Richard Matheson’s Hell House is a striking example of a fantastic haunted house story. Published in 1971, the setup is typical, strangers isolated in a haunted house that systematically breaks them down. But what intrigued me most about this story was how sexuality was handled. Instead of past trauma or sinister motives I think you could argue that Belasco House uses sexuality to destroy each victim.
This idea makes sense if you view it through the lens of the post sexual revolution of the 1960’s. When this novel came out ideas about how our gender roles define our sexual behavior was forefront in a lot of people’s minds. And so the novel explores issues ranging from a-sexualism to necrophilia and everything in between. In fact, if we look at each of the main characters we can see how they can represent a sexual extreme in the society of the early 1970’s.
Florence Tanner, a spiritualist and mental medium, insists that love can cure anything. She tries to use love to heal the wounds of the house and bring it some resolution. I think it’s interesting to note that she suffers the most physically at the hands of Belasco House. Her ideas about love and sexuality are open and honest to the point where she even offers her body to cure the house. Needless to say, this doesn’t work and her idea that there a hidden power within love is shattered.
Dr. Lionel Barrett is the opposite of Florence. He doesn’t believe the house is haunted and insists that the phenomena can be explained through scientific reasoning. He rejects anything beyond what his eyes can see to the point where he doesn’t seem to believe in love at all. If Florence is a sexual being then Dr. Barrett exists at the opposite end of the spectrum as a man who will not let himself be influenced by sexuality, something he considers a weakness.
Dr. Barrett’s wife, Edith, rests somewhere between Florence and Dr. Barrett; she is neither a-sexual or a person who believes in physical love. In fact, she is haunted by sexual thoughts for both her husband and Florence. Because of a childhood trauma she has suppressed her sexual identity and has existed as a person who identifies herself through her husband. Belasco House works hard to shift her mindset, and she becomes the most interesting character because of this. Part of the reader wants her to explore her repressed desires while at the same time remain untouched by the fate that destroyed Florence.
Benjamin Franklyn Fisher is also a physical medium and the sole survivor of a failed attempt to explore the house. He was a child when the rest of his party was killed, leaving him alone and naked on the front porch. Since both Edith and Florence are victims of the house’s sexual advances, I think it’s safe to say that Fisher was a similar victim when he was younger, making him the victim of sexual assault. It is this victimization he is dealing with throughout the novel.
I might have gone off the deep end with my sexual analysis, but taking everything in through the lens of history offers something more than a simple haunted house story. I believe this is why the story resonates so well with people decades after it was released.