On Haunted Homes: TERRIFIED, INFIDEL, and MALEVOLENT
I love October. It’s a time of year when publishers put out their yearly measure of horror novels, and I’ve finally made peace with the end of summer and the days getting colder and darker, and it is socially acceptable–hell, even encouraged–to watch horror movies all day.
So this month, I’ve been indulging–particularly in the haunting arena.
One of my favorite archetypes in horror is the Haunted House.
Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad.
–Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
I don’t want to talk about Hill House, though, or the rebooted Netflix show reimagining its family saga and haunting. Shirley Jackson is fantastic, and there’s plenty to be said about the new show, but there are so many other haunted home stories to explore and why do we always fixate on this one?
Instead, I want to look at three different haunted homes: the Argentine horror film Terrified, the Netflix film Malevolent, and the graphic novel Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote with art by Aaron Campbell.
In Malevolent (Netflix, 2018), a group of scam artists run a paranormal investigation/medium/put-your-dead-to-rest operation in 1980s Scotland. A brother and sister are the two focal points of the scheme. Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) is the businessman who arranges the jobs and soothes the agitated homeowners with patently fake understanding tones, while Angela (Florence Pugh) is the “medium” who wanders throughout the house (on camera for the agitated homeowners to watch from their living rooms), makes contact with the ghosts, and asks the spirits to leave. The siblings are capitalizing on their mother’s name and infamy as a medium (she ended up committing suicide and clawed out her own eyes). What starts out as a side hustle to make some extra cash turns into a lucrative source of income–and it’s a good thing, because Jackson’s kind of a douche, and needs the money to pay off a group of thugs he’s into, or else.
Angela, meanwhile, is starting to see real ghosts. So, when an old woman calls for their help to put spirits of murdered little girls to rest in her now-abandoned orphanage, Angela is reluctant. Especially when she does some background research and reads all about the tortured, mutilated girls whose ghosts are ostensibly running around a giant empty manor. But Jackson (in full-on douchecanoe mode) needs the money or else he’s dead, and why can’t Angela just stop being so fucking selfish, so they go to the scary obviously haunted manor in the middle of the Scottish countryside. You know where this is going, right?
Malevolent is utterly, painfully predictable. While Florence Pugh delivers a performance that is both intimate and vulnerable, her emotive face is pretty much the best thing about the film. From a plot perspective, Malevolent treads familiar ground, with its biggest switcheroo showing that the girl ghosts were actually good ghosts trying to exact revenge on their murderer and who end up helping Angela escape at the end. The film is formulaic–even its scares with the sewn-mouthed ghost girls land predictably on every obvious, un-scary beat[1 Is there anything more frustrating than a film that has potential, but takes the first obvious scare, every time? The first cloth-shrouded mannequin in a darkened house? The first jump behind the first dark corner upstairs? Recently I watched the 2018 Halloween remake and sat in awe in David Gordon Green’s decision to build tension by resisting the cheap scares–so much more effective. (Also, Halloween (2018) was fantastic and everyone should watch it NOW.)]–and has a weird subplot going on with Angela and Jackson’s mom that is neither necessary or impactful. While Malevolent is certainly better than a number of mainstream haunted house pieces with theatrical distribution, it strictly follows mind-numbing western horror film tropes: young beautiful people transgress and must be punished for their transgression.[2 That’s not to say this trope is bad on its face–see The Cabin in the Woods, which delights in its revelry of the transgression trope and the reason it exists.]
But then, I watched 2017’s Terrified (Aterrados), and my faith in the haunted house was restored. An Argentine horror film, Terrified sees the single American/British haunted house, and raises it: why not a cluster of THREE haunted houses in a suburban neighborhood suffering from a crack in reality? We’re not talking about anything as trite as being built on a cemetary or Indian burial ground, either–Terrified’s source of horror is far more metaphysical (and frankly, just so much more interesting).
Here’s the story: three houses in the same neighborhood start to experience some terrifying, freaky shit. First, there’s the couple asleep in their bed–the wife gets up to use the bathroom, meanwhile the husband starts to yell at the house next door because of a loud, insistent thumping against their shared wall. The thumping, it turns out, isn’t because of the neighbor’s construction–it’s the wife, whose body is levitating and slamming against the shower walls by some unseen spirit.
