Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 7, April 2002



Aaron Smuts

Haunting the House from Within:

Disbelief Mitigation and Spatial Experience




_The Haunting_

Directed by Robert Wise

MGM/Argyle, 1963

112m, BW


In this paper I attempt to explain the lasting effectiveness and critical success of _The Haunting_ (Robert Wise, 1963) by roughly sketching the role that 'belief' might play in a revised version of the 'Thought Theory' of emotional response. I argue that _The Haunting_ engages the viewer in a process of 'disbelief mitigation' -- the sheltering of non-trivial, tenuously held beliefs required for optimal viewer response -- that helps make the film work as horror, and prevents it from sliding into comedy. Haunted house films do not have to extend much effort to keep us from walking away, since viewers come to the theatre ready to entertain the idea that haunted houses exist. Using the experiential philosophy of John Dewey, I propose that this willingness has to do with a fundamental aspect of our relationship with space. It is common to speak of places as charged or tense, to get feelings of dread or nostalgia from certain spots. Some haunted house films leverage this experiential characteristic to fuel the horror, and without it the subgenre would probably not exist.


Should We Believe the 'Thought Theory' of Emotional Response?


Recent work in cognitive film theory has produced a compelling resolution to the 'paradox of emotional response to fiction' -- the problem of why we respond emotionally to fictional characters and events even though we know that the characters and events portrayed are not real. Murray Smith and Noel Carroll argue that we can be moved emotionally by entertaining thoughts without believing in their truth. The Smith-Carroll thesis relies on a distinction between thought and belief to help discount solutions to the paradox that postulate illusionary viewing experiences, but the distinction is untenable unless one accepts a limited notion of 'belief' (similar to that of a 'statement'), meaning 'to entertain a proposition assertively'. [1] Carroll attempts a strictly cognitive account, arguing for a 'Thought-Theory of Emotional Response to Fictions' that states: 'thought contents we entertain without believing them can genuinely move us emotionally'. [2] In response to this theory, one might ask why we are willing to entertain certain ideas and not others -- why haunted houses, in particular, are not absurd.


Steven Schneider criticizes Carroll's description of the imagination [3] as untethered by belief, arguing that the 'mere entertaining in one's mind of a horror film monster is insufficient to generate fear; at the very least, it renders the production of such an emotional response either mysterious or irrational'. [4] Instead, Schneider differentiates between beliefs in the *possibility* of something and in its *actual* existence, arguing that at least a belief in the possibility of the monster must be present for there to be fear. [5] Carroll might respond that belief in the possibility of something is just to 'entertain the proposition nonassertively', or a thought, and is not, properly considered, a belief. However, the belief in possible existence is just as easily entertained assertively, for example: 'I believe that there may be ghosts.' If it were merely a thought, then we would have to explain why some thoughts are more plausible (or better candidates to be entertained assertively) than others, which would involve some measure of belief. What we lack is the criterion of what counts as assertively entertaining a thought.


Carroll's strong definition of belief undergirds the conclusions of the 'Thought Theory', but the casting of belief and thought in such sharp contrast oversimplifies the issue. To merely assume the definition that proves the 'Thought Theory' is to beg the question ñ the distinction could be better described as one of degree, and not kind. Schneider's distinction between 'belief in actual existence' and 'belief in possible existence' meshes with Carroll's talk of 'existence beliefs' and may provide a start for developing a belief-thought continuum. To simplify, if we consider the difference between belief and thought as a gradation, then we might be able to determine the location of any given statement by, for instance, the willingness of the person to bet on its truthfulness. Beliefs in possible existences might fall somewhere between the two extremes.


We can accept two parts of the Smith-Carroll theorem -- viewers (1) need not confuse film and reality, and (2) need not believe in the *actual* existence of the referent of the fiction -- and still attribute an important role to belief in the production of an emotional response. There are obvious limits to the thoughts viewers are willing to entertain, and within the range of acceptable fictional situations there are those that viewers will less readily consider and ones that effectively provoke strong responses. Carroll gives an example of a person standing stably near the edge of a cliff, in no danger of falling, but able to become frightened by thinking about dropping off. He argues that it is not the belief that we are about to fall, since we are not, but the mere thought of falling that provokes the response. [6] However, one could argue that the reaction to this thought scenario is highly influenced by various beliefs. We do not hold the one particular belief that Carroll mentions; however we believe, in the strong sense of the term, a great number of trivial things like: things fall, I can fall, I could get hurt if I fall from high up, or my grandfather broke both of his wrists by falling from a roof. If we believe that we are in danger of falling, or that someone fell recently, then imagining the plummet would certainly produce a greater amount of fear. Thoughts about flying upwards uncontrollably and hitting your head on the ceiling are more unlikely to scare you than they are to make you laugh, since the supporting beliefs are not available.


