The Evolution of Horror Movies from Gothic Architecture to Modernist

The Evolution of Horror Movies from Gothic Architecture to Modernist

Architecture
By Dikran Seferian July 14, 2022

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For much of the past century, horror movies have made use of the haunted house archetype in an effort to evoke dread in audiences. It is the cornerstone of any horror movie set to manifest fear and support the plot in doing so. How we experience our surroundings is a key factor in how we identify ourselves, and our direct environment is partially responsible for instilling certain emotions in us. Fear, in particular, is brought on by a sense of uncertainty and looming danger. 

The context of architecture has shifted in how it appears in motion pictures of the horror genre.  While earlier horror movies made use of Gothic architecture to induce fear, recent films employ the vulnerability that comes with more modern settings. 

A Quick Look into the History of Horror Movie Architecture

Starting from the Gothic style, houses in horror movies have passed through a handful of architectural types before evolving into modernism. The most recurring styles, however, typically involve the common suburban house or the creepy countryside cabin. 

The Classic Archetype

The portrayal of horror houses has changed significantly over time. Gothic features and creaking stairways were as integral to the plot as the antagonists, if not more. When you think about it, terror isn’t something you always see or touch. It’s often out of plain sight — hiding somewhere in a dark basement or under the bed. Architecture, on the other hand, is always there. And in a sense, it alludes to the impending terror.

Although more of a comedy movie, The Addams Family house is an ideal example of the classic horror trope. You’ll instantly notice the towering Gothic profile, ominous attics, dark basements, and clocks ticking towards the hour of doom. Throughout the past couple of decades, however, we have seen a radical shift in horror movie architecture. Instead of dark sinister hallways and dusty wrought iron chandeliers, we now see open concept rooms and glass exterior walls — and the occasional modern gothic design.

The sinister profile of horror house tropes is instantly recognizable (Orin Zebest/Wikimedia Commons).

The sinister profile of horror house tropes is instantly recognizable (Orin Zebest/Wikimedia Commons).

A Shift Towards Suburban and Rural Homes

Haunted houses in movies were initially characterized by a wealthy past seemingly haunted by sinister entities. With movies like It and Halloween, this architecture shifted towards suburbia. Charming cookie-cutter houses with lovely porches, picket fences, and vibrant lawns served as the backdrop to an otherwise dark plot. Nothing in the architecture pointed toward the sinister events that would occur soon. Certain horror movies featuring this architectural style commonly borrowed a few elements of modern gothic decor.

Then came folk-horror movies, making use of rural settings and the ominous nature of isolated landscapes to induce fear in the audiences. As opposed to the pleasant suburban houses which gave a false sense of safety, rusty farmhouses in folk-horror movies didn’t hesitate to appear dreadful from the start. They were the ideal backdrop to depictions of weird rituals and gruesome events. 

The Amityville house is another example of suburban architecture in horror movies (Seulatr/Wikimedia Commons).

The Amityville house is another example of suburban architecture in horror movies (Seulatr/Wikimedia Commons).

The Modern House of Horror

As opposed to early portrayals of horror movie architecture, the modern archetype seeks to blend smooth concrete with glass — often in a high-end home somewhere in the woods. Large picture windows make use of the surrounding landscape to create drama. You may also notice certain dark aspects of modern Gothic architecture in the interior.

 In a way, the open atmosphere during the day hints toward the calm before the storm. The flip in the polarity, however, is when the sun goes down and the plot escalates. Darkness takes over the idyllic views of the woodlands or the sea (such as in the 2006 movie, The Lake House). With the lights on, the house transforms into a vitrine with the doomed resident — or perhaps the oblivious guest — under the spotlight. 

While haunted houses in Gothic architecture or Victorian style are awash with dusty heirlooms and paintings of long-lost ancestors, modern houses of horror are stripped down. No longer are haunted memories manifested in possessions. What basically remains is an open space and a seemingly endless view. The catch, however, is the vulnerability that accompanies transparency. 

With glass walls and open concept floors, there’s nowhere for the victim to hide.

With glass walls and open concept floors, there’s nowhere for the victim to hide.

