Social Theory and The Haunted House

HauntedHouseSociologyOnce upon a time, I graduated college with a degree in sociology. But they weren’t hiring at the sociology factory, so I decided to write about Haunted Houses instead. But this is okay, because a haunted house writer earns about as a much a manufacturer of social thought  – zilch!   But hey – at least I found a similarity between the two “fields” – gotta give me credit for that!  And I have more of that “credit” coming, because I have discovered ways that I can draw on my knowledge of sociology to help me in my study of haunted house films and literature.  It would be selfish to keep this enlightening information to myself, so I am going to share it with you. Get ready while I reconstruct social theory so that it applies to the organization of the haunted house!


When it comes to haunted house lore, I have always been interested in the houses that serve a higher purpose than to act as a meeting place for a collection of ghosts. I like it when the house itself has a conscious.  This occurs when somewhere within the walls there exists a force with a will of its own.  The source of this “will” is often vague and mysterious, which leaves readers and viewers to attribute this will to the house itself.  I also like it when, for one reason or another, the house is imbued with the ability to act as conductor of supernatural energy.  Under these circumstances, a house can create the ghosts, or at least hold the ghosts at bay due to its magnetic properties.   Or how about a house with a personality?  A house that’s mean; vindictive – a house that wants to kill you!

There are other haunted house stories that focus mostly on the ghosts that haunt the house. The house is but their stage; a platform that enables these specters to show off their ghostly antics.  This “stage” can provide the prefect atmosphere for their performance if the lighting is gloomy enough, if the props and furnishings give the surroundings the right touch of “haunt”.  But in the end, all this is background for the ghostly performers. If the house is to be a character, it is a supporting character at best; supporting the shining stars of ethereal light.

Now, doesn’t this comparison remind you the various theories regarding the structure of society? You are saying “no.” Oh.  Well then, maybe I should explain this matter a little bit better.

DurkheimEmile Durkheim is considered to be the “father of sociology”. His contributions to this field are huge.  He developed the concept of “social facts”.   Simplistically speaking, these are forces within a society with a scope that is beyond that of the individual.   These social facts, according to Durkheim, are the best predictors and/or facilitators  of other social facts, or social phenomena.   The rituals of a family (i.e. prayers/no prayers at the dinner table) influence the children’s religiosity or lack thereof.   Poverty might be an indicator of crime.  You get the idea.

What’s relevant here is that the role of the individual is downplayed. This is not to say that Durkheim thought of people as mindless automatons enslaved to tradition. He acknowledged that people influence culture and society with their beliefs and behaviors, but when this happens, something else is happening as well.  Here’s a quote from The Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy  that better illustrates these ideas:

Chief among his claims is that society is a sui generis reality, or a reality unique to itself and irreducible to its composing parts. It is created when individual consciences interact and fuse together to create a synthetic reality that is completely new and greater than the sum of its parts. This reality can only be understood in sociological terms, and cannot be reduced to biological or psychological explanations

Thus, according to Durkheim, society  is an entity in and of itself.

Not all social philosophers thought like Durkheim. There are those that believed that society only comes into being on account of the competing interests of the multitudes of individuals. Society arises as a result of the need for people to get along, to establish rules and laws that allow people to maximize their self-interest without trampling on the rights of others.  From this point of view, society comes second and does not exist independently of the individuals.  This perspective is associated with Utilitarianism

JohnStuartMillHere is what Social Theorist John Stuart Mill has to say about this:

The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of human beings united together in the social state. Men, however, in a state of society are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance. (System of Logic – Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1)

For Mill, Individual consciences do not, as Durkheim postulates, fuse together. By nature, individuals are individuals and nothing more.


Now, back to haunted houses, applying the theories of Durkheim. Sort of.  Any professional sociologists reading this are probably laughing their asses off at me for this sophomoric comparison. Ah but what the hell – here I go.  I like haunted houses that exist as an entity, that are greater than the sum of its ghosts.  Or maybe, the ghosts “fuse together to a create a (haunting) reality that is completely new.”  A house of this kind is not haunted because it has ghosts. Rather, this type of house is haunted because it harbors memories that can produce ghosts. It is haunted because it creates energy that leads to supernatural phenomena.  It his haunted because of its very nature.  It’s not a house haunted by ghosts – it’s a haunted house!  See the difference?

