Dystropia: A Family Moves Into THEIR WORST NIGHTMARE!!!
Somewhere situated between Easter Island and Papua New Guinea, perfectly pinned on a straight line between the Great Pyramid and the Nazca Lines lies the Isle of Dystropia, the place where every cliché and worn-out convention sticks out like rubble in the sand. Pawing through the debris, you'll find the trope that may just make or break your story. Each installment, we'll explore a different literary platitude, examining it for its various strengths and weaknesses. Set sail for Dystropia, where you might just learn something about your writing and yourself.
It's a trope so familiar in fiction, especially horror, that it barely needs an introduction. A family (sometimes but rarely a single person) moves into a new house, and supernatural shit starts hitting the fan. I could rattle off probably a hundred book and film titles that use this set of narrative jumper cables, but to just name a handful, in no particular order: Rosemary's Baby, Pet Sematary (both the novel and the film, plus the film's shitty sequel), The Conjuring, We Are Still Here, The Hellbound Heart/ Hellraiser, The Shining (substitute relocating to a new home with temporarily occupying a haunted hotel here), the painfully ongoing Amityville Horror series, Ju-on/The Grudge, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the first season of American Horror Story, The Haunting in Connecticut, Dream House, Mama, Dark Water, The Tenant, Body Snatchers, The Orphanage, Jessabelle, Suspiria, and so on. The website TV Tropes calls this type of narrative "new house, new problems."
But why this obsession with moving? What is so compelling about the act of taking your possessions from one home into another, particularly in the realm of horror? Let's unpack the trope and see what we can find.
When To Steer Clear
To put things simply, beginning a narrative with a relocation can help build up tension and put a kind of question mark over the familial dynamic. To my mind, Stephen King's aforementioned Pet Sematary puts this old trope to its finest use (and I'm talking about the novel here, not the film). King depicts the moving experience for what it is: a sweaty, noisy, exhausting, altogether unpleasant experience. Protagonist Louis Creed practically fantasizes about slapping his children silly for all their raucous behavior, screeching and complaining. He's even sick to death of his wife Rachel, and it's likely she of him in turn—not because they don't have a healthy relationship, far from it, but rather because spanning thousands of miles with the same person and people in a confined space, with the yellow or white lines forever blasting toward and past you and the same basic sights eclipsing by, it all eventually becomes so tedious you want to blow your brains out.
If you've ever moved cross-state, you know how dreadful it can be, and King perfectly captures the experience in the first few pages of his novel (it was an experience he himself had gone through prior to writing Pet Sematary, in fact). What he gives us is the beginning of a novel that is at once both relatable and tense, hooking the reader in immediately.
Moreover, the reason for the Creeds' relocation is a pretty straightforward one: Louis is to be the new head doctor at the local campus hospital, a job that isn't so much a good career move as it is good for the family's overall way of life: no more of the hustle and bustle of Chicago for the Creeds, no sir. They come to Ludlow, Maine seeking a simpler, less hectic existence—and of course, they get anything but.
Lastly, Pet Sematary is not a haunted house narrative. The "ghosts," or evil entities, if you will, are far older than any modern structure; they live in the surrounding woods and prey upon Louis's weaknesses. Unlike narratives like The Amityville Horror, where terror is inevitable, everything that happens in King's novel could be avoided, if Louis had made different choices. The demons that well up in Pet Sematary are ultimately rooted in human folly, and thus not completely external and only expelled by a priest or some other "mystic" who knows how to properly battle malign spirits.
So that's lesson one right there: if you're writing a haunted house narrative, maybe avoid the "new house, new problems" trope. I can think of no other horror subgenre that overuses this narrative, often with poor results. This typically arises from the reason the family moves in the first place. In The Haunting in Connecticut, to name an especially egregious example, the family moves because of financial hardship. Writers, listen up: only in the most extreme circumstances do people move because doing so would actually lessen their financial burdens. Moving—especially cross-state—is an expensive endeavor and an all-around nightmare. No sane person would say, "Hmm, my child is about to need extensive medical care which will likely cost an arm and a leg, so in order to alleviate the exorbitant bills, I should buy a house for super cheap and move all our crap over to said super cheap house, upending our entire lives and putting undue stress on everyone just so we'll save a little bit more over the next several months." Reasonable, logical, realistic characters would weigh the costs versus benefits of such an endeavor and immediately scrap the plan for its shear insanity. And yet, the characters in Connecticut execute the foolish plan anyway, and then Oh Shit, the house used to be a funeral home where lots of seances and necrophilia happened! or some such nonsense.
