Rules of the Game: Defining Home Invasion Horror

Hey! There’s this giant horror subgenre that’s been making the rounds lately! We should talk about it!

Home invasion films are defined as a subgenre of horror with a story whose thematic and plot elements deal with the forceful entry of one or more individuals into an occupied dwelling. This event and subsequent repercussions will be the main concern of the film, and will take up the majority – if not the entirety – of the screen time. Films such as When A Stranger Calls (1979) in which a home invasion occurs during the course of the plot but the event does not define the course of the film or its thematic elements, do not count as full examples. The 2006 remake of When A Stranger Calls, which depicts the home invasion as both the defining moment of the story and also uses it to structure the film, is a more straightforward example. There are, of course, further details within that definition.

Not all home invasion films fall under the horror category. For instance, Home Alone (1990) and The Ref (1994) are comedies. The majority of them do count as horror, however, and the discussions here will concern those.

Home invasion horror usually features a group of “victims” and one or more killers. The killers are usually masked and unknown to the victims, or appear that way initially. Some films subvert this expectation later on in the narrative, but the initial appearance is usually of an unknown – and masked – force. The killers will use a variety of armaments including guns, knives, power tools, and other improvised weapons. Unlike many slasher films, where the killer’s weapon is iconic and unique to the story, the weapons used in home invasion horror can be switched out at will. The weapons are not necessarily phallic by nature, as they often are in slashers, and can be coopted by one or more victims at any time in the story. Indeed, the victim that takes a weapon from a killer is proving their both their resourcefulness and willingness to take risks, and as such much more likely to survive to the conclusion.

The killer or group of killers will have an increasing amount of sophistication and understanding of violence than their predecessors in the slasher subgenre. In the early years of the slasher, the killers were often – though not always – portrayed as hulking and animalistic, dangerous because of their persistence and refusal to die more than their intelligence. This is a trend that has shifted in recent years, since the slasher genre is far from dead, but it was present in the early examples of the subgenre in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978). It is, however, worth noting that in Psycho (1960), arguably the first example of a slasher film, the killer was depicted as intelligent and thoughtful, and driven by psychological motivations instead of animalistic rage.

However, the motivations behind the attacks in home invasion horror almost always initially appear to be random. There appears to be no reason that the victims were chosen, other than possibly convenience or just plain bad luck. Unlike in slasher films, where victims were occasionally implied to have brought their fates upon themselves through various misdeeds – usually related to sex and/or drug use – the victims in home invasion films are usually represented as unfortunate but relatively innocent people. If they are in a place that is not their home – a vacation spot, a hotel, the house of a friend – then they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they are in their own home, then something unthinkable has happened. Again, though the victims are thrust into a situation where they are forced to fight and commit violent acts in order to survive, the films do not assume that the characters should be prepared for that situation. A home invasion is treated as something horrible and unexpected. The majority of the drama comes from forcing ordinary people to deal with a situation that they, by right, should have no reason to know anything about.

If the motivation of the killers is not random, this will not be revealed until at least halfway through the film – or at least not to the victims. Though the audience may know that the killers have more complex motivations – usually monetary in nature – the victims rarely realize the truth until much later. See You’re Next (2011), and the eventual reveal of the killers’ motivations for an example.

In home invasion films, the killers are aware of and utilize psychological terror – not just violence – in order to control their victims. Steps will be taken in order to better control the situation and assure that nothing will be given easily to the victims. For example, the titular killer in The Collector (2009) turns his victims’ house into a maze of death traps both to terrorize them (apparently for the fun of it) and, for more practical reasons, to keep them from running away.

Unfortunately for the victims, it is not enough just to run. They must be clever and ruthless in order to survive. Protagonists who survive will be clever, able to improvise and turn the killer’s weapons against them. They must be capable of making tough decisions and spilling blood. In other words, they must be like the killer. The protagonist and the killer will often have mirroring traits, and be proficient in the same areas. For example, both Arkin and the titular killer in The Collector (2009) are very good at breaking into houses, improvising weapons, and moving through spaces unseen. In You’re Next (2011), Erin has many of the same skills and mentality as the masked men – survival skills, improvised weapons, bobby traps, determination to fight even after being wounded, etc. She is also working class, in need of money, and the masked men are motivated by the eventual payday. She also uses psychological torture and scare tactics in fighting, as do the masked men. Both of them are effective in scaring their respective “victims.” Both Sgt. Barnes and the men in black are implied to be either current or ex-military in The Purge: Anarchy (2014), and both groups are out to murder someone. The Bloody Stranger is also very adept at surviving, but treated with immediate suspicion by everyone in the house in The Purge (2013).

