Halen Gifford

The Ghosts of Grief: An Exploration of Gothic Influence in 2010s Horror Cinema

April 5, 2021   /  

Name: Halen Gifford
Major: Communication Studies
Minor: Film Studies
Advisors: Dr. Ahmet Atay, Dr. Nii Nikoi (second reader)

The purpose of this project is to examine gothic influences in contemporary horror cinema of the 2010s. To fulfill this purpose, the study employs comparative film analysis methods to analyze The Babadook (2014), The Invitation (2015), and Crimson Peak (2015) in order to identify intertextual gothic references in the cinematography, mise enscène, and narratives of the films. Specifically, this project examines the haunted house trope in the horror genre as characterized by the presence of ghosts and the personification of the setting. Through this analysis, four common themes emerged: “Houses with Personality,” “Tragic Losses,” “Memories and Ghosts,” and “Isolation.” The results of this research conclude that these films articulate the importance of confronting grief and emotional vulnerability, which are consistent with societal trends and conversations surrounding destigmatizing mental illness in 2010s popular culture.

Keywords: gothic, horror, film, grief, isolation, haunted house.

Digital Component

Halen will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST 9-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening) and 4-6 pm EDT (PST 1-3pm, Africa/Europe: late evening)

59 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Grief: An Exploration of Gothic Influence in 2010s Horror Cinema”

  1. Halen, this is great. I remember when you told me this is what you wanted to do for I.S. I miss our many chats over the years. Well done and congratulations!

    1. Thank you, John! I had a blast getting to write on a topic I enjoy so much. I miss our chats too, it was great hearing from you.

  2. I absolutely LOVE your presentation- the visual representation, the cross-comparisons and the interest in the topic are all very clear. What caused you to further dive into film noir? How did you select these films?

    Really awesome work- proud of you & congratulations!!!

    1. Thank you, Lauren! I spent the first part of the Fall semester watching lots and lots of horror movies to decide which ones I would like to analyze. The films I chose were movies that I enjoyed watching and were made by directors I admire. I also took into consideration the popularity and critical acclaim of the films so I could argue their relevance.

      1. Very fair! I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing your talents and congrats again on a job well done!

  3. Love the video Halen! I was wondering how you chose the three movies? Did you feel they exemplified the field or were they personal favorites?

    1. Thank you, Marloes! Part of my film selection was that I enjoy these movies (if I was going to spend this much time thinking about them I wanted to make sure I really like the films). But I also chose them based on critical reception, importance to the genre, and popularity. Additionally, I did take into consideration the initial similarities of the films so that I could properly compare them. My advisor and I talked about many different movies and I settled on these three for their relationship to domestic haunted spaces.

        1. In full, I watched them all at least four times. But I couldn’t tell you how many times I went back to watch scenes, pause, take notes, save clips, all that sort of stuff. The Invitation and Crimson Peak are on Netflix now if you’d like to watch them!

  4. Halen, this is such a creative and engaging use of Scalar! Well done! You should be very proud of this project.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Holt! Scalar is such a cool platform, I enjoyed working with it a lot.

  5. This is amazing! It’s interesting to think about how the haunted house trope is used in films that aren’t about ghosts or even an actual house like The Village or The VVitch that use homesteads surrounded by an otherworldly forest. Especially since both these films show domestic life disrupted by supernatural forces along with feelings of isolation, trauma, and a very grounded tragic moment at the start of the film. How do you think the haunted house tope can be applied to films that aren’t set in a literal house (such as The Shining’s Overlook, The VVitch’s homestead, or The Village’s village)? What about films that aren’t primarily set in a single location?
    It’s also interesting to think about straight up ghost movies that fall right into this trope, despite attempts to deviate from viewers’ expectations. Specifically, I’m thinking about The Others, which attempts to be different by adding a twist to the protagonist’s role in the ghost story trope, but by the end, find a way to hit every single trope or cliché you explored here. I really enjoyed this.