At minimum, the imagination is both primed and partially constrained by our web of potentially acceptable beliefs, however minor they may seem. Some of these are (1) explicit 'occurrent' beliefs; others may be (2) low-level unexamined beliefs, better described as 'dispensational beliefs,'; and many more might be (3) variations on surmounted beliefs that still linger with a sense of possibility and may or may not be candidates for assertive entertainment. Though viewers do not have to confuse fiction and reality, the imagination cannot run wild and still pull the emotions, but serves best when fed by acceptable scenarios backed by supporting beliefs. [7] It is common to hear people criticize a film by saying: 'It just wasn't believable. I couldn't get into it.' Belief in the *possible* existence of a filmic monster may be required to avoid imaginative starvation, but belief in the *actual* real world existence can be energizing.


One could reply that this discussion of belief may be at an unnecessarily high level and my 'flying up' example may show that there are constraints on the emotion-provoking abilities of thoughts, but this has nothing to do with belief. Recent work in cognitive neuroscience suggests that the physiological states of individuals imagining the performance of some bodily movements like tapping a finger are very similar to those of the actual performance of the action. [8] If emotional response is correctly described as a feedback pattern, where physiological states and awareness of those states heightens emotion which in turn increases bodily response, then the physiological effects of visualization could be key to explaining emotional response in a manner consistent with the 'Thought Theory'. This is even more compelling if we consider recent studies on rats which demonstrate that observation of movements performed by others, imagination of actions, and actual execution of motor performances share common neural substrates. [9] We could propose a make-believe extension to the visualization experiments where a person is asked to visualize wagging their tail or flapping their wings. Without precedents for these patterns of action, we could imagine that the physiological response would be small and quite unlike the response of visualizations of performed and performable activities. If this were the case, then the thought theorist could argue that the lack of response to thoughts of flying up and hitting the ceiling is not the result of missing supporting beliefs; rather it is the result of a lack of some sort of brain and bodily memory.


In an interview about the making of his films, Italian horror director Dario Argento described how he tries to confine displays of pain to common experiences to evoke visceral reactions. Rarely will he have a character shot by a gun, since few of us know what it is the like to be shot, rather, his victims are either stabbed or, more likely, cut by a broken window. We all know what it is like to bump our heads against a sharp table-edge or to hit our teeth on a drinking-glass, so Argento couples these two common experiences and shows people getting their teeth rammed against a table corner. One could argue that belief has nothing to do with Argento's strategy. It is not that we do not believe that getting shot hurts; rather, we know what it is like to get cut by broken glass. Instead of belief, it is some sort of 'physical memory' akin to what Antonio Damasio describes as 'dispensational representations', [10] sparked by visualization, that makes these actions more emotionally provocative. [11]


One might try to characterize these established brain routines that fuel the visualization response as some sort of low-level proto 'embodied' beliefs; however, this would require a more replete description of the underlying phenomena and may require stretching the concept of belief to meaningless proportions. At a high level, the 'beliefs' in question can be considered as unconscious (or barely conscious) cognitive contributing factors in higher-order consciousness. They seem to affect the plausibility of emotion provoking scenarios by somehow lessening higher-order, error-detecting filters. [12] The liberalization of various higher-order filters could be a result of multiple factors. One such factor could be a belief system of sorts where bodily memory and filter relaxation patterns that develop from experience could partially account for why certain more common thought scenarios are more effective.


In dealing with examples like Carroll's 'thoughts of falling' and my 'thoughts of flying' scenario we may be oversimplifying the phenomena we are dealing with. The suspense and fear generated by Argento's films are far more complex than simple composites of low-level visualization responses, and reducing the source of suspense and fear provoked by _The Haunting_ into a composite of low-level visualization responses would prove to be a difficult, if not impossible, task. Most importantly for the task at hand, _The Haunting_ heavily employs higher-order, belief-oriented rhetorical strategies that must be accounted for in order to explain its effectiveness and they cannot be dismissed off hand as idle work. Disbelief mitigation, taken as a technique of maintaining inroads to emotional response by protecting higher-order filter liberalization from conscious, rational conservativism, may provide a gross cognitive explanation for the rhetorical strategies found in films like _The Haunting_.


