Welcome to Know Your Trope, your rough-and-tumble monthly guide through horror history. In this column, we’ll be diving deep into the conventions of the horror films we love, hate, and love to hate. The definition of “Trope” we’ll be rocking with is a commonplace, recognizable plot element, theme, or visual cue that conveys something in the genre. This month, we’ll be diving into The Spooky Basement. Otherwise known as “The Haunted House” metaphor.
The haunted house is a staple in the horror genre, serving as a backdrop for many terrifying tales. But have you ever wondered why these houses always seem to have a certain eerie significance? It’s almost as if the layout of the house is a metaphor for the main character’s inner turmoil. Well, it turns out there’s actually some science behind this.
“The basement, often depicted as a dark, damp, and eerie place serves as a metaphor for the unconscious mind…”
Sigmund Freud proposed a theory of the mind that’s made up of three parts: the id (the primitive, instinctual, and unconscious desires and impulses), the ego (the rational, logical, and conscious self), and the superego (the moral and ethical component of the psyche that represents societal norms and ideals). The basement, often depicted as a dark, damp, and eerie place serves as a metaphor for the unconscious mind where repressed thoughts and desires fester.
As is the case with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho(1960). The Bates‘ home is a great example of how different parts of a horror house can represent the different levels of the mind. The basement of this old Victorian mansion represents the id, a place where all of Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) repressed thoughts and desires fester and ferment. It’s where he keeps his taxidermy workshop and the preserved body of his mother, both of which reflect the twisted inner world of his unconscious mind.
The ground floor of the Bates‘ house, and by extension the Motel office, represents Norman’s ego, the part of his mind where he stores all of his carefully crafted lies and deceit; The lies that he tells himself and others in order to maintain the illusion of normality. This is where we see Norman in his role as the charming, polite, and helpful proprietor- a persona that he has created to hide his true nature. It’s also where he keeps the mementos of his mother, such as her dresses and jewelry, further emphasizing the importance of his relationship with her in his preconscious mind.
So, why do horror movies use the layout of a house to represent the different levels of the psyche? Visual metaphors are at the core of good filmmaking but it’s also a way to make the horror more relatable and realistic. After all, we all have an id, an ego, and a superego- it’s just a matter of how they’re balanced. And when that balance is thrown off, well, that’s when things can get really scary.
“Why do horror movies use the layout of a house to represent the different levels of the psyche?”
The portrayal of the spooky basement in horror films has undergone a significant transformation over the years. In the past, basements were often portrayed as dark and dingy spaces, used as storage areas or as a last resort to hide from danger. They were associated with fear and the unknown, often depicted as being filled with cobwebs, rats, and other creepy crawlies. However, as the field of psychiatry has grown and we have learned more about the human mind, filmmakers have begun to incorporate more nuanced concepts into their storytelling.
In Us (2019) director Jordan Peele creates a more literal 1-to-1 ratio with the Wilson family and their “shadow selves” or doppelgangers. The family is confronted by their doppelgangers, who have been living in an underground tunnel system. The tunnels provide us with the spooky basement element but, the film also explores the outside world, specifically the main character’s family’s vacation home, representing the ego.
The vacation home is where the main character’s family lives their daily lives and where they have created their sense of self and identity. It’s a place where they try to present themselves as normal and successful, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that this sense of normalcy is an illusion and that the repressed impulses of the id (represented by the doppelgangers) impact them directly.
To push this point further, the house belonging to the Tylers (the white counterparts to the Wilsons) serves as a good example of the superego, which is the part of the mind that represents the internalization of societal norms and values. It is a large, luxurious, and well-maintained home, with a perfect lawn and a clean, modern interior. It represents the ideals of success, wealth, and status that the Tyler family has internalized. They have built a life that conforms to the expectations of society, and it is something they flaunt in front of their friends, the Wilsons, constantly.
“…the spooky basement will [provide] spine-tingling thrills and chills for generations to come.”
The psychology behind these characters is fun and all but let’s get real here, folks; The spooky basement is the backbone of horror movies. It’s one of the OG horror tropes, evolving from a dusty old room for storing grandma’s knitting supplies to a metaphor for the dark, twisted depths of our minds. And with psychiatry only continuing to advance, we can expect to see even more mind-bending and terrifying portrayals of the spooky basement on screen.
Whether it’s through cutting-edge tech that unleashes supernatural forces or by tapping into our primal fears of the unknown, the spooky basement will always be a horror staple, providing spine-tingling thrills and chills for generations to come. So, grab your flashlight and get ready to explore the depths of our fears!
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