horror: “old dark house” subgenre


horror: “old dark house” subgenre
   The setting of the Overlook Hotel in the STANLEY KUBRICK–STEPHEN KING film THE SHINING (1980) belongs to the “old dark house” tradition in Gothic literature. Ever since the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalked the battlements of Elsinore Castle, the whole stock-in-trade of horror romanticism, especially the ghost story, has consisted of the inhabitants, properties, and atmosphere of the haunted house.
   Without the haunted house, says Eino Railo in his 1964 study of the subject, titled The Haunted Castle, “the whole fabric of romance would be bereft of its foundation and would lose its predominant atmos-horror:“old dark house” subgenre n 169 phere. ” These literary “old dark houses”—Stephen King refers to them as “bad places”—include such archetypal edifices in English and American gothic literature as Prince Manfred’s castle in Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764)—an eerie distortion of Walpole’s own residence at Strawberry Hill; the strange country house in Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778); Montoni’s mountain fortress in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794); Ambrosio’s Capuchin monastery in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796); the Mettingen estate in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1799); Mr. Vileny’s family home in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1816); Roderick Usher’s bog-engulfed mansion in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839); the infernally possessed house in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Haunted and the Haunters; the legend-haunted ancestral Pyncheon estate in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (1851); the vampire-infested Carfax Abbey in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897); the doppelgänger-inhabited New York town house in Henry James’s The Jolly Corner (1908); the house that serves as a gateway to the cosmos in William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1911); the deranged Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1962); the gleaming new suburban home in Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door (1973); the house that literally feeds off its inhabitants in Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973); and the isolated, malevolent Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s THE SHINING (1977). Usually there is a specific room or area that is the source of the most intense ghosting, such as room 217 in The Shining (room 237 in Stanley Kubrick’s film). It might be the attic from which unholy shrieks and gibberings emanate in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847); or an upstairs room locked and bolted against intruders in J. B. Priestley’s Benighted (1927); or the secret crypt under the Belasco mansion in Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971). And what spectral doings enliven these dreadful places! Thin-sheeted phantoms slip noiselessly through the corridors, half-seen forms shamble down the stairs, a gigantic armored man stalks the galleries, a wall portrait drips real blood, eldritch hands slip the latch.
   “How these antique towers and vacant courts chill the suspended soul,” wrote Walpole,“Till expectation wears the cast of fear; And fear, half-ready to become devotion, Mumbles a kind of mental orison It knows not wherefore. ”Add the natural elements to this conspiracy of dread—sudden gusts of wind that extinguish the fleeing heroine’s candle, streaks of lightning that fitfully illuminate the horrors emerging from under the bed, and cracks of thunder that punctuate the wails of lost souls—and the recipe for terror is complete.
   Dramatists and filmmakers quickly adopted the “old dark house” formula for popular consumption. Just a few of the classic plays include Matthew Lewis’s Castle Spectre (1797),G. K. Chesterton’s Magic (1913), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913), Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat (1920), W. B. Yeats’s Purgatory (1938), Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street (filmed as Gaslight, 1938), and Agatha Christie’s Three Blind Mice (1952). From Hollywood came a plethora of hauntings, from silent films like D. W. Griffith’s One Exciting Night (1923) and Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927)—remade as a vehicle for Bob Hope in 1939—to James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), to such modern classics as Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1965).
   British haunted-house thrillers have come in fits and starts, beginning in the 1930s with a few Hollywood-style gothics, like The Ghoul (1932), whose second half features Boris Karloff as an “undead” creature stalking a house full of heirs to a fortune, and a cycle of Tod Slaughter guignol pictures. Dead of Night (1945), an anthology film with several sequences set in disturbed houses, promised great things, but that potential was not realized until the 1960s and beyond with classics like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), about a young woman’s descent into madness in a London flat, and, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel.
   J. C. T.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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