Home discomforts: why haunted-house horrors are making a comeback | Film

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Not now, haunted house horrors! Never has the prospect of watching a movie about being confined to your home and beset by unseen terrors seemed less like escapism. We’ll soon see if the pandemic has sharpened our appetite for haunted house movies or put us right off them, as they seem to be the theme of this Halloween – and almost all of them centre on women.

That’s not such a surprise, really. Unlike so many areas, ghost stories and houses of horror have been almost a haven for women, on the page and on screen. You could reason that the domestic realm was seen as a female space, and the natural receptacle for female writers’ explorations of things repressed and unspeakable. Some critics have ventured that female authors identified with ghosts – invisible figures struggling to exert an influence on reality.

Fittingly, their works refuse to die. Exhibit A would be the ever-adaptable Daphne du Maurier, and Netflix’s lavish new version of her 1938 classic Rebecca, the tale of a naive young newlywed haunted by her predecessor when she moves into her husband’s imposing ancestral home. Director Ben Wheatley has his work cut out following in Alfred Hitchcock’s footsteps, although his and Jane Goldman’s adaptation is working from the original text (Hitch made some softening alterations), and the prospect of Kristin Scott Thomas as the icy housekeeper Mrs Danvers is just irresistible.

Then we get to Shirley Jackson, who gave us one of the most terrifying entries in the genre: The Haunting of Hill House (again, the story concerns alienated women shackled to their home), which became one of the most terrifying movies, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (Netflix’s 2018 spin-off series is also pretty good). Josephine Decker’s disorienting new movie Shirley (led by Elisabeth Moss on top form) finds some sort of parallel in Jackson’s own strange domestic setup, as the disturbed, depressive novelist and her creepy husband play twisted psychosexual games with the couple who lodge with them.

In recent movies we have already been seeing a new strain of hauntings, connected to more contemporary anxieties. New Australian horror Relic, for example, gathers three generations of women in a creaky old house where nothing is stable, especially the floorplan. But the spectre haunting them could be seen as dementia, which is claiming grandma and, by extension, coming for her descendants. It is of a piece with recent classics such as The Babadook and Hereditary, where the sources of the terror are not so much in the past as the present, or even the future. Who knows if or how Covid will find its way into this eerie realm, but it is already making life resemble a haunted house horror a lot more.

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