The Housing Crisis is So Gothically Horrifying It’s Turning Up in Scary Movies
Mia Florin-Sefton on Barbarian, Jane Eyre, and the Horrors of Housing
In the latest horror flick about a house rental gone wrong, Jane Eyre makes a surprise cameo. Barbarian (2022) begins when Tess (Georgina Campbell), a young Black woman visiting Detroit for a job interview, arrives at the doorstep of her pristine Airbnb, only to make an unwelcome discovery: her rental has been doubled booked, and she’s stranded in an apocalyptically decimated neighborhood.
Tess is highly suspicious, but she nervously accepts the invitation from the other tenant, Keith (Bill Skarsgård), to come inside. When she wakes in the morning, Keith has already left for the day, leaving behind a well-worn copy of Charlotte Bronte’s feminist classic.
Jane Eyre also makes an uncanny appearance in the Netflix series remake of Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House (2018). In this ten-part series, a picture-perfect family moves into an abandoned country estate with the hope of “flipping it.” Things soon go wildly off course, however, as they slowly find themselves “digested” by the dilapidated house’s mysterious “Red Room.” Notably, this phantom appendage to the haunted house was the result of creative license taken by the series writers. It is also an unmistakable reference to the notorious “red room” in which a young and orphaned Jane is first confined by her cruel aunt.
In truth, these two productions share far more than intertextual references. By far the most noteworthy similarity is that both represent a high-risk speculative investment—be it a rental property in a deserted neighborhood or an abandoned stately residence—as a site defined by a semiotics of panic, predation, and terror. That said, drawing a hard-and-fast distinction between these points of comparison is misleading. In each case, it is the rewriting of 19th-century gothic conventions that provides a “terminology of terror” (Evie Shockley) for the current housing crisis: new private rental markets, “zombie mortgages,” wholesale investing, the threat of foreclosure, endless risk and speculation, displacement, and gentrification.
This terminology of terror isn’t just more scaremongering. To the contrary, it provides new conceptual tools for thinking about how what Manuel Aalbers calls “the financialization of housing” is responsible for new class dynamics and forms of racial dispossession. In The Asset Economy (2020), Cooper, Adkins, and Konings advocate for an updated understanding of class position that takes into account a new logic of social stratification organized along the fault lines of home ownership and intergenerational wealth transfers. Put more simply, it now matters less and less what you do, where you work, what you earn, and more and more what property you inherit. Against this backdrop, they claim that “the growing awareness that owning assets often pays more than working for a living has not yet been translated into a new understanding of class and inequality” (emphasis my own).
I will confess that, when I read this sentence, I could only reach one conclusion: these scholars, for all their reading of post-Marxist theory, haven’t been watching enough contemporary horror. In all the films I’ve been watching, racial dispossession is the product of the character’s treatment by the house, and the characters are almost never depicted as working except when they’re working on the house itself. In other words, these films proffer their own theory of the entangled relationship between race, class, asset ownership, and wage labor.It now matters less and less what you do, where you work, what you earn, and more and more what property you inherit.
A quick survey belabors this point. The end of summer saw the release of The Invitation (2022), which not only includes its own novel cameo (Dracula) but also depicts its vampires as property developers. While The Invitation was a particularly trashy—to the point of campy—vampire remake, it still contributed to the emergence of another new gothic trope arguably first popularized by Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017): in each of these films, the vulnerability of the protagonist is marked both by their status as a racial outsider, and the fact that they unknowingly accept an invitation to enter a predatory household.
The same is true of the wonderful debut by Remi Weekes, His House (2020), which tells the story of a refugee couple that, after escaping from South Sudan, finds themselves in temporary housing in South England where evil is literally crawling between the walls, luring them into some highly dubious construction work of their own. Likewise, Nikyatu Jusu’s The Nanny (2022) is about the attempts of a Senegalese nanny to resist being consumed by the intimate world of the white Manhattanites she works for, whilst still making sure that they pay her on time so she can make rent.
Everybody knows that, traditionally, the vampire can’t cross the threshold until she’s been invited in. However, in each of these films, it is the house itself that expresses vampiric impulses, extending invitations in order to ensure its own survival. In her book Race for Profit, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor coined the term “predatory inclusion” to describe how, since the 1960s, the privatization of housing markets has rested on the inclusion of racial minorities in the service of even greater exploitative and exclusionary practices. For instance, private industry preys on Black homebuyers by charging them exorbitant costs for inferior housing whilst offering predatory loans. The trope shared by Get Out, Barbarian, His House, The Nanny, and The Invitation allegorizes this process of “predatory inclusion” and, at the same time, literalizes the horror of these new forms of extraction.
Moreover, just as each of these films dramatically rewrites the trope of crossing the threshold, they participate in a wider trend that explicitly links fear, foreclosure, and financialized credit, and that, as Annie McClanahan describes in Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and 21st-Century Culture, “use the horror genre to explore shifting understandings of homeownership.” Take, for instance, The Rental (2020), in which two couples arrive at a holiday home only to find that it is surveilled and terrorized by a masked man who has monopolized all the property in the area. Or the recent remake of Mother’s Day (2010), in which three brothers hold hostage a family who bought the house their mother lost to foreclosure.
