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Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘Anatomy’ Opens the Creaking Door to Haunted House Tales

Haunted house stories are having a moment. It might be quarantine. Or it could be Netflix's fault—its release of The Haunting of Bly Manor has reinvigorated the discourse about what makes a good haunted house story and whether or not Mike Flanagan, the horror director who, between Bly Manor and Hill House and Doctor Sleep seems to be veritably obsessed with them, really has what it takes to make one that feels both scary and fascinating.


Haunted houses are special because houses are special. They keep us safe—until they don't—and are both entirely familiar to us and entirely unfamiliar, as anyone who's had to deal with serious home repairs could tell you. People have intimate relationships with the places where they live. And that's a powerful entry path for horror. Or, as the opening line of Kitty Horrorshow's 2016 video game Anatomy puts it, "In the psychology of the modern civilized human being, it is difficult to overstate the significance of the house."

Horrorshow's game starts with a tape player in an empty kitchen and a single cassette. When you put it in, the narration begins, a faux-academic exploration of what houses mean, why they're special, and, most important, how people might think of them anatomically. Is a kitchen a stomach? Is a living room a heart? In what ways are houses like us?

All of this occurs, by the way, in an empty, modern suburban home. Two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a little narrow set of stairs. One peculiarity of haunted house stories is that they're often period pieces. It's the distance, I think: Old ornate Victorian-style homes are familiar without being too familiar. We want to think about how scary houses can be without actually letting that horror fully inside. Anatomy, a small game released on itch.io for PC, refuses that distance. This could be the house you grew up in. Or one you rented, for a while, in college, a lonely, dull little home at the end of a lonely, dull little cul-de-sac. It might be a lot like the one you live in right now.

The voice in the tape continues: "But of all the structures mankind has invented for itself, there is little doubt that the house is that which it relies upon most completely for its continued survival."

Anatomy understands the haunted house story. It understands why houses are scary and fascinating, and why artists from Henry James to Shirley Jackson to Mike Flanagan have been so obsessed with them. And alongside scaring you, Anatomy also wants to teach you. It is, in some sense, an exercise in explaining the joke—its narration delves into what is so frightening about a haunted house. But it's an exercise that's so effective and so deeply dialed in to the core of human fears that even when you understand it, you're still unnerved.

Here's how it's played: You find that first tape, in the kitchen of an empty, dark house. Then a message onscreen tells you to find another tape, in another room. In this way you explore the house, gathering tapes, listening to this voice contrasted with the uneasy, shadowy presence of the house. A presence that grows, as the house becomes more and more alien, as it begins to feel like something is there. Or maybe it's just the house itself, broken the way Hill House was in Jackson's novel. Then, a question arises: Whose voice is it on those tapes?


More happens in Anatomy's short run time, but summarizing it here would be to the game's detriment. But know this: What makes Anatomy feel vital four years after its release is the sense that it wants to welcome you into horror at the same time as it plays with horror storytelling. It pushes you to think about why scary things are scary, what deeper psychology is at work when you're afraid of the dark room at the end of the hall or what might be behind that locked door.

Many people have tried to convince the world that horror isn't worth engaging with intellectually. That mythology is all over the writing about the genre, with talk of "elevated horror" coming to the fore whenever a horror movie with a sharp point enters the mainstream consciousness. But Anatomy's structure, both didactic and surreally horrific, points to the falsehood of that idea. Horror is a deep-bone feeling, part adrenaline and part fascination. It wouldn't be unfair to compare it to more kinetic occupations, like roller coasters or the like. But horror is also deeply brainy, relying on subtext and teasing out things inside of us that we didn't know were there. Horror is all about forcing everyone to engage with familiar things in unfamiliar ways, lending them something dark that wasn't clearly visible before.

Video games are exceptionally good at this, because they force us to engage with spaces and sense experiences in a very direct way. In games, players open every door that shouldn't be opened, while also playing the role of the audience member screaming at the protagonist to run the other way. That engagement can heighten horror, and it's why video games have been quietly creating some of the most vital horror media around for decades.

Anatomy is a powerful entry point to that experience, an explanation of its value and an exploration of its impact. Haunted houses are having a moment, but the best ones, pound for pound, might be in video games. And in terms of succinct power and lasting impact, Anatomy can't be beat. If you're going to play one horror game in your backlog this Halloween, make it this one.

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