Why home invasion movies scare the shit out of me
Last night I watched Mike Flanagan's HUSH for the first time. There are few directors that have spent the last decade as productively as Flanagan. Since 2011, Flanagan has released seven films and a television series - all critically acclaimed and championed by horror fans. I have loved all the films of his I've seen, but there was a handful I had not yet gotten around to so I've been closing in the gaps during the quarantine.
HUSH is, quite frankly, fucking terrifying. Flanagan, along with creative partner and wife Kate Siegel, delivers a lean, mean, under-ninety-minute thrill ride that manages to consistently surprise audiences while never betraying its own internal logic. The film stars and was co-written by Siegel, who plays a deaf author stalked by a sadistic archer. Through a soundless performance, Siegel must defend herself against the threat she can't hear coming. The actor is tremendous as a deaf woman who refuses to become a victim. Without using her voice, Siegel brings tremendous pathos to the role, dragging audiences along with her in her harrowing night of survival.
The truth is, though, Flanagan could have completely whiffed the film and I still would have found it terrifying. Home invasion films are right up there with demonic possession movies as the genre most likely to send a shiver of fear right up my spine. Being home alone is scary enough as it is but I actually have experience with a home invasion, in the stupidest way possible.
In 2008, I was preparing to leave College Station. I knew I wanted to move somewhere, but I hadn't settled on a new city to move to. I was applying for jobs across the state and didn't want to renew a lease with an apartment complex that would lock me down to a time commitment. Instead, I made a deal with my landlord where I would shuffle around his unused properties month-by-month until I found a job and a new city to move to. I stayed in a nice four-bedroom home for a month and then a decent modernish apartment for three weeks. I had put all my stuff in storage so all I had with me were seven days' change of clothes, a portable DVD player, a cot, and an air mattress.
For about three months, I would move from home to home - making each new location my temporary shelter. I'd move in, pick a bedroom to set up my temporary living situation and then only come home at night, right when I was ready to go to bed. I'd spend the rest of my time either at work, at a movie theater, or at a local coffee shop where I'd read or write.
One of the final temporary properties my landlord set me up in was a ramshackle former frat house that was about to be repaired and remodeled. The entire structure leaned a bit to the left and the front door had been, at some point, kicked in and didn't shut completely. I was a bit nervous about staying there - the toilet looked like it hadn't been cleaned in years and I would need to buy swimming shoes before I was willing to step into the tub for a shower. A begger couldn't be a chooser, though, and at least this place had four walls. Who cares if the walls had peeling paint and stains that looked suspiciously like poo. Besides, I would only be staying there for a few hours every night while I slept. And I would only need to stay there for a few weeks because, after months of searching, I had found a job in Houston. I only needed to put in my final two weeks at my current place of employment. I could suck it up and live in this trash heap for two weeks, right?
My first day there I poked around the place, getting a feel for what, exactly, I was stepping into. There was trash in the closets, broken beer bottles in the corners of the living room, and cans of tuna fish in the pantry. Whoever had previously lived there had obviously not gotten their deposit back.
True to my plan, I barely spent any time in that house for the first few days. I'd wake up, go to work, watch a movie on my way home, get dinner, and hang out someplace around town until it was time to go to bed. Everything was going swimmingly until the night I decided to watch Bryan Bertino's THE STRANGERS.
I wish I could write more about the film and how scary it was but I have not seen THE STRANGERS since 2008 and I don't remember much about the movie, besides the fact that it managed to turn a Joanna Newsom song into the scariest piece of music since Tubular Bells. The reason my memory of THE STRANGERS has been crowded out of my head is because of what happened later that night, after I came home from the theater.
I remember enjoying the movie and I remember grabbing a hamburger for dinner on the way home after the film. I came home, ate my hamburger, and watched an episode of THE CHAPPELLE SHOW on a portable DVD player until I was ready to go to sleep. I turned off the lights, closed the door to my bedroom and locked it - a precaution I had begun to do the first night I moved into the house because of the fact that the front door didn't shut completely. Sometime, a few hours later, I woke to the sound of noise coming from the kitchen.
