In 1952, a family in Pennsylvania was taken hostage in their home by three escaped convicts. For 19 hours, James Hill, his wife, and five children were held captive until police apprehended the hostage-takers as they attempted to flee the house. The incident received significant media coverage, including in Time magazine, and inspired author Joseph Hayes to write a book called The Desperate Hours (1954), which became a Broadway play and then, in 1955, a Hollywood film directed by William Wyler. Although Mr. Hill and his family were treated with dignity by their captors, Hayes changed the facts and portrayed the family as having been threatened with sexual abuse and other violent acts. Somehow, reality got left behind as the story caught the imagination of the American public.
Home invasion as the subject of horror movies and thrillers might seem like a modern trope, given the popularity of more recent films like Bustillo and Maury’s Inside (2007), Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), and James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013), but The Desperate Hours shows that the idea has been around for a long time. When The Desperate Hours opened at New York’s Criterion Theatre in October 1955, Andrew Stone’s The Night Holds Terror had had a four-month headstart in the ruthless-convicts-seizing-suburban-family market. Many other ’50s-era thrillers had already used the home invasion trope, including the Frank Sinatra vehicle Suddenly (Lewis Allen, 1954) and He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951), starring John Garfield and Shelley Winters.
Indeed, the classic home invasion movie scenario dates back to the early days of cinema and The Lonely Villa made by D.W. Griffith in 1909. While the cultural firmament that gave rise to the Manson killings in the 1960s still troubles modern America – played out in home invasion flicks from Mother’s Day (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2010) and You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2012) to Quentin Tarantino’s much-lauded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) – the seemingly perennial appeal of this type of film suggests that home invasion films key into a long-standing deep fear of real-life home invasion scenarios, in the United States especially (although home invasion movies have been made in other countries also).
America is one of the few countries where home invasion is, in and of itself, classed as a crime in many states. Many of those states consider defending oneself against forcible entry a case for justifiable homicide. This moral conundrum lies at the heart of many home invasion films, from Dennis Iliadis’ The Last House on the Left (1972) to Robert A. Endelson’s Fight for your Life (1977), in which the hostages find themselves resorting to violence against their captors. As the ad line for classic rape-revenge home invasion shocker, Steven R. Monroe’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978) goes: ‘This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned four men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!’
As the so-called Castle laws in many US states tell us, a person’s abode is a place in which that person has protections and immunities that permit them to use deadly force to defend themselves against an intruder, free from prosecution for the consequences of their actions. That such laws exist perhaps indicates the extent to which the fear of home invasion governs law-making in some parts of America and why it is so pervasive in American horror films. It’s a very real fear that many film-makers have exploited over the years.
There have also been many DIY manuals written on home invasion prevention designed to help homeowners gain a sense of control against the possibility of a home invasion. The underlying message of these books seems to be that the world is a bad and dangerous place, and you had better be prepared to defend yourself against it. It’s the largely irrational belief – that (as written in Home Invasion Prevention by Frank Hilliard) ‘society is always going to be faced by mad, bad, delusional, psychotic, drugged up, greedy, and mentally disturbed individuals who will do things to other people with no regard for human rights, decency and compassion’ – which arguably lies at the heart of real-life home invasion fears and of home invasion movies.
What defines a home invasion film? Many horror films indeed feature some element of home invasion, be it by ghosts, monsters, or demons, as in The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, 1982) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) or by zombies, as in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), or by extraterrestrials in Scott Stewart’s Dark Skies (2013), or psycho-killers, as in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). But some thriller and horror movies have plots that revolve entirely around a home invasion scenario. Again, The Desperate Hours provides the basic formula.
In Wyler’s film, three escaped convicts invade a suburban home and hold a family hostage. The victims are menaced and tormented. A battle of wills takes place between the criminals and the hostages, and eventually, the hostages fight back in an eruption of violence. Although The Desperate Hours is among the first films to define the structure of the classic home invasion movie, the formula can already be found in The Lonely Villa.
Griffith’s film tells the story of a mother and her three daughters left to defend their family home from criminals after the man of the house is called away on business. As one might expect of Griffith, the scenario is inherently problematic. The opening sequence contrasts the bourgeois comfort of the American white middle-class home with the vagrant invaders who lurk outside, scoping the place. Their ragged clothes and cloth caps leave us with no doubt that the nice wealthy family is in danger from these nasty poor folks.
At the heart of home invasion films have always been economic disparity and racism: the victims are inevitably white middle-class families menaced by lower-class invaders. Is it any surprise that the home invasion film took root during the white flight from cities to suburban areas in the ’50s and ’60s and reached new levels of popularity in the Trump era? By showing how affluent white people might resort to violence to protect their family home, home invasion films reveal violence and moral degradation hiding behind a seemingly polite facade of white economic prosperity.
Given the simplicity of the Home invasion film’s narrative template, one might expect some films to attempt an inversion. Don’t Breathe (2014) presented a partial inversion of tropes by inviting sympathy with the home invaders, victims of economic deprivation who seek the means to escape hardship and domestic abuse by stealing valuables from people’s houses. They break into the home of a blind army veteran, not counting on his resilience and military training.
Director Fede Álvarez also invites us to sympathise with the veteran, who is gradually revealed as a tragic figure. Don’t Breathe’s outcome sees not so much a slide into depravity as a chance for redemption on both sides. The army veteran and the home invaders ultimately belong on the same side.
At first glance, Knock at the Cabin (2023) attempts a similar subversion of home invasion tropes. The homesteaders are a modern family centring on a gay couple and their adopted Asian child. The home invaders are not the monstrous poor but seemingly middle-class people – noticeably not a family – but a disparate group of mixed ethnicities. M. Night Shyamalan here seems to be subverting the notion of the bourgeois family under attack by a criminal underclass. Having said that, the invaders’ motives are decidedly cultish, and there is an insistence throughout on ‘there is nothing more important than family’.
By mixing genres (Knock at the Cabin blends in elements of post-apocalyptic science fiction), Shyamalan effects a superficial disruption of the classic home invasion scenario. However, on closer inspection, Knock at the Cabin reaffirms the values of many home invasion narratives. Primarily, there is a prevailing sense of two camps – ‘us and them’ – that lies at the ideological heart of the home invasion scenario.
Power structures designed to limit dialogue by forcing people into binaries do not lead to understanding and development. Knock at the Cabin only seems to reinforce the unfortunate trait of our culture in which people find themselves forced to take sides to stifle constructive debate (‘Whose side are you on?’ is the constant refrain, ‘ours or theirs?’). The polarising mentality of ‘us and them’ that drives the classic home invasion narrative is very much in evidence in Knock at the Cabin.
Hilliard, Frank. Home Invasion Prevention. Lulu Enterprises Incorporated. 2009.