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Friday, February 3, 2023

Liminal Scares: How ‘House of Leaves’ Has Redefined Modern Horror

Pablo Picasso is often credited with having said that good artists borrow and great artists steal. Obviously, the Spanish painter wasn’t referring to plagiarism, but instead insinuating that ideas grow when they inspire other artists to make them their own. After all, all art is part of a larger cultural ouroboros – an ever-growing creature that perpetually eats its own tail.

The fun part of this infinite cycle of influences comes when we try to identify pivotal moments in culture that appear to have been “stolen” from repeatedly. And when it comes to the horror genre, there is one specific work of literature that had a hand in everything from the rise of Found Footage to the success of recent horror phenomena like the Backrooms creepypasta and even Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink. Naturally, I’m referring to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, an experimental novel that you’re probably already familiar with even if you’ve never heard of it.

And with liminal scares and sensorial Found Footage on the rise, I thought that this might be a good time to dive into how this 2000 novel redefined modern horror.

Despite its reputation as an inaccessible eldritch tome, House of Leaves is actually a deeply personal novel rooted in the author’s own life. That’s why it’s best to discuss the origins of this Russian doll of a story before we can understand how it impacted the genre as a whole. Originally distributed locally in the 90s as a series of incomplete chapters and posts on Mark’s personal blog, House of Leaves was already something of a phenomena long before it was even published.

Having learned that his father was diagnosed with cancer, Mark decided to pour his complicated feelings on the matter into an experimental narrative that would eventually evolve into House of Leaves, with his sister Anne (commonly known by her stage name Poe) later developing the concept album Haunted, which ties into the multi-layered plot of Mark’s novel.

House of Leaves book

Sounds familiar?

Written over the course of a decade, House of Leaves tells the story of Johnny Truant, a young tattoo artist who comes across a bizarre manuscript containing an absurdly long review of a documentary that doesn’t exist. Known only as The Navidson Record, this documentary supposedly follows filmmaker David Navidson and his family as they discover that their suburban home is somehow larger on the inside, with rooms and hallways slowly expanding into infinity. Meanwhile, the book also contains a novella’s worth of letters and other random documents, some of which tell the story of Johnny’s mother as she endures incarceration in a mental hospital (The Whalestoe Letters), as well as frequent interjections by confused editors.

Naturally, this complex novel deals with several different kinds of horror at the same time, from the architectural terror of the House’s non-euclidean anatomy to the omnipresent “Minotaur” that pursues explorers within this ever-expanding maze. There’s also the Lovecraftian madness that envelopes these characters as they become engrossed in stories within a story, questioning reality every step of the way.

Even before its completion, the book was already talked about online, with its unique blend of fiction and reality possibly influencing Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez during the production of The Blair Witch Project. At the very least, there’s no denying that the directors were tapping into the same fascination with hypermedia present in Danielewski’s work. After all, The Navidson Record is basically a literary description of a Found Footage film, so it makes sense that this portion of the novel would end up inspiring elements of actual movies like the shifting asylum of Grave Encounters and impossible wilderness of Yellow Brick Road. It’s also no coincidence that the title track of Poe’s Haunted played over the credits of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a movie which serves as a direct critique of the found footage format directed by a real documentarian.

House of Leaves’ digital origins and epistolary structure would also go on to influence the rise of original internet horror content, all the way from Ted the Caver to the Dionaea House. These primitive online legends would blend fiction and reality in order to terrify readers, eventually leading to the creation of shareable “creepypastas” like Cameraheads, The SCP Foundation and even the infamous Slender Man. This last one was so influenced by Danielewski’s imagination that you’ll find numerous references to House of Leaves in nearly all of the YouTube ARGs that popularized the faceless character (which is how I first encountered the book).

Even videogames would end up “stealing” from the novel, with fully manipulatable 3D environments being ideal for the depiction of architectural horrors. The folks over at Remedy Entertainment are probably the biggest example of House-of-Leaves-influenced developers, with Alan Wake taking inspiration from the novel’s multi-layered narrative where fiction bleeds into reality, and their more recent Control playing with the idea of infinitely expanding interior spaces. The 2019 title even features a particularly memorable sequence that basically serves as a love-letter to the book’s description of a psychedelic haunted house.

House of Leaves

Remedy’s homage to the novel.

The concepts pioneered in House of Leaves have become so ubiquitous to the horror genre that, at this point, it’s safe to say that many artists are referencing and “stealing” from the book without ever having read it. For example, it’s unlikely that The Backrooms’ Kane Pixels ever read the novel, but his trippy videos still perfectly capture the book’s liminal atmosphere by adapting ideas that have permeated popular culture in the two decades since House of Leaves was published.

In fact, there are literally hundreds of other scary stories that share some DNA with House of Leaves, both consciously and unconsciously, and it’s likely that we’ll keep getting more of these in the years to come (which I’d argue is a good thing). While some of these stories aren’t even meant to be that scary, like Gil Kenan’s gateway horror flick Monster House or Bill Watterson’s cardboard masterpiece Dave Made a Maze, others, like David Koepp’s Kevin Bacon vehicle You Should Have Left, attempt to dissect the idea of a uniquely haunted House in a serious dramatic setting.

Despite this, it’s curious to note that no other media has ever managed to replicate the sheer scale of the novel’s surprisingly emotional narrative. That being said, recent efforts have been more successful at emulating the book’s overall atmosphere. Skinamarink in particular is a great example of how to turn the mundane comforts of home into a never-ending nightmare, with several moments harkening back to both the book’s “Five and a Half Minute Hallway” and what happened to Navidson’s daughter after she was swallowed up by the House.

At the end of the day, you don’t even have to like House of Leaves to appreciate its impact on our favorite genre stories. Love it or hate it, Danielewski’s opus is a once-in-a-generation literary gift that keeps on giving, and some young filmmaker out there is likely discovering the novel as I write this, “stealing” ideas from it in order to revolution horror movies yet again. And as Stephen King once claimed, “the book with all the footnotes” is likely the horror genre’s closest equivalent to Moby Dick.

After all, the influence of this deeply fascinating novel runs about as deep as the never-ending roots of the House on Ash Tree Lane.

The post Liminal Scares: How ‘House of Leaves’ Has Redefined Modern Horror appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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