    1. Thank you, Jake! I would agree with what you said about The Village or The VVitch (that was actually one of the films I considered analyzing) using themes of isolation and trauma to disrupt domesticity. I think that is a major way that the trope can be used outside of a literal house. One way a movie could utilize tropes associated with haunted house films is by following a family unit (like in The Shining or The VVitch) in crisis. That way regardless of the setting, the film is still targeting anxieties surrounding domesticity and family trauma much like a “haunted house” movie would. Same situation with films that don’t have primary locations. If the movie is utilizing gothic themes like isolation, “ghosts”, and dismantling the traditional family unit, I would argue it is playing with some key aspects of the trope.

      In my lit review, I talk about the concept of intertextuality which refers to the dialogue films have with one another by pulling from prior cinema. Using that idea, you can see how films that maybe have nothing to do with ghosts or houses are still pulling tropes from movies that do. So in that way, we could also see how a film could have been inspired by the haunted house trope but taken that out of the setting completely.

      Also, I love The Others and that’s a great point about the movie! It does a great job at being a “pure” ghost movie with the setting and narrative while also commenting on the deeper meaning of ghost.

  6. Congrats, Halen! Thanks for sharing your IS – it is so fun to see what you have been researching!

  7. Congratulations, Halen, this is absolutely phenomenal, and such an interesting topic to learn from you about in a unique way! I’m so proud of all you were able to accomplish this year and I can’t wait to see what you do next!!

  8. Halen, you are so brilliant! I’ve loved hearing about this project here and there in class. From our first day in Comm 101, I’ve admired your passion for the things you care about and your enthusiasm for sharing it with others. Thanks for being all that you are!

  9. Really great work. I love the choices of films, and so many others are popping up in my head with similar themes of a real-life loss preceding the supernatural.

    Any I.S. on horror movies is wonderful as far as I’m concerned.

    1. Thank you, Jack! Yes, there are so many films that follow that theme. I like the way you put that, real-life loss preceding the supernatural, it is a good way of summarizing the message!

      Defiantly consider horror film as a topic for your own IS, it was a really interesting research process and I had fun doing it.

  10. Excellent work, Halen. I’ve enjoyed watching this grow from a concept to becoming a fully fleshed-out, phenomenally argued and presented, IS.

    1. Thank you, Mom! I enjoyed watching dozens of horror movies with you while we tried to figure out what exactly I was trying to say.

  11. Yay Halen!! I enjoyed watching two of the movies with you and I was just wondering if watching them multiple times changed your view on them. Did your analysis of these films affect how you looked at other horror films (like the ones in your horror class?)?

    1. Thank you, Keira (especially for watching them with me)! Yes, viewing the films multiple times for sure changed my thoughts on them. After my initial analysis, I was able to look at the films with my similar themes in mind in order to find examples of what I was trying to argue. I also did try to watch the movies with other people sometimes because talking through what I was seeing with another person really helped me construct my thesis. My project definitely changed how I view horror films and maybe cinema in general. While I have studied film my whole college experience this was really the next level of understanding. After reading so many texts about horror films I watch everything through a new lens.

  12. Congratulations Halen this is incredible! I can’t wait to see where life takes you and what you will accomplish in this new chapter!!

    1. Thank you, Lily! I remember us watching horror movies in your parlor when we were probably way too young. Defiantly got me where I am today!

  13. Halen,

    Congratulations on putting together this piece! I hope you’ll forgive me for skimming through it – horror is just not my genre and I tend to obsess over images that frighten or upset me. 🙁 However, I’m proud of you putting this together, knowing the quality of work you produce. I’ll look forward to hearing where life-after-Wooster takes you.

    1. Thank you, Cathy! And of course, it is not everyone’s cup of tea so I totally understand. Thank you for still coming and checking it out.

  14. Halen, this was so fantastic! I am incredibly impressed by your editing skills to put all of these clips together. Your narration was also so engaging. Amazing job!

  15. Congratulations Halen! Loss, memory and grief aren’t things that immediately come to mind for me in Horror films so this was really fascinating to me. You did a fantastic job on your Scalar presentation as well. Good luck to you!

  16. This is so awesome Halen! Congrats on such a cool project and website. Covid screwed up a lot of things, but I’ve really enjoyed becoming better friends with you this year in spite of everything going on!

