Nipping at the heels of 1979’s The Amityville Horror came Peter Medak’s 1980 film, The Changeling. Despite the two sharing a stunning amount of similarities in origin, intrigue and production, The Changeling has remained an often overlooked gem in the haunted house genre. While the film successfully navigates many sub-genre tropes, the true beauty of The Changeling comes in the ways it deviates from the expected. Today, as the film celebrates it’s 40th anniversary, we’ll take a look at some of the ways The Changeling took familiar concepts and integrated them with its own uniquely fresh ideas.
Similar to the The Amityville Horror, The Changeling is also based on ‘true events.‘ In the late 1960’s, television music arranger Russell Hunter moved from New York to Colorado in order to help his parents manage the family business. After renting a home where Hunter could simultaneously compose and live, Hunter began experiencing a wide array of paranormal activities. While investigating the home further, Hunter found a hidden staircase leading to a tucked-away attic space. In this room, Hunter claims to have found a trunk filled with children’s toys and a journal chronicling the life of a young disabled boy.
“The Changeling creates a paranormal experience that stands as both distinctive as well as terrifying.”
In order to learn even more about this boy’s story, Hunter held a seance to try and connect with the spirit in question. During this seance, Hunter claimed to have learned that the sickly young boy, upon his untimely death, was replaced by his parents. By substituting in a young orphan that matched the boy’s general description, the parents kept a family inheritance firmly within their grasp. Hunter also claimed that the young boy gave him directions to his hidden burial place, a house in another part of Denver. Supposedly, Hunter got then got permission to dig beneath this house and discovered human remains and a necklace with the boy’s name engraved upon it. After these events, paranormal activity continued to plague Hunter in this rented home on 13th Avenue. Because of this, Hunter soon moved out and the house would later be demolished to make room for an apartment building.
Of course, no historical documents of any kind back up Hunter’s story. But it sure did make one hell of an inspiration for a screenplay. This fantastical story laid out by Hunter could have easily been translated into a creepy, yet unsubstantial story (much like Amityville). However, thanks to the skilled work of writers Diana Maddox (The Amateur) and William Gray (Prom Night), The Changeling manages to subvert this pitfall from the beginning.
Early in the film, we see our main character, composer John Russell (George C. Scott) lose his wife and daughter in a horrific car accident. In order to obtain a fresh start and a new job, John moves from New York to Seattle. After enlisting the help of Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), an employee of the Seattle Historical Preservation Society, John finds a stunning, vacant Victorian mansion to move into. Here, we see the first diversion from traditional sub-genre plot for The Changeling. Unlike many haunted house films, John moves in all by his lonesome. There are no friends, no strangers and sadly, no family to keep John company in the massively beautiful home.
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After John successfully moves in, life continues to move forward for him. He begins his new day job, teaching at a local university. He attends performances of the local symphonic orchestra and maintains relationships with friends both new and old. This presence of outside locations is another interesting diversion for The Changeling. Not surprisingly, many haunted house movies are focused and centered around ‘the house.’ Often times, we see our main characters confined to a house once they become entwined with its story. (Think The Shining, Burnt Offerings, The House on Haunted Hill, etc.) However, John not only comes and goes frequently, his diversions from the house become a crucial part of the film’s storytelling. By cleverly showcasing the world outside the house, The Changeling‘s story remains grounded in reality, and becomes all the creepier for it.
“Rather than presenting the story as some sort of dark and twisted fairy tale, this cementation in the real world provides a uniquely unsettling atmosphere.”
Hand in hand with this storytelling decision comes John‘s cool and rational demeanor when presented with irrational happenings. In many haunted house films we see tend to see our male protagonist lose their grasp on reality, go mad or it’s revealed that they were a bit unstable all along. John is a character who stands totally separate from this common trope. Even when the paranormal activity and mystery surrounding his home becomes overwhelmingly obvious, John always approaches the manner rationally. When looking into mysterious sounds, he assumes old plumbing. When doors open randomly, he assumes a breeze. When later investigating the mysterious boy’s death and life, he heads to the local library to read old newspaper clippings. Each and every step of the way, John‘s investigation into the house’s secrets remains relatable and practical. By keeping John‘s overall connection to the house’s story logical and pragmatic, it adds a level of realism to The Changeling‘s story. Rather than presenting the story as some sort of dark and twisted fairy tale, this cementation in the real world provides a uniquely unsettling atmosphere.
