Fear is personal. What scares one person may not cause even a small reaction in another. Categorizing the massive catalogue of monsters and antagonists in existence is a giant and thankless task. For the purpose of creating an initial approach to pinpointing the cause of fear there is one first question to be answered: is the fear due to something of this world, or is it based in fantasy?
Both fantastic and reality-based monsters are valid sources of fear. When it comes down to it, fear of either ax-wielding maniacs or vampires are equally legitimate, despite both attacks being fairly improbable. Horror films play into the fear of the real and unreal. PSYCHO’s Norman Bates is very much a monster from this world, but he can be just as terrifying as the zombies from DAWN OF THE DEAD.
I mention these two modes of worldly and otherworldly horror in my introduction to HOUSEBOUND due to the ambiguous origins of the horrors it presents. This film plays its cards quite close to its chest and keeps you guessing throughout.
HOUSEBOUND is a New Zealand made horror comedy. The film’s heroine is a crook named Kylie. When we first see her she is attempting to steal from an ATM, but she is caught after her partner botches the job. Rather than sentencing her to a rehabilitation program, which would not have been her first or even her fourth attempt for the government to try to get her back on the right track, she is sentenced to eight weeks of house arrest… at her mother’s house. This smart but sarcastic adult woman is now legally bound to move back home. Kylie’s face during the sentencing says it all: This fate is far worse than jail.
This is not due to having a bad mother. Her mother seems quite sweet at first, but this kindness morphs into saccharine doting and meddling very quickly. Mom is a busy-body and could only stop gossiping with the same effort it would take to stop breathing. Kylie’s impatience with her mother and step-father is instant. As she adjusts to her imprisonment she reluctantly revisits her childhood and her relationship with her mother. While nearly every word out of Mom’s mouth is judgmental chatter, certain mentions do catch Kylie’s ear. Her mother believes in ghosts and casually mentions items disappearing from around the house. Kylie is smart, and tries to dismiss her mother’s supernatural hunches, but when she notices some occurrences that defy logical explanation Kylie begins to investigate.
Kylie’s probing into what goes bump in the night, takes up the greatest chunk of HOUSEBOUND’s running time, and is thankfully the best part. The interesting twist in her investigation is the clash between her and her mother’s theories. Kylie refuses to believe in ghosts and her mother accepts that there are ghosts with no hesitation. With the bulk of the film dedicated to the question of what is happening at the house, the audience must then ask themselves which scenario would be scarier: a real or an unreal monster? Each scenario brings its own horror.
Should the poltergeist that Kylie is battling be an actual ghost, then everything Kylie knows to be true is now false. Discovering that ghosts are real and are able to wreak havoc on our world would unsettle anyone. The dead would be trapped on earth to tinker in the lives of the living. Perhaps they have unsettled business? Or the afterlife is boring and needs some spicing up?
The converse, and possibly more terrifying, scenario is that ghosts are not real. This would mean that for Kylie that there is a person in her mother’s house. The thought of a stranger being in my home, the one place I am supposed to be able to control and feel safe, makes the hair on my neck stand up. Beyond fear of domestic trespassing there is a deeper concern: that people are capable of being monsters. The soul of man has such darkness in it, but we do not like to face this reality. Should the haunting in HOUSEBOUND be that of a person, Kylie would have to confront their, and possibly her own, very real internal darkness.
We continue to tell stories of ghosts, vampires, and zombies, because it keeps us safe. Through horror films, we can escape into the fantastic world where people are not the greatest evil. It is only when we return to our reality that we have to deal with the real horrors of our world. HOUSEBOUND teases the divide between these worlds and keeps both the audience and Kylie guessing which horror she is truly facing.