Thursday, February 12, 2009

The House and the Horror Film (Fall 2009 Course Offering)

Last month I read the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, first published around 1958 or ’59, I believe. It was a fantastic 20th-century example of the Gothic novel, though surprisingly it is the only “ghost story” that Jackson wrote. She is probably best known for her short story “The Lottery” (first published in The New Yorker magazine). The Haunting of Hill House appealed to me because of the author’s use of architecture – a creepy old Victorian mansion – as the locus for both the apparent haunting and for the troubled psychic life of the main character. It turns out there is a film version of the novel, a 1960 movie called simply The Haunting (which is decidedly a B movie). Reading Jackson’s novel, then watching the film, convinced me that this fall, when I teach my “Architecture in Film” course, I will organize it around the theme of “The House and the Horror Film.”

This will be my third time teaching the course (which has finally been given a permanent course number), and each time I teach it, it’s slightly different. I taught it for the first time in 2006, and I covered an eclectic assortment of themes, including heterotopia, dystopia, modern and avant-garde architecture, films about architects, the postwar European city, and methods of creating horror or suspense through architecture (including the Gothic novel conventions and the uncanny, among others).

I taught the course again in 2007, and this time organized it around the theme of domestic architecture, examining various categories of domestic architecture: the hotel as temporary home (in Grand Hotel and The Shining), the aristocratic mansion (La Règle du Jeu and Gosford Park), the urban apartment (Rosemary’s Baby, Rear Window, and A Raisin in the Sun), the rural dwelling (The Birds), the suburbs. We discussed gender (for example, The Stepford Wives of 1975 as feminist critique of the suburbs), race (both in A Raisin in the Sun and Far from Heaven), and some more specifically architectural topics (e.g., the critique of New Urbanism in The Truman Show).

The 2007 course on domestic architecture in film was premised on my argument that, in film, the house is always a symbol of the family; and that films featuring domestic architecture can be read as family dramas, regardless of the genre (horror, drama, comedy). I told my class this on the first day of the semester:

“The basic argument of this course is that domestic architecture in film is always used to represent the family: how the family works, or doesn’t work, is mirrored by the kind of home it occupies. For example, in The Shining, the Torrance family is highly dysfunctional, and the hotel they occupy – their temporary home – becomes more unsettling as the family unravels. Ruptures between husbands and wives (as in Rosemary’s Baby), or between parents and children (as in A Raisin in the Sun), are played out in films in which the plot centers on creating or changing homes (as in both of these examples), which often involves the addition of new children to the mix (which is a central plot device in both of these films).”

In the 2006 and 2007 classes, although very different, there was a surprising emphasis on horror films – surprising because it was unintentional on my part. I always used to say that I don’t like horror films, but given the evidence I’m forced to admit that I actually do like them (some of them, anyway, but not slasher films). There are distinct disadvantages to my choosing this theme for the course – I won’t be able to teach some of my absolute favorite films, because they’re not horror films (both Grand Hotel and La Règle du Jeu come to mind, and I also like teaching L.A. Confidential and The Ice Storm); but I do like to vary the course a bit, and this slightly different focus (still a variation on the domestic architecture theme) will open up some other possibilities. So far, I’m planning on the following films and readings:


Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920, dir. Robert Weine (German Expressionism used to create horror)

Rebecca, 1940, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (based on another 20th-century Gothic novel, by Daphne du Maurier)

*The Haunting, 1963, dir. Robert Wise (note: there is also a 1999 remake that I haven't seen yet; then there's the 1958 House on Haunted Hill, with Vincent Price, unrelated but equally B-movie-ish)

The Shining, 1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick (Stephen King’s novel, in my view, owes quite a lot to Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House)

Psycho, 1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Rosemary’s Baby, 1968, dir. Roman Polanski

The Birds, 1963, dir. Alfred Hitchcock

*The Amityville Horror, 1979, dir. Stuart Rosenberg

*Poltergeist, 1982, dir. Tobe Hooper

*Profondo Rosso/Deep Red, 1975, dir. Dario Argento (Italian)

The Stepford Wives, 1975, dir. Bryan Forbes

*Panic Room, 2002, dir. David Fincher

(Films marked by an asterisk are those I have not taught previously.)

Readings from:

Bob Fear, “Evil Residence: The House and the Horror Film,” in Architecture and Film II, edited by Bob Fear

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Camille Paglia, The Birds (BFI Film Classics)

David Punter, The Gothic

Katherine Shonfield, Walls Have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny

So far I’ve only identified 12 films I plan to show, so there’s still room on the syllabus for two or three more. Please email me or leave a comment on this blog if you have any suggestions, either for films or for readings.

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