Spatial Experience and Haunted Houses


Since haunted house movies build on a readily acceptable belief ñ the belief that spaces are emotionally charged -- they have an easier job of surmounting skeptical blockage to their premise than many horror films. Rather than reconfirming a 'surmounted belief', _The Haunting_ is in a special position in relation to most horror, since it can capitalize on an actual belief: a real world phenomenon that provides a foundation -- at the intersection of imagination, experience, and belief -- upon which _The Haunting_ is built. I will argue that if we accept the mild notion that space is experienced as 'funded', or rich with meaning, then everyone is primed to or might already believe that spaces in general are in themselves intelligent or alive in some way. In this way the phenomenological importance of spatial experience may provide the basis upon which to offer a solution to the particular paradox of emotional response to haunted houses. We might ask, why are tales of) haunted houses scary if most of us do not (purport to) believe in them?


I once asked a philosophy class if anyone believed in ghosts. Only one student raised a hand. Then I asked the class who would be willing to spend the night in a graveyard, and just as few responded. After some discussion most of the class adamantly denied believing in ghosts, but could offer no good explanation why the idea sounded so frightening. Maybe, in some way and on some level, most of the students had a belief in ghosts, strong enough to motivate action or inaction. [13] A better explanation might be that, rather than ghosts, the students in my class were more afraid of the idea of spending time in such a loaded space. They might believe in haunted places more than _The Haunting_ ghosts.


Psychologists refer to our personification, or funding of space as 'projection' -- where feelings associated with our memories of things and spaces are attributed to the things themselves. An excellent account of the phenomenological significance of the matter is found in the writings of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who considers the sustaining environment that one encounters in experience by emphasizing the importance of embodiment and activity. In 'The Live Creature and Ethereal Things' Dewey argues that in experience space 'becomes something more than a void in which to roam about, dotted here and there with dangerous things and things that satisfy the appetite. It becomes a comprehensive and enclosed scene within which are ordered the multiplicity of doings and undergoing which man engages'. [14] He might be able to agree with Foucault that space 'is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power'. [15] But in some ways Dewey has a more interesting and complete account of space. It is not only a form of power and control; it is a source of meaning. [16] Space becomes a source of meaning as the environment becomes deeply ingrained with memories and desires, as a unifying element of experience.


In 'The Common Substance of the Arts' in _Art as Experience_, Dewey briefly discusses the importance of space in structuring and controlling experience. He argues that movement in space is qualitative, so that '[n]ear and far, close and distant, are qualities of pregnant often tragic import -- that is they are stated not just measured by science'. [17] It is not the 'homogeneous space' [18] described by Newton or a scientific [19] account of a spatial grid that he is concerned with; rather it is lived, qualitative space that Dewey takes note of. Experienced space is 'infinitely diversified in qualities'. [20] Qualitatively, space can be roomy or cramped, stifling or emancipatory. Though it offers room to live, it is not experienced as a container; rather 'space and time are also occupancy, filling'. [21] A different spatial environment has a substantially different feel as our relations with it vary.


Perhaps the fundamental element of Dewey's account of space is *place*, or particular spaces. Dewey explains how 'places, despite physical limitation and narrow localization, are charged with accumulations of long-gathering energy'. [22] Lived space is not encountered as a homogeneous 'container' [23] in which to move about as if it were nothing but a life-size map, but as a living site with locales of personality. Places are experienced as qualitative -- as fearful, depressing, nostalgic, alienating, and lonely -- because they are invested with accumulated meanings. Toni Morrison captures this element of lived-place in the animistic rendering of the house in _Beloved_: 'Shivering, Denver approached the house, regarding it, as she always did, as a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits'. [24] This perfectly captures Dewey's insight into how places are experienced. [25] They are often encountered as having a temperament of their own; sometimes one so terrible that all one can do is flee, if one can.


Most importantly for haunted houses, Dewey explores the relationships we have with the spaces of experience, and how they fund our future interactions, adding to their meaningfulness. It is not just the investment of familiar lived-space that Dewey is concerned with, but with how present experience is 'funded' in our relations with new space when the 'past is carried into the present so as to expand and deepen the content of the latter'. [26] Haunted house films often try hard to 'fund' the space of the house in an effort to control our reaction to the idea that a particular place might be haunted, and they offer evidence so viewers will be willing to accept the premise. As we shall see, one of the primary strategies of disbelief mitigation employed in _The Haunting_ is to predispose us by providing a historical background for the house, so we will understand how the characters must feel when approaching it.