Not only must the victims survive horrible acts of violence in order to live, but they must also commit them. Curiously, home invasion films tend to have ambivalent feelings at best about this change – and outright hostility at worst. A character who survives must, inevitably, do horrible things. However, their survival places them on the same level as the killer. This is a departure from the portrayal of final girls, the survivors of earlier slasher films, who survive the films and often – though not always – kill their attackers. Instead, the survivors of home invasion films are depicted as forever changed by their actions. There is no redemption or reintegration into society after what they have done. The cost of their survival, the films suggest, may have come at too high a price.

This is related to the inability of “victims” to reintegrate into society once they have perpetrated horrible violence. This is different from self-defense, which is often “clean”, but inadequate for survival. For example, subduing an attacker in a home invasion film is never enough to assure safety from further harm: the only “real” solution is to kill the attacker, but this requires participating an act of violence far more ruthless and purposeful than self-defense. This act requires the characters to both set out and follow through with murdering another human being – and the film always represents the “villains” as human beings – never simply monsters that must be defeated. Once an act of terrible violence has been done, the person is forever changed by it, and cannot go back to who they were before. They have been tainted by their participation and competency with violence, and will never be able to ignore that part of themselves. It has become a fundamental part of their character.

It is also important to realize that the killers in home invasion films are never portrayed as literal monsters; they may be horrible people but they are, in the end, human beings. There is no tragic change that makes them into monsters – for example, a zombie virus[1]. They are not under the influence of a curse, virus, or mind-influencing drug. Instead, the killers are acting on their own motivations. No matter how horrible those motives may be, their deaths are – without exception – portrayed as murders committed by the survivors. It is not that home invasion films take extra steps to humanize their villains, but rather that these films have made a decision to treat all of the characters as human beings – and their murders as horrifying. It doesn’t matter if these murders are committed out of self-defense. Justifiable homicide, after all, is still homicide.

Competency in fending off and killing the villains will be rewarded by the plot, but treated with suspicion by the other characters and the film itself. Characters who show any talent for violence are immediately suspect and pushed away by the rest of the group. For instance, almost every character that Arkin rescues in The Collector (2009) attempts to kill him after he gets them free[2]. His skill at surviving horrible situations makes him seem threatening to the other characters. This is different from other horror films, including monster stories and slashers, where a knowledge of and competency with violence is rewarded – indeed, it is treated as a desirable trait by both the film and the characters. Arguably, this concerns the level of realism within the stories these films tell, and the cultural anxieties they represent. People have been telling stories about dragons and monsters as long as there has been an audience to listen. The distance from reality makes the violence within them somewhat more acceptable. Killing a vampire or a zombie, for instance, is not the same as murdering another human being. Killing a human being, no matter how compelling the reason, is still a form of murder. Slasher films often cast their villains in monstrous light – even if these characters were human to start with, they have become something else by the time the events of the plot rolls around. Thus, there is no guilt in killing them.

One notable aversion of the trend of rewarding competency with violence, or the willingness to commit violent acts in order to survive, is The Strangers (2008). A relatively simple story, it concerns the plight of a troubled couple, James Hoyt and Kristen McKay, who find their vacation cabin under siege from a group of masked strangers. Though the film takes time to humanize its characters and make the audience sympathetic to the situation they find themselves trapped in, any and all attempts that James and Kristen make to protect themselves is doomed to fail. Even their willingness to fight back and commit violent acts is not enough to save them. Indeed, the moment that James first picks up a gun, he almost immediately shoots an innocent bystander. Ironically, this is what causes the strangers to label him a murderer – on the same level as them. James is one of the characters who does not survive until the end. Kristen, who does not attempt to kill anyone, does. All three of the strangers survive the night, and are implied to have gotten away with the crime.

There will inevitably be some economic and/or class disparity between the different groups of characters, though not necessarily between the killer(s) and the victim(s). Attempting to resolve said turmoil will not end the violent situation that the characters find themselves in, but will be used in developing the world of the story and the various themes it wishes to explore. This gives the various films an element of melodrama and hopefully character development. The conflict and its eventual outcome, if not resolution, often relate to the various themes at play within the film. The outcome is not always positive.

