Close your eyes and imagine that you’re sitting alone in your living room on a Tuesday night. You have the television going and your digging into your dinner. It’s just another lonely night in a week full of lonely nights. As you finish your meal, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Goosebumps course down your body as you realize that you are not as alone as you thought you were. Quiet breathing can be heard from the darkness of your hallway closet. You’re sure that you had closed that door when you got home. Didn’t you? Either way, it’s open now, and you can see the soft reflection of the television on two watching, hungry, eyes.
You are supposed to feel safe in your own home. It’s where you can finally let your guard down and walk around in your underwear. It’s the only place in the world where you can allow your eyes to close at the end of a long day. For something to invade that safe space, for something to shatter that force field of belief is our greatest fear. Creatures from the Black Lagoon and alien beings from LV-426 are frightening in their own way, but nothing comes close to the anxiety that hits us when we hear those footsteps in the hall when we are home alone. Why is that? To understand why domestic horror is so terrifying to modern audiences, we have to go back and explore the origins of the sub-genre.
People have been telling stories of domestic horror for thousands of years. Tales of home-focused evil were passed down through oral traditions from every ancient civilization. In Mesopotamia, ghosts were only allowed to leave the Irkalla, or realm of no return, if they had a mission to complete or if they needed to right some type of wrong. This led to specters visiting the homes the inhabited in life to communicate and interact with their living ancestors. These interactions usually resulted in the sickness, or possession, of their relatives
In Egypt, a person’s soul would be allowed to return to the land of the living by the gods if the proper rites were not observed during burial or if a specific sin had been committed against the dead that needed to be addressed. These spirits would be given the ability to violently harass the living until the crime or sin was confessed to the ghost directly. They believed that, once they passed into the Field of Reeds, the soul became all-knowing, and would see all of the transgressions of their loved ones. If the living relative was unwilling to confess their sin, then a priest would do everything in their power to intervene. This, unfortunately, didn’t always work.
“You are supposed to feel safe in your own home […] For something to invade that safe space, for something to shatter that force field of belief is our greatest fear.”
For the Romans, haunted houses and ghosts were so common and understood to be true that they were included in their plays and writings. They believed that ghosts could only be seen by torch or candlelight and would only appear in dreams if they were of a loved one. In Greece during the First Century A.D., Pliny the Younger wrote a story about the philosopher Athenodorus, who came to Athens to look for a house. He eventually found a gorgeous home that was available for little to nothing. We’ve all seen this movie before. The home was so cheap because it was rumored to be haunted. No one in the city would go near the place because they were so afraid of the spirit who resided there. As soon as Athenodorus rents the house, he begins experiencing the paranormal. He hears chains rattling in the halls and wakes up to the vision of a man in his bedroom, beckoning him to follow. Seeing as the movies we have all seen wouldn’t be made for another 2,000 years or so, the brave philosopher follows the spirit into the courtyard, where the specter vanishes. The next day, Athenodorus begins to dig at the spot where the ghost vanished and found the corpse of a man, wrapped in chains.
Most of these ancient stories revolved around the righting of a wrong. The majority of these spirits were only trying to regain their dignity by having their bodies reburied with the proper rites performed or for those that wronged them during life to confess their sins. This is not true in some of the tales from China. In 1680 A.D., Pu Songling wrote about the ancient oral story of Ning Caicheng. In this tale, Ning is approached and seduced by the ghost of a maiden named Nie. Being a man of virtue, he rejects her advances. The next morning, however, he finds the corpses of two men visiting him from another temple. They had holes pierced through their feet and were drained of their blood. His rejection made Nie respect the man, and she approached him again the next night. She revealed to him that she died there long ago when she was only 18 years old. After she passed, she came under the control of a demon who inhabited the ground where she died. This demon forced her to seduce and kill men, feeding the monstrosity the freshly spilled blood of her victims.
“For the Romans, haunted houses and ghosts were so common and understood to be true that they were included in their plays and writings.”