The willingness to accept the presence of a haunted house in a film can be partially explained as a result of a process of associational aversion that produces barely cognitive beliefs, resulting in higher-order filter liberalization. The animistic belief in cursed spaces may not be pronounced, and if it does present itself to examination we will most likely deny a rational belief in the matter. There are many beliefs of this kind that sit in an unexamined state, until something calls them out and they are cast out in a rational exorcism. The belief in cursed or haunted places is in a special position among the unexamined, since it is often seen as acceptable even when made explicit. For example, the preternaturally popular Oprah once held a show on the power of place, and recounted her experiences of a house that emanated the pain of its past inhabitants. She explicitly expressed a belief in the supernatural charged quality of the space. No one in the audience seemed to find this the slightest bit ridiculous, and the belief remained 'unsurmounted'.


Lingering unexamined beliefs play a crucial role in the course of an emotional reaction. Greg M. Smith, in his essay 'Local Emotions, Global Moods', provides an account of the emotions as an 'associational network', [27] where signals triggering emotional responses come from various sources, often prior to cognitive evaluation:


'Emotional evaluation takes place in parallel to the conscious assessment of stimuli. If the emotion system's signals become strong enough to reach consciousness, emotional experience results. Once both conscious thought and the emotion system are initiated they tend to interact through a highly interconnected linkage, allowing thought to influence the course of an emotion and vice versa.'


If we accept something along the lines of Smith's account of cognitive reassessment of emotional response as leading to intervention, reduction, or amplification, the importance of mitigating disbelief is crucial. Interference with the fear produced by disbelief is dangerous to the film's success, and building associations that provoke the reaction is crucial to maintain higher-order filter liberalization. Rather than stopping at a purely low level associational emotional reaction, the unexamined belief in cursed spaces provides a semi-cognitive amplifier for the viewer's response, or, in Schneider's terms, something 'for the fear to latch on to'. [28]


Disbelief Mitigation in _The Haunting_


In fictional worlds we are less likely to fight supporting beliefs, and rational examination is less likely to reduce the emotional response since we are not asked directly to believe, but hold the belief for the sake of the story. However, when a fanciful fictional truth meshes with a non-fiction belief, the two domains interfere and real-world disbelief mitigation becomes necessary. One side of disbelief mitigation is holding criticism at bay. This is done in two ways: (1) often the belief required will not be made explicit by the film, or (2) a character will present a refutation of the belief and will suffer from its denial or will be converted. We will return to the first technique, but the second deserves immediate elaboration.


In _The Haunting_ characters unreceptive to the premise are put into extreme danger and are punished for their doubt. Dr Markway's wife is skeptical about the possibility of a house being haunted and finds her husband's work a waste of time. She arrives at Hill House late in the film and, ignoring protest, decides to stay the night in the haunted hot-seat -- the old nursery. The house grows angry at her arrogance and, working as an agent of Nell's jealousy, puts her through an inquisition. The pounding and thumping grows to an unprecedented intensity, the passage to her room is blocked, and the entire group of characters is threatened by the mistake of her skepticism. When finally discovered running through the grounds, she recalls trying to escape from the house, explaining that when fleeing from the evil place she somehow fell from a trap door in the library and then ended up outside in the woods in a badly shaken state. The house puts her through hell as a punishment for her sinful heresy.


Luke Sanderson, the skeptical nephew of the current owners who is sent there to keep an eye on things, is slightly traumatized by the house and is eventually converted, but he avoids extreme punishment since his disbelief was not as firm. When he arrives the doctor warns him that the doors of his closed mind could be 'ripped from their hinges' in a traumatic episode, if he does not at least consider the possibility of a haunting. In early scenes the heir strongly doubts the legend surrounding the house and can only think of how much he stands to gain when he can sell it; however, after the torment of the doctor's wife he is a believer in _The Haunting_ and suggests burning the evil place down, partly so skeptics like him do not endanger anyone else. _The Haunting_ presents a world where heretics who threaten the film's premise with disbelief are punished or converted. This serves as an example to deter any viewer who might be entertaining similar doubts, letting them see the error of their ways.


To be effective, the haunted house film needs to do more than present skeptical characters to rebuff as examples. The mitigation of disbelief is not only a reaction against raising critical questions, as the film can try to encourage the belief, or draw upon the source of an unexamined belief that we may hold. This is done by personalizing the haunting experience, personifying the house, and by funding the space through a history of the location. In the process, the film keeps any statement of the belief in haunted houses unnecessary and inexplicit by making the source of the events ambiguous.


