In The Night House, the new movie from director David Bruckner and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, Rebecca Hall gives a brilliant, raw performance as a grieving widow, Beth, whose husband, Owen, has unexpectedly killed himself. Metaphorically haunted by loss, grief, and the fear that she never really knew her spouse, Beth fends off her friends’ attempts to help her mourn, holes up in the isolated lakefront house her husband designed and built, and goes down an extremely deep rabbit hole investigating his death. In the process, she makes a few discoveries that are no less painful for being commonplace—there were other women in her husband’s life, for instance—and a few more that are decidedly uncommon: Her husband was constructing a secret house deep in the woods on the other side of the lake, a mirror image of the house they shared. Alongside all this metaphorical haunting, Beth comes to believe she is being literally haunted by her husband’s ghost, who keeps doing things like turning on the stereo and playing their song at top volume in the middle of the night. Beth, desperately missing her husband, initially welcomes these ghostly visitations, even as they become more frightening. Then, the ending barrels in like a freight train and recasts everything we’ve seen so far in a much darker light. Spoilers for The Night House follow.
What’s the twist?
Well, for starters, the dead husband Beth is mourning turns out to have been a serial killer. But it isn’t entirely his fault, which is where things really get crazy. Beth discovers that she isn’t being haunted by her husband’s ghost as she thought—she’s being haunted by death itself, sort of. As she explains early in the movie, as a teenager, she was involved in a car accident and was clinically dead for several minutes. Revived, she became convinced there was nothing after we die, because she’d experienced nothing. Late in the movie, she discovers that that nothingness she felt was quite literal, and it wants her back. (“I’ve been with you ever since,” it tells her.) Owen’s suicide note, which read in part, “There is nothing. Nothing is after you,” turns out to have been an extremely poorly-planned exercise in Shel Silverstein-style wordplay: “Nothing” is after her. That’s why the spirit haunting her so often manifests itself in negative space.
Wait, go back to the part where the husband is a serial killer.
Yeah, Owen is a serial killer, but he has his reasons. The evil spirit trying to get Beth sent back into nothingness doesn’t approach her directly at first: Instead, it whispers in her husband’s ear, telling him to murder her. As Twitter teaches us, men will do literally anything to avoid going to therapy, so Owen deals with his urge to murder his wife by getting really into the occult. This is probably a bad idea in real life, but in The Night House, he’s on to something, because there actually is an evil spirit trying to get him to kill Beth. In an attempt to pacify the nothingness, Owen begins murdering other women who resemble Beth. The photos Beth finds on his computer are not his lovers, but his victims, and the reverse floorplan house he is constructing is part of an intricate scheme to trick the nothingness with decoy murders. When the nothingness figures out what he’s up to, he kills himself in the mistaken belief this will protect his wife. Instead, the nothingness just starts terrorizing Beth directly, in an attempt to get her to kill herself and return to the void.
Good Lord. How does the movie set any of this up?
Primarily through a copy of a (fictional) book called Caerdroia that Beth finds among Owen’s belongings. Caerdroia were mazes cut into the turf by Welsh shepherds, traditionally thought to represent the walls of the city of Troy. Peter Roberts, in his 1815 book The Cambrian Popular Antiquities: Or, An Account of Some Traditions and Superstitions of Wales: With Observations as to Their Origin, &c. &c., sketched out a Caerdroia’s traditional shape, which appears on the cover of the book Beth finds in the movie:
As Roberts noted, a caerdroia isn’t quite a labyrinth, because “there are no means of losing the way into the citadel; the supposed way continuing regularly through all its windings unbroken, which could scarcely have been the design of the inventor.” In The Night House, Caerdroia have a slightly different meaning and use, spelled out in this paragraph from the prop book, briefly visible as Beth flips through it:
Of the more than 600 magical prescriptions from both the pagan and Christian sources from the last 2000 years, few have so successfully employed the labyrinth for spell casting. In Celtic traditions, the Caerdroia represented any series of simple mazes and reversed spaces intended to confuse or weaken dark forces. By distorting the identity and location of the subject, pursuing spirits could be distracted by false forms of sacrifice.
Owen was constructing a mirror version of his house—a reversed space—to confuse the dark force pursuing Beth. It wasn’t exactly a kill house—judging from the visions Beth has, Owen murdered at least some of his victims in the house they shared—but he used the reverse house to stash the bodies.
Okay, but what about that horrible voodoo doll?
Right, there’s also the matter of the voodoo doll Beth finds in the mirror house. Caerdroia explains that, too, in a paragraph immediately below a photograph of an extremely creepy, extremely real ancient voodoo doll from 2nd or 3rd century Roman-occupied Egypt, now held in the Louvre. Here’s the explanation:
Voodoo dolls were rarer than curse tablets and were typically found at gravesites near those afflicted. They were commonly sculpted of hard material, often wood, sandstone, or limestone. Wax dolls were found in Egypt and Greece throughout late antiquity. Unlike curse tablets, dolls were often delivered as gifts, activated by contact with the intended recipient. Numerous spells would bind offerings to the artifact for delivery.
Owen crafts his own version of this doll, and according to a woman who survived her encounter with him, he asked his victims to hold it before murdering them. Apparently, this somehow helped him trick the evil spirit into thinking he was killing his wife, as instructed. There’s a suggestion in some of Beth’s later visions that he bound his victims in the same pose as the doll, but The Night House doesn’t get into the details of the ritual, presumably so viewers won’t attempt it at home.
What’s up with the ghostly women Beth sees running off a cliff at her house?
They’d be the ghosts of Owen’s victims, if The Night House hadn’t made it clear there’s no afterlife. If you have to have an explanation, it seems most likely that the women are also manifestations of the nothingness, like the visions she keeps having of Owen. Part of its plan seems to be helping Beth discover her husband’s secret life as a serial killer, in hopes that will drive her to suicide.
After such a complicated explanation, does any of The Night House still hold up as metaphor?
Sort of? The early parts of the film suggest the supernatural elements in The Night House may be meant to represent the normal grieving process after a loved one’s death by suicide, a reading that is not really tenable once it becomes clear Owen was a mass murderer. But if the movie is not aiming for a universal portrait of grief, it can still be read metaphorically, and it’s more or less internally consistent. It’s not that big a stretch to think that the same nothingness would be behind murders and suicides alike, or that a man experiencing an urge to kill his wife might sublimate it by killing other women instead, or invent an elaborate occult explanation to explain why he’s murdering people. The metaphor starts to fall apart, as far as mapping onto the way things work in our world, at the point where Beth’s depression and Owen’s urge to kill intersect. Early in the movie, Beth expresses a fear that she’s to blame for her husband’s suicide:
I’m the one who struggled with that stuff: depression, dark thoughts. He’s the one that kept them at bay. Maybe it got to him, I don’t know. Maybe I infected him with my bullshit.
“It doesn’t work like that,” one of Beth’s colleagues reassures her, but in The Night House, it absolutely does work like that: Owen becomes a serial killer because the nothingness that’s been following Beth around since her accident targets him to get to her. If people became serial killers because their spouses suffered from depression or had a near-death experience as a teenager, there’d be a lot more serial killers. Still, the movie’s vision of death as a negative space rings true, and Hall’s performance is magnetic enough to smooth over most of the rough edges. If you found The Night House relatable, though, especially the parts about building a Caerdroia to trick the evil spirit that keeps encouraging you to murder people, you’ll probably want to seek professional help.