I stayed in my bed for the first few minutes, trying to listen to the noise and figure out what it might be. Maybe it was the plumbing or the sound of a branch hitting a window. Was I dreaming? Was this my imagination running wild after having watched a scary movie earlier that night?
Nope, that was definitely the sound of footprints. I was very much awake and there was definitely somebody in the house.
I'm a big dude - should I storm out of the bedroom wielding something to try and scare away the intruders? I didn't have any weapons, though. I really didn't have anything. Maybe I could shake a clothes hanger at them. As the minutes ticked on and the noise continued, I made the decision to ignore it. My bedroom door was locked, I was safely hidden under a blanket and I wasn't going to risk upsetting the apple cart that was my safety. If whoever was in my kitchen decided to come in through the bedroom door, I would deal with the matter then. Until that point, though, I was going to hide under my blanket and hope that the threat went away.
I spent a few hours that night listening to the footsteps in the kitchen, obsessing over the sound of cabinets opening and closing until I couldn't take it anymore. Eventually, I brought out my DVD player, put on some headphones, and tried to distract myself with sketch comedy until I fell asleep. I've never laughed so silently and nervously before. But It worked! I woke up the next day and I was still alive - no knife wounds, no missing organs.
I put off actually leaving the safety of my locked bedroom as long as possible but, when it was getting to the point where I risked being late for work, I finally stepped out into the rest of the house and surveyed the damage. Nothing was missing (as if there was anything to steal), nothing looked more damaged than previously (that hole in the wall had been there before, right?). Maybe I had imagined things. Maybe it was just an after-effect of having seen THE STRANGERS earlier that night. Kudos to Bryan Bertino.
Nope! In the kitchen, on the counter, were three open tuna fish cans.
I rushed out the door, got into my car, and went to work. During my lunch break, I made a reservation at a hotel for the remaining time I'd be living in College Station. When I called my landlord to let him know I was moving out that afternoon, he acknowledged that the day before I moved in he had chased out a group of squatters who had been living in the frat house for a month. He didn't offer that information before I moved in, of course. What a nice guy.
Imagine if I had been killed over tuna fish cans! I think back at all the possible ways I might have died over the years and death via hungry hobos is among the stupidest.
This experience, as stupid as it was, has made it so any home invasion movie I watch has that much more of an impact on me. KIDNAPPED, YOU'RE NEXT, US, FUNNY GAMES - however the way the filmmaker uses the trope, it works on me. Guaranteed. Mike Flanagan's HUSH worked particularly well. Congrats, dude. I didn't sleep a wink last night.
On a slightly related note, I finally watched Flanagan's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE earlier this summer after having missed it when it first premiered on Netflix a few years back. I was, of course, absolutely blown away. I had been told the show was scary but I wasn't prepared for how scary it was. At one point I actually fell off my chair during a jump scare. I had been told the show was emotional but the "Bent-Neck Lady" episode had me sobbing. I had been told the show was right up my alley but THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE felt like it was built from scratch, designed to the exact specifications of what I'm into and what I love in scary stories.
When it comes to horror movies, I tend to lean towards comedies or, at least, scary stories that can also be laughed at. I don't scare easily and I don't get any visceral excitement from watching teenagers get killed so, as a result, when I watch a scary movie I tend to look for something that is at least mostly "fun," whatever the hell that means.
The scary movies that do scare me, the ones that haunt me for days after I watch them, are usually movies drenched in tragedy. For me, the scariest thing is loss - loss of a loved one, loss of your own life, loss of identity. THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE understands the fear of loss and spends ten masterfully constructed hours wallowing in it. The family at the center of the show has been irrevocably marked after a childhood trauma and the show understands that the trauma that surrounds loss can have a rippling effect on the rest of a person's life.
I cannot recommend THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE enough. The show messed me up - but in the best way possible. I can't wait for season two.
Hopefully, it doesn't feature a home invasion episode, though.