We as humans love the idea of an evil house, though in actuality, the only thing that could be evil between the mortar, brick, and glass is the people (or spirits) inside it. It’s thought that spaces hold energy from what happened within its walls: a happy home stays that way while an unhappy one also holds on that negative energy.
The Winchester Mystery House
This particular trope appears to come from the very real Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California; the Winchester rifle family had many people in its family die except Sarah Winchester, whose grief manifested in her using her fortune to continue adding onto her large mansion in order to confuse the spirits that haunted her from the many deaths caused by the Winchester rifle (according to her psychic). She kept adding them on until she died in 1922. There is a lot of odd architecture; stairways that lead to nowhere and such; confusing for humans and spirits alike.
The Haunting (1999)
In 1999 came the reboot of The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting. (I’m specifically discussing this one because it came out during my lifetime; it also happens to be my first introduction to horror.) I love this movie because of its imagination; the setting is truly magnificent and bougie Gothic at its finest. Yet, the story suffers from inane plotholes that are never fully resolved. Hugh Crane is a supernatural dickweed out to ruin all the lives he can; there are ghost-pillow-children who play with the protagonist’s hair while sleeping and very bad CGI that haunts my dreams. In this iteration, the house is infected with the psychological sickness within Hugh Crane. His haunting is what makes it evil and upon his destruction, the house becomes “better” from his disease.
Rose Red (2002)
2002 brought the TV mini-series Rose Red, which was a treatment of the same source material but by Stephen King that was originally supposed to be The Haunting (1999) but thrown aside due to artistic differences. I also grew up with this story and desperately wish someone would reboot it. It suffered from issues with costuming and CGI, but otherwise is a pretty good story. Ellen Rimbauer is a different version of Sarah Winchester and Rose Red, her house, kills men mainly but keeps all who die there like all iterations of this story. I am in love with the forced perspective rooms and the mirror library (especially since it’s not in the plans!) The idea of an ever-expanding house that feeds on psychics appeals to my idea of horror: it means you’re trapped in the maze. The house in these stories becomes a main character as the antagonist.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
In 2018, we receive a gorgeously shot new version of the Haunting of Hill House material from Mike Flanagan. The house itself is infested with spirits of the dead though it seems to imply that the house itself made them this way, like it’s inherently bad and looking to consume more people like evil does. This evil-collecting-spirits house starts to make the mom, Olivia, very sick in the head and eventually ends with her suicide. Later, her daughter, Nellie, unfortunately follows the same path and dies in the house. It’s implied she and her mother are the among the good spirits trapped inside and when the living Cranes get trapped in the house, it’s these dead family members that help them get out. Maybe. I prefer the idea that they’re all trapped in the Red Room, hallucinating, because it would show the power of the house on their minds. Besides, not every supernatural experience has a happy ending. (Also if Mike Flanagan had been leaning toward demons, this house’s events are pretty on par with a demonic infestation.)
Gothic Mansions as Characters
Gothic houses are also of particular interest because it is their secrets that keep them haunted. Crimson Peak (2015) has such a house: Allerdale Hall, called Crimson Peak because of the red clay that makes the ground looks like it’s bleeding. It is the spirits of murdered women that reach out to Edith, Thomas Sharpe’s new bride. His strange sister Lucille is the reason for the haunting: a murderous, incestuous woman in a relationship with her brother, killing for money. We also see this idea in The Woman in Black (2012) where a house apparently kills children in the nearby village due to a mother missing her own child, not that it solves anything to reunite them in the end. Still, the house functions as its own main character; such houses have secrets grafted on the walls and the darkness of the secret defines them.
Cannibal Hillbilly Trope
Moving away from the Winchester Mystery House and/or Gothic house trope, we get into the often cannibalistic hillbilly cannibal brand of horror house. We see this in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), House of 1000 Corpses (2003), and remake House of Wax (2005). In these stories, it is the despicable acts of the people within the houses that creates the evil inside the house, not the house itself. The original Texas Chainsaw movie was a major pioneer for horror, especially with this trope; we didn’t see a ton of the house itself but with a family of evil cannibals, there was no doubt many rooms of things that could turn one’s stomach based on the crimes of Ed Gein. In House of 1000 Corpses (2003), there is a similar idea but less cannibalism and more serial killing/using the bodies for a grotesque horror show shrine throughout the house; the entire point of the movie is that these people have no respect for human life, living or dead. In House of Wax (2005), there was a lot of heavy-handed twin symbol dualism of “good twin” vs. “bad twin” as if life can be reduced to that simple of binaries. What we see is that same story mirrored in two twins, the disfigured one is actually not the bad one but the better of the two. One kills people and the other waxes them up and displays them. I had several questions while watching but the main one was: where do you even get that amount of wax? The ENTIRE TOWN was wax. Second question: this seemed very much like the South. How in the hell did it not melt on super hot days? I also wanted to see way more of this horror house.
Rose Red was filmed at Thornewood Castle in Lakewood, Washington. It’s a British manor that was brought over from England as a wedding present for the bride of Chester Thorne; much like Rose Red was a present from John to Ellen in Rose Red. Thornewood is also believed to be haunted.