How Hollywood weaponizes America’s housing anxiety through haunted house films

Studios have mined the specter of economic calamities to deliver ghostly scares

How Hollywood weaponizes America’s housing anxiety through haunted house films
Center image: The Amityville Horror, 1979 (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Getty Images); background images: Devonyu (iStock / Getty Images Plus)

In 2007, the micro-budget ghost story Paranormal Activity used old-fashioned special effects, consumer-grade electronics, and a mundane suburban home to change horror movies for the next 15 years. Arriving just ahead of the housing crisis, Paranormal Activity felt like a throwback. Yet, by the time Paranormal Activity 2 landed three years later, its predecessor proved oddly prophetic.

In 2008, America’s housing bubble burst, as dishonest lending practices sent the economy off a cliff and drove many homeowners into the streets. Against the backdrop of an imploding housing market, moviegoers saw their economic anxiety echoed back at them through a surge in haunted house movies that’s still going strong.

Haunted houses have long been potent metaphors. From the gothic 19th century to re-examined myths of the “new world” in the 20th, titles like “The Fall Of The House Of Usher,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Beloved, and The Shining expressed how the sins of the past—like class and gender inequity, colonialism, slavery, and genocide—inform and haunt our modern domestic sphere. By the 1970s, gothic mansions and rotting plantations had given way to the most American of aspirations: the freestanding suburban home. Today, these films ask: Who owns the home: the family or the ghosts that stalk the grounds?

In 1979, The Amityville Horror added a distinctly American wrinkle to the formula by moving things to the suburbs. “The whole point of the house in the suburbs is to have a place to securely and privately raise your family,” notes Dr. Jason Zuzga, who taught a class on haunted spaces at the University Of Pennsylvania. “The security that the house might have provided in the ’50s is a much more permeable space now. Privacy and security are things that people either consciously or unconsciously have lots of anxiety about.”

Amityville, and Poltergeist a few years later, trade depressed gothic-era governesses for secular former flower children facing the adulthood of homeownership and family-rearing that they spent the ’60s rebelling against. Audiences likely saw themselves in these characters and recognized this baseline anxiety, setting the stage for supernatural scares.

The haunted house story became so prevalent in our culture that selling a known haunted house actually became illegal. The 1990 New York State Supreme Court decision in Stambovsky v. Ackley requires sellers to “inform public at large about the existence of poltergeists on the premises.” Suddenly, the haunted house was not just a genre but a contract clause.

The housing crisis supercharged the financial aspect of the haunted house through more plots about young couples moving into a new home and dealing with a bunch of angry spirits. Since 2007, and across six Paranormal Activity films, four Insidious movies, and an entire Conjuring universe, haunted house movies showed how little control American homeowners have over their American dream homes.

The genre dramatizes the fraught relationship between everyday families and the “abstracted unreality of all of these financial structures that actually own your home,” says Dartmouth English professor Rebecca Clark. It all comes back to what describes as the double meaning of “possession”: something one owns or something that needs exorcising, like a demon.

The relationship between homeowners and those amorphous systems, whether financial or spectral, fractured further in the 2010s. Paranormal Activity 3 crystalizes this notion with a retconned series origin story that pins the hauntings on a Depression-era grandmother who owes a debt to an evil spirit. As Professor Tim Snelson notes in his article “The (Re)possession Of The American Home: Negative Equity, Gender Inequality And The Housing Crisis Horror Story”:

At a roundtable discussion held on the Paranormal Activity franchise prior to the third film’s release, Julia Leyda linked the “mobility and ethereality” of the demon to that of finance capital, specifically in the way in which debt follows families and individuals. Leyda continues, “just as the demon demands payment of an ancestor’s contract, the predatory mortgage allows an outsider to take away the very home and hearth (as generic and characterless as it is).” The inescapability of debt remains central to Paranormal Activity 3 but in “discover[ing] how the activity began”—as the film’s poster provokes—we are arguably primed to read the grandmother’s pernicious pursuit of financial stability for her family as resultant of an individual rather than systematic failing.

Audiences were more than happy to get on board with this finance-forward version of the haunted house. By 2015, the genre returned to its roots with a remake of modern haunted house urtexts Poltergeist and a steady churn of Amityville direct-to-video sequels and spinoffs. Between 2015 and 2021, a stunning 14 Amityville direct-to-video movies were produced. And that doesn’t even include the eight Conjuring universe movies, which have grossed a combined $2.1 billion to date.

Housing anxieties would be all too familiar to viewers inundated with news of financial despair or going through a housing debacle of their own. A 2016 study revealed that 75% of Americans were afraid of losing housing. Another study that year showed that “Americans suffer from a startling lack of emergency funds; the majority don’t have $1,000 to cover an unanticipated expense.” And while homebuying slightly rebounded during the pandemic, many of these worries remain for those facing eviction as tenant protections remain in jeopardy.

These movies aren’t explicitly about housing, but they use the language of the Great Recession to frame their domestic tension. In 2015’s Poltergeist, the Bowens buy a house in foreclosure after the family patriarch and breadwinner loses his job at John Deere. Before the move, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) was living the American dream with a secure job at an American legacy company, 2.5 kids, and his dream house. After the move, he can’t even afford to get his daughter a new iPhone. The setup could not be more on the nose for a horror movie set against the fallout of the recession.

Meanwhile, Netflix’s The Haunting Of Hill House updates Shirley Jackson’s gothic investigation to fit the times. Instead of exploring Hill House’s haunted past through its architecture, director Mike Flanagan focuses on the traumatized children of house flippers who idolize their “forever home.” Flanagan makes the transient family the focal point of his retelling, building a sibling rivalry centered on money and shelter that the ghosts can exacerbate.

Haunted house movies reflect a fear that both financial institutions and ancient demons can penetrate the protections afforded by a house. These abstract forces prove this symbol of security is weaker than we think. In these films, the American dream is a nightmare, channeling frustrations and anxieties created by the predatory and unregulated housing market. It makes sense because the only thing scarier than living in a haunted house is buying one.

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