In the previous section we introduced the idea of home as a place that is both comfortable and comforting, and that is associated with family, personal history, and belonging. While this idea has long been present in American culture and was held as a basic assumption by humanistic geographers, it has also undergone considerable scrutiny — both within popular culture and in academic contexts.
Horror and home
The popular culture that we see in books, films, music, and other media is an excellent gauge of a culture’s values and expectations. By analyzing popular culture, we can understand not only the underlying expectations of the culture, but also the ways those expectations are contested or even disregarded by various groups or subcultures within it.
The notion that home is a safe place is a frequent target of horror movies. The horror of Wes Craven’s 1991 satirical film The People Under the Stairs hinges on the extreme mistreatment of children by “Mommy” and “Daddy” (who, it turns out, are siblings) in what is ostensibly a reputable home; here, a literal house of horrors masquerades for a site of family. In Stephen King’s book Misery (1987) and the film adaptation (1990) of the same name, writer Paul Sheldon is rescued from a car accident by Annie Wilkes, a fan and former nurse who takes him into her home, sets him up in her guest room, and proceeds to torture him when she learns that he has killed off the protagonist of his popular romance series in the most recent installment. In this instance, Annie’s home should be a safe site of convalescence and caretaking, but it is instead warped into a site of danger and harm. Conversely, the family home of Rose Armitage in Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out is an eerily welcoming place for her boyfriend, protagonist Chris Washington, who fears that her family won’t accept him because he is Black. Yet they do — and their instant acceptance and warm welcome disguise the horrors to come.
In the previous examples, the safety of home is subverted by people who live within it. Yet in haunted house stories, all of the occupants are at risk. Consider, for example, Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film Poltergeist, in which the house itself — built on top of a cemetery whose graves were never relocated — seems to become possessed, manifesting strange and increasingly aggressive supernatural phenomena, and ultimately abducting the youngest child in the family. In this instance, the house’s safety is not the only thing that is troubled; the sense of familiarity and comfort that comes with living in it is slowly eroded over the course of the film by the paranormal happenings — a chair sliding from one point to another on its own, turning around to find that the kitchen chairs have all been stacked neatly but precariously on the kitchen table, and so on.
(In the kitchen scene, you can see the emotion play across the face of Diane Freeling as she asks her daughter Carol Ann about the chairs; she is experiencing the uncanny — the horrifying feeling that something is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.)
It may be tempting to dismiss these examples as mere entertainment, but this would be shortsighted. In each of the examples above, home and our basic cultural assumptions about what it is supposed to be like are called into question. These examples operate on the premise of shattering our expectations of home — they resonate as terrifying because they take ideas that are deeply ingrained in our psyches by years of immersion in subtle (and not-so-subtle) discourses that tell us what home should be, and they distort or invert those ideas.