  17. Super cool project, Halen! First of all, the editing of your presentation with the different film clips was great and definitely helped me understand the topic better (nothing worse than trying to describe a movie someone hasn’t seen). I’m curious, how would you characterize the haunted house from the 2006 vastly underrated and Oscar-snubbed film, “Monster House?” Congrats on all your hard work!!

    1. Thank you, Sam! I actually think Monster House is a great example of the argument I am making! The house is literally built on top of the traumatic event/loss of Constance. The monster house is Constance, so it is an extreme form of personification which is important to the haunted house trope. I think that Mr. Nebbercracker’s character is interesting too because his home is the embodiment of his grief, therefore, isolating him in his pain. The film ends (spoiler alert) with him having to confront said pain by letting the house/Constance go thus freeing him from not only the physical isolation of living in the home but the emotional weight of the setting. Monster House uses all of the themes I highlighted in my thesis and really does engage with gothic horror intertextually. Thank you for this question!

  18. WOW!!! First this video presentation is extremely engaging. I loved your I.S. topic and will definitely be reading the full thesis.

  19. Halen, I loved this presentation, the way you shared your research was super engaging. It’s really fun to see how this passion for horror and film has developed the past four years.
    A question I had was if your research on these tropes and characterization has impacted your enjoyment of newer horror films. Do you find yourself watching every movie with a critical lens now? And do you have any predictions about how these trends might develop into the 2020’s?

    1. Thank you, Sarah! I would say it has impacted my viewing of newer horror films, but not in a bad way. I defiantly have a better time picking up on references to other films and elements of gothic inspiration, as well as the social commentary they are making. So yes, I do find myself watching movies with a critical lens!

      I didn’t highlight it in my presentation, but in my conclusion, I explored this a bit. I think one way the trends are developing is by being more obvert with their message. We are seeing more critical films that directly engage with taboo topics of race and structural inequality. The films I looked at explored trauma more individually, but even in the last 3 years, we have seen horror films that really tackle the long history of trauma and oppression from a systemic point of view. For example, Us (2019) is about a family and explores the disruption of this unit however it expands to look at a large disruption of society. I think we will continue to see movies like that and movies that explore generational trauma and that widespread impact.

  20. Wow, that was powerful, Halen! I took notes and was moved by the “personification of the home” and how the haunted house holds the trauma of what it has witnessed.
    I also heard “isolation” is an important element.
    Wonder what type of horror films we will see as a result of the pandemic? Perhaps you are already thinking about this.
    Congrats on a really well done presentation!

    1. Thank you, Cameron! Yes, I wonder that as well! I mentioned some thoughts I have about the progression of this genre in my response to Sarah (see above). But I also am hoping that the theme of collective grief is explored more coming out of the pandemic. Since 9-11 American horror cinema has really targeted the idea of mass tragedy but hasn’t focused too much on the emotional and mental ramifications of that. We see a lot of individual-based narratives which makes sense because it is easier for audiences to empathize with one or a few characters. However, I think the pandemic really illustrates the importance of community and I think that films about that would be valuable.

  21. I really enjoyed watching this piece and learning more about your work. You crafted a beautifully edited film that illustrates the themes you discuss. It was a pleasure to watch.

  22. Great job, Halen. Very impressive job of breaking down the haunted house trope. Nicely edited and presented. Your deep appreciation and understanding of film leads me to ask: are you interested in shooting film yourself?

    1. Thank you, Andy! I don’t have any plans to pursue filmmaking professionally, however, film and video creation is something I do enjoy doing for fun.

  23. Halen, great work! “Houses with Personality” is a really apt way to describe that trope. Beautifully done presentation & nice critical attention to these narrative structures!

  24. Wow, great presentation! I’m a huge watcher of horror films, and Crimson Peak and its score are one of my favorites. When talking about haunted houses and the breaking down of the family unit, I thought of Hereditary. Have you seen/considered Hereditary at all? Would you call the house a prominent character in the movie (if you’ve seen it)?

    Great job!

  25. What a spooky thesis! I love these kinds of analyses, because the next time I watch a movie I’ll have your work in the back of my mind. Awesome job!

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