Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film

March 5, 2009

From the start, it was evident that ghost stories and the movies were made for each other. The earliest cinematic pioneers, such as Georges Melies in France and G.A. Smith in England, soon realised that the tricks the camera could play - double exposure, jump-cutting, slow motion, stop-motion and so on - lent themselves perfectly to spooky apparitions, and exploited them with enthusiasm. As early as 1897, Melies was shocking and delighting audiences with Le Chateau hante, which featured a bat that turned into a devil (shades of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, published that same year) along with ghosts, skeletons and witches.

In so doing, as Barry Curtis points out, the film-makers were simply copying and improving on the stock-in-trade of conjurors and magic-lanterners throughout most of the foregoing century. (Melies and Smith, in fact, both started out as stage conjurors.) Curtis' study traces the way that filmed ghost stories have kept pace with technology, drawing on it and using it as a source of inspiration, from the invention of X-rays and the telephone in the late 19th century to present-day cyberspace. They also, he suggests, reflect "the anxiety that has accompanied each new technology of communication and reproduction - that it may open communications with the dead".

As might be gathered from his title, Curtis also aims to explore the architecture of the ghost movie's key venues: not just old dark houses, but old dark castles, hospitals, factories, graveyards and so forth. Even spaceships, although by definition they can scarcely be all that old. But Alien (1979), one of the most influential science-fiction movies, is in essence an old-dark-house movie in outer space, with the characters running down shadowy corridors before something jumps out and goes "Boo!"

Of all the available architectural styles, Gothic has always been the default choice for a haunted house. Its looming turrets, squinting windows, archaised fittings and shadowy cubbyholes create, as Curtis puts it, "a sense of uncanny regeneration and a necrophiliac quality". Since hauntings, for the most part, are seen as emanations of the malevolent dead, any building that constantly reminds the present occupants of their predecessors is well cast, and Gothic does that better than most. Better yet if it's remote, isolated and perched on a hilltop - although, as in Halloween (1978), it can equally be an anomalous house in an otherwise normal street.

Curtis casts his net wide for his examples. Too wide, one might argue: as he cites The Truman Show (1998) and The Servant (1963) as examples of "haunted house" movies (the latter on the grounds that "the house is metaphorically haunted by the sinister figure of the servant"). This is stretching credibility. Especially as many rather more relevant films - Vampyr, The Innocents, The Curse of the Cat People, The Fall of the House of Usher, even perhaps Solaris - never rate a mention.

But as a study of haunted-house films, this book suffers from a more crucial absence: a sense of fun. The author's style tends towards academic solemnity (he has a fondness for words such as "anxiogenic"), and he never acknowledges that the ghost movie, like the swashbuckler, is predominantly a comic genre. Hitchcock, after all, always insisted that Psycho was a comedy; and the titular archetype of the genre, The Old Dark House (1932), finds its director, James Whale, at his most teasingly tongue-in-cheek. But you would never guess as much from Curtis' description of it.

Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film

By Barry Curtis. Reaktion Books, 240pp, £10.00. ISBN 9781861893895. Published 22 December 2008

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