Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Reimagining the American Haunted House (Part Three): William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill"

This is the final installment in the blog series on haunted houses in American literature (drum-roll please!), and because I’m secretly very ornery I’ve decided to write about a film which isn’t (ostensibly) particularly American and about a fictional haunted house which (probably) isn’t actually haunted.  

William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) is a famously gimmicky horror film starring Vincent Price in one of his most playfully fiendish roles. It is considered a camp horror classic, and it's success at the box office inspired filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock to cash in on the popular appeal of low-budget horror.  The film is also, fittingly enough, a pseudo-study on what defines a traditional 'haunted house.'

Price plays an eccentric millionaire who invites five strangers to a supposedly haunted house he has rented for a rather unconventional party, offering them each $10,000 if they can stay in the house all night.  The house itself has a dark history – the owner (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) promises, in an opening monologue, that this is the “only really haunted house in the world” and throughout the film his doom-and-gloom character re-emphasizes the possibility of the supernatural.  His family was murdered there, and he repeatedly insists that the house has somehow left its mark on all who enter.  Perhaps it has – the real danger is ultimately not ghosts and ghouls, but the living people staying there.

Vincent Price hosts a party... what's the worst that could happen?

The premise suggests Agatha Christie and the execution suggests Roger Corman.  William Castle employs nearly every possible horror cliché imaginable in order to keep the shocks coming – doors that slam shut on their own, the ceiling drips blood, a disembodied head is found in a suitcase (before mysteriously vanishing again), a vat of acid plays an important role, and, seemingly for no reason, a creepy old woman appears out of nowhere before floating away.  The gimmickry didn’t stop at the fourth wall, either.  Castle, at the time of the film's release, installed a pulley system in some theaters which allowed a plastic skeleton to pop out at the audience at the appropriate time. 

The fourth wall was also broken down within the film – Vincent Price’s disembodied head addresses the audience directly in the opening shots, casting the audience as potential guests and victims.  Another character promises that the ghosts will soon come for the audience themselves at the end of the film.  Such techniques effectively bring the audience into the movie and expand the movie to encompass the audience.

No, really, what's the worst that could happen?

It seems impossible that such a jumble of cliched effects could disturb anyone, especially since the movie appears to almost consciously point to its own cheesiness, going for the cheap thrills rather than slowly building dread.  However, in the film’s goofy fakeness there is an important element of horror.  The underlying question of the film is whether or not the house is actually haunted.  The audience is set up to believe so, yet ultimately the answer is immaterial - ghost may or may not be responsible for certain occurrences, but there are more profound evils at play in the house than slamming doors.  As both audience and characters explore the house their understanding of the situation (both supernatural and otherwise) is repeatedly reinforced, subverted, reinstated, and subverted again.  Within the film the gimmickry of horror – the fake heads, strange noises, and tales of gruesome murders employed by Vincent Price’s character (who is ultimately revealed to be a literal puppet master) - actually manages to turn the characters against each other more effectively then a real haunting probably would have.

 “Ah,” I can hear you say, “but is it Gothic?”  Does the self-conscious use and subversion of trite conventions and clichés not place this film more in the realm of parody than anything else?  I would suggest that the film is still an effective horror movie which only grows more Gothic in its persistent exploitation and subversion of expectations – the Gothic, after all, is arguably about recycling tropes in an increasingly unstable and chaotic uncanny space. 

"We're out of cheese twists!" "NOOOO!! Ugh, this party is the worst..."

Moreover, the underlying fears and anxieties within the story do distinguish the film as Gothic.  Sexual jealousy and hatred twist the marriage of the host and hostess, and a heroine falls prey to ‘sensibility’ as various people attempt to ‘Gaslight’ her.  The veneer of a socially acceptable ‘party’ is continually broken as metaphorical ghosts from the past return and the characters' psychological states are twisted by events.  Then there’s the house itself.  Like the other houses discussed in this series it fulfills the basic requirement of any haunted house - it is unheimlich, the ‘un-house’ which denies familiarity and readability.  At one point a character jokes that, “If I was going to haunt anybody this would certainly be the house I’d do it in.” This is particularly telling because that is exactly what happens – the characters and the audience project their own assumptions about the nature of a ‘haunted house’ onto the house (haunted or not), and ultimately the personal secrets and immorality of the characters leads to some very real murder and mayhem.

In many ways these elements make the House on Haunted Hill a distinctly American haunted house.  As examined in earlier posts the American haunted house seems to be defined primarily by its ability to take an old and established trope and twist it into something new.  Many would say that the inclination to make a haunted house a kind of Disneyland ride is typically American, as is the attempt to tame something untameable only to have it eventually come back to bite you.  American anxieties about history define American hauntings, but in this film a 'haunted' history becomes a weapon for the kind of present day deviance only Vincent Price could deliver.

The film has a rather effective twist ending but even without that aspect there is a constant shift between supernatural and not which destabilizes the sense of reality.  Ultimately, despite its persistent cheesiness, the film manages to ask so important questions: What are ghosts? Are they actual physical manifestations or are they just bad feelings and uncanny spaces?  What is more frightening – the dead or the living?

Kathleen Hudson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield studying narrative in early Gothic literature.  She should be writing her thesis, but she's actually probably off somewhere pretending she's Vincent Price

1 comment:

  1. OMG! actually I don't believe in this kind of things but after reading your post I am really very scared.
    Texas Haunted House.