“The trumpets of the apocalypse have been sounding at our gates for years now, but we still stop up our ears. We do, however, have four new horsemen: overpopulation (the leader, the one waiving the flag), science, technology, and the media. All the other evils in the world are merely consequences of these. I’m not afraid to put the press in the front rank, either. The last screenplays I worked on, for a film I’ll never make, deal with a triple threat: science, terrorism, and the free press. The last, which is usually seen as a victory, a blessing, a ‘right,’ is perhaps the most pernicious of all, because it feeds on what the three other horsemen leave behind.’ – Luis Bunuel from My Last Sigh (page 251-252)
I had been eagerly awaiting the publication of Singapore-based architects Joshua Comaroff & Ong Ker-Shing’s new book Horror in Architecture for months as it specifically addresses the two very things I’m currently researching: horror and architecture. The book’s introduction nails a correlation between “horror” and the sublime, an idea that I usually discard because of its cathartic and religious implications but presenting the two as being both unknowable, spectral and inexplicable but extremely palpable is quite convincing. “Horror is the truth about abstraction” is another provocative statement that also rings true when considering how horror “weirds” what is familiar. From there, their discussions of the double, disjunction, repetition, deformation, interior/exterior are certainly of interest if perhaps all too brief.
Horror in Architecture seems particularly interested in relating architecture to the monstrous, a valid correlation that loses its poignancy when the authors continuously refer to Mary Shelley’s monster as “Frankenstein” when, in fact, “Frankenstein” is the young mad doctor. Along with the green face, bolts to the neck, and flat head, it’s a pop-culture adaptational norm to call the monster “Frankenstein” but it’s still glaringly incorrect. While I would argue that Dr. Frankenstein is perhaps even more monstrous that the monster he created, it’s hard to overlook this error and to trust further concepts they put forth that I’m unfamiliar with.
Aside from other general editorial issues (wrong words, doubling of words, incorrect spacing), the book really omits the real source of architecture’s horror by offer only a cursory address of economics and capitalism in relation to buildings, culture, and society. Horror very pointedly tackles socio-political issues of its time and, with the immediacy of architecture to the population and the economic context in which houses, businesses, and skyscrapers are built, it would seem fundamental in a discussion about how architecture embraces the horrific. For instance, what could be more horrifying than neglected public housing complexes ala Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)? Politics, economics, society – these are all fundamental elements to why horror and architecture exist and, most importantly, what they represent.
What we must take-away from Architectural Horrors is an idea proposed towards the beginning: ”…all present the possibilities of deviant architecture as an opening into new worlds of form, composition, space-making, program and hierarchy.” As scholars, filmmakers, authors, and artists use horror to establish an understanding of the world around us, it therefore seems crucial to consider the relationship between our built environment and horror as a productive site of contemplation and of future possibilities.
“Here, we find architecture not in its functional guise but as a site of desire, memory and doubt, home to personal contingencies and collective histories, the clashing of cultures and coalescing of subjectivities. Refusing to address us in the spaces they generate, engaging us in ways that are at once visceral and conceptual, and that call attention to what must be experienced rather than merely seen.” – Ralph Rugoff, Psycho Buildings from the exhibition Psycho Buildings: Artists Take On Architecture.
Image: Mike Nelson, To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft (1999), 2008.
No Human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of the house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. – The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, page 24).
Burnt Offerings is the second film in Nitehawk’s series THE WORKS – KAREN BLACK. It is the only horror film featuring Black in the program that also includes Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Airport 1975, Family Plot, and The Day of the Locust. The following text was originally written for Fangoria…
Burnt Offerings is pretty much the perfect horror movie. Psychological, mysterious, and haunting, it breaks away from many of the more gruesome exploitation films of the early 1970s while being very much distant from the American slashers that were to follow. Featuring an all-star cast of Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and Bette Davis, Burnt Offerings offers a truly original take on the haunted house. Rather than the home being an area that the dead occupy, as we’re accustomed to seeing in haunted house films, the home here is very much alive…and it needs to be fed.
