Posted on October 20, 2020

Wallpaper + Horror

Guest Post

When Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) stumbles down a hallway in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), we sense that the crimson flocked wallpaper is participating in a spell. In a blinding white flash punctuated in Goblin’s score by the word “witch,” a shard of mirror illuminates the dust that permeates the space with cognitive and respiratory menace. Suzy runs her hand along the flocked damask and clutches her chest as she struggles to breathe. In that moment, Argento’s Suspiria not only connects wallpaper to witchcraft, but also evokes, intentionally or not, the real-world pulmonary illnesses of wallpaper factory workers asphyxiated by flocking dust.[i] On screen and off, the allure of wallpaper has always been countered by disquieting side-effects. The bright colors of nineteenth-century wallpapers were made possible by arsenic, known to seep from the walls in damp weather and infuse a room with dangerous fumes. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century advice writers saw in wallpaper opportunities for the aesthetic and moral enrichment of the working class, even while fearing that the sensual impact of the wrong wallpaper might lead astray the sensitive soul. Oscar Wilde once remarked, “Why, I have seen a wallpaper which must lead a boy brought up under its influence to a career of crime”—a joke, perhaps, but one taken seriously by moralists, home decor treatises, and horror films.[ii]

Horror engages wallpaper arguably more than any other genre, and the power of wallpaper as a horror-generating device slips easily into adjacent genres. Characters in horror cinema touch wallpaper, stare at and through wallpaper, read and write on wallpaper, talk to wallpaper, peel, rip, puncture, and fight wallpaper. “Wallpaper + Horror” foregrounds the papered wall as a significant cinematic object that far exceeds the passivity too commonly associated with set design and decor. From F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), clips from seventy-seven films create an affective experience and a visual argument for the work performed by wallpaper.

Check out “Wallpaper + Horror” on Vimeo:

In addition to wallpaper’s connection to witchcraft and to moralist commentary on family values, this videographic essay alludes to the roles of wallpaper as a filmic medium and as a screen—a surface onto which images are projected as well as a concealing partition. As film, wallpaper develops over the course of years, leaving ghostly portraits of mirrors and paintings—a haunting of former inhabitants and objects. Photograms slowly burned into wallpaper by light introduce an alternate temporality into a medium associated with what Garrett Stewart refers to as the “specular unconscious”—the fixed images of single frames rapidly projected (in pre-digital media) to create the illusion of movement.[iii] The wallpaper photogram haunts the motion picture photogram with its own specular unconscious. Projections onto wallpaper and projections of wallpaper, including moments in which wallpaper alone fills the cinema screen, elicit wallpaper’s serial imagery as an uncanny source of potential movement. Horror calls attention to the Gothic or occult qualities of wallpaper when hidden messages, passageways, and rooms appear as the partition is pierced. Wallpaper, like the movie screen, is a voyeur’s medium. In Psycho (1960) the single papered wall meant to beautify Marion Crane’s hotel room (aptly named a “feature wall” in design circles) is also complicit with Norman Bates as a screen of roses that camouflages his voyeurism. Wallpaper in horror is a screen that looks back.


[i] Hawksley, Lucinda. Bitten by Witch Fever. Thames & Hudson, 2016, 69.

[ii] Wilde, Oscar. “The Decorative Arts,” in Kevin O’Brien, Oscar Wilde in Canada: An Apostle for the Arts. Personal Library, 1982, 162.

[iii] Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. University of Chicago Press, 2000, 1.


Marc Olivier is Professor of French Studies at Brigham Young University. His recent book, Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects (Indiana University Press, 2020) de-centers the human in reading cinematic texts. “Wallpaper + Horror” is part of his effort to encourage the use of the videographic essay as a mentoring opportunity for co-authored faculty and student scholarly projects.

David “Dewey” Walter is an MA student at Brigham Young University studying Chinese language cinemas.

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