Furthermore, the act of moving itself is rarely ever presented as the slogging headache it is. You can make the best of any moving experience, at times you can have fun if you're in the right mood, but overall, moving is not fun. So many narratives show the relocation experience as tiring, but there's often the "kids romping through the new house picking their rooms" scene, with the parents smiling and perfectly put together, happy to see their children so excited. And that's realistic enough, but there's rarely the accompanying harried exhaustion boiling just underneath the veneer of cheer. Even if your protagonist isn't two screeches shy of a pop to the mouth like in Pet Sematary, some semblance of utter fatigue should be present in order to avoid the "new house, new problems" trope sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Where To Set Your Sights
Using "new house, new problems" effectively requires these three things:
1. As mentioned above, depict the moving experience itself realistically. I think we've covered that topic well enough, don't you?
2. Don't give your family a stupid reason for moving. I think too many writers overthink the need for their characters to relocate, coming up with these elaborate circumstances that have forced a family's hand. And while this can be compelling, it's ultimately not necessary. Consider some of the best horror narratives that use this trope: Pet Sematary, the family moves because the father has a new job and overall they want a slower, simpler life; Rosemary's Baby, the couple move into a new apartment because they're trying to have children and need the extra space; The Shining, the father hopes to hammer out a Great American Novel, while his wife hopes to scrape off some of their emotional baggage and recapture their familial bliss; Suspiria, girl moves into the dance academy she's always dreamed of attending. These are all fairly mundane reasons for moving, when you look at them objectively, but each one works because the horrific aftermaths of their relocation have little to do with the relocation itself. Put another way, the family's move provided an opportunity for horror that could have arisen in another way. Which leads me to the third point...
3. Root the new problems not in the new house, but in the same old problems. The Creeds' life might have disintegrated anyway, even if they never moved to Ludlow, because Louis might have had another opportunity to make the same poor decisions he did; Rosemary's husband Guy was always a scumbag and a liar, and his living near the Satan-worshipping Castavets merely provided one opportunity for his scumbaggery to surface; Jack Torrance would have carried his alcohol-drenched demons wherever he went; and Suzy's ambitions might have led her to a more serene ballet school, but one certainly less prestigious than the witch-owned and operated one she chose. Compare this to titles like Amityville, We Are Still Here, and Connecticut, in which the family's hardship is strictly rooted to the locale. Place them in non-haunted settings, and nothing happens. They go about their lives, and thus we have no supernatural narrative to enjoy.
Out In The Real World
Unlike other less-realistic tropes—like the "Damsel in Distress" or the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl"—people do actually move from place to place pretty regularly, and for a variety of reasons. But, as mentioned above, those reasons are commonplace and mostly benign—for work, for school, for the extra space, etc. Sometimes they move to be nearer to other family members, to help with a sick relative; sometimes they move simply because they want to, because they really like a particular city more than the place they currently live. Which partly explains the prevalence of "new house, new problems" in the horror genre, since horror is often all about forging a schism into everyday life, making the ordinary extraordinary, terrifyingly so—that and the natural anxiety that comes from being a "fish out of water," a "stranger in a strange land," and any other cliché you can think of.
But here's the thing: lots of other things happen all the time out there in the real world too. Lots of people never leave their hometown, either buying their own house there or occupying their parents' home after they die (an especially fantastic horror film released last year, The Eyes of My Mother, explored that very scenario). And in the not-so-mundane realm of supernatural narratives, ghosts can haunt the long-time occupants of a house just as easily as they can the brand-spanking new ones. Is there a challenge in explaining why the family hadn't noticed any paranormal activity up until the onset of your narrative? Damn straight there is—and you know what, that's a good thing. Don't rely on the crutch of "new house, new problems"—come up with something we haven't seen before, a reason why a settled and overall happy family might suddenly find themselves plagued by evil spirits. You could even use another less-traveled trope: the haunted object brought into the home—just don't do anything as stupid as that possessed lamp in one of the Amityville sequels; nobody wins in that scenario.
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