On Halloween, we watched I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House on Netflix, starring Ruth Wilson. It’s written and directed by Oz Perkins, about a hospice care nurse who moves into a famous crime/horror author’s home to care for the ailing bed-bound old woman. The nurse, Lily, and the author, Iris Blum, are alone in the home, though Lily begins to suspect that the house itself is haunted, and that one of Blum’s books about a murdered woman shut up in a wall by her husband might be both true and connected to the house.
The thing that sticks out to me is how much Iris Blum feels like a stand-in for Shirley Jackson, the author of works like the story “The Lottery,” the novels We Have Always Lived In the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, and others. The fact that Ruth Franklin’s biography of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life, came out this year, is a nice little bonus to connect to Jackson’s impact and influence. To be fair, there are a few key differences here between the real Jackson and the fictional Blum, such as the fact that Blum is depicted as having no family and Jackson having been married and a mother. However, the idea of a woman who wrote prolifically about horrific things (Lily is open about being a complete coward in the film, which creates a slightly hilarious back-and-forth in the minimalistic sense of the film’s aesthetic overall.
I Am the Pretty Thing… follows the (arguably excellent) trend of modern horror drawing on arthouse and minimalist film styles to use mood, silence, and (alternately) intense volume/sound building to create intense anxiety, and using (what I thought was brilliant) background visual tricks to give you serious “WHAT THE FUCK” moments. There’s an upside-down chair hanging in the kitchen in this film that no one discusses or acknowledges and until I figured out that the chair is being hung from a peg on the wall, it seemed like a Poltergeist moment of shifted furniture that genuinely confused and frightened me. The main character pacing the kitchen as the sound and tension swells and then the simple but oh-my-god visual of the phone cord being lifted…and lifted…and lifted…
It was horrifying.
I’ve taught Jackson’s story “The Lottery” every chance I’ve gotten throughout the years, having fallen in love with it in high school. It’s a wonderful work for teaching symbolism, for discussing simple horror, and for introducing the concept of modern American literature’s attempts to come to terms with the bloody bones the nation is built on.
Older students tend to catch on quick, though they’re still horrified by the whole thing (a current student introduced the idea of corruption being a part of the life of “The Lottery”, which is fascinating and not something I’d through about before). Younger students are confused until you get the ball rolling about the whole thing and what the various elements CAN really mean (because Jackson was notorious about refusing to elaborate on her work, which I find delightful). Shirley Jackson as a woman who wrote in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and in particular wrote what we’d commonly consider horror fiction, is such a fascinating figure. She’s one of my favorite authors period, and it’s because of her voice in horror that I say that. Her voice gives us something that we see and take for granted in anything horrific or supernatural. We wouldn’t have Twin Peaks without her, something seen as almost the “beginning” of the whole small-town-hiding-horrors trope.
Her voice is the voice that I saw visualized in I Am the Pretty Thing… on the screen, where bucolic Americana is a prison, bright sunlight streaming through windows a painful and hot bar in a window that keeps you penned inside. There are a lot of elements implied here as well in terms of women who are trying to write with what are seen as masculine framing, as well as how women who don’t like that are supposed to respond to it. More than that though was how Lily tries to justify the house to herself before suspecting that there might be more there. The lack of ghosts for the most part, relying instead of the fears that many of us definitely have about empty houses, paranoia, and the dark when we turns our backs. I think it’s in this that the film is most immediately relatable to Jackson, in seizing upon real human fears and hatreds, with a sense of a possible supernatural twist in there.
That ultimately is what makes Jackson’s work so great, and it’s what makes really good horror work. Real fear is in the mutation of what we genuinely can’t wait to get away from fast enough, what we couldn’t shake off no matter how much we try.
I spent one Halloween night going to see a big-screen showing of Kubrick’s The Shining. It was great, and at that size the film’s overall atmosphere really works. It worked to the point that my paranoia about empty rooms made me turn on all the lights and check every room and closet through my house, opting to stay awake and order pizza instead of going to sleep.
It was the stupidest thing to be fearful of or feel scared about, honestly. I was 27, I lived with someone else with a dog and a baseball bat, but the paranoia of dark open doorways and what was there when I turned my back was so great that it affected how I spent my night. This film seizes on that in the same way that Jackson seized on those for her writing, seizing on paranoias and fears we didn’t realize had such deep and dark holds on us, and slowly reeling them up from the depths into the light and exposing us to their true horror.
The awful root of “The Lottery” isn’t the violence, it’s the corruption of community, especially when the other side of the “close-knit community” coin is “isolated from escape and privacy.” There’s no escaping the lottery in Jackson’s story, because it’s a very real and unavoidable horror, one that like empty doorways full of dark in a house when the sun has gone down, you just don’t want to turn your back on no matter how often you tell yourself it’s not going to come for you. In the same fashion, the real horror of I Am The Pretty Thing… isn’t that the house is haunted, it’s that the ghost was killed for being beautiful, that Iris Blum’s mind has gone as she sits alone with a ghost trying to reach out to her to talk, and that Lily is caught between it all, surrounded by empty doorways.
Ultimately the film’s not perfect, mostly because the last fifteen minutes tend to meander a bit, though you could also compare that to a more literal vs. filmatic ending, with the cliche of the last scare visual being thrown in there to emphasize the subtle horror aspects of the film (if that makes sense).
It’s very much a horror movie not just WITH women in it, but ABOUT the women in it, in a very visual/abstract sense. And I’m pretty cool with it.