In 2007, the story of micro-budget ghosts Paranormal activity used old fashioned special effects, consumer electronics and a mundane suburban house to change horror movies for the next 15 years. Arrived just before the housing crisis, Paranormal activity felt like going back in time. Yet at the moment Paranormal activity 2 disembarked three years later, his predecessor turned out to be strangely prophetic.
In 2008, the US housing bubble burst, as dishonest lending practices brought down the economy and pushed many homeowners onto the streets. Against the backdrop of a housing market implosion, moviegoers have seen their economic anxiety spill over to them through a wave of haunted house movies that is still going strong..
Haunted houses have long been powerful metaphors. From nineteenth-century Gothic to revisited myths of the “new world” in the twentieth, titles such as “The Fall of House Usher, “ “The Yellow wallpaper “, Beloved, and The brilliant expressed how the sins of the past, such as class and gender inequality, colonialism, slavery and genocide–to inform and haunt our modern domestic sphere. By the 1970s, Gothic mansions and decaying plantations had given way to the most American of aspirations: the independent suburban home. Today, these films ask: Who owns the house: the family or the ghosts that roam?
In 1979, Amityville Horror added a quintessentially American touch to the formula by moving things to the suburbs. “The interest of the house in the suburbs is to have a place to raise his family in safety and in private”, notes Dr. Jason Zuzga, who taught a course on Haunted Spaces aat the University Of Pennsylvania. “The security that the house could have provided in the 1950s is a much more permeable space now. Privacy and security are things that people, consciously or unconsciously, have a lot of anxiety about. “
Amityville, and Fighting spirit several years later, swapping depressed Gothic-era housekeepers for secular former flower children facing the adulthood of property and family-breeding against which they spent the Sixties rebelling. Audiences likely saw themselves in these characters and recognized this basic anxiety, paving the way for supernatural fears.
The haunted house story has become so prevalent in our culture that the sale of a known haunted house has become illegal. The 1990 Supreme Court decision in Stambovsky vs. Ackley requires vendors to “inform the general public of the existence of poltergeists on the premises”. Suddenly, the haunted house was no longer just a genre but a contractual clause.
The housing crisis has inflated the financial side of the haunted house through more plots about young couples moving into a new home and facing a group of angry spirits. Since 2007, and out of six Paranormal activity movies, four Insidious movies, and a whole Conjuring universe, the haunted house movies have shown how little control American homeowners have over their American dream homes.
The genre dramatizes the strained relationship between everyday families and “the abstract unreality of all those financial structures that actually own your home,” says English teacher in Dartmouth Rebecca Clark. It all comes down to what describes as the double meaning of “possession“: something we own Where something that needs to be exorcised, like a demon.
The relationship between owners and these amorphous systems, whether financial or spectral, fractured further in the 2010s. Paranormal activity 3 crystallizes that notion with an origin story from the retconned series that pins hauntings on a Depression-era grandmother who is in debt to an evil spirit. As Professor Tim Snelson notes in his article “The (Re) possession Of TThe American House: Negative Equity, Gender Inequality And The horror story of the housing crisis ”:
During a round table held on the Paranormal activity franchise prior to the release of the third film, Julia Leyda linked the “mobility and ethereality” of the demon to that of finance capital, particularly in the way debt follows families and individuals. Leyda continues, “Just as the demon demands payment for an ancestor’s contract, the predatory mortgage allows a stranger to take over the house and hearth (however generic and characterless).” The inevitability of indebtedness remains at the heart of Paranormal activity 3 but in “discover[ing] how the activity started ”- as the movie poster provokes –we are no doubt prepared to read the grandmother’s pernicious quest for her family’s financial stability as the result of individual rather than systematic failure.
The public were more than happy to join in on this financial version of the haunted house. In 2015, the genre returned to its roots with a remake of modern haunted house urtexts. Fighting spirit and a constant turnover of Amityville consequences and direct fallout in video. Between 2015 and 2021, a superb 14 Amityville live films were produced. And that doesn’t even include the eight Conjuring universe films, which have grossed $ 2.1 billion combined to date.
Housing anxieties would be all too familiar to viewers inundated with information about financial desperation or going through a real estate meltdown themselves. A 2016 study found that 75% of Americans were afraid of losing their homes. Another study that year showed that “Americans suffer from a dire shortage of emergency funds; the majority do not have $ 1,000 to cover an unforeseen expense. “And while home buying rebounded slightly during the pandemic, many of these worries remain for those risk of eviction because tenants’ protections remain threatened.
These films don’t explicitly deal with housing, but they use the language of the Great Recession to frame their domestic tension. In the years 2015 Fighting spirit, the Bowens buy a foreclosed home after the family’s patriarch and breadwinner lost his job at John Deere. Before the move, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) was living the American Dream with a stable job at a former American company, 2.5 children, and his dream home. After the move, he can’t even afford to buy his daughter a new iPhone. The setup couldn’t be more on the nose for a horror film set against the fallout of the recession.
Meanwhile, Netflix The Haunting of Hill House updates Shirley Jackson’s gothic survey to fit the era. Instead of exploring Hill House’s haunted past through its architecture, director Mike Flanagan focuses on the traumatized children of house swimmers who idolize their “forever home.” Flanagan makes the fleeting family the focal point of his tale, creating a sibling rivalry centered on money and shelter that ghosts can exacerbate.
Haunted house movies reflect the fear that financial institutions and ancient demons might penetrate the protections offered by a house. These abstract forces prove that this symbol of security is weaker than one might think. In these films, the American Dream is a nightmare, channeling the frustrations and anxieties created by the predatory, unregulated real estate market. It makes sense because the only thing scarier than living in a haunted house is buying one.