When we’re inside our home, the walls create extensions of our bodily boundaries and demarcate where the self ends and where intrusion can begin. The house itself as a living body is an image that permeates the gothic and horror genres (for example, the novels The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Guillermo del Toro’s film Crimson Peak, and Carmen Maria Machado’s gothic memoir In the Dream House). The 2022 film The House written by Enda Walsh and created in collaboration with various directors continues this exploration but it differs in how it presents the house as a body reincarnated throughout the eras. The film’s appealing and off-putting stop motion animation extrapolates on its theme of life-beyond-life because the characters (actual puppets) are devoid of free will, subject to the whims of time, and reliant on greater forces.
I’ve seen The House described as a dark comedy, but I don’t think that characterization quite gets at the nuances. I’d say it’s more… Goth-cute? Art-house-macabre? Catastrophe-quirky? A grotesquely surreal curio? Whimsically nightmarish?
The House is set somewhere in England and is split into three distinct but interconnected parts. The first takes place circa the Edwardian Era, the second is present-day, and the third is in a not-so-far-off dystopian time where water and mist are slowly drowning the land. Because the film’s narrative structure has three stories, the structure of the physical House does too (so presumably, pun intended). It therefore makes sense for this essay to follow suit:
Part I: Death Through Attachment to a Way of Life
In all three stories, there is a misalignment between where the characters want to be living and their current domestic circumstances. In Part I of the film, this disconnect comes from class boundaries. Raymond, Penny, young Mabel, and baby Isobel, are shamed by visiting relatives about the condition of their modest home. This spurs Raymond to make a drunken deal with a mysterious architect who appears in the woods and stipulates that the family can live in the estate he is building provided that they bring none of their own belongings and they never leave The House.
The family moves in and as The House is continually demolished and reassembled around them, the parents become so enchanted by the high-class furnishings that they begin to physically merge with them. They cling intensely to the idea that they can be seen as rich and this is what makes them transform into the objects they once coveted: elegant curtains and fine furniture. An unwavering grip on the idea of a life they want ends up negating the possibility of any life at all.
Because fire is both destructive and regenerative, a blaze accidentally ignited by Raymond forces Mabel and baby Isobel out of the house and into a new life (if they can survive the winter outside, that is). The House burns at the end of Part I, but it is not destroyed, it’s reborn externally intact decades later and in a crowded modern city.
Part II: Death Through Attachment to Façade
The unnamed developer in Part II is financially strapped and trying to flip The House for profit. However, he is not concerned about honorable business practices or structural integrity; appearance is his priority. Instead of longing to become ingrained with the living space like the parents in Part I, the developer wants out of it. He tries desperately to pass off a home with rotten innards as a flawless refurb (is the greed of Raymond and Penny what sowed the internal rot?).
Because he ignores an insect infestation until it overtakes the house, the developer can be seen as striving to cling to what seems rather than what is. The irony of this becomes clear when he loses the battle against the intrusion and begins living in the walls himself. He’s now one of the creepy-crawly occupants while the exterior of the house remains intact.
Part III: Death Through Attachment to Impractical Dreams
The inside and outside of The House have been overtaken by moral depravity, but in its third life, The House is still standing while everything around it disintegrates. In this dystopian future, Rosa is the landlord of The House and her plight is trying to become a successful property owner in a world where the land is being overtaken by the sea. She uses a vision board to plan and project her desires, but this only serves to perpetuate the reality that she is living in denial.
Part III is probably a commentary on climate change and how human construction can strip the land until it becomes uninhabitable, but the story also offers a solution to facing an uncertain future: go with the flow, follow the earth. Living as boat-dwellers seems inevitable for the characters. However, atop the water, they will also live as islands, earth itself.
As the water rises, Rosa holds onto torn-up floorboards—physically clutching onto the house—and objects to re-purposing them into a boat to help her survive the flooding. She’s doomed until she finds that her tenants fitted The House with a rudder and helm. Rosa’s tenants, characterized as out-of-touch hippy types who pay rent with fish or crystals rather than with money, turn out to be her key to survival because they know how to let go.
Still, because she could not stop clinging to The House, Rosa is burdened with moving a massive structure rather than a more manageable vessel. Will she make it? Her destiny is not as bleak or clear-cut as the characters in Parts I and II, for Rosa, there is hope. As the film ends, viewers are invited to wonder about The House’s next incarnation because the sailing-toward-the-horizon ending suggests what all ending like this do: the setting of the sun and its implied return in the morning.
Maybe like a soul, The House moves through multiple incarnations of life, but in an inversion of the body, it sheds its insides (and the occupants) while maintaining what it looks like. The film shows us the durability of human drive and how life clings despite the circumstances. Specific and totalizing desires are what compels Raymond and Penny, the developer, and Rosa, and it’s because these characters are so inflexible that they invite their own demise. At the same time, in a strange twist, their deaths might be exactly what makes The House live again. Perhaps it continues to reappear through the eras because there is unfinished business and The House needs another chance to try again.