What Makes a Haunted House Story Work?

The strangest thing about Hell House is that, by a few sets of criteria for a good story, it is one. I mean, even by the criteria I’d like to come up with, it would score pretty high. I think, partially, this is what annoys me about it.

There should be a house around which strange phenomena converge. I guess this goes without saying. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a haunted house story. It would just be a ghost story.  There’s obviously some gray area here as we move through “ghost story” to get to the specific room that is “haunted house story” but I think an important component of a haunted house story is that difference in emphasis. In a ghost story, it’s clear that there is/are some specific ghost(s). In a haunted house story, I don’t think it’s always necessarily clear what’s going on, at least at first.

There must be an investigation. This can be as simple as Laura in The Orphanage just roaming the halls of her own house trying to figure out what’s going on (and, man, The Orphanage is a great illustration of a movie that lives in the doorway of “haunted house story,” still retaining a lot of elements of a traditional ghost story). Oh, maybe this is a good way to think of the difference between a ghost story and a haunted house story. The big question in a ghost story is “Why is this happening?” In fact, there really is no good ghost story that doesn’t come with the why practically attached to the ghost. “I see my drowned sister in the conservatory.” Oh, right, because she drown. Now that I think about it, this may be why I like “Dodge City” so much, even though I didn’t have this articulated back then. The scary part of the story is not the “why” of Antwane’s haunting, though that, like in any good ghost story, is creepy in a lovely way. It’s that the “why is this happening?” of Chuck’s haunting is unresolved. It is as if we have found Chuck at the beginning of a more traditional haunted house story. His question is “What is happening?” or “How is this thing I don’t understand happening?” And that question “What is happening?” is central to a haunted house story. It’s what spurs the investigation. “Why?” is an important question, because a haunted house story is a ghost story at heart, but they “why?”s often get answered as a means to settling on the “what?” Or at least while trying to settle on the “what?”

The investigators must be engaging. This is, perhaps, where I think Hell House fell down. I didn’t feel like I was really invested in the characters. This is, perhaps, one of the things that works oddly in “The Shunned House”/”Allendale.” I don’t particularly feel bad or deeply moved by the death of the uncle himself. I mean, we barely know him. And the houses have a habit of killing people. But the manner of his death, the literal “how” he dies and how that affects his nephew? Wow. That did move me. And part of that is because Lovecraft builds up for the whole story how important this history is to the nephew. He’s faced with all the people he’s been only reading about. It really works.

It’s better for the solution to be genuinely ambiguous than to end up being ambiguous because it wraps up too neatly. I think “The Shunned House” ends up pretty okay, but if I were doing it over, like I said in the comments earlier, I’d make “Allendale” much more ambiguous at the end. Maybe let the nephew be charged with the death of his uncle by massive chemical dump in the basement in a way that plausibly recasts everything we’ve read as the ravings of a dude who can’t face the fact that he killed his uncle. But then, maybe have the later tenants’ mother die in the house, leaving it open as to whether the curse is still there. I mean, really, if the house is haunted, how does it ever honestly become unhaunted?

This is my fundamental problem with the genre. How, exactly, would a house become unhaunted in a way that would satisfy me that the unhaunting would stick? This is a question Hell House comes right up to the edge of. It even asks it. And then shies away from the obvious answer. A house, as it stands, cannot be unhaunted.

At least, not for long. Whatever allowed those ghosts to set up shop there–something about the land or the arrangement of the architecture or the number of deaths in it–is pretty fundamentally unalterable. If a story doesn’t end with the destruction of the house, you cannot be sure the haunting of that house has ended.

A ghost story is a close cousin of the tragedy. Unless everything is destroyed, you can’t be sure the story is over.

Which is not to say that every haunted house story needs to end with the destruction of the house. But if it doesn’t end with the destruction of the house, it needs to be obvious that, though our story is over, the story of the house goes on. (This is something The Red Tree does beautifully.)

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Haunted House Story Work?

  1. Did you watch last season of American Horror Story? Because if you did, I am curious what you thought about its ghosts and haunted house. And if not… well, I’m still curious.

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