Back before the turn of the first century, in 856 A.D., a farmhouse in Germany was beset by history’s first-ever recorded poltergeist. The family had lived there for decades with no incident, but then things started to change. Rocks were thrown at the youngest members of the family, and small fires started in the home for no reason. Pots and pans flew across the house, injuring the patriarch of the family and forcing them out of their home. When they left the house and entered their barn for warmth, the house burst into flames and burned to the ground. It was reported in the story that the family could see figures dancing in the flames of their home, and hear laughter coming straight from the bowels of Hell.
This gradual shift from tales of benign, or even helpful, ghosts of your ancestors returning to complete a mission or right a wrong to the workings of the demonic or monstrous would eventually form the basis of horror as we know it. The focus of the stories no longer rested on the deeds of the living, but rather a deep hunger for pain and suffering. The blame for the haunting no longer rested on the ancestors or people living in the home. They were not responsible for what happened to them. It was out of their control. Something rotten was in the ground where they lived, and they were at the mercy of the evil that seeped from the dirt.
This lack of control is what drives the fear surrounding domestic horror today. Something has come into our lives, into our homes, and is tormenting us for no reason. There are countless films in the horror genre that deal specifically with ghostly or demonic terror.
Some of the finest horror films ever made use this trope to scare us. This includes classics like Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Furie’s The Entity (1982), and Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror (1979) to modern-day bangers like The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity films. The jumps and the screams are terrifying, for sure, but it’s the thought of our safe places being invaded by something beyond our control that truly unsettles the audience. When we are sitting down on our couch to watch these movies, they reach out from the screen and make us feel unsafe in our very skin.
“The focus of the stories no longer rested on the deeds of the living, but rather a deep hunger for pain and suffering […] Something rotten was in the ground where they lived, and they were at the mercy of the evil that seeped from the dirt.”
Unlike cosmic tales such as Event Horizon (1997), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), or The Mist (2007), these domestic horrors bring a sense of realism to the experience. No matter how outlandish the premise (demons and poltergeists), the fact that they are happening within the home make them so much more effective. When we turn off the lights, and get off the couch to go to bed, the shadows seem darker and the silence becomes deafening. We might not believe in the paranormal, but the best domestic horrors make us question our logic for longer than we would like to admit.
This doesn’t just apply to tales of ghosts or demons, either. Home invasion horror has been a source of domestic terror around even longer than the tales of the undead. Ever since the moment someone invented the door, someone else was thinking of a way to break past it. Unlike the ghostly stories of old, these tales are driven by revenge, greed, envy, or just plain evil. Some of the most realistic, and most terrifying, horror films in history have been centered around stories of home invasion. Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), Moreau and Palud’s Ils (2006), Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), and Flanagan’s brilliant Hush (2016) all use the fear we feel when we are home to deliver the most realistic chills imaginable.
So, what is it about domestic horror that has driven us crazy for millennia? For my money, it’s all about control, and the fear of losing that which we love the most. We can live a righteous and holy life, never enter into any dangerous situations, and lovingly raise our children all that we want, but the moment someone or something wants to enter our home and destroy all of that, we are at their mercy. I now have three children, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect them and keep them safe. Domestic horror takes those children’s lives and throws them in a blender. What could I possibly do if Pazuzu or Valak decided that they want to come into my home?
In the world that we live in today, there are very few places where we can let our guard down. We, as a society, don’t feel safe anymore. Whether it’s at school, or in church, or at a concert in Las Vegas, we have to always be on our guard and suspicious of everything going on around us. Home is supposed to be where we can relax. It is the one place where we don’t have to keep an eye on the person next to us, looking at every movement they make toward their belt. What domestic horror does so well, is that it strips away that sense of relaxation. It proves to us that there is no safe place in this world for us, and nothing drives audience’s anxiety like the thought that they will never be able to stand down and we will never truly be able to protect those that we love.
“What domestic horror does so well, is that it strips away that sense of relaxation. It proves to us that there is no safe place in this world for us…”
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