American Basement: Race and Horror in the Architectural Imaginary

Why is it that exploitative home-based prisons set in the homes of white men feature largely in the social imaginary these days?

In this year's biggest and perhaps not-so-surprising "surprise hit" film Get Out, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) eventually finds himself imprisoned in his girlfriend's (Allison Williams) family's basement. Restrained and tied to an armchair, Chris is informed by a pre-recorded television message that he is about to undergo an involuntary surgery; the majority of his brain will be removed and swapped out of his body, whereafter the tissue will be replaced with another brain, effectively replacing his consciousness with another person's.

Through this practice, the Armitage family has established a long-running if clandestine market for older and affluent white people who attain a form of immortality by having their brains transplanted into younger, healthier, and socially disposable bodies: those of black people. Affluent white prerogatives supersede the value of black lives. Lured to the Armitage family property by the lovely and seemingly compassionate Rose (Williams), who ensnares subjects by pretending to date them, a series of victims are thus quietly brutalized. In their suburb, this violence happens more or less out in the open -- and it is the basement itself, the hidden inner sanctum of the family home, that both abets and disguises the extent of this violence to the outside world. The film's eerie "auction" sequence offers a provocative statement; it recasts human-trafficking and slavery in a new context, the ostensibly "liberal" bourgeoise white family in a genteel suburban community.

Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford

24 Feb 2017

Upon release, Get Out was (rightly) celebrated for its deft social commentary about the present state of American race relations. The film moreover garnered critical acclaim for its writer and director, Jordan Peele, for synthesizing together horror elements and social satire in the interest of the story's central political argument. Peele furthermore "surprised" Hollywood by deflating a casually racist and self-sustaining industry 'truism': showing that films about black people, featuring a largely black cast, could be financially successful.

In the last few months, many articles and reviews have discussed Get Out as an important blockbuster film. After all, it has perhaps emerged as the decisive "Black Lives Matter" movie. And rightfully so. I want to suggest that we also have to understand Get Out alongside a number of contemporary films and novels thematically organized around a similar thematic concern: just how ideologically corrosive is white, suburban culture as a social arrangement and political fantasy, particularly where it often appears in mainstream pop-culture as a normal and ideologically sanitized social configuration?

Many contemporary novels and films take up this issue and address the ideological underpinnings of the atomized family home, that seemingly unimpeachable bedrock of the American Dream. What else so clearly suggests self-determination, economic independence, and those elusive if somehow "universal" middle-class values politicians are always talking about? Get Out and other texts press back against this very mindset by reimagining the house as an arrangement. In Peele's film, it's not a band of rednecks, the KKK or, as in The Help (2011), a small set of easily identifiable and especially villainous, racist white Southerners who are the problem. The Help, for instance, reassures its audience by insisting that its respectable white neighborhood can be morally redeemed and allowed to exist totally free from the stigmas of racism once the explicitly "bad" white people are dealt with.

Get Out, however, challenges this equation by turning the suburban home into a nightmarish den of complicit (and explicit) white supremacy. It's a polished, well-to-do family in an affluent neighborhood with its terrifying but well-concealed secrets that's so effectively unnerving in Peele's narrative. What looks idyllic, safe, and eminently "civilized" under one well-established rubric in visual culture actually works to mask and reproduce the historical violence on which it is predicated. Where landownership and specifically the private family home are historically idealized in the American tradition, a spate of recent entries from pop-culture contest this asocial mindset and its priority on atomization by depicting the home itself as a failed political community and literal horror show.

Get Out establishes the suburb as a frightening environment in its opening scene. The harrowing sequence does two things simultaneously. It playfully inverts the fearful, gross, and stereotype-inducing "if you see a black man walking by you on the street" hypothetical at the same time it calls attention to how a quiet, nondescript white suburb is, in a manner of speaking, structurally complicit with more rabid formulations of white supremacy. When Andre Hayworth (LaKeith Stanfield) cannot locate his friend's house as he walks through the neighborhood quietly at night, he is quickly identified and targeted by a man we later learn is Rose's aggressive, ethno-nationalist brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). As soon as Jermey's passing car comes to a sudden stop when the driver sees the lone black pedestrian on the sidewalk, Andre immediately knows he is in trouble; even before the extent of his danger becomes clear, this is a space in which he must justify or defend his presence to those who would interrogate him.

When Andre is suddenly ambushed by Jeremy, who is wearing a medieval knight's helmet, the attack appears to come out of nowhere and it attracts no onlooking attention. This, in spite of the fact that the re-purposed, playful WWII jingle turned macabre Jim Crow dog-whistle, "Run, Rabbit" plays loudly from the parked car during the assault. As if a ghost of recidivist racial violence, Jeremy vanishes into the neighborhood with his ensnared victim. The camera's lingering gaze on the empty street clarifies that the space itself seems to harbor what has transpired.

House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski


March 2000

Night Film

Author: Marisha Pessl

(Random House)

July 2014

Two contemporary novels stand out for treating the home as a similarly estranging and even violent space. Both texts, curiously enough, are entries in multimedia "ergodic" fiction. Mark Danielewski's seminal postmodern pop-phenomena. House of Leaves (2000) and Marisha Pessl's ambitious detective thriller Night Film (2013) interrogate the house as a symbol and representation of psychic trauma. In Danielewski's meta-fictional, "discovered manuscript" novel, unreliable narrator Johnny Truant reads and comments upon the original author's detailed report of a documentary film called the Navidson Record. The film is produced and directed by photojournalist Will Navidson and concerns his new, curious family home. Shortly after moving into this particular house, Navidson, his partner, Karen Green, and their two children discover that the home, quite literally, doesn't add up -- the house's dimensions are bigger on the inside than those of the house's exterior. Slowly, the house continues to gradually expand on the inside while its exterior measurements remain unchanged.