The group of victims will often be a group of mixed genders, ages, and races. In general, however, the characters tend to be older than the characters in slasher films, which primarily concern teenagers. This is not to say that home invasion horror lacks teenage characters, but only that they tend to be less central to the plot and do not show up in every instance. For instance, slasher films are heavily concerned with issues of youthful excess and pride. Age, therefore, is an intrinsic part of the story. This is not the case with home invasion films. The average “victim” in a home invasion horror tends to be white, middle class, and in their early thirties or older. The victims also tend to be straight, cisgender, and able-bodied[3]. There appears to be an equal amount of male and female heroes, even if women do tend to survive more than men. However, it is by a much smaller margin compared to slasher films; men barely ever survive to the end of those stories.

In addition, violence done to the characters will be evenly spread across genders. It is not assumed that the killer will sexualize a murder, or that the camera will depict it in that way. The camera work and duration of kill scenes will be about the same for men and women. Interestingly, if there are sex scenes in the story – their presence is not assumed – those scenes will not be filmed in the same manner as the kill scenes. Threats of sexual violence tend to occur less in home invasion films that in other horror genres, but when they do, they are more likely to target women. Stories that deal with rape almost exclusively concern women, such as with The Last House On The Left (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971). The Collector (2009) is one of the rare examples where the threat of sexual violence is not restricted by gender[4]. This is not to say that these films do not contain extreme levels of misogyny, as many of them certainly do, but rather that presence of sexualized violence is not assumed as it is with many other horror subgenres – or indeed, horror films in general.

Home invasion horror does, as the name implies, concern events that take place in one kind of dwelling or another. This does not automatically mean that these films are all centered on houses: apartments, hotels, and vacation homes also feature prominently. In this case, the definition of home is rather wide: it implies a dwelling that has a presumption of safety where the characters are staying for a certain period of time, and within which the killers are clearly trespassing. The home will be in a remote, though not necessarily rural, location. Though home invasion horror films set in urban locations do exist, they are much rarer[5]. The majority of home invasion horror is set either in a suburban or rural space.

Following that, if there are neighbors, they will be unable to hear anything that happens inside the house, or otherwise be unable to render aid to the victims. In some cases, the neighbors are on vacation, out of town, already dead, or – in extreme cases – aware of the violent events taking place, but either involved or otherwise unwilling to help.

In addition, though these films usually treat technology as something helpful rather than suspect, it is rarely available for the protagonists to make use of. Cellphone jammers, cut phone lines, and blackouts are common culprits. In addition, the killers are often tech-savvy and destroy equipment that might aid the victims. It is rarely implied that technology itself is the problem. Indeed, the jury-rigging of damaged technology is usually part of the solution that ultimately allows the protagonists to survive. The one problem that does show up occasionally is the over dependence on technology, at the cost of common sense – for example, the reliance on faulty security systems in The Purge (2013). However, the characters are not punished for having a security system so much as they are for assuming that it would be protection enough without accurately understanding how it worked. The Purge, however, is a very specific case. Home invasion films rarely punish the characters for forgetting to activate, not having, or misusing technology for the purposes of security. Their predicament is usually chalked up to bad luck, not the fault of the people inside of the house. It is not assumed that the victims should be prepared to fight for their lives.

Speaking of which, if the house in question has a security system, it will inevitably fail towards the beginning of the story. The cost of the security system is inversely related to how useful it will eventually prove to be. On the surface, this is not directly related to class. If a family can afford a sophisticated alarm system for their house, it will fail. If the family or group of people in question cannot afford an alarm system at all, it will not matter. Whatever precautions have been taken will prove ineffective. Arguably, this has less to do with the reliance on technology and more with horror’s unwillingness to make anything easy for the protagonists. As a genre, horror tends to submit it’s characters to Murphy’s Law more than other types of films: if something could go wrong, chances are it will in the bloodiest way possible. Security systems are just another casualty to Murphy’s Law.

The house or dwelling that the events take place in will be large, carnivorous, and impersonal. It will often seem cold and harbor deep shadows. If the dwelling is expensive, grand, or somehow beautiful, this will soon be proven a mask used to hide darker secrets and conflicts boiling under the surface. The house does not help the killer(s), but neither does it shelter the victim(s). The figure of the house is at best a silent observer, or a witness to the atrocity. Various shots in The Collector (2009), for instance, imply that the house is laughing at its inhabitants. In many cases, the more expensive and beautiful the house appears to be, the darker the secrets that it conceals inside. Though some plotlines and camera techniques are similar to those in haunted house films, the two subgenres have moved away from each other over the years.

