Given that Haunted House stories descend from Gothic literature, it’s appropriate to begin with a great American artwork, Grant Wood’s 1930 masterpiece “American Gothic.” It’s the ubiquitous image of a farmer and his daughter, or possibly his wife, standing before an Iowa house built in the Carpenter Gothic style. The farmer looks dour and holds a pitchfork. The woman looks at him with reproach or disapproval. One curl escapes the tightly bound bun of her hair, suggesting things may not be as orderly as they seem. We can only speculate as to why.
Wood’s painting has always been something of a Rorschach Blot Test. You can see anything in it, from stalwart “real Americans” of conservative imaginings to a satirical depiction of those fantasies who, the woman’s gaze suggests, have some unsavory secrets hiding behind their prim façade. Its subjective quality is only exacerbated by the knowledge that only the house is real. The man is Wood’s dentist. The woman is his sister, Nan. The two never met, nor did they pose before the house.
American Gothic, then, is a story just like any motion picture, with actors playing the part. Let us posit that the story does not end there, but has another chapter: Wood painted another picture of his sister. Gone is the old-fashioned apron, high collar, and severe hair. She has a modern hairstyle now, a sleeveless polka-dot blouse which shows off her neck and a bit of chest, a bracelet and a wide leather belt. In her hands she holds a chick and a plum, suggesting, perhaps, fertility. The Gothic girl has been liberated.
What changed her? If not the farmer, perhaps it was something about the house. Maybe something angry dwells there, something lascivious. In the darkness of night, it whispered in her ear and aroused her lust. The only route to slaking it was to take that puritanical farmer’s pitchfork and run it through his heart. Then she went to town.
If you find the story of that transformation interesting, then the next complexity to absorb is that neither component—Nan’s change and the agent of that change—is as compelling without the other. That is the nature of haunted house stories and why so many of them fail: Most are satisfied with situation rather than character. That is, they settle for the scares without considering their impact upon the scared. Ironically, in the best haunted house stories, The Haunting (1963, directed by Robert Wise), The Legend of Hell House (1973, John Hough), and The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) among them, that impact is one of liberation. Rather than being scared straight, the characters are scared sensual.
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