Hell House Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Matheson


Unlike many stories of haunted houses, Richard Matheson’s Hell House attempts to account scientifically for paranormal events, as remnants of psychic energy and manifestations of electromagnetism. A serious student of parapsychology for more than thirty years, Matheson believes in the paranormal. Near the beginning of Hell House, he provides a list of more than one hundred displays of psychic phenomena reportedly observed at the Belasco House on earlier occasions. Most, if not all, of these events manifest themselves again by the novel’s conclusion and help create the tales terror.

At least two of Matheson’s short stories anticipate events of Hell House. In “Mad House” (1953), remnants of the energy of a former occupants rages resonate in a house to the degree that the next occupant of the house commits suicide. An academic colleague explains this action, in theory, as a result of negative energy from the former occupants bad temper that lingered in the house.

Similarly, Matheson’s “Slaughter House” (1953) creates a gothic atmosphere much like that of the Belasco House. A first-person narrator moves into an elegant old mansion where several people are believed to have died of arsenic poisoning. The narrator wakes one night to see his somnambulistic brother following a blue light. Within the light, he discerns a beautiful woman, whom he recognizes from a portrait as the deceased daughter of the houses original owner. Later, the apparition visits the narrator, who ultimately goes mad, sets fire to the curtains, and flees the house.

The imagery and atmosphere of both stories, as well as Hell House, echo the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, as does much of Matheson’s fiction and film work. Matheson wrote screenplays for several productions loosely based on tales by Poe and directed by Roger Corman: House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963).

Matheson based his screenplay for The Legend of Hell House (1973) on his own novel Hell House. As in Poes tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), the haunted house in Matheson’s book and film comes complete with gothic trappings such as tarn and miasma. Like the sentient House of Usher, the windowless Belasco House creates terror that prompts visitors to flee aghast.