The Element of Surveillance

One element that has evolved with the architecture of horror is surveillance. The omnipresent entity lurking in the shadows now appears in the form of visibility. Privacy eludes the glass house. Not only can interiors be seen from outside at night, but also via hidden cameras and recording devices.

Modernism roots itself in voyeurism, a notion that involves exposing interiors to the world in an effort to purge the darkness within. Technology is simply an additional layer to this visibility. The haunted house has given way to the electric eye in the sky. In the movie Psycho, Norman Bates cuts a hole in the bathroom wall to spy on his victims. Nowadays, he’d be using surveillance devices instead — or perhaps a one-way mirror. 

Architecture in Horror Movies and Series

There are certain movies (and series) where architecture plays a defining role in captivating the audience. While other classics such as The Amityville Horror are no less iconic, these flicks (not in particular order) have taken the archetype to a new level. 

The Babadook

Taking place in a suburban area, The Babadook is terrifying on a different level because of how personal it can get. The story revolves around a widow and her young son. At first glance, the house is a typical suburban home with a basement. The blue-washed and monotone color palette, however, resonates with the impending horror (this monotony is not so different from what modern Gothic artists would come up with). As for the basement, it is where the sinister entity known as the Babadook resides — seemingly due to it being dark and forbidden. 

The Nun

The Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, Romania served as one of the filming locations of The Nun.

The Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, Romania served as one of the filming locations of The Nun.

Taking place in the 1950s, The Nun is a classic horror film about a priest and a nun who examines another nun’s suicide. The setting of the movie is a Gothic architecture style Transylvanian monastery known as The Abbey of St. Carta. However, the movie was shot in several historic landmarks in Romania — most notably the 14th-century Corvin Castle. The Gothic and Renaissance elements of architecture provide depth and mystery to the interiors, in addition to creating an ominous atmosphere. Moreover, the castle’s actual history of alleged ghost sightings reinforces the sense of terror in the movie’s audiences. 

Ex Machina

Although more of twisted science fiction, Ex Machina does exhibit a fair share of horror elements. The movie takes place in a modernist glass house in the midst of a natural landscape. Along with its context, the house symbolizes the bizarre relationship between mankind and nature. The otherwise light and minimalist architecture conceals the growing evil of a man-made atrocity that is Ava the robot.

This serves to showcase how something that is designed as a means of advancement can gradually transform into a self-aware and hostile entity. The house also signifies how man-made and technological innovations can ultimately and nevertheless belong to nature — beyond human control. 

The Haunting of Hill House

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House is another testament to how a space can affect our mind to the point of paranoia. This Netflix series is set in a two-story mansion that features Gothic and Baroque architectural elements. While a grand hallway and a looming stairway characterize the baron manor, the main focal point of the plot is the room with the red door. The demons of this mansion are etched into its Gothic architecture, while its secluded nature serves as the ideal setting for paranormal events. 

The Shining

Exterior shots of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon depict the fictional Overlook Hotel in The Shining (Another Believer/Wikimedia Commons).

Exterior shots of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon depict the fictional Overlook Hotel in The Shining (Another Believer/Wikimedia Commons).

It would be a shame to discuss horror movies and not mention Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Overlook Hotel serves as the fictional setting in this 1980s classic, where the protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) gradually develops violent tendencies.

In the movie, the hotel appears to be secluded and snowed-in. While the exterior itself seems nothing out of the ordinary, the interior features strange layouts, seemingly endless corridors, and maze-like spaces. This aims to play with the audience’s perception of space.

One of the scenes depicts Jack having a conversation with the ghost of the former caretaker. The contrast between the red walls and the white floor and ceiling in that scene tends to be somewhat disturbing. This serves as a symbolic portrayal of how Jack descends into madness. Overall, the movie utilizes the interior spaces to invoke confusion in its viewers and vulnerability in its characters. 

Fun fact: In the movie, Kubrick changed the number of the notorious room from 217 to 237, which is non-existent in the actual hotel. This is because the Timberline Lodge management was concerned that superstitious guests would avoid staying in that room. However, room 217 ironically became the most demanded one in the hotel.

DS

Written by
Dikran Seferian

Written by Dikran Seferian

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