In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.
Welcome home! You’ve had a tough day digging ditches in some inhospitable mound of dirt or hacking away at a keyboard in an even less homey office cubicle. What you need now is to hang up your boots and settle into your lazy boy. Your home is your castle, your one bit of security and privacy in an increasingly insecure and inprivate world. It is so inprivate that we have to make up new words like “inprivate” to indicate how inprivate it is.
But wouldn’t it be a stone drag if you were settling in to relax in your sanctuary and the walls started bulging unnaturally or bleeding even more unnaturally? Wouldn’t it simply ruin your night if that thing you haven’t even finished paying the mortgage on yet sucked your precious little daughter into the electrical system or made you want to pick up an axe and chop up your precious little son?
Monsters come in all shapes, sizes, and smells, but one thing that unites the mass of them from werewolves to robots is that they somehow resemble organic beings. One of the few exceptions is the monstrous house. The fact that it has no arms or legs or teeth makes the monster house highly unusual and really very wrong (though not completely beyond anthropomorphization, as we shall see). The fact that a house is such a mundane thing, a thing intended to protect and comfort, makes it highly insidious, especially when it turns against the children who dwell in it, as it so often does.
First of all, we must distinguish the monster house from the haunted house. In a haunted house, the monster is some form of ghost. It may make the windows rattle or the chairs fall over, but that ghost is the central threat, not the place it chooses to haunt. That would be like blaming Dracula’s castle for the vampire’s poor behavior, which would be unfair to a perfectly fine castle. The nasty things a ghost does can be accomplished by any breathing, visible asshole. Ghosts or other such entities may be responsible for making a monster house monstrous, but a true monster house takes on a life of its own; it is the threat.
The first truly enduring monster house remains the definitive one. Published in 1839, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” largely passed over specifics to dwell on off putting descriptions of the title building. The unnamed narrator approaches the house, and it instantly casts its spell on him, bashing him with waves of depression and unease. He has not even interacted with its weird inhabitants before getting a very strong sense that the House of Usher is a bad place. He even emphasizes its inherent monstrousness by trying to describe it in anthropomorphic terms, noting its “vacant and eye-like windows.”
Is it the house that has seemingly poisoned Roderick and Madeline Usher, both of whom suffer from odd maladies such as Roderick’s intense aversion to sound and his sister’s general malaise and tendency to lapse into catatonic states? Is it responsible for the subtextual moral decay of the siblings, whose relationship may not be entirely platonic? As the narrator drifts through the foreboding house, it reacts violently to the presence of one who might uncover its strange and dirty secrets. It begins cracking in disapproval. When the ultimate abomination comes to light—Roderick’s premature burial of catatonic Madeline—the house has a total nervous breakdown. As the short story’s title spoils, the House of Usher falls—quite literally. The building collapses, claiming the poisoned siblings as its victims while the narrator manages to escape the domestic tomb. In a perversion of home security, the house would rather self-destruct than allow its family’s ugly secrets come to life, even if that means wiping out the family in the process.