Stephen King’s “The Shining” is a prime example of such a house. Okay, it’s a hotel not a house, but the example is still a good one. The Overlook Hotel is haunted because is “shines.”   In the movie by Stanley Kubrick, Dick Hallorann explains to little Danny about “the shining; ” – an extra sensory perception that allows one to read minds, witness residual spirits, etc.  Houses too, he tells him, can have “the shining.”  According to the book, The Overlook Hotel has a goal: to utilize the psychic energy of Danny so that it may trap him and his family inside its conscious forever.  Throughout the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, there are hints that “Hill House” is sentient.  It attempts to possess one Eleanor Vance.   There are loud pounding noises and other haunting disturbances,  but these occurrences are not really attributed to ghosts. They are only attributed to the house itself.   Then there’s the house in Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco.  The huge but old and decrepit house in this story rejuvenates when it steals the life force of its occupants.

Okay, now what of the haunted houses of John Stuart Mill? Maybe the house in William Castle’s film Thirteen Ghosts qualifies. The ghosts have been captured and stored in this house. They didn’t even originate there. Sure they materialize now and then to scare the family that lives with them, but it isn’t the house that is causing the haunting. It’s the spirits.  Then there’s the film Paranormal Activity.  Their apartment is haunted by a demon.  This demon latches on to others and travels to their homes, at least according to the sequels. It is not housebound. In the film Evil Dead 2, demons haunt a cabin. They are there on account of a spell read from a book.  They sure have a fun time with the cabin.  Besides possessing the occupants, they inhabit the furniture as well.  They cause a mounted deer head to laugh.  The house (or cabin) is a giant toy box for the demons.  In all these cases, the primary units of the haunting are the ghosts and demons. The house is an afterthought.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good films.  Just because I like the “house as an entity” concept doesn’t mean that the “house as a background” theme lacks quality.  This is just a style preference.

Then there is the book Hell House by Richard Matheson and its corresponding film The Legend of Hell House.  They way I see it the house in this story utilizes both themes.  Hell House is said to store supernatural energy, acting as “a battery” if you will that can charge up some ghostly phenomena. At the same time, “surviving personalities” haunt the house and communicate extensively with some the house’s visitors.

There are other haunted houses that I’m not sure how to categorize. For example, there’s the Amityville House.  In the film Amityville Horror, there’s the line in the beginning of the film uttered by George Lutz about how “houses don’t have memories.”  Of course this is foreshadowing because horrific things had happened at the house and they will again.  However, even though the house is personified, it’s mostly demons that cause the terror. Then again, the house is said to have been built on cursed land.  Hmm…which is it?

Perhaps there are hybrid stories out there. If so, maybe there can be some kind of scale to measure how much a particular story is “haunted house” tale and how much of it is a tale of “ghosts/demons inside a house.”

For instance:

  • Hell House – 50% house, 50% ghosts
  • Amityville House = 70 % house, 30% ghosts/demons
  • Poltergeist = 80% ghosts, 20% house.
  • The Fall of the House of Usher = 100% house
  • Evil Dead = 100% demons.

Of course, these percentages are just made up math from my mind. But maybe,  just maybe, I have developed a quantitative way to analyze haunted house fiction.  Maybe my method will be developed further and be in literary textbooks!  Maybe this sociology major and haunted house connoisseur has finally found a way to use his training for betterment of humanity.

Maybe….I should come out of my cloud. Yeah I should do that.  Sorry!  And a special sorry to two guys, my old pals  Durkheim and Mill. I have summonsed your ghosts and thrown them into my haunted house analysis.  (I think they are pissed about this.)    By haunting the essay with their ghosts, was I invoking the ideas of Durkheim or Mill?  Maybe Mill, because the essay didn’t produce the ghosts; I went and stole them.  Or maybe it’s Durkheim;  because the subject of this essay is haunted houses. As such, the essay in and of itself is bound to conjure up some ghosts.  I’ll let the readers decide.

Revisiting Hell House (and “The Legend” thereof)

hellhouseBookIt was several months ago that I looked around inside Hell House  through the eyes of director John Hough’s cameramen. I watched The Legend of Hell House and I found the experience engrossingly chilling.  But there was much left to be desired. I decided to go deeper.  I bought and read the novel: Hell House  by Richard Matheson.  The book was like a descending staircase; each page was a stair. Step by step, I went down into the depths of the plot and unearthed the complexity of the characters. I arrived at a place the movie couldn’t or wouldn’t take me.   Upon finishing the novel, I watched the film again.  Did I enjoy it more, less or the same? Let’s find out.  But first, an overview of the plot as per the novel.

