What is Household Horror?


An orange pillow with a sun and a moon

“It is necessary that we construct an idea of the everyday in which the intellectual backing for our practical trust feels secure, even when we know it is not.”

Philip J. Nickel, “The Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life: on Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds

There’s something in the goddamn garden. The window is fogged from the inside, so there’s no way to tell what. From here, anyway. I press my head against the cool glass, the condensation melting against my forehead, but still nothing. A frosted world in greys and blacks. Then there’s a crash. What do I even have in the garden that can crash?

Maybe it’s raccoons. I’ve never seen one around here, but they always mess with stuff, right? The Toronto government hates them. I read that in an article once. Or maybe it was a podcast. I squint out at the darkness. That second crash was pretty loud for a small animal. It was closer, too, I think.

I should go check on that. Three crashes – that’s a bad sign. If I make enough noise and look big enough, I should be able to scare off whatever’s causing it. It’s just an animal. Right? 

That said, I’ve never heard an animal laugh like that. Sure, there are hyenas and kookaburras, but those live nowhere near here and from what I’ve heard in videos, they have a kind of loud, piercing laugh. Not that clipped husky noise coming from outside, like someone dragging a rake through pebbles. Weird how crystal clear that is, even through the double-glazed glass.

If only the moon was out, you know? Maybe I could at least get a glance without having to walk into the bitter cold. It’s like two AM. But now the shuffling is on the roof and I’m not sure I can ignore it. It’s just me here. Not like I can rely on a sleepy husband to go take a look. 

Fine. The scratching on the walls settles it. I just redid the outer paint – this absolutely can’t wait until morning light. I’ll be right back. 

Household horror threatens the ground on which we walk every day, warping that which is familiar to us: home, safety, family. It is an area of horror that has been popular across all iterations of the genre, from Gothic fiction about strange women crawling out of the wallpaper to the high-octane slashers of the 70s and 80s. Household horror holds a mirror to our expectations, to what we take for granted, to what we fear, to what we think we know. If we squint, we notice something ominous lurking in the backdrop. 

Household Horror: This Could Be You

“Horror gives us a perspective on so-called common sense. It helps us see that a notion of everyday life completely secure against threats cannot be possible, and that the security of common sense is a persistent illusion.”

Philip J Nickel, The Philosophy of Horror

Household horror grounds itself in everyday situations. Often, its supernatural elements are subtle, its violence sudden and unexpected. If there was a scratching noise coming from the ceiling, we wouldn’t automatically jump to the conclusion that it’s actually a ghost. Well, if it’s 3 am we might. Household horror rejoices in this ambiguity. 

Psycho opens with a shot from the general to the specific, the camera panning from broad cityscape to Marion Crane’s window. Film critic Robin Wood explains of the opening, “this could be any place, any date, any time, any room: it could be us… Psycho begins with the normal and draws us steadily deeper and deeper into the abnormal.” 

The process of confronting our bias towards safety is unsettling. According to essayist Isabel Cristina Piñedo, horror violently disrupts the everyday, questioning the tenets of rationality. Household horror forces introspection. Piñedo explains, “it compels us to confront the irrational… [particularly] the disordered, ineffable, chaotic, and unpredictable universe which constitutes the underside of life.”

Often, household horror is set in the modern day, or is contemporary to the person creating it. When it is, it’s easy to draw parallels between the narrative setting and our reality. Even if it isn’t, the setting in household horror doesn’t need to be relatable to the each member of the audience specifically. What really defines household horror is that the characters themselves are at home, that they believe they are safe. We delight/suffer in their realization of how wrong they are. 

Household Horror: What is a Home?

“Household” refers to both the literal four walls and a roof that make up a house and that which is familiar, common. A household name. Household tips for a tidy mind. 

Psychologically, the main domain of household horror is the home, that ineffable place where one feels a sense of belonging. In household horror, as in life, home is meant to signify safety. These narratives take place in life as we know it. We are not in a distant mansion in the woods or trawling through an ancient cemetery; we are in our apartment, at the grocery store, running down the darkened streets of our childhood neighborhood. 

The supernatural, in household horror, is an invading force. Haunted house narratives link physical decay to emotional turmoil; the more mundane the setting, the more jarring the elements of horror. Household horror isn’t afraid to suddenly turn that psychological profiling back onto the audience. Hereditary, for instance, forces the audience to confront our role as a onlookers – as protagonist Annie watches her miniatures, we watch her. What does that make us?

