A House and home, both a location and an idea, is impenetrable and assorted. Domestic space is cardinal in establishing both personal and familial identity, and therefore, the relationship between humans and the spaces in which they dwell is of utmost importance. it is the house that serves as a shelter to insulate its inhabitants from outside pressures – a place we can call home and embrace the feeling of safety, warmth and comfort. An intimate and nurturing home that Yuri M. Lotman refers to as ‘one’s own space, a place that is familiar and at the same time enclosed and protected; the centre and focus of the world order’. This delegates that houses reflect their owners, inscribing themselves within their sub-conscious and formulating the nucleus of a human’s existence. Yet, when this significant involvement with the physical and psychological aspects of the domestic setting is violated by something threatening – or even worse, something abnormal – the primitive fear of the unknown becomes all-consuming. It is then that the house is transformed from a place of protection into a place of horror.
The central concept to provoke the horrors embedded into the sentient house is a sense of the uncanny, in which the domestic space is metamorphosed by the presence and return of something alien and anomalous. At first, the appeal of the uncanny is irrefutable. The character’s grasp onto the strange âotherness’ and yet also anticipate what is in jeopardy when faced with uncertainty and danger, for their own experiences with domesticity and their sense of home is twisted into something unsettling and unknown. Sigmund Freud developed the subject of the uncanny in his 1919 essay of the same title, where he provides a useful framework for understanding the psychological phenomenon. Freud demonstrates many definitions for the uncanny, but the most unanimous and prevalent concept of the uncanny ‘undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror’. However, it is apparent that the uncanny is much more complex, being both antithetical and interrelated in nature in terms of the familiar turning into the unfamiliar, the hidden becoming discernible, and the lingering sense of fear settling inside of one’s mind. Yet, one thing that each concept of the uncanny has in common is that ‘it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread’.
Despite its defiance to define its abstraction, certain forms of the uncanny are articulated in literature, which is especially evident in the sentient house sub-genre. In Freud’s essay, Jentsch ascribes that a particularly affirmative way of awakening the feeling of uncanniness is through ‘intellectual uncertainty’, so that ‘the uncanny would always be that in which one does not know where one is’. (2) In sentient house narratives, the nature of the uncanny is heightened when there is ontological uncertainty on whether an object is its own living entity or not. This leading concept of the uncanny, assigned to Freud’s theory, is most distinctively identified in the disruption of familiarity in the homely and unhomely. [EG(EF1] This vital concept of the uncanny in relation to the sentient house can be further associated with the idea of animism and anthropomorphism: animism perceiving all things as animated and alive, and anthropomorphism referring to the attribution of human characteristics, emotions, and behaviours to an inanimate object. These are both parallel to the human characteristics attributed to Hill House, the Overlook Hotel and Navidson’s house on Ash Tree Lane. Therefore, it is through the setting of the novels, and more dominantly, in the description of the protagonist’s dwellings as a sentient house and its psychological effect on its residents, that the uncanny is most palpable.
Jackson adeptly creates a character out of Hill House with a hauntingly intricate illustration of its physical appearance and by giving the house its own malefic personality through the use of personification. In the opening of chapter two, Jackson successfully highlights Hill House as more than just an inanimate object, but also a living, breathing entity – one that is suffused with ferocity and enmity. To articulate that the house itself is an uncanny figure, Jackson integrates the idea of anthropomorphism into her description of the house:
NO HUMAN eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.’
Hill House, ‘a place of contained ill will’, disperses its own evil and personifies architectural uncertainty because of the nature of its ambivalent creation. It is this frightening proclivity towards the uncanny which manifests the sentient house into a metaphor for the human mind. The personification of its exteriority captures the feeling of uncanny through its wrongfully convoluted structure and the way in which it forces the inhabitant’s minds to deconstruct their sense of reality. By attributing the house with physical human features – face, eyes, eyebrows – the sentient house’s ‘powerful pattern’ indicates that Hill House is a form of mutation, as it ‘seemed to have formed itself’. It also stipulates that like its inhabitant’s face, the house is subject to change[EG(EF2] . It is capable of manipulating its own space to dismantle the original function of a house and transform it into something unfamiliar and unknown. Driven by its arrogance and hatred, Hill House has developed its own will and acts on its own accord, ‘without the concession of humanity’, with the purpose of destroying those who enter it.
It is capable of manipulating its own space to dismantle the original function of a house and transform it into something unfamiliar and unknown. Driven by its arrogance and hatred, Hill House has developed its own will and acts on its own accord with the purpose of destroying all those who enter it. Jackson rejects several conventions associated with the architecture of the house, starting with its control over its own construction. While researching into the history of the house, Eleanor asserts that the builders ‘realising what the house was going to be, whether they chose it or not’, gave up on trying to impose their own will on to its structure and let the house take on its own form. This results in the house creating its own ‘absolute reality’, transforming itself into a force of nature rather than something that has been designed.
