For a long time, horror films have used the haunted house trope to induce a sense of fear and dread in the audience quite successfully. It is imperative for any horror movie to have a setting from where the manifestations of fear take place in its characters and thereby the audience.
Where we live and gain experiences forms a vital part of our self-identity and A physical space plays a major role in inducing some specific kind of emotions in a person. Fear is caused by a foreboding sense of danger and a lack of certainty.
It is not what the danger actually is but what it could be, that activates our fight or flight mechanism. Here we will discuss exactly what kind of tried and tested formulas are used to induce fear by the means of architecture and the context of its setting in horror films.
1. The Shining
One cannot talk about horror films and suspense without mentioning “The Shining”. In this 1980 classic, Stanley Kubrick uses The Overlook Hotel as the setting for its protagonists’ descent into madness. The hotel is secluded and snowed-in, with barely any human presence around it. On the outside, it appears like a normal hotel but its interiors are maze-like, with endless hallways, high ceilings, and impossible layouts. This was intentionally done to confuse the viewer’s spatial awareness. In one scene, where Jack is talking to the ghost of the previous caretaker, it is disturbing to see the contrast between red color walls and the white floor and ceiling. This is a symbolic depiction of how Jack is losing his sanity and developing violent tendencies. Ultimately, The Shining uses the grandeur of a space and its maze-like layout to confuse the audience and instill a sense of helplessness within its characters.
2. The Haunting of Hill House
Adapted from the novel of the same name by author Shirley Jackson, Haunting of the hill house is yet another example of how space can influence our psyche to such an extent that it might cause paranoia. Hill House is essentially a Baron mansion with gothic and baroque elements in its architecture.
It is a two-story manor with an expansive hallway, grand staircase and the focal point of its suspense- the room with a red door. The phantoms of this decrepit mansion are intricately woven into its fabric. It works as a classic setting for the supernatural through its medieval architecture, secluded and schizophrenic nature.
3. The Nun
A quintessential horror flick, The nun is set in the 1950s and follows the story of a catholic priest and a young nun who investigates the suicide of another nun in the Transylvanian Monastery The Abbey of St Carta. The filming was done in many historic places of Romania but most prominently in the 14th century Corvin Castle. It has a renaissance and gothic style architecture that add a certain depth and mystique to the interiors. These features play a major role in creating an eerie atmosphere and since the castle has been associated with actual ghost sightings, its history adds to the sense of dread and fear in the audience.
4. Ex Machina
Essentially a science fiction, it would be a disservice to not call this movie a horror as well. Set in a modernist glass box house surrounded by natural elements, the house and its context act as a metaphor of the peculiar relationship between man and nature. The clinical, minimalist and visceral architecture cloaks the darker emerging evil of man-made horror, in the form of robot Ava. To see how something man-made, initially meant to be a tool of advancement; slowly and quite eerily change into a self-thinking and the destructive entity is deeply unsettling. The house also stands as a symbol of technological evolution and how something created by man can still be of nature and beyond his control.
5. The Babadook
Arguably the scariest movie in this entire list, The Babadook provides horror which is real, not because of some external force but because of what can possibly manifest within us. Set in the suburbs, it follows the story of a widow and her 7-year-old son. The house itself is a common suburban house with an attic and basement making it instantly uninteresting.
But still, its blue-washed tones and monotony compliment the evil which slowly brews within its protagonist. The basement acts as the home to this evil entity called the Babadook, evidently because of its dark and forbidden character. The film shows how Babadook can’t be killed or erased but it can be contained through the strength of spirit and most importantly a mother’s love.