A man walks into a bedroom
Hereditary’s sick-ass opening shot (coincidentally one of my favorite opening shots in horror)

One of the best ways that household horror picks at our sense of safety is by shining a spotlight on the characters’ fraught relationship with their home. In Tanarive Due’s “Like Daughter”, deliberately constructed settings offer a contrasting backdrop to story’s sci-fi horror elements. Denise’s home offers a character study of her emotional state across time, evoking clinical imagery that resonates with the story’s main themes:

“Denise’s living room was so pristine when I arrived, it was hard to believe it had witnessed a trauma… the walls were scrubbed white, and I could smell fresh lilac that might be artificial or real, couldn’t tell which. Denise’s house reminded me of the sitting room of the bed and breakfast I stayed in overnight during my last trip to London, simultaneously welcoming and wholly artificial…

Denise looked like a vagrant in her own home.”

Carlos Fuentes similarly explores disjointed settings in his horror novella Aura. He further dissolves the divide between character and audience by setting the entire novel in the second person:

“You feverishly take the chair, place it against that door without a lock, push the bed towards the door until it’s stuck, and you throw yourself, exhausted and yielding, with your eyes shut, and your arms clasped around your pillow: the pillow that isn’t yours; nothing is yours.”

Horror and Suburbia

Note: As I was researching this piece, I became interested in the role suburbia has played in horror, particularly in genres like the slasher film. It turns out that is a much bigger question than I initially expected. To do it justice, I’ve decided to create a whole separate article about that (… at some point… in the future…).

The TLDR version is: suburbia is a popular setting for horror because of its associations with normalcy. It is allegedly an environment we “all” relate to, one of backyards and barbeques, neighbors and doorbells. The treatment of suburbia as a universal symbol of relatability is questionable at best, because it assumes a very specific middle-class, often white reality. However, more and more we’re seeing movies that reject and confront the “suburbia as safety; suburbia as home” narrative (like Get Out and His House). As I said, more on this in the future.

Unreliable Narrators in Household Horror

Household horror witholds certainty from audiences. Its narrators are unreliable yet engaging. They know that the events they’ve witnessed veer drastically from the expected everyday. To remain relatable, they make desperate attempts to fudge reliability. 

John Steinbeck’s “The Affair at 7 Rue d M” inverts expected reality: a young boy realizes that a piece of gum is chewing him. The preposterousness of the situation, its unreality, is well-understood by the characters; “you and I have seen something which, while we know it to have happened, we might find difficult to describe.” Characters in household horror insist on their ordinariness even in extraordinary circumstances, as though they could somehow escape them through this. The problem is, if they are, in fact, ordinary, if they are like us, then doesn’t that mean we could just as easily be the next victim?

“For the most wild yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.”

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat” 

What’s the Point of Household Horror?

Aside from being a vicarious delve into darkness, household horror is well-suited to social horror. It asks us to question that which we take for granted in the everyday. This can mean anything from questioning apolitical concepts such as a sense of safety or faith in family to questioning the innate social structures that benefit some while allowing others to suffer. Parasite, Get Out, and His House all question the sociopolitical realities of the societies in which they take place. His House goes so far as to question whether a sense of safety is, actually, an apolitical concern. In a world where natural disaster, war, homelessness, and refugees exist, how can we claim that a house is a universal human experience? Household horror is a lens through which we can analyze truths about our own lives.

In describing the work of Austrian director Michael Haneke, Jarrod Shanahan writes:

“Horror isn’t something that attacks us from the outside… It has been a silent part of daily life for the subjects of the films, and more importantly, for the audience…Haneke’s brutality is bound up in the lives of everyday people. It’s our shared history of racism, injustice, and economic inequality; it comes from our darkest desires, which we must shutter away to fit into society. It is the brutality that constitutes civilization itself.”

***

Ultimately, household horror forces us to admit that nothing about our reality is certain. It rips the rug out from under our feet, placing unfamiliar signifiers in familiar settings. It is relatable, striving for a universality, if not of experience, then of terror. Its horror is often rooted in universal concepts, blending the commonplace tangible with the intangible terrible. In Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects, Marc Oliver concludes:

“Looking back to the silent poolside vigil [in It Follows] during which the slow pan of the camera places the teens as equals with office lamps, typewriters, hair dryers, and radios… one of the most terrifying aspects of objects is that human superiority over them is, at best, temporary.”

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