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Literature / Hell House

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"Welcome to my house. I'm delighted you could come. I'm certain you will find your stay here most illuminating. Think of me as your unseen host, and believe that during your stay here I shall be with you in spirit. May you find the answer that you seek. It is here, I promise you. And now, auf Wiedersehen."
-Emeric Belasco

Hell House is a horror thriller novel written in 1971 by Richard Matheson. It was adapted to film as The Legend of Hell House in 1973, starring Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, and Gayle Hunnicutt.

A dying millionaire offers a huge reward to a group of researchers to provide him with definitive proof that there is life after death. He has bought the Belasco mansion, the "Mount Everest" of haunted houses, as the site of their investigations. A parapsychologist, his wife, a Christian medium, and the only survivor of an earlier failed attempt to investigate the haunting all have one week to determine what, if anything, inhabits the mansion.

Not related to the later Fighting Fantasy Gamebook House of Hell

Hell House provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Edith's father was an alcoholic who once tried to rape her, and her mother instilled in her the idea that sex is inherently degrading.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Edith in the book becomes Ann in the film.
  • Adaptational Context Change: In the book, Edith and Lionel have a Sexless Marriage because he's crippled, and it's suggested Belasco's ghost has her seduce Ben as a way of driving a wedge between her and Lionel. In the film, none of this subtext is there and the Barretts have a happy marriage. It instead looks like Belasco does that to Ann For the Evulz.
  • Agent Scully: Mr. Barrett in a sense. He comes at life after death from a scientific point of view, rationalising it as leftover energy. This puts him into contrast with Florence, who believes in spirits with unfinished business.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Edith in the book. While she does genuinely love her husband, the only non-Belasco-induced attraction she experiences is to Florence, and at one point she's afraid that she chose to marry Barrett because she knew he's impotent. Belasco also uses her fear of "having lesbian tendencies" to manipulate her into trying to seduce Ben twice.
  • And Starring: In the film, "And Gayle Hunnicutt as Ann."
  • Break the Cutie: Both Edith and Florence
  • Broken Bird: Florence after going through the horrors of Hell House. Also Fischer, who has returned despite barely surviving Hell House decades earlier.
  • Cat Scare: Of course this time the cat is what ends up attacking.
  • Decoy Protagonist: In the film, There ends up being two: Florence Tanner and Dr. Lionel Barrett. Their conflicting methods of dealing with the spirits put them both at odds, and much of the film seems to be focused on the power struggle between them, and there seems to be a clear course in the film showing us that one is right and one is wrong. When Florence ends up getting assaulted, possessed, and killed, the focus shifts solely onto Barrett's plan, and his machine to clear out the paranormal energy. Also, his plan seems to WORK. Then, as Barrett celebrates his victory and checks his notes by himself, the spirit returns to trigger his equipment and he loudly expresses his disbelief before he winds up getting killed by the spirit as well. The narrative then makes Ann a neutral female and brings Ben Fischer into focus, and after spending the majority of the film closed off to the psychic energy and seemingly there to just collect the paycheck and leave, it's him that finally winds up figuring out Belasco's secret and defeating Belasco's vengeful spirit in a Reason You Suck confrontation. He even notes to Ann after it's over that Florence and Dr. Barrett each had one part of the solution, but not the whole, but says that it was their efforts that helped him come to the complete solution to defeat Belasco.
  • Den of Iniquity: Belasco spent his wealth and time hosting elaborate orgies at Hell House for the entertainment of his circle of wealthy, depraved friends. Many unspeakable acts occurred behind its bricked-up windows.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Florence passes hers after being possessed by Belasco.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Takes place between December 18 and December 24, but the only mention of the holiday comes in the very last sentence of the story, when one of the characters wishes another a merry Christmas. (The film adaptation The Legend of Hell House keeps the same datespan, but omits any reference to Christmas at all.)
  • Doing In the Wizard: Dr. Barrett's goal, whether by proving the supernatural does not exist at all or explaining it all away as merely electromagnetic energy.
  • Driven to Suicide: When Benjamin investigated the house the first time, a medium named Grace cut her own throat after three days. And Florence slits her wrists with a nail from the profane cross after becoming possessed.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Fischer figuring out both of Belasco's secrets thanks to some seemingly random words and phrases from a recording of one of Florence's earlier seances.
  • Extreme Doormat: Edith, when it comes to her husband, until her experiences in the house, the death of her husband, and support from Fischer help her grow a backbone. In the film, she is a lot tougher.
  • Fan Disservice: Pamela Franklin shows plenty of skin in the film. But it's only after she's been clawed by a cat and given some nasty scratches.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Both subverted and played straight with Dr. Barrett in the novel. He believes in the haunting, but only as impersonal kinetic forces which react to nearby psychics or mediums. He flat-out refuses to believe in ghosts or possessions though his disbelief in the supernatural ultimately dooms him.