Next, there’s Walter’s home, aka the scene of the loud “renovations.” [Spoiler alert: it’s not renovations.] Walter hasn’t been sleeping because, well, there’s a monster that climbs out from under his bed, growing stronger and more violent each night. One day, Walter disappears–but not before the little boy who lives next door sees him, flees backwards in terror, and is killed by a passing vehicle.
Finally, there’s Alicia (mother to the dead child) and her home across the street, completing the neighborhood trifecta of hauntings. The night after her son is buried, Alicia receives a small visitor on her doorstep–her child, returned home. Alicia’s ex-boyfriend is a detective, Commissioner Maza, who calls in the experts: an elderly trio of doctors named Jano, Allbreck, and Rosentock who investigate the paranormal occurrences for their studies.
There is much to love in Terrified–from its inclusion of three haunted houses instead of just one, to its unexpected and delightful scares that play with perspective and sound in a way that we don’t really see too often in a lot of American horror. Most of all, I love that this story follows four older actors–three Van Helsings, and one detective who tells basically everyone he meets that he’s got a heart condition, scares easily, and just wants to get to retirement, dammit. This is not a story about the transgressions of entitled youth–it’s a story about interdimensional malevolence, and the humans who, through their own hubris, discover the true nature of darkness.
Seriously. Watch Terrified.[3 It’s a Shudder exclusive and if you’re not a Shudder member yet, highly recommend. There are all kinds of horror gems on there, from TV shows to films scooped up from the film festival circuit.] It’s refreshing as hell.
Last, but certainly not least, there is Infidel. Quite possibly one of the finest and most timely horror stories I’ve read in a long time, Infidel takes place in a Lower East Side NYC apartment building and examines the toxicity of hate and racism, manifested into demons that prey on the building’s inhabitants. Aisha is a young woman born and raised in Jersey, and who also is Muslim and Pakistani-American. Engaged to a Caucasian agnostic man and excited to become stepmother to a young, Star Wars-loving little girl, Aisha is kind-hearted, patient, and believes in the best in people–even when she’s confronted with intentional and careless racism, every day. Having just moved into an apartment building with Aisha’s future mother-in-law in an attempt to bring the family closer together, Aisha feels that something isn’t quite right in her new home. It’s not just the distrust she sees plainly on her mother-in-law’s face, or the looks she gets from her new neighbors–the reason for the affordable rent in the building is because it was just rocked by a bomb, set by a man who also happened to be Muslim. Aisha starts to see things–blurred faces of hate, vampiric ghosts that lurk in the darkness, ready to strike and growing stronger every day.
The house, you see, is possessed by ghosts. Only these ghosts feed on the growing hatred, xenophobia, and Islamophobia that broods with each passing breath–and then attacks and exacts its hatred in blood.
Pornsak Pichetshote’s beautiful characterization shows us different sides to this particular ghost story–the hatred that creates these monsters, sure, but also pokes at the stories humans tell themselves to justify their fears or behaviors. With his portrayal of Aisha and her best friend Medina, he shows two women with very different approaches to the constant barrage of xenophobia they face each day: Medina is a self-proclaimed realist, who believes that people are sometimes just racist assholes or set in their rigid ways and that their opinions are not going to change. Aisha tries to bring those who push her away closer, trying to find the similarities instead of differences–be it with her mother in-law, or the building she suspects is feeding on her soul.
With his dark, jagged art, Aaron Campbell captures the pure horror aspect of this collection; the graphic and terrifying horror of a malevolent building, powered by bitterness and hate, as well as daily horrors faced by being brown and Muslim in modern America. There’s a creeping kind of dread with every frame, and Campbell captures that atmosphere of tension perfectly. Infidel is the rare horror standalone graphic novel that delivers its message and lingers, long after closing the last page.
You want a truly terrifying haunted home? I can think of no building scarier than this: a home that isn’t haunted by a wronged ghost or “born bad” in the Shirley Jackson-esque vein–but rather one that grows in malevolence because of the hatred its inhabitants possess.