Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

May 2000
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

by Elizabeth Hand

American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction by Dale Bailey
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 145 pp, $40.95 hc, $20.95 pb


Well, after many months, I finally saw The Blair Witch Project, the movie that exhorts viewers "Be afraid. Be sort of afraid." I was looking forward to Blair Witch—people whose opinions do not usually embarrass me seemed to like it, and I scored what felt like a minor coup by snagging a copy of the videotape to watch on Hallowe'en night, in the company of a highly respected editor of supernatural fiction whose taste usually dovetails with mine. Plus, I liked the font they used for the movie's print advertising, also the creepy music.

It may well be that the buildup for the film made disappointment inevitable: my children (at seven and nine, still far too young to watch it, though apparently that didn't prevent some of their friends, with far more lenient Moms, from doing so) didn't even want a copy of the tape in the house. Or it may be that a recent project by my son's second-grade class—the creation of little stick people, using twigs and hempen rope - successfully pre-empted a terrified reaction on my part to seeing scary little stick people hanging from trees in Burkittsville, Maryland. Or it may be the inherently low Scary Rating of suburban Burkittsville itself, a place which is a lot less spooky than the Tysons Corner Mall in neighboring Virginia, or even certain precincts of Capitol Hill when Congress is in session.

Whatever. I didn't find The Blair Witch Project remotely frightening. At breakfast the next day I gave a brief, reassuring precis of the film to the children, highlighting the fact that most of the ostensibly scary stuff derived from the sight of three college kids getting lost in the woods. My son (the one who participated in the Lincolnville Witch Project) commented that "probably they didn't live in Maine."

A safer assumption might be that probably they never saw a lot of trees before, or read a book, or even seen The Amityville Horror. My only lasting regret is that the story wasn't true, because then we might at least be bolstered by the hope that hundreds of other nascent filmmakers would descend upon the site and end up standing in the ruined house's various corners, looking sheepish and badly lit. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, anyone who can watch the final moments of The Blair Witch Project without laughing doesn't have a heart.

Like The Amityville Horror, The Blair Witch Project is a silly, low-budget horror movie that a lot of people connected with, my visiting editor friend among them (although she lives in lower Manhattan, and so can perhaps be excused for a bad reaction to the sight of lots of trees). Where The Blair Witch Project is more interesting—and ominous—is as a harbinger of post-narrative entertainment, in both cinematic and written form. In this respect, it's the supernatural equivalent of those cheap porn videos that are all come shots—no character development, no sets, no acting and no script per se; just vocalization and body language, Boo instead of Boink.

It did, however, rouse me enough that I started scrabbling around the bookshelves, looking for something genuinely scary; and in so doing realized a serious omission in my Hallowe'en reading. Somehow, in three decades of poring over crepuscular fiction, I had never read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

This seems almost inexcusable, and perhaps it wasn't excused, because just as I cracked the spine of my copy of Hill House, (purchased second-hand in 1970), what should arrive in the evening mail but Dale Bailey's American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction.

Coincidence? Perhaps; but certainly more benign, and more literate, forces were at work here than in The Blair Witch Project. American Nightmares is a slender volume, 145 pages including footnotes, bibliography and index; more academic lagniappe than scholarly tome. But in this brief work Bailey does a thorough and thoroughly entertaining job of sifting through the cultural detritus of various American ruins, taking us from Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables to the smoldering wreckage of Poe's House of Usher, and then moving rather quickly past the stately haunted homes erected by Henry James and Edith Wharton. In the process, he manages to visit all the important literary landmarks on the Haunted House Tour, with no obvious omissions. This is all well-travelled haunted ground, of course; yet Bailey provides an amiable introduction to these authors, even as he hastens us towards the Overlook Hotel---
"Wharton and James are all waltz to the rollicking beat of Poe's manic reel. And Hawthorne doesn't dance."
The early pages of Bailey's study, where he skips rather breathlessly through nineteenth and early twentieth century books, is the weakest. But as Poe, Hawthorne, James et al are not exactly unremarked upon in the Ivory Tower, Bailey can be forgiven his haste in dealing with them and bringing us right to the good stuff—The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining, Burnt Offerings, The People Next Door. Most of these are familiar to us now as movies, but Bailey does a stellar job of revealing the architecture of the novels, and of summing up other critical studies of the same works. Bailey on Shirley Jackson is especially good. He gives a succinct, even terse, assessment of the feminist structure of Hill House which compares it to an earlier and equally terrifying piece, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." I first read "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a child, and found it so unsettling that it made me rather sick. Since then the novella has been, rightfully, reclaimed by feminists, who have made much of the parallels between the story's protagonist—a woman suffering from what we would now term post-natal depression—and Gilman herself, who suffered from depression and lost custody of her young daughter when her husband remarried.

