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In Hollywood, a place of sanctuary makes an especially unnerving source of fear

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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Hereditary opens onto a treehouse as seen through the window of the Graham family home. The camera pulls back into the room and pans across it, over a pleasantly cluttered artist’s workspace, walls littered with documents and keepsakes, to land on a dollhouse, a miniature version of the very building that we’re in.

“The miniatures always sort of served as a metaphor for the family’s situation in the film,” writer and director Ari Aster told The New York Times, “which is that they are people with no agency, and they are revealed to be like dolls in a dollhouse.”

Haunted house movies have existed pretty much since the dawn of cinema, but a handful of the most highly acclaimed horror movies of late have taken a different approach to the idea of what scares people at home. The houses in movies like A Quiet Place, It Comes at Night, Hereditary and The Witch are not haunted, but are nevertheless sources of horror for the main characters, who often learn that the places they thought they knew the best are the most dangerous of all.

These movies all begin with homes that are largely tranquil, even if trauma is lurking just outside the door. In A Quiet Place and It Comes at Night, the buildings are refuges from post-apocalyptic surroundings, the families within them barely holding together, until outside forces turn those homes into battlegrounds. Both movies open after the main characters have survived an initial incident that has destroyed life on Earth: In Quiet, it’s the invasion of hostile aliens who are blind but hypersensitive to sound; in Night, it’s a deadly disease that has wiped out most of the world’s population. These central family units have kept themselves alive through a combination of luck and careful preparation, building sanctuaries with extensive precautionary measures in place.

Of course, all those measures fail to some degree over the course of the movies. In Quiet, the rebellious streaks of preteens Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), along with the impending arrival of a new baby, are enough to destabilize the careful contingency plan that father Lee (John Krasinski, who also directed and co-wrote) and mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have devised in case of an attack by the alien invaders.

Krasinski has said that he sees the movie as a metaphor for parenthood, and the entire Abbott farm is constructed so that Lee and Evelyn can protect their children. They’ve made a home as best they can under horrific circumstances, trying to preserve normal family life via small touches like board games with felt pieces that won’t make a sound. But almost none of it matters once the aliens discover where they are, and Krasinski systematically dismantles all those carefully implemented failsafes until there’s nearly nothing left.

Shhhh. Don't wake the evil, predatory aliens.

The central family in It Comes at Night takes just as many precautions to avoid coming into contact with the disease that has killed nearly everyone else on the planet—and they fail just as spectacularly (if not more so). Night is a much bleaker movie than Quiet, with a much more dismal view of human nature, and its central threat comes not from aliens but from other people. Patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) has fortified his family’s remote wooded home against outside intrusions, with multiple layers of decontamination, but it proves useless when a man (Christopher Abbott) manages to break into their house one night, claiming to be foraging food for his own family.

Paul, his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) eventually agree to take in this other family, but a combination of distrust and contamination eventually destroys their fragile domestic tranquility. Even the house itself becomes alien and menacing, as the various members of both families close themselves off in different areas to protect themselves from dangers both real and imagined. “We never help establish the geography of the house at all,” writer-director Trey Edward Shults told Slashfilm. “I always saw the house as this kind of labyrinth, the mesh of Travis’ head. … I would see the house metaphorically, as a microcosm for this society and these two tribes.”

The disorienting nature of the physical space is a key element in Hereditary as well, with its beautifully crafted rustic home nestled in the woods just outside some typical Pacific Northwest suburb. Writer-director Ari Aster had production designer Grace Yun build the entire interior of the house from scratch on a soundstage, and as such it’s one of those spaces that seems like it should fit together, but is subtly off in a way that disquiets the audience over time (both Night and Hereditary owe a lot to the design of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for influencing that effect).

A treehouse, a free house, a secret you and me house.

The home occupied by Annie Graham (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their two children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) seems peaceful at first, despite the recent death of Annie’s mother. But as Annie slowly loses her grip on reality, plagued by strange secrets her mother kept hidden away, the home becomes less and less inviting, every family interaction fraught with the potential for violent confrontation.

Rooms once warm and cozy are now foreboding and off-putting. No amount of tasteful decor can cover up the creeping rot. “[Freud] says that horror is when the home becomes un-homelike,” Aster told Film Comment. “I wanted to make a home that became something malign and unrecognizable by the end.”

“Malign and unrecognizable” could also describe the home in The Witch, which writer-director Robert Eggers and production designer Craig Lathrop meticulously re-created from historical records of 17th-century New England colonists, using period-accurate materials whenever possible. The result is a house that feels constantly dank, cramped, dirty and uninviting, which is exactly how the family of English Puritan William (Ralph Ineson) is finding life in the New World. “I want to be home, in England,” Ralph’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) tells him in a moment of desperation, but for better or worse, this harsh wilderness is now home.

It’s also, possibly, home to an evil witch, who may be corrupting teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and may have stolen away the family’s newborn son. Whether the witch is real or a product of religious frenzy gone wrong is up for interpretation, but either way, the family unit that was united in adversity tears itself apart. Huddled together in this cold, dusty space, the family members turn on each other each other, their sanctuary transformed into a breeding ground for violence and distrust.

By the end of all of these movies, the homes that seemed so safe and welcoming have been destroyed, corrupted, abandoned or all three. No ghosts necessary.