The concept of the sentient house is perplexing and uncertain in its attempt at definition, with no clear explanation or resolution to its function in horror narratives. In some essence, the sentient house exhibits the archetypal conventions of a typical ghost manifestation, however, these characteristics are predominantly malevolent in its structural presence rather than a posthumous [EG(EF3] haunting. In postmodern horror, the sentient house becomes animated in a manner that encourages its inhabitant’s dwelling to reconstruct its architecture, pervert its interior pattern and even attempt to torment and inflict suffering on its guests. One of the most disturbing characteristics of Jackson’s Hill House is that the haunting is derived not from ghosts or other spectral beings but emanated from the house itself. Adjacent to Hill House, both King and Danieleweski’s narratives are reliant on the house being its own sentient entity to magnify the terror of an inhabiting space that threatens to dismantle established boundaries between the homely and unhomely. The setting of the Overlook Hotel is uncanny in multiple ways, but most blatantly in the very nature of the hotel being a temporary home, as it simultaneously evokes the familiar and unfamiliar even before its inhabitants enter it. In House of Leaves, the Navidson’s erratic and constantly shifting house reflects the uncanny almost instantaneously as it prohibits the initial establishment of domesticity or familial identity. All three settings are key aspects of the uncanny, that which is known, but unknown, homely and unhomely. [EG(EF4]
The family’s inceptive move into the house on Ash Tree Lane is driven by Will Navidson’s desire to both document and experience how a family settles into a home, as he expresses: ‘I just thought it would be nice to see how people move into a place and start to inhabit it’ (9). However, the sentience of the house settles in prematurely and restricts the Navidson family from gaining a true sense of domesticity. After a short period of occupying the house, the Navidson family leave their inanimate abode only to return to something undeniably uncanny – a new door appearing between the parents and children’s bedrooms. Even Zampino, one of the few narrators, recognises the uncanny nature, stating ‘in their absence, the Navidsons’ home had become something else, and while not exactly sinister or even threatening, the change still destroyed any sense of security or well-being’ (28). The will of the sentient house disrupts the family’s domestic setting through this sudden incursion in its attempt to stop the Navidson’s from turning their new house into a familiar and secure home.
The uncanny plays a similar role in inhabiting familial security in The Haunting of Hill House. If the reader was unaware of character’s purpose for staying at Hill House, the interactions between the
Comparable with Hill House, both The Shining and House of Leaves âsentient houses’ haunt its inhabitants in ways that are both internal and external. The outside is where you expect to find danger: it is controlled, immersed in degradation and unexpected uncertainty. The sentient hauntings featured inside the dwellings are an extension of that original, justifiable fear. Yet, it is also inside the world of the sentient house that reality is disordered and threatening; a place that suffocates and oppresses, capable of invading and even dissolving the human mind. (Find quotes) The first sign of the uncanny feeling of unhomeliness is shown when Jack first witnesses the structure of the Overlook Hotel, as he ‘looked over his shoulder once into the penetrable, musty-smelling darkness and thought if there was ever a place that should have ghosts, this was it.’ There is a disturbance of the familiar as Jack perceives the hotel’s surroundings and contemplates the hotel’s history, especially the tragic fate of the previous caretaker. Watson co-operates to this feeling of the uncanny when he relates the hotel’s past ‘scandals’ and already illicit reputation by stating ‘every hotel has got a ghost’.  Jack’s initial observation of the hotel symbolises the unfamiliarity embedded in the uncanny, as it never manages to present itself as a normal and mundane hotel. Therefore, it is the very manifestation of the unhomely as Jack is immediately disturbed by the hotel’s presence as its past lingers and festers inside his mind.
Another way King articulates the uncanny in The Shining is through dreams and hallucinations, more specifically, those imposed on Danny by his friend Tony. Before Danny has even entered the Overlook, he envisions its exterior: ‘Another shape, looming, rearing. Huge and rectangular. A sloping roof. Whiteness that was blurred in the stormy darkness. Many windows. A long building with a shingled roof’. In his previous visions, Danny usually affiliated Tony with a ‘warm burst of pleasure’, but when confronted with this cryptic and unfamiliar dream, he felt differently as he ‘seemed to feel a prick of fear, too, as if Tony had come with some darkness behind his back’. This convert response encompasses the disturbance of familiarity, as it destabilises Danny’s perception of what is homely and comfortable. Although it does not depict any supernatural aspects of the Overlook, it creates a sense of dread and unhomeliness before Danny has even entered the hotel. When he witnesses the Overlook Hotel in person he is overwhelmed by its familiarity as ‘it was the same place he had seen in the midst of the blizzard, the dark and blooming place where some hideously familiar figure sought him down long corridors carpeted jungle’.
The hotel’s human mannerisms and lifelike idiosyncrasies are fully exposed when the family are the only people left on its property. Left entirely alone and isolated from the rest of civilisation, Jack already feels the effect of the hotel’s presence, as ‘the hotel and the grounds had suddenly doubled in size and become sinister, dwarfing them with sullen, inanimate power’. Although the term ‘inanimate power’ proposes a distinct absence of life-like representation, the hotel’s sinister ambience implies that an element of the paranormal lives within the building. Moreover, the size and magnitude of the hotel is over-powering for Jack as he felt his ‘life force had dwindled to a mere spark’, which alludes to the idea that the house’s atmosphere has forced him into a submissive and subdued state.