Comparison of the Horror Genre Characteristics in Poltergeist and The Haunting of Hill House
For decades, audiences have been left captivated by the sheer terror and shock induced by horror texts. Whether it be their inherent instinct for imitation, or the simple desire to feel scared, media consumers alike have long kept the popularity of horror alive. However, the overall concept of horror as a singular genre is quite complex. From a general standpoint, however, horror texts are characterized by an array of basic genre conventions. Typically, there is a single protagonist forced to face some horrific external conflict, there is a great emphasis on dramatic sound, there is a strong focus on the antagonist or external force creating the horror, and there is usually a strong relation to themes such as death or helplessness, just to name a few. However, despite the establishment of these classical conventions, horror texts are constantly being evolved and refined.
One particular comparison that illustrates this subsequent evolution of horror is Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House. Upon its release in 1982, Poltergeist sent shockwaves through society, and was widely regarded for the sheer terror it inflicted upon its audiences. Near forty years later, The Haunting of Hill House achieved similar praise for similar reasons; however, though both belonging to the supernatural sub-genre of horror, these texts differ greatly in comparison and subsequently illustrate the effect of an ever-evolving genre. All in all, through the refinement of various genre conventions, such as characterization, conflicts, and settings, as well as through the evident effect of media specificity, The Haunting of Hill House and Poltergeist effectively depict and increasing complexity and modernization of the horror genre as a whole.
As mentioned previously, one of the defining factors in horror’s evolution between these two texts is the refinement of, and in some cases, the overall change of narrative storytelling styles or conventions. In comparing Poltergeist and The Haunting of Hill House, there is a great deal narrative experimentation that illustrates the progression of horror through a storytelling context. In conjunction with classical Hollywood storytelling, horror films typically focus the audience on one particular protagonist within a group of supporting protagonists as they battle some external force. As opposed to focusing on character development or relationships, the main focus of horror texts tends to be the external conflict, as this is what projects the horror and creates the cause-and-effect patterns to move the narrative along.
In his book, Generation Multiplex:
The Image of Youth in Contemporary American Cinema, author Timothy Shary, though speaking directly of youthful characters yet relating to the genre as a whole, describes the lack of characterization in supernatural horror texts, stating, “The texts of most of these films, while offering a variety of explanations for their otherworldly machinations, tend to hinge upon relatively simple characterizations,” (Shary 169). This narrative convention of focusing on the external action as opposed to character depth is very evident in Poltergeist. Although the entirety of the film is centered around the Freeling family, the focus of the audience is undoubtedly drawn to the action of the poltergeists and the horror they inflict on the family. The narrative of this film is designed as such that the audience is essentially told to disregard character dynamics and relationships and instead made to focus on the trivial horror projected by the poltergeists. The characters remain very surface-level throughout the course of the film and are instead solely characterized by their individual responses to the terror occurring before them.
In his book, Empire of Dreams:
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg, author Andrew Gordon elaborates on the sole emphasis of external conflict in Poltergeist, stating that, “…there is no internal struggle because the family is too normal; the horror doesn’t reflect any problems in their character or in their relationships,” (Gordon 92). As mentioned previously, this emphasis on external struggle was commonplace for horror texts at this time, as the audience was more interested in the established genre convention of an external force creating horrific conflict as opposed to character relationships and dynamics. However, this genre convention is turned on its head in just the pilot episode of The Haunting of Hill House. Within the first few minutes, the audience is introduced to a seemingly happy American family, similarly to that of the Freelings in Poltergeist. However, as the episode progresses, the audience is thrust between the happy American family and the present-day version of this family, wherein the children are adults and seem to have contentious relations with one another.
Although there are various external forces introduced that coincide with traditional horror conventions, such as “The Bent-Neck Lady”, the majority of the conflict in this episode arises from both the family dynamic and the respective struggles of each of the children. The episode even goes so far as to suggest that the mother, Olivia Crain, is the main antagonist of the series, as the children and father flee the “Hill House” in response to Olivia’s mysterious threat; The Haunting of Hill House is essentially calling into question the integrity of certain characters and exploring deeper internal and interpersonal conflicts. By delving deeper into these more internal, complex conflicts, The Haunting of Hill House is experimenting with and refining various narrative tropes associated with horror texts and further illustrating an increasing complexity of the genre as a whole that is not evident in the more conventional Poltergeist.
Another aspect of narrative storytelling that is refined between these two texts is the use of iconography and traditional settings of horror genres. In Poltergeist, the setting for the entirety of the film takes place in a small home in Cuesta Verde, nestled soundly in the innocence of American suburbia. Commonplace for horror films at this time, the setting was used to create a sense of realism, forcing audiences to situate themselves in the shoes of the “average” characters facing such abnormal terrors. However, in The Haunting of Hill House, the audience is provided with a much more complex sense of gothic horror; the Hill House is a towering, unforgiving mansion, quite synonymous with the iconic “haunted house” stereotype. Yet, in conjunction with the use of non-linear storytelling techniques, The Haunting of Hill House simultaneously contrasts these traditional gothic settings with modernized, contemporary settings evident in scenes of the present-day. This juxtaposition of contemporary and gothic settings is an interesting way to allow the audience to contextualize the horror both in traditional and contemporary genre conventions.
In their book, TV Horror:
Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, authors Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott define this juxtaposition of gothic and contemporary settings as a, “…[play] on understatement,” then going on to state that, “This strategy reframes gothic horror in a realist fashion that uses the mundane to heighten the contrast between the fantastic and the everyday” (Jowett and Abbott 213). While Poltergeist focuses solely on a realist setting, The Haunting of Hill House contrasts realism with gothic; this contrast not only instills a different style of horror, but also illustrates a refinement of genre conventions through the juxtaposition of both gothic and contemporary styles as opposed to just one.
Apart from the refinement of various storytelling and narrative techniques, possibly the most major aspect of change that occurs between these two texts spawns from the medium specificity of film versus television. As mentioned previously, one of the major genre refinements between Poltergeist and The Haunting of Hill House was the latter’s focus on more developed interpersonal and internal conflicts as opposed to focusing on a sole external conflict to create the suspense or terror. One reason behind this refinement can be drawn back to the advent of seriality in television that cannot be achieved in film; in other words, The Haunting of Hill House has the ability to develop character relationships and more complex conflicts due to their larger amount of time. In just the first episode, the audience is introduced to an array of characters, with each character mostly receiving similar levels of exhibition and background into internal conflicts, thus increasing audience connectivity and intensity of suspense.
In TV Horror:
Investigating the Dark Side of the Small Screen, Jowett and Abbott further explore the context of horror as a genre within film and television, stating, “Horror in cinema is largely restricted to the single drama narrative…Television, however, has a history of diverse approaches to telling horror stories. TV horror can take the form of the single play… or a mini-series or serial which tells one continuous story over a number of episodes, concluding in the final instalment” (82). Unlike The Haunting of Hill House, Poltergeist is forced to condense its narrative into a shorter time duration, thus causing a decrease in overall character complexities and projecting a heightened focus on surface-level scares created by the poltergeist’s antics.
Overall, there are various refinements in both narrative and media formatting contexts that contribute to the overall difference between Poltergeist and The Haunting of Hill House. Through changes in focus on characterization, different combinations of setting styles and icons, and through the evident structural and storytelling effect of moving from film to television, Poltergeist and The Haunting of Hill House offer an interesting insight into the development of horror over time that might not be visible at first glance.
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