Quick reminder: if you like my thoughts about the nature of stories, you might also like my fiction. You can buy my short story collection Homesick or preorder my novella Finna on my website.
If there’s one Gothic trope that most of us recognize, it’s the big house.
The past is omnipresent in Gothic fiction. It erupts into characters’ lives to cause chaos. And it often forms the very landscape of the story: a sprawling mansion, a decrepit castle, a crumbling ancestral home.
In the Gothic, a home is a locus where forces from the past meet pressures from the present. It’s a site for power struggles: between generations, insiders/outsiders, the living and the dead. Both sides engage in a struggle to control the narrative of the past and present, and to understand the truth.
That truth often reveals the constructed, artificial nature of what we think of as “the past.”
Artifice and fakery are embedded in the earliest roots of the genre; Horace Walpole claimed that he had discovered and translated a 1529 manuscript titled The Castle of Otranto rather than written it, and even used a pseudo-archaic prose for added persuasiveness. Walpole also built a pseudo-medievalist castle that ushered in the Gothic Revival style to Britain; a building created to suit Walpole’s desire to live in a facsimile of history.
The houses at the centers of these Neo-Gothic revival movies all share a similar sense of constructed history and grandeur. They all contain hidden rooms, stairs, and passageways. And all of them conceal the unaired secrets of the people that live in them; the buried pasts, the hidden selves, the darkness, the lies, the violence. The beautiful facades of these houses, their grandeur and status, hide the rot at their cores the same way the present creates a rose-tinted picture of the past.
It blew my mind when I (embarrassingly recently) learned the house in Parasite was a set designed for the film, as was the Kim’s basement-level apartment. (I’m not the only one! Apparently, a bunch of judges on the Cannes jury were fooled too.)
It was a genius decision; unlike Ready or Not and Knives Out, all the scenes set in the Park’s family home were filmed there, and there’s a permeability between the interior and exterior scenes that feels organic and natural. Despite that, the house is very much set up to have numerous levels, a hierarchy based on altitude — which has been brilliantly illustrated in various poster designs for the film.
Stairs figure prominently throughout the set, with characters having to navigate the different worlds that they allow entrance into. The entire set design reflects different kinds of class status: the amount of light, of green space that a family is privy to, whether the space is closed-off or open, the expectations of privacy.
In one long, wonderfully shot sequence, we follow the Kim family after they narrowly avoid being uncovered by their employers. They retreat back to their basement home in a working-class neighborhood in a driving rain, only to discover that water is pouring into their home and the whole neighborhood is flooded.
It’s important that the characters are moving down, but what’s more important is that water is moving with them: Water is flowing from top to bottom, to the rich neighborhoods to the poor ones, and these characters they have no control over it. (Bong Joon-ho)
The title of the film has its own layers: the Kims, and the workers whose jobs they stole, are parasites living on the corpus of the Park family home. The beautiful, minimalist, spacious home hides the desperate families, who are torn between maintaining their secrecy and demanding to be seen and heard, even in the most coded ways.
Ready of Not and Knives Out
One of my favorite lines in all three of these movies is from near the end of Knives Out, where one of the Trombley’s tries to kick a now-meddlesome detective Benoit Blanc out of their “ancestral home.” Blanc laughs and points out that their father bought the home from a Pakistani businessman in 1988.
American history, almost from its outset, denied its own constructed nature. Rather than a cultural palimpsest, it was an untamed wilderness, an edenic land that was ready to be conquered. This mythology is rooted in the idea of a break away from history. You still see this trope in rhetoric about the American experience; America as a land of new beginnings, a blank slate.
Of course, believing this requires erasure of the actual facts of the past. The untamed wilderness and the frontier are carefully constructed fictions; America was already populated by millions of people, with a diverse breadth of cultures, well-established societies, trade routes, technologies, etc. The ideals that America was founded on — liberty, self-determination, rationalism, plurality, all that good shit from the Enlightenment — are completely at odds with the actual history of its construction, and the reality of the millions who were murdered and/or enslaved as a colonizing project.
We recreate this mythology all the time, the same way Walpole created a pseudo-historical artifacts in both his home and his writing. America is a pretty Gothic Revival mansion that’s built over a very haunted graveyard, and all its ghosts are bursting out of the expensive flooring and imported wallpaper.
Ready or Not and Knives Out address this, though they take different approaches, each appropriate to their genre. Ready or Not blends survival horror and the occult with class critique. Grace, played by the amazing Samara Weaving, is willing to play nice with her new husband’s rich, fucked-up family, despite the fact that most of them are actively repellent, dripping with the privilege and derision befitting their class. The turn comes when she realizes that one of their quaint family customs—playing a game on the wedding night with the new couple—is actually the prelude to murder, mayhem, and demonic sacrifice.
Knives Out similarly unmasks the polite fictions that its characters hide behind, the myths they tell about themselves. Throughout the story, the pleasant, self-righteous facades that the characters present to the world are shredded over and over again.
Eldest daughter Lynda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) image as a self-made woman is rudely exposed as someone who used her father’s wealth to start her own company, while her cheerful husband is confirmed as a philanderer. Middle child Walt’s timid personality disguises his racism (even more present in his wife and neo-nazi son). For all her woke politics, all of Meg’s talk of allyship is ultimately hollow. And then there’s Ransom, whose blunt assholery (always celebrated in rich, white men) disguises his actual sociopathy: he murders two people and attempts to kill a third just to keep his wealth and status.
Both films end triumphantly for their outsider heroines, for the most part. In Grace’s case, surviving her deadly wedding night has the added bonus of causing all of her would-be murderers to explode, since they didn’t fulfill their end of a deal with the devil. (That’s one way to redistribute wealth.) Ana uses everyone’s expectations of her as a good, honest-to-a-fault girl to trick Ransom into confessing to murder, then pukes in his face. (BLESS.)
These films don’t follow the normal trajectory for Gothic protagonists caught up the machinations of the rich, unhinged assholes, who squat like spiders in a web of ill-gotten wealth. Most Gothic heroines either lose their minds, or marry into the family — ostensibly losing their freedom in exchange for status and stability. Grace and Ana turn the artifice of the rich against them, adapting quickly to the ever-changing rules of the games, and winning them.
You could say that the house (oh god i’m so sorry) doesn’t always win.