Despite John‘s empirical approach to the mysterious happenings surrounding him, he still remains a man navigating his own ongoing grief process. While the house and the boy’s story certainly connects and triggers John at times, The Changeling does a beautiful job at portraying John‘s grief as an independent, ever-evolving entity. For example, on an innocent horseback riding outing with his new friend Claire, John finds himself reminiscing about his daughter Kathy‘s love for horses. This, not surprisingly, causes his thought process to spiral and revisit the tragic moments of her death. The scene then cuts to a heartbreaking moment of John sobbing in bed, overwhelmed by sadness. This intimate glimpse into John‘s emotional state is an important and special one. There is no timeline for grief and recovery, and The Changeling touches on this sentiment beautifully. Both within and outside of the house’s storyline, John remains a man traversing the often rocky road to recovery.
Unbeknownst to John in the beginning, he is not the only one dealing with grief and emotional torment within the house’s walls. Soon we become introduced to Joseph, the ghost of the young boy haunting John‘s house. Joseph‘s tragic tale of torment, abuse and ultimately death is further made worse by the outside world’s complete ignorance of it. While many haunted house stories revolve around the idea of unfinished business and justice, The Changeling takes these ideas a smidge further. Yes, Joseph is looking for justice for his murder. Yes, he wants his imposter revealed. But more than these basic vengeful motives, Joseph just wants to be recognized, to have his identity and life acknowledged. This deeper emotional desire by a ghostly presence is one that is surprisingly, very human.
When everything is boiled down, The Changeling is of course, a haunted house film. But even there, The Changeling handles itself differently. The ghost of Joseph is not motivated to frighten John or run him out of the house. Joseph‘s main goal is to capture John‘s attention and to ultimately communicate with him. In order to do this, Joseph caters his choice in haunting mechanism to John specifically in ways that make sense for a young, frustrated kid. At first, the haunting starts with loud, in your face bangs that are ultimately revealed to coincide with Joseph‘s horrific murder. Then, we see John inspired to compose a beautiful, lullaby like tune. Later, this too is revealed to have deep, intimate connections with Joseph.
A pivotal scene in the film comes when Joseph sends a red ball, a favorite toy of John‘s daughter Kathy, slowly and methodically banging down the house’s steps. While this likely wouldn’t resonate with most people, it certainly resonates with John. Even the most infamous scene in the film involving Joseph‘s wheelchair ends up coming across like a thoroughly frustrated tempter tantrum thrown by a tormented young spirit. By adding a level of personality to Joseph‘s haunting, The Changeling creates a paranormal experience that stands as both distinctive as well as terrifying.
With a budget nearly double that of The Amityville Horror and the big-name leading man, it’s surprising that The Changeling was released to minimal fanfare and critical regard. Roger Ebert originally said that “Scott makes the hero so rational, normal and self-possessed that we never feel he’s in real danger; we go through this movie with too much confidence.” It’s a shame really because this deviation from the expected norms strongly contributes to the noteworthy and emotional resonance present in The Changeling.
“Yes, The Changeling is truly a haunted house film. And yet more than that, it tells the story of two individual spirits haunted by their pasts and their own independent ways of navigating through it.”
Even when familiar ideas like the seance, the final fire and John‘s continued determination to stay in the house are present, the overall vibe remains refreshingly independent from the sub-genre at large. Yes, The Changeling is truly a haunted house film. And yet more than that, it tells the story of two individual spirits haunted by their pasts and their own independent ways of navigating through it. It’s this subtle layer beneath the surface that gives The Changeling a powerful presence that still connects with audiences 40 years later.
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