Book Review:

Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects, by Marc Olivier

Reviewed by Zachary Sheldon

Baylor University

Review of Marc Olivier's Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects, Indiana University Press, 2020. 350 pp. Hardcover (ISBN 978-0253046550). Paperback (ISBN 978-0253046567). 

A variety of theorists and scholars have thoroughly analyzed and unpacked the cinematic, cultural, and psychological devices that contribute to the atmosphere of fear that defines the horror genre. But along the way objects of our most basic fears have been overlooked in scholarly discourses. For all the scary music, lighting, and acting, horror films are also cluttered with props that play meaningful roles in the creation and sustenance of dread onscreen. There are weapons, of course—knives, guns, chainsaws, and so on. But there are also more mundane objects that have a decidedly outsized presence in their respective films.

It is these no less prominent but far less noticeable props that Marc Olivier brings to the fore in Household Horror, an explicitly “object-oriented book” that raises the profile of how everyday items are often the unsung thematic or conceptual anchors in horror films. From refrigerators to beds to shower curtains, typewriters, microwaves, and pills, the literal things that both clutter and make possible our modern lives play surprisingly prominent roles in classic and contemporary horror films with little or no acknowledgement from viewers, critics, or scholars. Many have written about themes of religion, sexuality, and trauma in The Exorcist, for example, but most people fail to recognize the prominent place that beds have in that story, the variety of significances different types of beds have to the plot, or how character’s interactions with the varying kinds of beds contributes to the film’s larger thematic and structural goals. Others have written about issues of sexuality, gender, and fear surrounding the character of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, but most people overlook the prominence of the sewing machine in his scenes and how the device’s strange historical relationship to discourses of gender, industrialism, and capitalism complicates and deepens Buffalo Bill’s actions and psychology. Through a mixed-method approach that combines elements of neoformalism with historiography and archival research, Olivier reinvigorates a whole host of familiar household items and their symbolic work within particular films.

Structurally, Household Horror comprises four parts, each focusing on a specific room in a typical house, and fourteen chapters, each centered on one particular object and its role in one or many films. Part One concentrates on the Kitchen/Dining Room: the chapter on the “Refrigerator” critiques Possession (1981); “Microwave” looks at Gremlins (1984); “Telephone” examines I Saw What You Did (1965), Black Christmas (1974), and When a Stranger Calls (1979), with mention of Rosemary’s Baby (1968); and “Dining Table” focuses on Noriko’s Dinner Table (2006). Part Two reaches the Living Room: “(Sleeper) Sofa” breaks down Sisters (1973); “Remote” engages with Poltergeist (1982); “Sewing Machine” variously examines Carrie (1976), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and May (2002); and “Houseplant” reads The Secret Life of Plants (1978) as a companion piece to the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Part Three steps into the Bedroom: “Bed” rereads The Exorcist (1973); mattresses specifically are connected with Psycho (1960) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); and Halloween (1978) and The Others (2001) are connected to bedding and sheets; “Typewriter” connects The Shining (1980) and Misery (1990); and “Armoire” examines A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). Part Four guides readers into one of the most intimate of a home’s spaces, the Bathroom: “Radiator” celebrates Eraserhead (1977); “Pills” takes on The Bad Seed (1956), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005); and “Shower Curtain” examines the iconic shower sequence in Psycho (1960).  This organizational conceit is aided by a rather charming drawing in the book’s front matter, providing a fictional layout for an apartment containing the different props covered, from Jack Torrance’s typewriter from The Shining in the bedroom to the mysterious prenatal vitamins from Rosemary’s Baby strewn across the bathroom floor. The selected films are as varied in era and temperament as it is possible to be. Only in a collection like this could analyses of the microwave in Gremlins, the refrigerator in Zulawski’s Possession, and the radiator in Eraserhead exist comfortably side-by-side.

Household Horror is at one level a fascinating exercise in taking a phenomenologically-driven, object-oriented approach to the horror genre; it is also simply an incredibly fun read that shows off Olivier’s impressive range of research and knowledge: the histories of refrigeration, microwave technology, sewing machines, and typewriter construction; the impact of Western culture on the history of dining customs in Japan and South Korea; and trends in South Korean furniture design and their relationship to Western imperial influences, to name a few. Perhaps the best and most maniacal of chapters engages the typewriters in two Stephen King adaptations, The Shining and Misery. Olivier’s analysis of The Shining as a coproduction of writer and typewriter and what that means for other typographically-focused films, like Misery, makes for a dazzling chapter that embodies the passionate spirit of the book as a whole. Another chapter breaking down the role of the remote control in Poltergeist is written in an experimental form with many short sections that jump around in focus, mimicking the activity of flipping through channels.

Olivier himself acknowledges in the book’s introduction that his approach and his cinematic subjects are eclectic, to the point that the book contains “many conclusions but no traditional ‘Conclusion,’” which is to say that there is no overarching argument in the book (3). Rather, Olivier aims in each in-depth treatment of an object and a film to topple the implicit hierarchy that ranks people over objects. He thereby enables “the objects in scary movies to take on new dimensions” as particular kinds of heroes in their own stories, treating them as “beings that surpass the roles given to them as props or decor” (2, 3). The stories of our greatest horror films could not be told at all without them.

By acknowledging that there is no overarching argument to his book, Olivier opens the door to criticism that there is no great theoretical achievement or contribution made in its pages. But Olivier proves that his object-centered approach to horror can pay conceptual dividends in showing how what can seem mundane or unimportant in film actually contributes a great deal to our theoretical and critical understandings of what we watch. Olivier’s book provides a template and a justification for methodological eclecticism that ought to encourage other scholars to take up its mantle and examine other objects in other films and, even, other genres. Household Horror challenges others to build on its foundation and see what stories there are to be told when the critic’s eyes move from a film’s human cast to the roles occupied by material things.

-12 Jan. 2022