  • For the Evulz: Belasco was a murderer, rapist, sadist, bestialiast and pretty much everything else just for this reason.
    Ann Barrett: What did he do to make this house so evil, Mr. Fischer?
    Fischer: Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on?
  • The Glasses Come Off: Ben removes his glasses whenever the time comes to take charge. Uniquely for this trope, he still wears them realistically throughout the film.
  • Happily Married: The Barretts have a loving, supportive relationship.
  • Haunted Heroine: Florence has the most common trappings of this, as Belasco's spirit haunts her personally. Ben may have been a male example in his youth.
  • Haunted House: "The Mount Everest of Haunted Houses"
  • Haunted House Historian: Ben Fischer is sole survivor of a previous investigative team, provides the backstory of the Belasco House, called the "Mount Everest of haunted houses." He relates the evil debauchery that started it all, as well as the dire fates of his colleagues on the earlier mission. Fischer advised the others on the team to do nothing to provoke the forces in the house and wait for the week to pass so they can live and collect their fees. As the casualties mount, Fischer is persuaded/forced by circumstances to take action.
  • Hope Spot: in the novel, it seems like everyone might get out of Hell House. Florence is sedated and Barrett is calling for an ambulance to pick up Florence and Fischer. But the death of their benefactor leads them to be stranded, leaving Florence easy prey for Belasco.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Ann and Florence are shown with their hair down more often as the haunting intensifies.
  • Lighter and Softer: Downplayed. While as scary and dark, the movie is not as openly gruesome and filled with sexual content as the novel.
  • Magic Versus Science: Of a sort. On the "magic" side there's Florence the spiritualist who believes ardently in the supernatural and claims to be a true medium in touch with the spirits in the house; on the other is Dr. Barrett, a Flat-Earth Atheist who is determined to use his machine to either debunk the haunting or end it by purging the house of its electromagnetic energy. In the end it turns out they're both right and wrong: it's strongly suggested at least some of Florence's medium act is a hoax and/or drawing upon repressed portions of her personality, but she genuinely is contacted by Belasco's ghost (albeit in disguise as his supposedly-tormented son), and while the house is truly haunted and it seems as if Barrett's machine doesn't work, it turns out Belasco was one step ahead having sealed his body and thus his ghost in a lead-lined room, thus protecting it from the machine. Also unusually, both apologists in this debate end up dying because of their dedication to their erroneous beliefs.
  • The Napoleon: Emeric Belasco turns out to be this—to the point that he actually had his legs sawed off and replaced with prosthetics to make him appear as an abnormally tall giant instead.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: The unsettling tales of Emeric Belasco's acts of debauchery and evil at Hell House were loosely based on stories involving occultist Aleister Crowley.
  • The Ophelia: Both Ann and Florence in the film take turns with this, both getting the chance to wander around the mansion in their nightgowns - accompanied with loose hair and paranoid ramblings.
  • Out with a Bang: Florence dies shortly after allowing Belasco's spirit to have sex with her.
  • Plucky Girl: Florence from the start is determined to stop the hauntings and lay the spirits to rest.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Belasco, despite the air of diabolical evil and cold, calculated menace he shrouded himself with, reveals himself to be this. When he personally torments the protagonists, he mockingly mimics his victims' words of anguish, fear and despair repeatedly, like a schoolyard bully.
  • Rape and Switch: Belasco taunts Edith with the idea that her father’s attempted sexual abuse means she’s not attracted to men. (For bonus evil points he does this in Florence’s body).
  • Religious Horror: Invoked with the chapel and particularly with Florence's rather disgusting and audacious fate there.
  • Room 101:
    • The whole mansion qualifies, but several rooms are particularly dangerous, especially the steam room, the ballroom, and the chapel.
    • Just the chapel in the film. It's described as a "church in hell."
  • Slap Yourself Awake: After Florence Tanner becomes possessed by an evil spirit, she begins biting on her hand so that the pain will allow her to briefly regain control.
  • The Sociopath: Belasco was this in his life.
  • Talking the Monster to Death: How Fischer defeats Belasco, by means of a "The Reason You Suck" Speech. Much better and more epic than it sounds.
  • Thanatos Gambit:
    • Emeric Belasco, the sociopath responsible for the massacre at Hell House and its subsequent haunting for decades, sealed his legacy by forcing himself to die of thirst in a hidden lead-lined chamber, having correctly predicted that this would prevent his spirit from being dispelled by EMP.
    • It's also suggested that dying by sheer willpower in the chamber is how Belasco managed to become such a powerful spirit.
  • This Cannot Be!: Barrett has this reaction after his machine seemingly cleanses the house of supernatural energy, but then starts detecting something again. In the film he actually says, "No! I do not accept this!"
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Florence at first. She believes the spirit can be removed from the house by love.

Alternative Title(s): The Legend Of Hell House