Battle of the Haunted House Films (Not the Ones You’re Thinking Of)

@melmoy

We’ve seen a lot of haunted house movies out there. But there are precious few films about haunted houses—that is, the Halloween time attraction of staged scenes and complicit audience members. It seems to make sense. It’s a little too obvious, right? We expect to be scared inside a haunted house because it’s what we’re there for.  Things will jump around corners, spiders will drop from the ceiling, creatures might chase us down a hallway. The beauty of a haunted house film, in the traditional sense, is the uncanny, the sudden vilification of a sanctuary. But, a few gem films out there have mastered the art of making something incredibly obvious, still entirely disturbing. The Houses That October Built (2014) and Hell House LLC (2015) are two films that tackle the terror waiting behind the walls of a Halloween attraction, but they handle it in very different ways.

Let’s go chronologically.

The Houses That October Built is a 2014 film written and directed by Bobby Roe, who has since been tapped to write a film based in The Walking Dead universe. It follows a group of documentary filmmakers who are traveling across the country, visiting famous haunted attractions all throughout the month of October until their grand finale in New Orleans on Halloween night. Along the way, they find themselves stalked by an anonymous group associated with an underground, extreme haunt. Hell House LLC is a 2015 film written and directed by Stephen Cognetti about a production crew behind a new haunted attraction where, on opening night, a tragedy took place in the basement of the haunt that still hasn’t been fully explained.

The films have similarities and some stark differences. First off, both films feature a predominantly male cast with a single female in the group. It’s not a deep take, nor is it important to the plot, but in the larger conversation of how horror likes to feature diversity, both films—written by men—depict a group of young white men chasing a dangerous dream, with a single female in the group who gets some obligatory sexualization from at least one or more of the men around her. It’s frustrating, especially when parts of the film lean hard into the flaring tensions which usually means angry white men screaming at each other, occasionally throwing a shove or punch. Both films also focus on in this female as the final escapee/victim of the situation. With Sara (Hell House) being the only one to make it out of the house alive and Brandy (Houses That October Built) as the one holding the camera at the end. There’s an interesting psychological here to explore, the Halloween fantasy of a group of men secluded with a woman in a haunted attraction where she has no agency or place in the story until they are thrust upon her as the men around her drop like flies.

Let’s look at some more similarities: they’re both found footage. Ever since The Blair Witch Project popularized the medium in 1999, found footage has been utilized by independent filmmakers, likely because it’s so cheap. It’s easier to hand a camera off to an actor than it is to pay a few cameramen for omniscient camera shots, so steady cam work, or figure out how to get a crane shot. It’s also a way to skirt on creativity, no one is going to complain about the cinematography when it’s purposefully messy. No one’s going to compliment either, of course. But it’s become a quick way for film school hopefuls to get some stories out there and it’s mostly come at the cost of the medium itself. Found footage gets elicits something of a groan these days. Since Blair Witch, few films have found believable occasions for a camera to be capturing the escalating events and nuanced stories in between jump scares. Neither of these films are particularly engaging where that is concerned. In Houses That October Built, they’re putting together a travel documentary. Why? How are they funding this? Who is the audience? Doesn’t matter even though it should. In Hell House footage has been turned over to an investigative reporter that’s a series of home movies about the weeks creating the new haunt. Don’t know why we’re filming or why when someone wakes up in the middle of the night their first instinct is to turn on a camera before taking a drink of water. But whatever, in both instances we’re along for the ride, however contrived our reasons are for being there.

The content is where these films differ, and also where they are at their strongest. Houses That October Built takes on a fear we don’t really talk about: how vulnerable we are while in a haunted attraction. Dr. Margee Kerr cites in much of her work that the reasons we find haunted attractions so fun is the assumption of safety, the ability to play out a fantasy while knowing we can go to the bar afterward. Houses That October Built twists this. The characters are not safe, we’re not sure if the ghoul in makeup is holding a plastic knife or a real one, whether that’s real blood or not, if that person staring at them is part of the haunt or something else. And it forces you to think about that in your own experiences. This is especially true for the over 18 “extreme haunts” that utilize full physical contact and safe words. You sign waivers and assume the chain saw they’re waving in your face isn’t real. But what if it was? The demons in this film are ultimately human, a group of serial killers using internet forums and urban legends to lure people into their extreme, and fatal, haunted attraction. It’s clever and unsettling and knocks at the door of some real psychological questions about haunted attractions and the people who seek them out.

Hell House takes a very different approach. The terror of attraction guests is a quick jumping-off point, not much else. We begin with cell phone footage which, according to the lore of the film, is the only known footage of the night of a terrible disaster that killed 15 people, both staff and attendees. The footage is jumbled, the event confusing, but the meat of the film will ultimately take us back to that night and the truth behind it. This film doesn’t go as deep psychologically as Houses That October Built. It’s not exploring a subconscious fear. Ultimately, it’s little more, at the end of the day, than a haunted house film with a very unique setting and premise. But that’s also what makes it fun. The group is staying in a house of horrors of their own creation. If it dives in their psychologies and stories, maybe that element would be more pronounced. But, it’s ultimately a movie that is fun and creepy because the idea of sleeping in a haunted attraction is fun and creepy. The demons aren’t human here, there’s talk of satanic rituals in the building before they bought it, suicides and creepy histories. The end makes it clear something supernatural was going on the entire time. There’s no deeper meaning, it’s just some fun atmosphere and creepy scares.

That being said, a lot was left on the cutting room floor that would have made for a truly complex film. Through some Q&A on a reddit thread, director and writer Stephen Cognetti shed some light on the larger story going on in the film—a story that was largely cut out when the script switched to a found-footage documentary. The idea behind much of the film’s plot was cosmic forces and fate, if you can believe that. The original owners of the hotel were cultists who opened up a hungry gate to the other side. Those monsters seemed to never be satisfied. Alex and his crew are drawn to the hotel when their capital runs out for their haunt in New York City, the hotel luring them there knowing they’d bring with them even more souls to feed off of once their haunted attraction opened. It’s an interesting dive into similar predestination themes in The House on Haunted Hill, the agency of place memory where there is history, the way we line up for violent scares every Halloween and fake bloodshed can be bait to us like sharks—or more like minows. But, as Cognetti pointed out in his reddit discussions, it’s hard to get all of that into a tight 90 minute found footage film. Which begs the question: why do a found footage film if it sacrifices the better portions of your story?

So, if I were to put these in a battle next to each other, who wins? Houses That October Built is psychological and unique and takes full advantage of its premise. Hell House is fun and atmospheric and the ideal lights off movie. The answer? Watch both this Halloween and decide for yourself.

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