Americans. Most didn’t have rich uncles or aunts who just happened to own a castle or house they could inherit, so these films would often require contrivances to bring relatable characters into the film. James Whale’s The Old Dark House, for example, has a rainstorm detour a group into the house, while William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) explicitly references the economic disparity between its characters by having an eccentric millionaire invite people to the haunted mansion.
...the American haunted house film has ... evolved to reflect the economic anxiety of America’s middle class, the country’s largest consumer."
What becomes interesting about the American haunted house film is when it reaches the 1970s as it takes a sharp left turn into a subconscious expression of the middle class’s fear of its stagnating expansion – the Old Dark House morphs into the Money Pit of Death. Instead of establishing a contrivance to get strangers into the house or having someone outright inherit it the films began using America’s suburban sprawl as an avenue to explore the fears associated with the realities facing an economically depressed country.
While it wasn’t the first of its kind, the preeminent example of this is The Amityville Horror (1979). Made in the midst of Jimmy Carter and multiple late ‘70s economic crises, the film is ostensibly the story of a young married couple, the Lutzs, moving into their first home and encountering a number of problems along the way. That plot description doesn’t necessarily seem strange and even rings true of many dramas and comedies of the era until you realize the problems they encounter are ghostly in nature. Beginning when a Catholic priest tries to bless the home, the Lutzs encounter an aggressive ghostly presence that eventually forces them out of their home.
In the wake of Amityville’s success a number of imitators sprung up, chief among them sequels to the original film which were connected to it mostly in title only. But the zeitgeist it captured, the idea of suburban America being under attack by outside forces, was further explored in the ‘80s with Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). Mirroring the plot of Amityville, the film went further into its phantasmagorical conceit by bringing in a team of parapsychologist researchers and more famously a psychic. Despite this embrace of the ghost as a “scientific” concept, the film ends in much the same way as Amityville: with the young family fleeing from the home.
Both of these films hinted at a growing cynicism in America at the time that the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s was long gone. The idea that you could raise a family and own a home was quickly evaporating, and these films played with that idea by suggesting the only rational solution was to escape from that way of thinking. The families themselves almost always tended to escape, but they were changed by the experience and had learned to not live beyond their means.
I say almost because there was at least one example of a film dealing in this concern that took the concept to a much bleaker conclusion: Burnt Offerings (1976). Predating Amityville but not experiencing the same kind of commercial success, Burnt Offerings sets up the template which these later films follow with one slight alteration – instead of owning the home, the protagonist Rolfs are renting the location as a vacation spot. In this sense its closer to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) than it is the two previously mentioned films, but Burnt Offerings speaks to a similar, if much darker impulse in America at the time: that our culture of consumption will ultimately consume us.
Where Amityville and Poltergeist make cursory references to the economic reality of the characters in the films, Burnt Offerings is explicit: when confronted by the fact that they might die in the house the characters can’t fathom leaving because it would return them to the position they had been in previously. Near the end of the film, Ben and Marian Rolf are arguing about leaving the mansion when this exchange takes place:
Ben Rolf: Marian, whether you come with us or not; tomorrow we're going back. Marian Rolf: Going back? To what? Ben Rolf: To what we had. Marian Rolf: We had nothing! Ben Rolf: And what do you suppose we've got now?
The film is expressly aware of class position and social status for its protagonists and it argues they are too, which is why they came to this place; even in the face of death they would rather maintain an illusion than rationally return to safety of a lower standing in society. The film then seemingly mocks this choice by dragging the family to the only logical conclusion such a choice can lead: death. Unlike most films of the era, and even many of today, no one is spared, parent or child. Films like this typically punish characters that transgress popular moral values, but Burnt Offerings avoids attaching moral judgment to the actions of its characters by destroying the entire family, with an argument arising out of that, that their need to live above their means is the ultimate cause.
While it would be easy to suggest Burnt Offerings is anomaly, there are recent films that follow its precedent. Sinister (2012) follows a struggling true-crime writer as he knowingly moves his family into a haunted house to exploit its history for a new book. What’s interesting about Sinister is how it suggests that even the Amityville solution, fleeing, can’t save you; when writer Oswalt extricates himself from the haunted house he finds it’s too late and his family meets a similar fate as the Rolfs from Burnt Offerings. The idea here seems to be the taint of consumption has already dragged the family into its death throes and no action can save it from that; bankruptcy still leads death, the world doesn’t return to normal, and life can’t be what it once was.
This timeline, from Burnt Offerings to Sinister, is something that suggests an evolution in American consciousness towards cynicism. As disparity grows between rich and poor, even our entertainment can’t relieve us by saying that we can return to a safer place. We’ve now reached a point where the veil has been pulled back and we realize that inequality is a reality precisely because we’ve tried to reach for something that was an illusion. Instead of utilizing this as a way to motivate though, these films offer that this is an inescapable cycle leading to our demise. This isn’t necessarily a criticism as the conceit of horror isn’t necessarily a call-to-action as much as it is simply to deliver us to the realization. That horror, that we’re locked into a unavoidable death drive, matches the objective of the genre it’s being expressed through, which is the ultimate sign of the success of all the films listed.