_The Haunting_ helps mitigate disbelief by portraying the space as having a personal characteristic, partly by tying the horror to the experiences of a central character. This serves to focus the intensity of the emotion and to lend to the palatability of the haunting. The house is mainly concerned with one character, Nell, whose experiences correspond to supposed events that took place in the dwelling. The shared history allows the film to radically personalize _The Haunting_ to the experiences of its central character. This personalization enables the film to present a marked victim that explains _The Haunting_ by serving as a catalyst, and whose relationship with the place becomes so rich that it is difficult to imagine that the house would not react to her presence. Dr Markway finds the situation so troubling that he would not have invited Nell if he had known about her mother. Like taste aversion, people seem to have a place aversion response to locales of traumatic events. _The Haunting_ draws our understanding of the obvious associational aversion Nell would have to the house. Knowing her coincidental relation to the house primes the space as one she should not be in, a first step in setting up the haunting.


Nell's particular relationship with the house is emphasized filmically and situationally. Pam Keesey, in '_The Haunting_ and the Power of Suggestion', provides an excellent description of how Wise's camerawork portrays the house as watching Nell. When Nell first arrives Wise establishes a shot-reverse-shot pattern between the house and Nell, as if they were looking at each other. Once inside, Nell's image is reflected in the floors and mirrors throughout the house, as if her image is reflecting off the house's eyes. When Nell enters her room the camera sweeps down from the ceiling around and under Nell, as if the omniscient house has swallowed her. [29] One of many direct calls to Nell comes when an inscription shows up on the foyer wall, telling her to go home. It is Nell's history that makes the house, in popular horror slang, 'shine'. We expect space so charged with individual meaning to be experienced as such. It is no surprise that the house seeks out Nell throughout the film. In the end, her relationship with the house makes her unable to leave and Theodora suggests that Nell has been absorbed by or joined the house since she was so much a part of it to begin with.


The shared history of Nell and the previous residents allows the horror to be experientially located and presented through the perspective of a character, which opens the possibility for doubting the veracity of evidence. This is especially effective when the sanity of the character is constantly questioned. [30] A fundamental means of mitigating the absurdity of a haunted house is to present a view of the house through the experience of a character. The house is rarely portrayed as terrifying unto itself, without the verification of a character's fear. Though this is a common horror device, it is especially pronounced in _The Haunting_, where we are shown more than reaction shots and screams. Repeatedly we are allowed to hear Nell's thoughts and reactions to events. For a large part we experience the film through her perceptions.


The presence of a psychic character allows the experiences of Nell to be shared, rather than diluting the house's focus. This keeps the house directly related to Nell but brings the other characters into the haunting. In this way the house can continue to be seen through the coloring of a disturbed character, and others can share in her experiences. Theodora's ESP gives her access to Nell's thoughts, such as her desire to change into her new clothes and her feelings for the doctor. When exploring the house Theo shares in Nell's feeling that the house wants her. The initial haunting episode on the first night is mainly filtered through Nell and her psychic channel, and only later do the episodes questionably involve others outside her experience as the evidence mounts and the premise becomes easier to accept.


Our spatial experiences are largely governed by our historical understanding of particular locales, especially our personal relationship and role within that history. _The Haunting_ gives a careful recounting of the sordid history of Hill House, which is marked by successive deaths resulting from mysterious causes. Charging the space by providing it a history is the primary means of bringing viewers into a ready state where they will be willing to accept the haunting. The place must 'shine' for the audience as well as the characters in the story, and it is often necessary to build a historical understanding of the site for the film to work. In _The Haunting_ the narrator's opening remarks serve both to personalize the mansion by associating it with Nell and to fund the viewer's experience by providing information supporting the premise. Preconception formation is crucial for audience acceptance and understanding when dealing with haunted houses.


The concept of 'cursed' space alluded to above may better help explain what is meant by a belief in haunted space. It is common to speak of places as cursed, a familiar expression that highlights how prevalent the concept of haunted space is. Though not necessarily rationally believed in, the concept draws out the associational aversion and historical understanding of places that fuel the source of our willingness to participate in haunted house movies. The belief is not a mere fabrication of my argument but has everyday, although casual, expression.


_The Haunting_ presents evidence for the house's haunting and punishes those who do not believe, but it never forces us to accept the reality of the supernatural. The film is careful never to show us too much, never to push our belief to the limit where it would have to be accepted for a scene to work. In Montague Summers's classificatory scheme, this is an 'equivocal gothic' [31] -- a fiction that casts the supernatural origins of events in doubt. Keeping the source of the horror ambiguous is a central strategy for disbelief mitigation, since it prevents skeptical thoughts from interfering with emotional reactions that rely on unexamined beliefs. This is done by primarily relying on sound as evidence, never visually presenting a monster, questioning evidence, and continually disputing whether _The Haunting_ is in Nell or the house.