Later, the Navidsons note the sudden emergence of an entirely new corridor within the home's internal architecture and opens into an indescribably large system of tunnels, rooms, passageways. This new hallway and its contents should, geometrically speaking, run out from the home and into the yard, but it does not; it appears to have its own integrity as a closed virtual space contained inside the house.

The Navidson family begins to fall apart when Will and his brother, Tom, begin to explore and document the ever-larger labyrinth growing in the house, a cavernous and completely dark complex of rooms, halls, and corridors. Whilst the house appears to expand, the Navidsons occasionally hear terrible, monstrous cries emerging from the anfractuous and dimensionless dark. The cries terrify Karen and the children but strangely entice Will, the by-now imperious vivisectionist.

It's not surprising, then, that Will organizes and oversees a vaguely military expedition into the unfathomable space (against Karen's protests and in the obvious face of the dissolution of their relationship). Will hires a team of professional explorers led by the macho outdoorsman Holloway Roberts, who moves to effectively cuckold Navidson by sleeping with Karen when it becomes clear Will has elected to stay behind (against his wishes). Holloway's resemblance to Hemingway's Robert Wilson in "The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber" (1936) references how the novel treats toxic and a decidedly white masculinity. The uncomfortable and competitive nature of Will and Holloway's subsequent "working relationship" testifies to how interrelated sets of masculinist imperatives have taken hold in the narrative framework to the detriment of all involved: in Holloway's case, a bullying and chauvinistic masculinity; In Will Navidson, an Enlightenment drive to mastery and understanding through capturing, measuring, dissecting. Both men are hunters in their different ways.

Roberts and his team descend into the labyrinth with gear, provisions, and lighting and camera equipment to document their journey and map the mysterious spaces they find. Submerged for several days, each member of the crew begins to go insane as the labyrinth continues to grow and shifts around them. Thinking that they might encounter the labyrinth's resident "monster", an apparent second-coming of Theseus's minotaur, the group's incipient paranoia and survivalist impulses together work to sabotage their mission and induce Holloway's murderous breakdown.

One of the novel's key revisions to the Hellenic labyrinth of Crete myth is to reframe through its dense network of allusions the minotaur as a dejected and victimized pariah, one who is unfairly brutalized and then executed by the boastful Theseus, a "drunk fratboy with an axe". Holloway, vis-à-vis Theseus, is the proper monster. Danielewski seems to have intuited, on some level, the rise of muscle-laden American bro-culture and links Holloway's lineage as a masculine type to a long-consecrated form of classical "heroism". Not unlike Stephen King's The Shining (1977), the physical architecture in House of Leaves mirrors and amplifies the psychological frailties of those most susceptible (white males). But where King's (and, later, Kubrick's) Overlook Hotel is an American gothic, an isolated public place in the mountains announcing its high-bourgeoise premise as a luxury resort-as-privatized indulgence, all made possible by "overlooking" inequity and violence, the house in Danielewski's novel is an attractive but plain suburban family home.

Pessl's sprawling multimedia detective thriller similarly depicts an expansive, secluded family home as a site of unmonitored horror. In Pessl's ambitious second novel, Night Film, disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath attempts to redeem himself and resuscitate his career by solving the mysterious death of a beautiful young woman, Ashley Cordova, the daughter of the reclusive but celebrated filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova (think Stanley Kubrick crossed with Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Thomas Pynchon). Cordova's films are considered masterworks in the horror genre, unconventional and psychologically unsettling. He emerges as a Kurtz figure to McGrath's perspective, a dark filmmaking paterfamilias whose artistic brilliance is attributed to tortured and possibly even sadistic genius. Though Ashley appears to have commit suicide in a lower Manhattan warehouse, McGrath suspects foul play, wondering if something from her enigmatic past motivated her death. In the ensuing investigation, McGrath and his rag-tag team of junior detectives unearth Ashley's troubled childhood on the family's secluded property in upstate New York.

In the course of the narrative, the secluded estate and its lurid history becomes the focus of McGrath's investigative efforts. He finds that many of Cordova's films were produced and filmed on the estate itself, where cast and crew were invited to live for the duration of principal photography. A lakeside mansion, the estate also boasts a complex of sound stages and sets spread out amongst the property's densely forested grounds. As the insinuations about Cordova's personal history accumulate, the house more and more takes hold in the story as the chief object of narrative interest. Whispers of orgies, decadent drug-induced seances, movie star affairs, blood sacrifices and dark magic, possible child abuse, and a confirmed if 'accidental' on-site family death all tincture McGrath's idea of the estate, conjoining in his and the reader's mind the dark terror of the Cordova films with the furtive biography of this sordid family. Locals from the small town a few miles from the estate talk about the home in hushed and stricken tones. What did Ashley see on this property? What kind of horrors was this child submitted to? Was she killed to protect a prurient and possibly murderous family secret? Who or what was she running from?

Crucial to the Cordova's estate and its dreadful mystery is its exclusivity and isolation. In a sense, Cordova's property is a dark(er) version of Gatsby's aristocratic would-be utopia, a privatized and self-engineered world-in-miniature. Linking Cordova's fiercely guarded privacy with hyper-insulation, the house is, in effect, an asocial social system, one whose sense or law or morality is denationalized precisely because it has achieved a libertarian privacy through means of economic success.

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