A rich, old, dying man is willing to pay big money to a team of scientists and psychics if they could prove, once and for all, if there is life after death – or not. I don’t know how one can prove a negative, but let’s not worry about this logical flaw. They have one week to conduct their study. Their “laboratory” is to be “Hell House”, which is described as “The Mt. Everest of Haunted Houses” (This line is from the movie. Is it also in the book? Gosh, I don’t remember!)

The team includes Dr. Lionel Barret, a physicist who dabbles in parapsychology, his wife/assistant Edith, psychic and “mental” medium Florence Tanner, and Ben Fischer, “physical” medium and sole survivor of a “Hell House” expedition that took place years ago. I’ll explain more about the “mental” vs. “physical” mediums later.




The history Hell House is one of drunkenness, orgies, murder, and on and on – you get the idea. At the helm of all this debauchery was Emeric Belasco. When the years of partying finally came to a close, all of the inhabitants of Hell House were dead. However, the body of Emeric was never found.


The four-person investigative team – all of them have experienced supernatural phenomena in the past. So when the house starts to act up, none are surprised or overwhelmed with great fright. Not at first anyway. But there is no disagreement – the house is definitely haunted.  However, as to the question concerning the source of this haunting, there is bitter debate.


Dr Barret is a man of science. He theorizes that the human body emits EMR – electromagnetic radiation. This is “psychic” energy – energy created by thoughts and emotions. Due to the rather extreme nature of the house’s former inhabitants, a powerful energy field has remained in the house. Certain people that are sensitive to psychic phenomenon can then tap this energy. These would mediums such Florence Tanner and Ben Fischer.


Here’s a quote from the book. Dr. Lionel Barret is speaking:


Is it any wonder, then, that Hell House is the way it is? Consider the years of violently emotional, destructive – evil, if you will – radiations which have impregnated its interior. Consider the veritable storehouse of noxious power this house became.


Hell House is, in essence, a giant battery, the toxic power of which must, inevitably, be tapped by those who enter it, either intentionally or involuntarily.


While at Hell House, the team experiences many disturbances, including phenomena that is usually attributed to a poltergeist (tables are upturned, dishes go flying, etc.) Barret insists this is on account of Florence Tanner. She is projecting, perhaps unwittingly, her psychic abilities onto the environment. He does not believe in what he terms “surviving personalities”.  In other words, there are no such things as ghosts. So he thinks.


Florence vehemently disagrees and is offended that the doctor is blaming her for the disturbances. Not only does she believe that spirits haunt the house, but she is also convinced that one spirit in particular is trying to communicate with her -Daniel Belasco; the son of the evil and manipulative Emeric.

Is the house really haunted by spirits or is there only one field of energy through which all of the supernatural events occur? Are they both correct or are they both wrong?


I won’t answer these questions but I would like to use this opportunity to point out how this book touches on a certain theme within haunted house lore that really fascinates me, and does so extremely well. It has to due with the nature of haunted houses.


There exists this dichotomy


  • A house is haunted because it has ghosts; the spiritual remains of the deceased. Since the ghosts exist, they have to be someplace, so they might as well shack up at a house. But they could be anywhere – a forest, a bus, etc. But when they’re in a house, the house is haunted. Remove them, and the house is no longer haunted. Case closed.



  •  A house is haunted in and of itself. The haunting is inherent. There may or may not be ghosts. The house itself is in some way causing the paranormal phenomenon.


Some haunted house novels are all about the first scenario while others delve more into the second setup. Hell House presents both and lures its readers on a mysterious journey as they wonder which situation best describes the haunting of Hell House.




So what of the film?


I’d say maybe I enjoyed it a bit more the second time around, but this is because I had a better understanding of the story, thanks to the book. Whereas I did see the ideological conflict between Dr. Barret and Florence Tanner on first viewing, it was less obvious and more confusing. While I knew Dr. Barret was a believer in the paranormal (he witnessed the formation of ectoplasm for Christ’s sake!), I didn’t understand his specific viewpoints as they related to the field of science until the near end of the movie.  Also, the book cleared up the differences between a “mental” and “physical” medium. (See readers, I told you I’d get around to explaining this. You thought I’d forgotten!)  Florence Tanner is a mental medium. She can feel the presence of evil. She can understand the thoughts and emotions of spirits (or maybe the thoughts and emotions that were left behind). However, she is surprised when physical objects move after her sittings (when she goes into a spiritual trance).  This shouldn’t happen because that kind of disturbance should only occur with “physical” mediums.

