Haunting the house from within: Disbelief, mitigation, and spatial experience

In Steven Jay Schneider & Daniel Shaw (eds.), Film-Philosophy. Scarecrow Press 158--173 (2003)
I attempt to explain the lasting effectiveness and critical success of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) by roughly sketching the role that spectator belief might play in a revised version of the so-called “Thought Theory” of emotional response to fiction. I argue that The Haunting engages viewers in a process of “disbelief mitigation”—the sheltering of nontrivial, 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 most viewers come to the theater 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 make use of this experiential characteristic to fuel the horror, and without it, the subgenre would probably not exist.
Keywords horror  paradox of fiction  belief
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