Or Drag Me to Hell (2009), in which a loan officer evicts an old woman to secure a promotion and then falls victim to a supernatural curse. Or Dream Home (2010), a slasher set in Hong Kong, in which the protagonist goes on a killing rampage to lower the cost of units in her apartment building. Then there’s the recent remake of Candyman (2021), in which an artist and former resident of Cabrini-Green now lives in a swanky loft where the projects once stood. Not to mention all the haunted house renovations occurring in new video games—in Anatomy (2016), for one, the haunted house is a living, breathing organism, and every single room is blood red.
Clearly, horror is having a moment. The genre now makes up more than 10 percent of all new feature films, and in 2020, it took home its largest share of the box office in modern history. However, while statistics show that its popularity is growing, it doesn’t come even remotely close to the popularity of the gothic novel during its heyday in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Considering what made the gothic novel so prominent then can provide clues as to why we’re witnessing its resurrection in contemporary film now.
In gothic worlds, competing economic regimes fight for survival. The figure of the vampire is, undoubtedly, the most exemplary case study for this phenomenon. For some, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is the last living-dead manifestation of what classical economist David Ricardo called the “parasite” of the rent-seeking and aristocratic land-owning classes. For others he is a hoarder, an ascetic, and the starving embodiment of the protestant work ethic; for still others, he is the living, breathing expression of corporate monopolization. Notoriously, for Karl Marx, the vampire was capital itself.In each of these films, it is the house itself that expresses vampiric impulses, extending invitations in order to ensure its own survival.
Once we recognize that the competing economic personalities vying for control is the definitive feature of gothic fiction, it is possible to make sense both of the gothic revival and the house not as the site of monstrosity, but a new breed of monster. Commentators from across the political spectrum are declaring that we’re in the midst of an epochal shift—called, alternatively, the death of capitalism (Wark), the return of feudalism (Kotkin), the rise of “rentier capitalism” (Christophers), the entrenchment of “residential capitalism” (Schwartz & Seabrooke), and the return of “patrimonial capitalism” (Piketty).
We don’t have to agree on whether or not to call it “neofeudalism” to recognize that wages have stagnated, social welfare has been obliterated, rent seeking practices have proliferated, and intergenerational wealth transfers are now the only way to get on the property ladder. The interests of landowners and financial asset holders have merged, with the asset-rich becoming the sole beneficiaries of late capitalism’s distribution system. The result is that the racial wealth gap has widened and familial asset accumulation—via home ownership—is the driving force of a new logic of social stratification.
The most old-school of Marxist critics like to proclaim that the gothic is where bourgeois sentimentality goes to die. Frederic Jameson, for instance, declared that there can never be any radical potential outside the gothic’s “dialectic of privilege and shelter.” What broad statements such as these cannot account for, however, is the extent to which gothic conventions have adapted, evolved, and been strategically repurposed. At a time when we are witnessing a return to 19th-century levels of inequality alongside the rise of a rentier class, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that contemporary cultural production is recycling 19th-century forms. That said, the question of how gothic conventions are being collectively reimagined points to a far more interesting dilemma: what fresh hell, then, is this?
Take, for instance, the gothic trope of a live burial. Named by Eve Sedgwick as one the most classic of all gothic conventions, it has traditionally been read as symbolizing the return of the repressed, or, in the American gothic tradition, as a metaphorization of social death and living carcerality. Live burial resurfaces in Barbarian as each of the renters finds themselves trapped in the basement. It is also the fate that befalls the owner when he flies back into town to flip the property and liquidate his assets.
Upon returning, he quickly discovers the underground labyrinth that has entrapped Tess and many others, but his response is unadulterated excitement, or what economist Robert Schiller calls “irritational exuberance.” Indeed, upon seeing the basement door, he immediately reaches for the tape measure. To him, the screams emitted from the basement are screams of “VALUE ADDED!” This comical representation of greed and the rewriting of the live burial trope turns the desire for home-grown valorization into an engine of entrapment.
I didn’t particularly like Barbarian. It combined too many competing tropes and threads, foregoing any sense of narrative coherence. That said, it is precisely the eclectic character of the film that makes it an interesting object through which to think about the establishment of new horror conventions.
In particular, consider the opening scene of predatory inclusion: Tess hovering reluctantly on the doorstep. On the one hand, it is possible to see this as a straightforward allegorization of predatory lending practices and the trap that homeownership promises to minorities in a world of credit, debt, and financialized risk. The insecurities produced by debt relations are likewise described in gothic terms in Vanessa A. Bee’s recent memoir Home Bound: “My parents’ ideal home had turned into a financial nightmare that would haunt them for years.” On the other hand, this narrativization of predatory inclusion also illustrates how individuals are classed and racialized through their relation to property.
Indeed, this is the most literal interpretation of the titles “Get Out” and “His House.” In each film, the characters are not denied entry based on their race. Rather, it is their position within the house’s reign of terror that marks them as other and produces their continued dispossession. These films thus provide their own account of how housing wealth readily translates into a general theory of race, class, and inequality. Lack of housing access condemns entire populations to premature death. Meanwhile, homeownership bestows families with endless wealth regeneration. Or, as in the case of the vampiric homeowners in Get Out, immortality.
 The “red room” has also had many afterlives, becoming the title of a gothic short story by H. G. Wells and later popularized in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
 Thankfully, there is a long tradition of scholarship on the American gothic that has traced its exploration to haunting histories of racial subjection and the afterlives of chattel slavery. Relatedly, feminist and queer critics have also looked to the gothic as a site of insurrectionary desires: Sophie Lewis names the gothic as the home of family abolitionist impulses.