Five films to help you jump into the haunted object sub-genre.
Haunted Object Horror
I want to acknowledge that the title for this sub-genre is a bit misleading in that I’m not just talking about ghosts haunting objects. I’m using haunting, possession, and curse interchangeably here because the central, unifying theme isn’t so much concerned with what we call the horror element, but with where that element comes from, the object.
Christine (1983). Dir. John Carpenter. US.
Just like with some many adaptations of Stephen King’s work, Christine is about adolescent male rage and how scary it is when gender roles begin to shift. The movie is about Arnie Cunningham’s (Keith Gordon) first car: a red, 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine. Christine is, of course, homicidal, and immortal. Whether it’s having an indestructible killer car on his side or Christine herself, Arnie’s personality changes over the course of the movie and he becomes more agitated, withdrawn, and violent. He also becomes more attractive and masculine. Arnie’s gender is male throughout the film but his masculinity looks very different as the movie progresses. In this way, there’s a lot going on in this film with how we perform gender and how gender and violence intersect.
Rubber (2010). Dir. Quentin Dupieux. France.
Do you enjoy campy horror comedies? Do you appreciate inanimate objects coming to life, killing people, and finding connections to other objects? Then this is absolutely the film for you! Once again, this is a fantastic movie to watch if you find Bogost’s (rather eccentric) work on “things” interesting. Rubber is yet another in a long line of horror/comedy crossovers featuring haunted objects that don’t necessarily inspire fear on their own. This list includes, The Mangler, The Wig, The Refrigerator, and Death Bed: The Bed that Eats People. The film’s tone and structure have a lot in common with Death Proof, Planet Terror, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. That’s a strange collection of films, especially in an entry for a list of recommended horror movies, but Rubber’s blend of camp, horror, and meta filmmaking (aka self-reflexivity), make it a bit of an enigma. This refusal to operate within the “rules” of haunted object horror, and horror in general, makes Rubber a great movie to get into phenomenology and what it mean to think about things autonomously. Plus, it’s a fun, light movie to watch with your friends who “don’t do” horror, or when you’re looking for a summer slumber party flick.
Oculus (2013). Dir. Mike Flanagan. US.
Say what you will about the story—people seem to either love or hate this movie—but the pacing is a thing of beauty. A lot of horror, even good horror, lands on either end of the spectrum, with either too many horror elements (injuries, deaths, jump scares, etc.) coming too quickly, or too few with too much time in between. Oculus, however, has some of the most cringe-worthy effects (the light bulb/apple scene from the trailer is not, in fact, the worst thing in the movie) and they’re spread throughout, giving us time to breathe between truly horrific moments. The film’s political placement does a lot for our understanding of how gaslighting and abuse intersect. Gaslighting, for those who aren’t familiar with the terms (which I talk about here and here) is a form of mental and emotional abuse that revolves around making the target question their own perception of reality. The practice gets its name from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light and it especially pernicious because it’s so difficult to identify and provide evidence for. Oculus helps to broaden the popular understanding of this form of manipulation, and of domestic abuse broadly, by adding intention to the mix. The movie poses the question of whether we consider a certain behavior (telling a child that what they’re experiencing flat-out hasn’t happened, for example) problematic or emotionally violent when the person doesn’t intend harm. Possession films have grappled with this question obliquely for years, but very few have addressed it so pointedly. While we can only guess at the conclusion Oculus is trying to draw, I think it’s fair to say that the film supports the idea that a person can use abusive practices without intending to, and that the damage is done regardless.
The Conjuring (2013). Dir. James Wan. US.
Remember when I wrote about creepy children way back when? Well, here we are again. (We’ll be back to this particularly upsetting corner of horror when I get to the section of pseudo-Freudian horror, but that’s a long way off yet). The Conjuring is based on the true story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, and their experience with Annabelle, a porcelain doll (in real life it was a Raggedy Anne doll, but I’ll let that go, I guess) possessed by a “non-human spirit,” or more simply, a demon. This film fits particularly well here because the second time we see Ed Warren in the film he’s walking a reporter through the “paranormal objects” room. The room houses the couple’s collection of items that are “either haunted, cursed, or [have] been used in some kind of ritualistic practice.”
From a theoretical standpoint, marking out haunted object films as their own category is significant if we’re talking about materialism, phenomenology, ontology, epistemology, and all those other complicated philosophical -ologies. In short, though, The Conjuring allows us to explore the idea of a haunting, or possession, or paranormal occurrence in the absence of people. It allows us, in some ways, to de-center ourselves and consider the significance of the object, without having to begin and end with the person experiencing the symptoms of the haunting. If you’re interested in more on this, especially thinking about objects outside of their relationship to people, I recommend the following: Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology , Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and Viviann Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts.
Under the Shadow (2016). Dir. Babak Anvari. United Kingdom, Jordan, Qatar.
Much like The Devil’s Backbone, Under the Shadow’s haunted object is a bomb dropped in the middle of a civilian residence in the midst of a war. In Under the Shadow, the bomb brings a jinni with it. The jinn are not inherently evil, they can be good or neutral. The presence of an evil jinni act as a reflection of the protagonist’s world. The film focuses on Shideh (Narges Rashidi), trapped in her apartment building with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in Tehran while the Iran-Iraq war rages around them. Shideh had previously been in medical school but was forced out because of her involvement in leftist organizing. Her husband, a doctor, is called to serve in the military. She is now left to take care of her daughter on her own. As with so many recent horror movies about mothers and children (Goodnight Mommy and The Babadook come immediately to mind), the film’s primary conflict has to do with Shideh’s doubt about her ability to be a good mother. It also examines historical memory of both civil and international conflict, gender, and how we define women in terms of their domestic roles (mother, wife, daughter) and their relationship to other people.
Author: Geneveive Newman
Image Credit: Magnet Releasing © 2010