Haunted house films are in a curious bind concerning the presentation of visual evidence, since it is not exactly clear what a manifestation of _The Haunting_ would look like. There seem to be two basic types of hauntings: those where the house is inhabited by ghosts that do the haunting, like in _The Others_ (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001); and those where the house itself is the source of the haunting, as in the original _The Haunting_. Those of the second type have both hands tied behind their backs, since they are unable to throw a ghost at the audience, but this can work to their advantage, as the criminally bad remake of _The Haunting_ (Jan De Bont, 1999) demonstrates with its goofy CGI monsters. In the original some puzzling visual evidence is presented, mainly the closing of doors when no one is looking, but it refrains from other more obvious means of visually presenting the threat. Furniture never even moves around the house and plates never fly. Instead the film builds a mood of confusion and looming danger by portraying the house as a living maze of doors and a trap of loose staircases. Steven Schneider points out that the director frequently animates the house by giving it a perspective through point-of-view shots, distortion, and pans that take the view of neither character nor objective camera. In the staircase sequence, the camera shifts views from Nell's perspective of her feet on the stairs to the house's view of the climb. Pam Keesey points out that the house, 'described in the novel as 'diseased' and 'not sane' remains essentially the same [in the film]. Hill House, we are told, is not merely haunted. It is the haunt'. [32] Rather than localizing the horror to a supernatural inhabitant like many haunted house films, the source of the haunting, and the point-of-view shots, is the house at large. Again, it is not ghosts that do the haunting, but place that is the mechanism of fear.


Though primarily relying on sound to present the source of terror, we are also given temperature evidence of the evil. As is now a common trope, when the thumping comes for Nell, the room grows cold and we can see her breath. The house also has a cold spot in front of the nursery door that all the characters feel but have no explanation for. The source is never directly presented as the house, but this is a conclusion arrived at by the characters and the viewers through a suggestive manner. We are never beaten over the head with causes, since that strategy can backfire; instead, the viewers are asked to come up with answers supporting the premise prior to or without their being presented by the film. Providing a history of the house is crucial to funding our imaginative experience of the place, so we will actively come to the conclusion that it is indeed haunted.


The film is careful to avoid showing the source of the horror even when characters are being hurt by something in the house. On the second night Nell goes to sleep next to Theodora, but wakes up lying in bed alone. Nell does not realize that Theo is no longer in the next bed, and assumes she is holding her hand. The grip becomes tighter until it is almost crushing but she never looks over. Wise never shows the other end of the grasp; it is only suggested through Nell's comments and reaction. This keeps the source of the haunting ambiguous and allows us to question whether it is the house or Nell that is mad. After allying us with Nell, the film now gives us more information than she has by shifting perspective from Nell to the house in order to provoke a protective reaction. We know it is the house squeezing her hand and want her to get out of the room. Rather than confining our knowledge to what the characters know and sharing in their skepticism, the film puts us in a superior but helpless position where we are incapable of applying what we know. The film is careful not to present the source of the horror, which might serve to provoke reactions of disbelief; instead, we are asked to imagine the source and take the bait. By providing superior situational knowledge, we are encouraged to apply the belief in a protective emotional response. Provoking the application of an encouraged belief -- that might be questioned in other contexts -- is a clever strategy of disbelief mitigation. It would be interesting to see how common this technique is in supernatural horror, especially in the 1960s' psychological sub-genre where it is employed most frequently. [33]


Until the end, the film leaves the possibility of doubt as an option. Emotional response is rather short-lived, a few minutes at the most, and our belief is both highest and most needed in peak sequences. In less heightened moments, since we are less sure about the source of the horror, critical examination of any loosely held beliefs is not prompted. At the end of the film Nell tries to leave, but her car seems to be chauffeured by the house. She ends up driving through the woods, blinded by darkness and branches, until swerving to avoid the doctor's wife and crashing into a tree. The cause of the crash is indeterminate. Nell was in a frantic state when she drove away, perhaps unable to control a car. The other characters question whether it was the house or Nell that caused the crash. Since she died against the same tree that the original founder's wife crashed against, we are encouraged to believe that the house is responsible, but the source is left open. Keeping the cause ambiguous further mitigates our disbelief in what we are encouraged to believe. Keesey argues that 'the key to supernatural storytelling -- whether on-screen or on the page -- is the power of suggestion', [34] but this only describes one component of a fundamental three part structure. The pattern of disbelief mitigation going from belief encouragement, to suggested application, to reflective options, allows the film to successfully navigate our skepticism, minimize higher-order conservative responses, and leaves behind a sense of uncertainty and a mood of horror.