The film fails at explaining the finer points of the plot. And the ending is very abrupt and awkward. The book does a much better job of summarizing the final events and solving the mystery of Hell House. In order to enjoy the film, just forget about nitty-gritty details of the story and just absorb the haunted house atmosphere. Look at it from a more simplistic point of view and think of it only as a story about four people who are trying to survive a stay at a haunted house and leave it at that.  From a visual perspective, including all the props, decorations, furnishings, the film succeeded in creating an eerie, gothic-style haunting.

Now about my original review of the movie –

I wasted too much time comparing The Legend of Hell House to The Haunting.  Admittedly, they are similar in some ways but they each have their own identity. I like The Haunting better than The Legend of Hell House but this should be a “never mind.” I saw both films early on in my Haunted House project, viewing The Haunting before The Legend of Hell House.  Perhaps I was too attached to The Haunting. I treated it as my “first love” and would compare my next relationships to my first haunting embrace.  That is a “no-no” in the world of dating and love, so I guess it should be off limits for enjoying haunted house films as well.


What do you think?








Review of House on the Borderland

House on the Borderland Graphic NovelAre you ready for some “cosmic horror?” Get ready to confront the insignificance of humanity when compared to the mysteries of the infinite cosmos. Get ready to encounter horrendous creatures with great power and strength to match their unworldly ugliness.   Get ready to confront any fears that you might have of things that originate from the great unknown!

H.P. Lovecraft is said to have coined the term “cosmic horror”  and defined themes that were mentioned in the previous paragraph. Those aforementioned attributes describe Lovecraft’s work to the tee. However, Lovecraft originally used “cosmic horror” to describe the work of an earlier author.  This author is William Hope Hodgson. The novel is House on the Borderland. 

It goes without saying that Hodgson and The House on the Borderland influenced Lovecraft a great deal. In fact, Hodgson’s influence went beyond one man’s fancy to inspire a new movement in horror literature.

From Wikipedia:

“The book was a milestone that signalled a radical departure from the typical Gothic fiction of the late 19th century. Hodgson created a newer more realistic/scientific cosmic horror that left a marked impression on those who would become the great writers of the weird tales of the middle of the 20th century, particularly Clark Ashton Smith, and H. P. Lovecraft.[3]


Okay readers, remember when I wrote about the haunted houses of Lovecraft? You don’t?  Well – here are the links for ya!

I am referring back to these posts because what I have written in those articles ties into this one. The key take away is that though Lovecraft wrote of haunted houses, he did not fill them with your average gothic ghosts. Likewise with Hodgson – Lovecraft’s mentor.

Yet, many tropes of the gothic tradition can be found in House on the Borderland. For instance, there is a gigantic castle-like house with multiple floors, a cellar with a mysterious trap door, a man who lives alone in the house with the exception of his elder sister and his dog; a man who is a recluse and likes to occupy his time reading in the study. However, the house is not haunted by the spirits. For the most part, there are no ghosts, with one possible exception. The narrator meets his former lover on a couple occasions. Presumably she had passed away. But yet, their meeting does not occur within the house on a dark and stormy night.  Her spirit does not traipse the hallways or frighten him out of his sleep with groans and moans.  Their meeting occurs when the narrator crosses over into another dimension,  a dimension which he calls “The Sea of Sleep”.  She hovers over the waters as the two struggle to communicate.  Otherworldly dimensions are a common theme in this book.  This story is as much an exploration of fantasy and science fiction as it is horror, maybe even more so.  However, the fantastic and horrific events are centered inside a house.

The book begins with two men who take a trip to the countryside of Ireland for some camping and fishing. While on their leisurely expedition, they stumble onto a large house that sits on the edge of a cliff.  They venture inside to find the place abandoned, save for a manuscript.  The manuscript gives the account of a recluse, the aforementioned narrator. A bizarre account it is! Makes me wonder if this narrator had tabs of LSD sprinkled inside his shrooms.


The narrator writes in the first person, describing how a gigantic pit HOuse on the borderland swinesuddenly develops in front of his house. The pit produces swine-like creatures that attack the house, forcing the narrator to barricade the doors and windows.  From the top of a tower, with his shotgun, he picks them off one by one.  Later on, while in his study, he gazes out his window only to have a rather strange session in stargazing.  The speed at which the celestial bodies traverse across the sky increases with each rotation. Day and night are soon seconds away from each. In a matter of hours he experiences eons. He witnessed the destruction of the sun.  But he is introduced to a green sun; a fiery jade that perhaps is the sun of all suns; the sun at the center of all universes.

