It’s Scarier When People Are Haunted by Actual Ghosts

The Night House reaches the limit of what a horror movie can do when the monster might actually be grief.

YouTube/Searchlight Pictures
Nicholas Russell

The beginning of The Night House features a short scene that inspired a stillness and dread that I haven’t experienced much of in horror movies in recent years. Beth, played by Rebecca Hall, has recently lost her husband Owen, played virtually wordlessly by Evan Jonigkeit. A week ago, Owen went out on the lake just down from the house he built for them and shot himself. Since then, Beth has been trying to make sense of his actions. She vacillates between rage and an almost catatonic sadness. The Night House is one of those “among other things” movies, in this case, it’s about grief, etc etc. But none of the scariness comes from that.

Early one morning, just before dawn, the stereo begins to play just long enough to wake Beth up before it cuts out. Then Beth receives a text from Owen. It reads “COME DOWN,” followed by “DON’T BE AFRAID.” Oddly, the capitalized words do a lot to make this scene eerie; how strange for a specter to seem so addled, as if it can only communicate by yelling. But it’s what Beth sees outside her window that still gives me chills. A quiet, rasping voice tells her to look outside; this voice recurs throughout the movie and it’s impossible to tell, because we never get to see Owen alive, if it’s actually Owen speaking. Down on the lake, with the morning light just breaking, Owen stands completely naked on top of the water, his back to Beth, no phone in his hand. It’s completely inexplicable and then it’s over.

Moments like these are played off as dreams throughout the film, plausible deniability that Beth has cracked. After all, she is constantly drinking and falling asleep, her tenuous grip on reality illustrated with confounding imagery. This works for a while, until later, when context is provided that completely drains the film of its unsettling nature. To The Night House’s credit, it does something rare for horror productions that foreground an emotional process like grief as a possible impetus for everything supernatural: It shows the audience that the supernatural is literally, physically happening. This is a problem that bedevils mainstream horror generally: The monsters, the happenings, the nightmares tend not to be real. Instead, they turn out to be metaphors.

Critics have talked about The Night House in the context of its theme, grief, which is a popular topic for seemingly more intellectual horror films to tackle. Last year’s Relic, starring Emily Mortimer, turned on the melancholic horrors of watching an elderly loved one slip into dementia. The family in question is plagued by a long genetic history of late-stage mental illness, dramatized by an endless maze found within the house’s walls. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Ari Aster’s Hereditary both follow a family in the aftermath of a violent death, the palpable weight of their grief exacerbated or subverted by sinister supernatural forces that disrupt their lives.

Grief may be dramatically compelling, but it doesn’t always make for frightening viewing. Even less so when the forces of evil turn out to be suppressed trauma. Alongside this, what seems to be en vogue is an overdetermined narrative structure that functions almost on the level of a short story. Protagonists are confronted with a problem that is personified, the entire story encapsulated within a tiny moment which affects no one else but the characters and their friends.

The Night House is guilty of this though it tries to add an unfortunately too-contrived element of real danger. Like a lot of horror, there are many good ideas and not nearly enough room to put them in. Along with the home he shared with Beth, Owen built a separate house on the other side of the lake. This house is identical in terms of its floor plan and also exactly reversed. Even the address numbers are flipped. Turns out, there are dozens of bodies buried beneath the reversed house, a detail that has to be commended for its brazenness. Plus a creepy sculpture of a woman with spears driven through it, a second moon that’s always red, and a specter that can only be seen in negative space. These are all great touches and visually compelling ones (too many contemporary horror movies are critically underlit and/or boring to look at). But the movie can’t decide what to do with all these elements.

It’s not that horror plots can’t be convoluted; most are. It’s that after all those twists and turns you shouldn’t end up someplace boring. Unfortunately, movies like The Night House have a tendency to explain themselves a little too tidily. The mystery, the puzzles, the atmosphere and mood are all answered and the answers provide a sense of relief or at least comforting understanding rather than uneasiness. I know that filmmakers love to play with audiences’ expectations when it comes to a protagonist’s mental state. Oftentimes, it seems like more of a cop-out than a subversion. And isn’t it scarier if the devil turns out to be real than if you just hallucinated him?

I like uneasiness in horror, which is like saying vegetarians like salad. The genre has its name for a reason, but so rarely do filmmakers do anything to inspire that feeling. Scary, memorable images, so crucial for a good horror movie, are rendered almost mundane by virtue of an audience knowing what they really show. It’s cool if your monster is really depression or whatever, but that’s not going to keep me up at night. I still don’t understand Don’t Look Now’s ending, and that’s why it scares the shit out of me. The constantly unsettling atmosphere and narrative sleights-of-hand in Lake Mungo only strengthen the chilling effect of its found footage imagery.

It’s hard to make a good horror movie. Their explanations can be clear, but they should never provide comfort. Think back to any singular scene or image that’s ever frightened you in a movie. It doesn’t even need to be from a horror movie. The laughing old man woman in Minority Report. The laughing clown in slow motion during the “Can-Can '' number in Moulin Rouge. Hell, Large Marge from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure! These moments come and go and there’s nothing to divine from them. They almost seem ancillary to the proceedings and in an odd way, that’s what good horror does. It provides a structure that houses exaggerated versions of these moments but denies you the opportunity to shake them off. What sucks you in makes you almost regret having come so far.

Not everyone finds the same things scary, not everyone likes to be scared. But it’s rare that explication inspires terror. Of course, this genre contains multitudes, not all horror movies are designed to be spooky, and sometimes the label is more a signpost for audiovisual expectations than anything alarming. Severed body parts, strange symbols, people floating or speaking in tongues, sudden loud noises, cults, curses, torture, demons, and on and on.

Thing is, a crucial aspect of the fun of these movies (and they should be fun, if only in a fucked up way) is the pitch they can reach. Things get deeply strange and the explanation is either even more enigmatic or completely absent. You should recoil during these movies, you should look behind you in a dark hallway afterwards. In that space, you should feel like truly terrible things, from levitating mothers to evil dolls, are really possible. Who watches a horror movie and wants to feel safe at the end?

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.