Disbelief mitigation is a two front war: films relying on unexamined beliefs to effectively fuel the imagination must both try to counter criticism and encourage belief. Techniques for countering criticism might be generic across horror films, and a frequently employed strategy is to prevent the belief required from being made explicit, often by keeping the source of the horror ambiguous. Another common technique for countering criticism is to present and punish heretics who challenge the belief. On the other front, belief encouragement may be more specific to the type of horror and the belief we are dealing with. For _The Haunting_, a belief in the possibility of haunted places is helpful for optimal response. The film funds the source of this belief by personalizing the house and providing a history for it, which makes the events understandable, if not expected. It draws upon the belief by presenting situations and examples that encourage us to decide that the source of the horror is indeed the house. Haunted house films often use the way we experience space, and an accidental and unexamined animistic belief resulting from this interaction, as their foundation. Often, before we even see the house, we have a foot in the door.


New York, USA





I would like to thank Daniel Barratt, Heidi Bollich, Cynthia Freeland, Anne Jaap Jacobson, and Steven Jay Schneider for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this paper.


1. Carroll, _The Philosophy of Horror_, p. 80.


2. Ibid., p. 81.


3. Carroll highlights two uses of the term 'imagination': 1, 'entertaining a thought non-assertively', and 2, where we 'are the creative and primarily voluntary source of the contents of our thoughts' (_The Philosophy of Horror_, p. 88). Carroll finds that the second notion of the term is misleading since viewers need not add anything via the imagination to what the fiction presents. I'm disregarding the distinction and find it unimportant to the thought theory, but it does point out how divorced fictional thought is from the viewer's control and how limitless Carroll finds the range of acceptable scenarios.


4. Schneider, 'Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors', p. 177.


5. Offering an account of how horror might plug in to our imagination, Schneider presents an explanation of our response to monsters as the metaphorical presentation of suppressed beliefs. He argues that: 'All horror film monsters metaphorically embody surmounted beliefs, but not all of them manage to reconfirm those beliefs by their very presence.' (Schneider, 'Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors', p. 184.) Regardless of whether horror functions by presenting metaphorical examples supporting surmounted beliefs, Schneider's argument emphasizes the necessity of a conceptual foothold to prevent horror films from becoming pure camp.


6. See Carroll, _The Philosophy of Horror_, p. 80.


7. The other side of the coin might be how fear of a new technology or nuclear war or something poorly understood can broaden the acceptable range of beliefs by putting beliefs in limits in question.


8. 'Studies of cerebral metabolic activity have demonstrated that most of the regions that are active during overt movement execution such as the parietal and premotor cortices, the basal ganglia, and the cerebellum are active during mental simulation as well.' Sirigu, et al., 'The Mental Representation of Hand Movements after Parietal Cortex Damage', p. 5281.


9. See Leggio, et al., 'Representation of Actions in Rats'.


10. Damasio, _Descartes' Error_, pp. 94-105.


11. I explain Argento's 'visceral technique' in more detail in 'The Principles of Association: Dario Argento's _Profondo Rosso_ (_Deep Red_, 1975)', forthcoming in _Kinoeye_.


12. Building upon the work of Joseph LeDoux, Daniel Barratt presents something akin to a mediated shock-response explanation for emotional reaction to visual horror, where visual stimuli take a fast track to emotion pre-evaluating brain regions only to be later refereed by higher order consciousness: 'our biological makeup and our evolutionary history . . . crosses, say, a 'fast-acting' thalamus-amygdala circuit (an 'early-warning system' which effectively sacrifices accuracy for speed) with higher-order consciousness (a late 'error-detection system' which effectively sacrifices speed for accuracy)' (Barratt, 'The Paradox of Emotion Revisited', not yet published, p. 20).


13. Steven Schneider presented the viability of this option to me. The discussion of disbelief mitigation was inspired by his thoughts on belief.


14. Dewey, 'The Live Creature and Ethereal Things', p. 544.


15. Foucault, 'Space Knowledge, Power', p. 253.


16. My approach to Dewey has been influenced by John McDermott, especially his book _The Culture of Experience_, where he develops similar themes in his discussions of Dewey. In the introduction to his edited collection, _The Philosophy of John Dewey_, McDermott points out several major concerns of Dewey's: the lived body, the primacy of growth, non-sexual repression, and the affective dimension of human activity (see p. xxvii). Since these are major themes in Dewey's writings there is no surprise that some of my concerns overlap with McDermott's. However, in this article and elsewhere I developed similar but different themes in unique ways (especially that of space), through the intersection of philosophy and literature and film, for the purpose of arguing that Dewey has developed (or I'm distilling out of his analyses) a significant social critical tool that has been unfortunately ignored.