Like the imprisoned woman in "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman wrote that she would "crawl into remote closets and under beds—to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress." Still, Gilman recovered from her depression and went on to become a well-known feminist writer and speaker. In a more ironic trope of life imitating art, Shirley Jackson reaped the rewards of her successful novels and autobiographical writings (Life among the Savages and Raising Demons), but ended her life suffering from agoraphobia and various other mental ailments. The most cogent chapter in American Nightmares is "June Cleaver in the House of Horrors," which deals with The Haunting of Hill House and its relation to Jackson's popular nonfiction, where she wrote about her family with typically understated but often caustic humor. Bailey cites the opening paragraph of Life Among the Savages, her account of raising four children and literary critic husband in the wilds of Bennington, Vermont --
"Our house is old, and noisy, and full. . . . I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and—as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told."
What American Nightmares makes particularly clear, and chilling, are the parallels between Jackson's sickroom vision and the breakdown of Gilman's heroine, as well as that of Eleanor, the doomed protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson may not have been done in as gruesomely as Eleanor, who drives her car into a tree at Hill House's gates, and she may not have ended her days crawling naked over the body of her husband, like the woman in "The Yellow Wallpaper;" but the spectre of a house—The House, with all it contains of traditional female duty and obligation, housework and children and muck—looms starkly over Jackson's own life, as it did in her various novels. Jackson's work contains other gloomy domestic edifices, most notably in The Bird's Nest and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Bailey could have done more with these—instead, he mentions them only in a footnote. (As for the recent film The Haunting, ostensibly based on The Haunting of Hill House—it makes one yearn for the restraint, subtle character development and refined good taste of something like Bob Guccione's Caligula. The earlier Robert Wise version with Claire Bloom and Julie Harris is far superior, if hobbled by clunky voiceovers and the rather inexplicable presence of Russ Tamblyn as hearthrob.)

But then, this is a breezy haunted house tour, not a dreary academic tome, and we have still to visit Amityville, the Overlook Hotel and Siddons's newly-constructed House Next Door. Bailey deals with these thoughtfully and concisely, though his discussions of Siddons's book and The Amityville Horror owe a heavy debt to Stephen King's Danse Macabre, which discussed both works in detail. Of course, it's difficult to find any haunted ground where King's shadow has not already fallen. Bailey's treatment of The Amityville Horror, especially, serves mostly as a retread of King's well-known commentary on the Amityville phenomenon. King found The Amityville Horror's commercial success almost inexplicable, until he overheard a woman near him in the movie theater remark, apropos the Amityville house's self- destruction, "Think of the bills!"

This pretty well sums up Bailey's argument for the haunted house as "a symbol of America and the American mind," the dream house that enacts retribution upon its owners or those who make misguided claims upon it, like Jack Torrance in The Shining or Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House.
"As in most haunted house tales, the house gradually infects its inhabitants, exploiting the weaknesses of each family member and splintering their loyalties to one another; their emotional and psychological decay begins to reflect the house's physical and moral disorder."
The Amityville Horror, as King made clear in Danse Macabre, was very much a reflection of the bourgeous anxieties of its time—the mid-1970's, when inflation and the fallout of 1960s counterculture were beginning the erode the vision of The Good Life for many Americans. It wouldn't take much to popularize a 21st-century Amityville Horror -- just fall behind on a few mortgage payments for your MacMansion and Ford Explorer—but I do wonder if the haunted house will actually prove to be an enduring American archteype. Bailey appears to think so—he ends American Nightmares with thumbnail analyses of 2001 (the haunted spaceship) and Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" (haunted space colony), and the observation that "it seems unlikely that we will soon exhaust the haunted house's metaphorical potential."

And yes, as metaphor the haunted house can easily morph—say, into a haunted internet. What's a computer virus, after all, but a real-life ghost in the machine, wreaking havoc and causing even more expensive problems than those plaguing unhappy homeowners in Amityville?

But The Blair Witch Project, at least, seems to indicate another source of cultural unease—a profound fear and distrust of the natural world, embodied in Burtkittville's relatively innocuous woods and streams and rocks. Because here we are, spending more and more time indoors, peering into the interstices of the net and surfing for the best price for those Patagonia hiking boots we'll never actually use; and meanwhile, there is all that gross organic stuff Out There, what remains of it, anyway, after global warming and deforestation and killer microbes have had their way, and boy, those trees are probably pretty pissed off at us by now, and --

-- but that's another can of creepy crawlies waiting to be opened, in another century.


To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to

Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art