Home is supposed to be safe, a private place of shelter and refuge. We structure our lives and our dwellings to make us feel safe, to make us feel secure. Nan Ellin has argued that the architecture of most cities was driven by a desire to offer protection from invaders, but what if we cannot be safe in our own homes? What if our houses, and our bodies, do not offer the protection we once believed?
“We are all haunted houses,” wrote H.D., pen name of Hilda Doolittle, and the haunting of interior spaces and minds seems to be a particularly female affliction in life and in film. Female vulnerability is especially a centerpiece of the melodrama and horror genres, where the invasion of the home metaphorically represents the threat of invasion of the female body. The seized sanctity of a woman’s space and her desperation for a man to “save” her become paradoxically both a driver of fear and a source of pleasure for viewers.
It is this recurring filmic image of women in danger that experimental German filmmaker Matthias Müller interrogates in his 1990 short Home Stories, a five-minute piece of found-footage montage. He stitches together domestic scenes from melodramas and thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s filmed from a television set, creating a repeating and recursive look at the cinema’s view of women. Laura Mulvey brought the term “male gaze” into common parlance, and the image of a woman objectified or in peril that she draws attention to recurs so frequently onscreen that seems an inextricable part of cinematic history. Women, like houses, become constructions to be looked at, objects to behold; the camera revokes their privacy and turns their faces and spaces into goods for public consumption.
The fear of invaded spaces and bodies are closely linked — there is a deep and carnal fear unearthed when we find our property, or our personhood, no longer remains fully in our possession but is instead under the ownership or control of another. Depictions of women in fear, whether in horror or melodrama genres, make a spectacle out of very real terror and remind us how central invasions of the home and body are to the female nightmare scape.
The house should be a place where one can dream in peace, but as Home Stories shows, lavishly furnished bedrooms and dreamy domains offer no protection from disturbances, as the women onscreen turn restlessly, startle awake, peer uneasily out the window, and press their ears against the door. The collage cuts rapidly between scenes of different (but the same) beautiful white women in different (but the same) beautiful big houses, placing them all within the same inescapable serial narrative: terrorized women living the same scenes night after night. Doors are opened and immediately closed, rooms are entered and re-entered, and halls lead nowhere except back where they began; being a woman means living in a world designed to keep you contained, trapped right where the lookers want you.
Horror cinema, in its frequent depiction of haunted houses and home invasions, is filled with nightmares of unwanted presence, trapping women with their attackers; essentially, the genre does not exist without the image of the woman in peril. In Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror-comedy Hausu (“House”), the filmmaker eschews campy creatures or masked murders to explore more private kinds of domestic fear when seven young women go away together for a weekend at the country house of one of their aunts. The seven schoolgirls all have names marking their archetype or defining trait (Gorgeous, Prof, Melody, Mac, Fantasy, Kung Fu, and Sweet). Yet their scenic getaway quickly turns to a tale of terror — in Hausu, the attackers are not coming from outside, but are coming from within, as the friends are consumed one by one by the house which devours any unmarried girl.
Hausu is endearingly deranged, filled with demonic cats and colourful mattes, ghoulish animations, and cartoonish collage creations. It is an explosion of adolescent girl id (Obayashi reportedly received suggestions on the story from his young daughter Chigumi), where the girls seem straight out of a sleepover movie, clad in revealing pajamas and prancing about having pillow fights. Yet they cannot dream easily in this house, as soon it is not just the house that becomes possessed — it is the bodies of all the women inside.
There is a dark fairy-tale quality to its approach to sexual curiosity, as it seems to warn of the potential perils of burgeoning female sexuality and desire being acted upon. Gorgeous’s unmarried aunt is driven to despair when her fiance never returns from the war, and her spirit haunts the house that now cannibalises unmarried women who dare enter. The young women become literally consumed by their own passions: Mac is stricken down by her bottomless appetite that sends her to retrieve a watermelon down a well, while Melody’s musical gifts and frenzied fingers across the keys lead her to be swallowed up by the piano.
While in Home Stories, men are entirely absent onscreen, and in Hausu, each male character is hopelessly impotent and ineffectual, women, especially single women, are always at risk for attacks. The forced penetration of the interior space often is a not-so-subtle representation of sexual assault and the traumatic hauntings that many survivors face; Obayashi’s unmarried young schoolgirls are subjected to incessant attacks from the insatiable, and practically lecherous, house that wants to feast on its occupants’ flesh. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a teenager, she gave a powerful statement about the lasting impact of assault that led her to install a second front door in her home: once the body is invaded, no space feels fully safe.
Home Stories pulls its suspenseful footage from Douglas Sirk melodramas and Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, and Hausu interlaces campy comedy with savage attacks; this seizure of spatial and bodily autonomy recurs across genres, where regardless of the narrative context, women seem to be cast time and again as things to be examined or consumed, no longer in command of their physical forms. The house becomes a medium of anxiety and apprehension, a perilous space for restaging the same scenes of violence again and again. In this way, the house in cinema, in its porousness and penetrability, is like a body, but it is not unlike the film frame itself, in which seemingly anything might potentially enter. Filmmakers enact suspense from this uncertainty regarding what might enter the mise-en-scene or mise-en-abyme of entrapment. The screen can act as an emotional barrier between viewer and subject, but it can also be a window through which intruders can creep into private lives.
Hausu and Home Stories are tales that are terrifying in many different ways but are united in their home setting — and in their exposure of the daily hazards of simply being a woman. The nameless housewives from Müller and the nicknamed girls from Obayashi remain somewhat flat and enigmatic, their character psychologies never plunged fully in depth. Gorgeous transforms into an eldritch vision in white, ready to inhabit the house and satisfy her own hungers, but the house remains set amidst a crumbling reality and surreal nightmare scape, where fragments of images, sounds, and ideas collide; the architecture of the Home Stories houses feel like indecipherable and inescapable looping labyrinths.
If we are all haunted houses, then these women are both the houses and the ghosts haunting them, phantom visions that allow only brief entrees into their full psychological complexity. Perhaps this lack of insight into fully understanding the maps of their homes, or of their inner lives, is a good thing — for at least something about their interior worlds can remain private.