Fairly faithful to Robert Marasco’s brilliantly vivid 1973 novel of the same name, Dan Curtis’ (also director of Trilogy of Terror) version of Burnt Offerings retains that fuzzy, hazy, confused and uncomfortable sensation that pulsates throughout the narrative of the book. Epitomizing the phrase “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is,” the film centers around the Rolf family (Ben, Marian, and Davey) who have rented a gothic country house for the summer as a means to escape their hectic life in the city. The strange owners of the house, the Allardyce siblings Arnold (Burgess Meredith in a wonderful flamboyant performance as the wheelchair bound “brother”) and Roz (an in-control and raspy voiced “sister” Eileen Heckart), should have been the young family’s first warning. The ridiculously low rental price for the summer announcement following by the catch that the Rolfs would have to take care of the Allardyce “mother” during their stay should have been their second. But the lure of the house is too strong for Marian and so she enters her family into ruin.
Immediately Marian becomes obsessed with the house. She cleans, straightens, swoons over its interior as the life begins to drain out of her. She spends increasingly more time in the never-present Mrs. Allardyce’s room, becoming one with it. Her hair becomes gray, clothing becomes Victorian. And she’s not the only one who changes. Aunt Elizabeth, a spry swearing-smoking-cursing 74 year old (played by the powerhouse Bette Davis) literally begins to crumble before our very eyes while young blood Davey becomes the main target and Ben (the manly Oliver Reed) descends into violent madness. Ben’s hallucinations include one of the more unforgetable images in horror film: the thin, grinning chauffeur. He is the source of Ben’s nightmares (presumably stemming from the funeral of his parents at a young age) and, subsequently, the source of nightmares for numerous viewers since Burnt Offerings’ release.
Architecture, domesticity, and women are the narrative backbone of haunted house stories. From The Castle of Otranto on up to Psycho, the role of the woman and her downfall are often told through the relationship to the home. So, while Reed’s “Ben” is the character with whom the audience identifies with on this horrifying journey (he trys desperately to save his family even when in a near catatonic state), it’s Karen Black’s “Marian” is the one whom the story centers around. Marian – her body, soul, and mind – become absorbed into the Allardyce house and, through the deaths of her family, experiences a re-birth which places her as the new motherly soul, the beating heart if you will, of the home. One could very much view Burnt Offerings as commentary on the second wave of feminism, much like The Stepford Wives, because it firmly and forcefully re-places the woman back into her proper place as “mother” and caretaker.
In a role that could easily be over-the-top, Black plays Marian with a quiet subtlety that has to be one of the best performances in horror film. Black establishes her obsession with the house so steadily and convincingly that when she returns back into the house, we don’t yell at her to not go up the stairs as we do in other horror films. Instead, we sympathize with her compulsion recognizing, as she has throughout the film, that what is about to happen to her is inevitable. Because we know, through Black’s depiction Marian, that the Rolf family structure has to be obliterated to preserve the Allardyce family. This can only happen through the rejuvenation of the home and this home is vampiric, sucking the blood from its victims in order to become new again, everlasting, to remain part of a mysterious other-worldly cycle.
Our mother…is back.
“No organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
– First paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
-Image from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963)
“Film plays a big role in how I go about making work. I’m reverent of film, filmmakers and film history. Our collective memory is contained and constructed by film.” – Gary Simmons to Okwui Enwezor in Paradise.
Gary Simmons – Mother Oh Mother
In celebration of Edgar Allen Poe’s birth:
FROM The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why ; – from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least – in the circumstances then surrounding me – there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.
Read my ART OF FEAR essay on the Roger Corman version, House of Usher, and the role of artwork in the narrative.
“What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects are infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, strong, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have…”
Quote from H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond (1920). Related to Joachim Koester’s Numerous Incidents of Indefinite Outcomes (2007), amongst other things.