17. Dewey, _Art as Experience_, p. 207.


18. In _The Quest for Certainty_ Dewey describes the scientific view of space as 'homogeneous space' (see pp. 75 and 78).


19. In _Art as Experience_ Dewey contrasts the different treatments of space by science and art: 'As science takes qualitative space and time and reduces them to relations that enter into equations, so art makes them abound in their own sense as significant values of the very substance of all things' (p. 207).


20. Dewey, _Art as Experience_, p. 210.


21. Dewey, _Art as Experience_, p. 209.


22. Dewey, 'The Live Creature and Etherial Things', p. 544.


23. Dewey describes Newtonian space as 'container space' in the _Quest for Certainty_ (p. 113).


24. Morrison, _Beloved_, p. 29.


25. Another passage in _Beloved_ is relevant and rewarding for thinking about Dewey: 'I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place -- the picture of it -- stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world' (p. 36). This highlights the locatedness of experience and the indelibility of this attribute.


26. Dewey, 'The Live Creature and Etherial Things', p. 545.


27. Greg Smith, 'Local Emotions, Global Moods', p. 111.


28. Schneider, 'Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors', p. 177.


29. See Keesey, '_The Haunting_ and the Power of Suggestion', p. 310.


30. See Schneider, 'Barbara, Julia, Carol, Myra, and Nell', for a discussion of the ambiguity of the source of horror in _The Haunting_.


31. See Montague Summers, _The Gothic Quest_.


32. Keesey, '_The Haunting_ and the Power of Suggestion', p. 308.


33. Noel Carroll identifies a larger technique he calls 'fantastic hesitation', found frequently in 'equivocal gothic', where explanations are disputed and the viewer is asked to puzzle an explanation with a few pointers. See _The Philosophy of Horror_, pp. 156-157.


34. Keesey, '_The Haunting_ and the Power of Suggestion', p. 306.





Barratt, Daniel H., 'The Paradox of Emotion Revisited: Uncovering the Emotional Foundations of Pictorial Representations' (unpublished).


Carroll, Noel, _The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart_ (New York: Routledge, 1990).


Damasio, Antonio, _Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain_ (New York: Quill, 2000).


Dewey, John, _Art as Experience_ (New York: Capricorn, 1958). --- 'Does Human Nature Change', in _Problems of Men: Philosophy of Education_ (New Jersey: Littlefield, 1958). --- _The Quest for Certainty_, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990). --- 'The Live Creature and Etherial Things', in _The Philosophy of John Dewey_, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).


Foucault, Michel, _Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977_, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980). --- 'Space, Knowledge, Power', in Paul Rabinow, ed., _Foucault Reader_ (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).


Keesey, Pam, '_The Haunting_ and the Power of Suggestion: Why Robert Wise's Film Continues to 'Deliver the Goods' to Modern Audiences', in Alain Silver and James Ursini, eds, _Horror Film Reader_ (New York: Limelight, 2000).


LeDoux, Joseph, _The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life_ (New York: Touchstone, 1998).


Leggio, Maria B., et al., 'Representation of Actions in Rats: The Role of Cerebellum in Learning Spatial Performances by Observation', _Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA_, vol. 97 no. 5, 2000.


McDermott, John J., _The Culture of Experience: Philosophical Essays in the American Grain_ (New York: New York, 1976).


Morrison, Toni, _Beloved_ (New York: Plume, 1998).


Schneider, Steven Jay, 'Barbara, Julia, Carol, Myra, and Nell: Diagnosing Female Madness in British Horror Cinema', in Stephen Chibnall and Julian Petley, eds, _British Horror Cinema_ (London: Routledge, 2001). --- 'Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors: Freud, Lakoff, and the Representation of Monstrosity in Cinematic Horror' in _Horror Film Reader_, eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. NY: Limelight, 2000.


Sirigu, A., et al., 'The Mental Representation of Hand Movements after Parietal Cortex Damage', _Science_, no. 273, 1996.


Smith, Greg M., 'Local Emotions, Global Moods', in Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith, eds, _Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotions_ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).


Smith, Murray, 'Film Spectatorship and the Institution of Fiction', _Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticsim_, vol. 53 no. 2, Spring 1995.


Summers, Montague, _The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel_ (London: Fortune, 1938).



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Aaron Smuts, 'Haunting the House from Within: Disbelief Mitigation and Spatial Experience', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 7, April 2002 <>.




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