She had gone to the kitchen for a 3 a.m. glass of water. Now she stands at the foot of the stairs, her half-open eyes running over the handrail as it rises from one step to the next. And the next. And the next. Climbing endlessly higher.
Wiping a sweaty hand on her shirt, she takes one step forward. She reaches for the rugged wood, the railing barely past her shoulders, and slowly makes her way up three more steps. To her right, the familiar family portraits hang peacefully, their contents vanished. In the absence, rectangles of framed wallpaper stare back at her.
She keeps her fully opened eyes fixed to the ground as she finds herself climbing down two steps, worried she’ll lose sight of her feet. Her eyes still cannot adjust to the dark. She extends her arm towards the light switch but finds only empty wall. Tilting her gaze, she sees the stairs go down. And down. And down. Sinking endlessly deeper and deeper.
House of Leaves: Blueprints Lie
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel, offers a unique take on the horror genre. It relays the manuscript of a fictional essay written by the recently deceased Zampanò. His essay is an assessment of The Navidson Record, a documentary film by veteran photojournalist Will Navidson that recounts the unnerving discovery that his family’s new house is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The book’s use of frame narrative within frame narrative disorients the reader because Johnny, the character who compiles Zampanò’s manuscript, interweaves his personal story through footnotes in the essay.
The horror in House of Leaves navigates between the subtle, the asphyxiating, and the existential. Readers expecting to be scared via traditional means might find the novel frivolous and inconsequential. From the first couple of pages, protagonist Johnny Truant comments that the The Navidson Record doesn’t even exist, highlighting that Danielewskiis steering his horror away from the classic plot twist ending. There are many stylistic peculiarities to the novel’s format; how it’s displayed on the page greatly contributes to the story’s frightening impact. To avoid spoiling the reading experience, this essay will focus primarily on the use of the dark and the vast as narrative elements that build terror.
Too Big To Escape
Largeness has always been a condition of the weird and unsafe; it is overwhelming, too much or too big. (…) It is alien, exposed, and unsettling, or in other words, the perfect description of the house on Ash Tree Lane.
Claustrophobia is common horror stomping grounds. Works like The Temple (1920), Alien (1979), and The Fall (2019) use enclosed spaces to heighten a sense of anxiety. Contrarily, Danielewski turns to the vast, constructing seemingly endless hallways with unmeasurably high ceilings that instill an unnatural sense of danger. Superficially, this appeals to a fear of the dark, and what may inhabit it. This is quickly followed by a fear of the unknown and getting lost in it. Finally, and most profoundly, comes the existential dread of facing that which we cannot even start to dimension with our mind.
In The Navidson Record, Will films how his living room door, which both blueprints and spatial logic indicate should open to the outside of the house, leads inside to a hallway. According to Michelle Contreras (2011), “There is a distinction between being in the house –this is where the furniture is, where the family and pets walk on– and being inside of it. Part of it”.
This pocket-dimension of a house is constantly altering in position, size, and shape: a shifting maze of corridors, precipices, confined rooms, and large open chambers.
Characters often get lost inside the house. Always, when hope of finding a way out is exhausted, they start to notice a menacing growl in the distance. It’s unclear if the sound is a product of the changing walls of the house or if it is something else, something that breathes:
“There’s something here. It’s following me. No, it’s stalking me. It’s waiting, waiting for something. I don’t know what. (…) I’m not alone here.”(p. 5)
Something Lurks in the Dark
Darkness gives a home to self-generated terror because, after sensing a peril with no form, the mind becomes responsible for giving a face to the threat. It’s easier to think a monster is prowling in the shadows than to acknowledge that something shapeless lurks before your eyes.
The unseen horror becomes entirely psychological and, thus, unique to each character’s own perception of terror. “When there is nothing else to see, the only thing left is to see towards oneself, within oneself,” writes Lena Burnham, director of the Brighton Society of Psychiatry, in her 1998 memoir, An Inner Life. Similarly, characters in The Navidson Record populate the unmoving darkness with their deepest fears:
“Whatever comes for those who are never seen again has come from him, and Jed can do nothing but focus the camera on the hinges as the door slowly begins to give way.”(p 151)
The impenetrable darkness opens a wound where personally fueled anxiety festers. Darwinist Phillip Hodge (2008) explains, “Darkness is frightful because humans are visual beings. You can’t defend yourself if you lose sight of the predator. The loss of visibility empowers danger and inhibits any promise of safety. Primitive humans depended on vision to survive but fearing the darkness escaped evolution.” For the protagonist, darkness is where old traumas live and transform into violence.
“I know a moment came when I felt certain its resolute blackness was capable of anything, maybe even of slashing out, tearing up the floor, murdering Zampanò, murdering us, maybe murdering you.”(p. xvii)
Remember the last time you got lost in an unfamiliar indoor space. Picture the panic, the disorientation. Now imagine, as you stumble about, swallowing back a frantic cry, the place becoming smooth in texture, uniform in layout, completely dark save the small blue light of a phone screen. Imagine getting lost here. What do you do?
“No matter where he points his flashlight, the only thing he can perceive is oily darkness. Even worse, his panicked turn and the subsequent absence of landmarks has made it impossible for him to remember which direction he just came from.”(p. 67)
In a situation like this, what starts as primal alarm quickly escalates into senseless panic. What differentiates the spaces in House of Leaves from other traditionally isolated horror settings like woods or abandoned malls, is the active refusal to specify the size. “What’s even scarier than knowing you are lost is the horrifying realization of not being able to gauge just how lost you really are,” explains explorer and speleologist, Ramus Volk (1961).
Large Spaces, Endless Echoes
“An echo, while implying an enormity of a space, at the same time also defines it, limits it, and even temporarily inhabits it. (…) When a pebble falls down a well, it is gratifying to hear the eventual plunk. If, however, the pebble only slips into darkness and vanishes without a sound, the effect is disquieting.”(p. 46)
Characters find themselves caught between what their previous experience of the house tells them about its size, and their current perception of the largeness of the house. Trapped in this spatial paradox, the characters’ psyche eventually breaks. According to psychiatrist Moro Visayas (2015), “[humans present] an unconscious attraction towards peril […] under circumstances of severe strain. There is a level of realism to film characters that ignore their primitive ability to sense danger and give in to the hypnotizing desire of investigating the sound in the attic”. This feeling is possessive and inexplicable because it doesn’t belong within the bounds of logic. This feeling is what propels Will to return to the house.
In fact his creep into that place resembles the eerie faith required for any deep sea exploration, the beam of his flashlight scratching at nothing but the invariant blackness.(p. 67)
House of Leaves is a novel that pushes the boundaries of the horror genre. Like the house on Ash Tree Lane, the novel shifts and turns in ways that shouldn’t be possible. It inspires readers – housekeepers – to question how solid their mental walls are. Is reality truly solid, or are its foundations built from “leaves…moments before the wind” (p. 563)? Danielewski’s work is bold and often unclear, but it certainly accomplishes its exploration of how devastatingly scary everything in the house is. Its use of scale borders on cosmic horror. As Paulo Ledesma (2020) put it, “It’s looking at the night sky, pointing your finger at an arbitrary point in space and knowing there is most likely nothing in that direction, forever.” House of Leaves is rewarding to those willing to dive deep into its murky waters, sinking into a world as dark as it is vast.
That’s when you’ll discover you no longer trust the very walls you always took for granted. Even the hallways you’ve walked a hundred times will feel longer, much longer, and the shadows, any shadow at all, will suddenly seem deeper, much, much, deeper.(p. xxiii)