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What's in the attic? How scary movies utilize this space

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May 26, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

In horror, a locked home can quickly turn from a safe haven into a trap in which killers and ghosts lurk in dark corners. Whether inside a haunted house or a venue penetrated by an outside threat, the attic space is often a source of scares. Unlike every other room in a private residence, the attic is often out of bounds, with a small hatch to access the dusty, dark, and cobweb-filled location. Used for storage, hearing noises from above is a sign that all is not well, and going up to investigate will only lead to more peril.

Audiences know full well that nothing good can come of this curiosity. Of course, characters in scary movies aren't going to listen to the various bumps and scratches as a warning to stay out. If they did avoid climbing the pull-down steps, we would be denied such memorable moments from Hereditary, The Exorcist, and the recent Invisible Man adaptation. As we continue our horror journey around the home, let's dig into why this location is so scary.

Credit: A24

Scary movies wield metaphors like a weapon, so a haunted loft space is also making a larger statement about the family who must endure terrors from above. In The Exorcist, single mom Chris MacNeil's (Ellen Burstyn) introduction occurs while she's hearing unusual noises for the first time in the Georgetown home she is renting while shooting a movie. The sound causes her to check on her sleeping daughter and she finds an open window, which doesn't seem all that troubling. She thinks the overhead bumps are nothing more than rats, even though she is told the attic space is clean. The following night she hears it again, but this time she makes the very poor decision to investigate alone with only the light of a candle for company.

Director William Friedkin delivers the first scary moment from within the home courtesy of some classic tricks that horror aficionados will likely expect but still enjoy. Chris walks into an unseen object (because it is so dark) and is startled, not by a ghost or a killer, but the handyman who has already told her there are no rats. The jump scare was expected, but her candle briefly igniting into a larger flame for no apparent reason is not. The traps lie untouched; rats are not to blame for the unsettling commotion.

Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The correlation between the open window and the mysterious presence making itself heard indicates something has penetrated the so-called protective walls of this home. Not all things heavenly come from above, nor will God necessarily intervene when they do. Demons don't just reside in basements — although they are also a fan of this locale — and the loft provides ample opportunity to turn a family home into a hellscape. Just ask Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) in Sinister.

When moving into a new place, exploring all the rooms to see if the previous tenants have left anything behind can turn up treats or unwanted items. When the residence you have moved into was the scene of a horrific crime you are currently researching, a discovery could be a major breakthrough. The attic is where we put things we don't want to throw out or deal with — very much out of sight, out of mind — so when Ellison finds a box containing a projector and several Super 8 reels he thinks he has struck gold. The innocently labeled "home movies" are actually a box of snuff films, including the family that used to reside (and died) in this home. Creepy af, but great research material.

Credit: Summit Entertainment

What better place to set up a private screening than the most isolated room in the house? A sloped roof might awkwardly crop the picture, but the missing ghostly children of Sinister don't have to experience the latest in home cinema options. Additionally, this is the perfect location for a creepy movie club run by the Pagan deity Bughuul causing these violent acts. The moral of Sinister is that anything you find in the loft is only going to cause more harm than good. The Graham family from Hereditary would confirm this if they still had their heads (or hadn't spontaneously combusted).

This film, which takes storing items you don't want anyone to see to the extreme, inevitably reveals the discovery of the exhumed (and headless) body of Annie's mother decaying in this space. A decades-long plan to conjure Paimon — one the eight kings of Hell — is in its final stages by the cultists that have infiltrated the Graham home. Paimon's symbol is a repeated image throughout the film, but it is at its most disturbing when painted on the attic walls in blood. In one of the most terrifying sequences of Ari Aster's feature directorial debut, Peter (Alex Wolff) seeks refuge in the attic — the age-old running upstairs when he should be going out the front door mistake — and locks the door so his mom can't get in. Instead of banging on the door with her fists like a regular person, she uses her head as a battering ram. The bruises aren't going to matter in the morning, given that once she does end up in the roof of her home, she cuts her own head off using piano wire.

Storing old family keepsakes is what this arena is often used for, but the metaphorical and literal ripples of this cannot be underestimated within the Hereditary setup. Toni Collette has encountered a trifecta of attics covering a spectrum of unsettling scenarios.

In the 2015 Christmas horror-comedy Krampus, she experiences toy terror in the attic when the now-sentient beings attack. The beams of their flashlights are little protection against these forces. And in The Sixth Sense, she looks on helplessly after her son is trapped in the top room of a birthday party venue. After reluctantly agreeing to appear in the play "Locked in the Dungeon," the two kid bullies give Cole (Haley Joel Osment) a horrifying experience. We never see inside the room; instead, we are subject to Cole's terrified screams as he can't get out and his mom Lynn can't get in.

Sprits and demons are not the only danger lurking, as flesh-and-blood humans also resort to hiding and stalking from above. In the original 1974 Black Christmas, the killer takes up his attack position from within. A classic babysitter urban legend tells the story of calls coming from inside the house, and Black Christmas takes this concept and runs with it. When the doors are locked, the college students are simply trapping themselves inside with the person who is tormenting them.

A decade later, in House on Sorority Row, the attic is the scene of the final battle with the murderer — who gets extra creepy points for dressing as a clown. The hatch that is so often the mouth of the scary space helps subdue the killer when he falls through; the ending is ambiguous because, of course, he opens his eyes before it cuts to black. Black Christmas also ends on a cliffhanger with the police outside standing guard but blissfully unaware the murderer has been inside the entire time.

Credit: Universal Pictures/Blumhouse Productions 

Hiding in plain sight is a benefit of Adrian Griffin's (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) tech suit in the recent Invisible Man adaptation. After faking his death in the aftermath of girlfriend Cecilia's (Elisabeth Moss) escape the home, Adrian proceeds to gaslight her to the extreme, taking up residence in the house she fled to. Even though he is invisible, he needs a base of operation so no one accidentally walks into his still solid form — plus he still needs to sleep. The obvious place is the attic, so he can spy on her from every room.

Cecilia rings his phone in a bid to draw him out, and the eerie realization that the vibrations are coming from the ceiling uncovers his disturbing proximity. In a movie full of nerve-inducing sequences, this one is peeking-through-your-fingers levels of tense as Cecilia goes up to investigate. The realization he has been here the entire time is horrifying, and the way she ultimately deploys paint to reveal his presence is genius (and jump-worthy).

Most attics are full of dust and memories without the malevolence or murder, but horror plays on our fears of this dark space. In some cases, what is stored up above are items we aren't quite ready to dispose of or hold larger meaning. However, these rules are twisted in scary movies to ensure that whatever the darkness is hiding is not going to spark joy. If you hear a noise coming from the attic, it probably isn't rats.

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