sid haig in House of 1000 Corpses
Posted on June 17, 2020

The Haunted House Movie: The Affective Experience of House of 1000 Corpses

Guest Post

Rob Zombie’s 2003 directorial debut House of 1000 Corpses was critically panned, with people like James Brundage saying that the film was a series of unrelated “cheap scary image[s]” and The New York Times arguing that Zombie’s “encyclopedic approach” to horror made the film “crowded” and “frenzied.” And on one level, they weren’t wrong; It is undeniably true that the film hops, skips, and jumps between subgenres of horror, from a The Hills Have Eyes-esque family of murderous rednecks to a Satanic Panic-inspired ritual to the final scenes which seem to be an interpretation of Hell. But, despite criticism to the contrary, the film is not damaged by these genre-bending leaps: rather, the entire enterprise is paying homage to another storied horror tradition, the haunted house. By having the film tackle so many subsets of horror, House of 1000 Corpses effectively mimics the experience of walking through a physical haunted house attraction. Thus, we have to consider the film not simply as a piece of genre cinema, but as a total affective experience that attempts to emulate a distinctly embodied set of sensations.

Check out the trailer for House of 1000 Corpses:

To consider House of 1000 Corpses as a tribute to the experience of the haunted house, we must consider how the film moves both the central cast of characters, a carload of unwitting young people, and the viewer through several different subgenres of horror, totally adapting to each change in terms of set pieces, sound, lighting, and character direction. The second sequence in the film and the first in which we are introduced to the protagonists has them entering into Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen and taking a haunted house tour themselves. This haunted house, presented as a low-budget tourist trap befitting its gas station locale, actually serves as meaningful narrative and thematic exposition for the remainder of the film, as the ride follows along what will be the trajectory of the rest of the story and notably introduces the ideas of local serial killers and the demonic figure “Dr. Satan.”

Dr. Satan performs ritual in House of 1000 corpses scene

Dr. Satan

After the teens get off Captain Spaulding’s ride, House of 1000 Corpses begins to weave them through various horror set pieces that recall horror films from the 1970s, starting with a reference to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre when the teens pick up a hitchhiker who leads them right into the den of the murderous Firefly family. They begin in the “evil redneck” series of setpieces but quickly progress into the “demented circus” setting, with a few members of the Firefly family performing on a stage in an indeterminate location with very little in the way of a transition, as though the viewer has walked through a door into an entirely different locale. Then, as the Firefly family reveals their intentions, we see shades of stereotypical torture chambers from which the teens unsuccessfully attempt to escape. Finally, as the film moves into its third act (as much as we can determine continuity), a new set of rules suddenly appears in the form of a supernatural element, and an occult ritual takes place, dropping the surviving teens into a subterranean maze that, as they progress deeper, becomes more and more foreboding. Finally, the climax of the film has the Final Girl come face to face with the foreshadowed Dr. Satan in a facsimile of Hell: red light saturates everything, and there are the suffering denizens of the underworld in the form of Dr. Satan’s former experiments. Dr. Satan himself, who appears no longer to be human (if he ever was), sends one of his experiments after the Final Girl, resulting in a final climactic chase.

Thus, we can see that with each thematic turn, House of 1000 Corpses alters itself completely to fit the new set of horror rules of each subgenre: the circus scene is bathed in pink light and takes place on a vaudeville stage, with characters dressed in heavy stage makeup; the occult ritual is dimly lit and the central bonfire is surrounded with folk-horror elements. The Firefly women have loose hair and are wearing white, flowing gowns, and the teens are dressed in white rabbit suits to evoke innocent animal sacrifice. In this way, watching the film is affectively identical to walking through a haunted house, which is designed to offer a myriad of horror sensations, so that if one room doesn’t scare or unsettle, the next has the participant shaking in their boots.

occult ending in House of 1000 corpses

the final ritual of the film

While the film progresses through these different scenes, it also attempts to viscerally unseat the viewer through a series of visual distortions and cut-in footage, much in the same way that fog and strobe lights are used to disorient the patrons of a haunted house. House of 1000 Corpses is strewn with smash cuts to pieces of footage that look like they were shot on a home video camera of poor quality, as well as shots and stills that are color-altered so as to appear psychedelic or photonegative in nature. These interruptions of the continuous cinematic experience unsettle the reader and catapult them around in the time and space of the film and serve to further mark the film as less a single linear narrative than a discrete set of experiences.

After researching the history of the film, it became clear that this reading of House of 1000 Corpses is rooted in its origin. Zombie got the idea while putting together a haunted house attraction for Universal Studios, and the film has since been turned into an attraction for the park’s Halloween event. But by appreciating the film for what it is, a cinematic proxy for a deeply material and embodied experience, viewers can more clearly see that the narrative is not the main point of the film. Instead, it is a vehicle through which to convey a series of highly aesthetic horror experiences, so that the viewer will leave the experience having been entertained and unsettled in turn by the horror tropes that most appeal to them.

Works Cited

Brundage, James. House of 1000 Corpses Movie Review, DVD Release – Archived October 12, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.

Kehr, D. 2003, April 12. FILM REVIEW; An Eerie Kind of Journey To Grandmother’s House. New York Times.

House of 1000 Corpses is available on Amazon Prime:

Emma Kostopolus is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and   Composition at the University of Kansas. When not watching Shudder, she designs games. Current projects include a horror tabletop RPG and a videogame about a haunted antique shop. You can follow her on Twitter @kostopolus.

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