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 importantly, 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 into 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 on screen 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 runtime, 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.