House_on_the_Borderland black sun

Not your average haunted house story, eh? It’s quite a read, although the overuse of commas is burdensome.  Maybe it’s the times; perhaps I am just not used to so many of these phrase separators. Maybe commas are sparse in today’s literature because the limited resources of such punctuation marks were unnecessarily drained back in 1908 when the book was first published. A hypothetical example, of such overuse, just so you might understand, could be, in fact, this very sentence that you are reading, at present time.  Punctuation style notwithstanding, it is a very intriguing book.


So what kind of metaphor would best describe the difference between gothic and cosmic horror? Maybe it’s like the difference between classical and jazz music, where gothic = classical and jazz = cosmic.  Hmmm…..nah!  Jazz is an exercise in testing the limits of a given structure and I don’t think that is what cosmic horror is attempting to do.  How about prog rock vs. punk rock? (gothic = prog/cosmic = punk). Again, nah! Punk is an exercise  in simplicity and getting back to the basics. The cosmic genre is not that either.

I know – how bout I stop with this literature vs. music comparison? How about I cease this fruitless delineation altogether?  Even better!  Goth is goth and cosmic is cosmic.  And that is that.


Review of The Others

The Others

If I were to make a list of my ten favorite haunted house films, I would say that The Others would make the top five.  I first fell in love with the film a decade ago. I re-watched it the other night to see if the sentiments were the same. On second viewing, I liked it even more.

It is a period piece, set during World War 2 on British island off the coast of France. The film takes place at a creepy manor that sits within acres of fog-filled foliage.  It utilizes gothic themes artfully. Thankfully, the film substitutes shock and gore for suspense and mystery. The story itself is absorbing from beginning to end.

The film brilliantly sets up a haunting environment when the lady of the house Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman)  introduces three new servants to her home.  She has a peculiar set of instructions. The house has many rooms, all of which have lockable doors. No door must ever be left open! When entering a room, the door must immediately be shut and locked. That way, the light of one room will not escape into the other. Why is this an issue?  Grace’s two children are photosensitive; allergic to light. Therefore, all the windows are covered with drapes to prevent any invading sunlight.  The servants are shown a grand piano and they are told that never must the children play with it. Grace suffers from migraines and so noise is kept to a minimum. There are no phones, no radios. In fact, the house had no electricity.

the-others-nicole-kidman-scaredSo – you have a large, isolated house on a remote section of an island that is surrounded by gardens and fog; a house that is kept gloomily dark and eerily silent without any devices to connect its occupants with the outside world.  What else could there be to make the situation anymore creepier?  How about a religious zealot of a mother that tells her children stories about little boys and girls that go to Limbo after they die, which is at the center of the earth where there is fire, and they live there in pain forever and ever – all because they told lies.

But wait, there’s more.  Remember earlier how I said that doors inside the house must remain shut and that the windows must stay covered and that the piano must not be played?  Well, these things never remain closed, covered and unused.  Who is opening door, uncovering the windows and playing the piano, ghosts?  Perhaps. One of the servants has an explanation for this:

Sometimes the world of the living gets mixed up with the world of the dead.


A mighty strange trio these servants are!

the-others - Servants


There’s Mrs. Mills the nanny,  Mr. Tuttle the gardener and Lydia the mute maid.  They know things that others do not.


This film brilliantly adds its own unique twists to the scenarios it borrows from the gothic tradition. To explain how it does this would be giving too much away. I won’t do this. This is one of those films gets better and better as the mystery unravels.   However, I will point out one scene in particular that perhaps is forgotten after the film is over but ought not to be (The scene stuck with me only after the second viewing).  At one point, Grace is convinced there are intruders hiding in the house, disturbing the dark and quiet environment. She has the children hide away from the the-others-Windowslight while she and the three servants search the house. They open all the curtains to bring the dark corners to light.  The sunlight beams through the windows one by one.  Different shots of the house’s interior literally “come to light”;  a long hallway, a room with a clothed table sporting an oil lamp, a den with a fireplace, walls with tapestries and murals. All of these things are common décor in haunted house movies, but in The Others, it is the light that brings out the creepiness within them, not the dark.

What more is there to say? It’s a great film. It’s refreshing that a film of such classical scares was made on this side of millennium, just squeaking in at year 2001.  Makes a guy hopeful for the future!