What is a house? It is not just a space, but a home. It represents family, love, tradition, and comfort. And any violation of the house—be it poltergeist, ghost, or a garden variety neighborhood psychopath—is a violation of all of these things, which is why the house is such an important set piece in horror films.
But for women, the house represents even more.
In 1970s horror films, the house represented what women were fighting against (decades fulfilling a gender role women have had little success getting out from under), and fighting for (independence and equality). And in contemporary horror, the house is still a major player in female-driven films. Though the connection between women and houses in horror today are different than they were in the 1970s, the results are unsettlingly similar: an acceptance and understanding that this place—this house—is where women should be.
It’s no surprise that horror films in the 1970s focused on a woman’s role in society (the Equal Rights Amendment having passed the U.S. House and Senate in March of 1972), and a big part of that focus was on the consistent struggle between women craving true independence and a historical sexual division of labour. The Exorcist (1973) gives viewers Chris MacNeil, a single mother and working actor who has moved her 12-year-old daughter, Regan, to Washington D.C. as she works on a movie. The house itself is a symbol of Chris’s transience and independence; but, it’s in the basement of this very house that Regan uncovers a Ouiga board and is possessed by a demon—a demon that turns Regan into a house, a vessel, and that also forces both Regan and Chris to be confined to the house (Regan, literally tied to the bed) as they struggle against the possession. At the end of the film, Chris and Regan leave the house, so for these two women there is hope. They are no longer tied to this particular symbol, but what lesson has Chris learned, and is this freedom from domesticity worth the price they had to pay?
In the original adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives (1975), women are manipulated, lied to, and ultimately killed so that they may be replaced with animatronic slaves to their husbands’ domestic and sexual desires. And the way that these women are deceived has everything to do with the house. The house that has enough space for Joanna’s darkroom, a yard for the kids, and a country lane where she can walk the dog. The house that Bobbie’s husband tells her is a good investment. The house where Charmaine can play tennis any time she likes on her own backyard court. In Stepford, the house is the bait to lure women. Under promises of peace, quiet and a lovely neighbourhood, their spouses betray these women, and replace them with bigger-breasted robotic facsimiles.
Carrie (1976) explores this domestic struggle with a teenage protagonist and her mother. DePalma focuses much of Carrie White’s angst—both natural and supernatural—within her house. Carrie doesn’t dare let Tommy through the front door when he comes to convince her to accompany him to the prom, and she makes sure to stand as close to the threshold as she can. Carrie and her mother, Margaret, fight over dinner at the dining room table—the family dinner table representing a paradigm of domestic success. It is in Carrie’s attic bedroom that she first uses her telekinesis against a person (her mother), and we see her true power as an independent (and frightening) young woman. But when Carrie is humiliated and has had her revenge, she returns to the house and washes herself clean before dressing and finally reconnecting with her mother for one final duel. After Carrie has killed her mother, she pries Margaret down from the wall and pulls her into the closet—the same closet where Margaret locked Carrie to pray for her sins—and it is there that Carrie dies as the walls and roof of her house come down around her. The house pulls Carrie back, again and again, until it finally becomes her deathbed.
And these three were the tip of the iceberg. Halloween (1978) gives us a psychopath slaughtering babysitters (housewives-in-training). Black Christmas (1974) introduces a house full of sorority sisters who are systematically killed by a lunatic living inside of the house itself, The Last House on the Left (1972) presents a horrifying tale of what might happen if we leave the safety of our house, and House/Hausu (1977) gives us a house that literally consumes young women.
Women’s relationship with the house in horror films has, as expected, evolved over the last three decades. The ‘80s saw a rise of women in groups: Friday the 13th, Hell Night, and The Slumber Party Massacre. The ’90s and ’00s saw more female protagonists working instead of being tied to the house (Candyman, The Silence of the Lambs, The Ring), as well as women taking the house into their own damn hands (Misery, Audition, Orphan).
And now we’re over a decade into the 21st century, and female horror protagonists—interesting, strong women—are being brought back to the house.
You’re Next (2011) brings us the story of Erin, a woman brought to a house under false pretences. Her boyfriend tells her he’d like her to meet his family as the next step in their relationship, when what he really wants is a witness to a staged home invasion. Erin, unbeknownst to her boyfriend, has grown up in a family of survivalists and quickly begins to defend herself against the invaders. Her boyfriend, who is in on the invasion, is surprised by her strength and resourcefulness. He didn’t count on his English literature grad student girlfriend having the stomach or skills to fight back against a group of killers. Erin is honest about who she is and what she needs to do, and from the start she is fighting against a traditional nuclear family—a tremendously dysfunctional one, at that—by using her own non-traditional domestic history.
Housebound (2014) and The Babadook (2014) explore two contemporary stories of women and their houses. In Housebound (New Zealand), our protagonist is Kylie, whose childhood house becomes her prison after she is placed under court-mandated house arrest. She has rebelled against her history—her mother, her family, and her house—only to end up exactly there, relying on the people who surrounded her during her childhood. She resists at first, but once she is under siege, Kylie and her mother come together to fight and survive. By the end of the film, the house, and everyone living within it, has helped Kylie, pulled her back to health and relative normalcy, and she has accepted her situation.
Acceptance is at the heart of The Babadook as well, when our protagonist, Amelia, is faced with a monster tormenting her, her son, and her house. She does what she can to rid herself of the force haunting them, to reason with it, and finally by telling it to get out, screaming at it: “This is my house! You’re trespassing in my house!” But Amelia has no luck, and ultimately accepts the monster, allows it to live in her basement, and tends to it. It is her acceptance that allows Amelia and her son to live a stable life.
So are modern horror films telling women to embrace the house? Perhaps. None of the houses in You’re Next, Housebound, or The Babadook are traditional in any sense, nor are the women at the centres of these films. What these films (and hopefully others to come) are telling us, though, is that the house and the woman in it will no longer be manipulated or deceived into domesticity. And that’s better than nothing.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.