If there is a family pet within the house, it will die before the end of the film. If the killer brings an animal along for the ride, such as an attack dog, it too will die before the conclusion of the story. In general, animals fare poorly in home invasion horror, though their deaths are less likely to be seen on camera than those of their human owners. It is likely because animals often prove to be the most sympathetic of characters on screen, whereas the audience places bias, whether intentional or not, on the human ones.

Though contacting the police is often one of the first things characters attempt, it rarely proves to be an effective solution. The police are not incompetent in these films, but if a character manages to contact one, the officer in question will either arrive too late, or be dispatched by the killer before managing to control the situation. In some cases, the police officer is even involved in the events taking place, and will arrive only to become another antagonist. At any rate, a police officer will never end the situation peacefully. This is arguably related to the protagonist-centered storytelling that horror films typically employ. The protagonists are usually “Average Joes”, not usually in positions where they are expected to defend their lives on a daily basis, and as such, home invasion horror films do not use police officers, firefighters, or active duty soldiers as main characters. There are a few characters that are implied to have a military background in The Purge (2013) and You’re Next (2011), but none of them appear to be on active duty at the time the events take place[6].

On a whole, home invasion films are not all that new. The first entry into the genre was Suddenly (1954), and all though it was not a horror film, it was very much concerned with the impact of violence upon individuals and what innocent people would do when forced into a do or die situation. Home invasion films have only become more popular over the years, with booms in the last ten years. Information released on upcoming projects indicates that the trend is not going to slow down anytime soon. Something about these films speaks to anxieties in the American public. Since these stories keep being told, it is important to look at exactly what they say and why.

Works Cited

Suddenly. Dir. Lewis Allen. Libra Production Company, 1954. Film.

Martyrs. Dir. Pascal Laugier. Canal Horizons, 2008. Film.

Home Alone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Hughes Entertainment, 1990. Film.

The Ref. Dir. Ted Demme. Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films, 1994. Film.

When A Stranger Calls. Dir. Simon West. Screen Gems, 2006. Film.

When A Stranger Calls. Dir. Fred Walton. Columbia Films Corporation, 1979. Film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Vortex, 1974. Film.

Halloween. Dir. John Carpenter. Compass International Pictures, 1978. Film.

You’re Next. Dir. Adam Wingard. HanWay Films, 2011. Film.

The Collector. Dir. Marcus Dunstan. LD Entertainment, 2009. Film.

The Collection. Dir. Marcus Dunstan. LD Entertainment, 2012. Film.

The Strangers. Dir. Bryan Bertino. Rogue Pictures, 2008. Film.

Inside. Dir. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury. La Fabrique de Films, 2007. Film.

The Evil Dead. Dir. Sam Raimi. Renaissance Pictures, 1981. Film.

Straw Dogs. Dir. Sam Peckinpah. ABC Pictures, 1971. Film.

The Last House On The Left. Dir. Wes Craven. Lobster Enterprises, 1972. Film.

The Purge: Anarchy. Dir. James DeMonaco. 5150 Action, 2014. Film.

The Purge. Dir. James DeMonaco. Universal Pictures, 2013. Film.

High Tension. Dir. Alexandre Aja. Alexandre Films, 2003. Film.

[1] Other horror films may follow similar plot lines as home invasion stories, but the presence of the supernatural usually disqualifies a film from counting as a home invasion horror story. Evil Dead (1981), for instance, is a haunted house story and not a home invasion film. However, films that include suggestions of the supernatural, including Inside (2007), Martyrs (2008), and The Collector (2009) are still included.

[2] It is important to note that in this case, Arkin was breaking into the house where the victims lived, and in the beginning they had no way of knowing that he was not partnered with the killer. However, the other characters continue to distrust (and attempt to kill him) in the sequel as well, when his motivations and “side” have been clearly established (2012).

[3] Notable exceptions include Fool (black protagonist) in The People Under The Stairs (1991), Marie (queer protagonist) in High Tension (2003), Anna (queer protagonist) in Martyrs (2008), Elena (deaf protagonist) in The Collection (2009), and Eva and Callie (Hispanic women) in The Purge: Anarchy (2014).

[4] The Collector (2009) is also one of the few films where the killer is implied to be something other than heterosexual. Both men and women are targets of sexual violence, in pretty much the same amount. The figure of the monstrous queer and anxieties about deviant or different sexuality are largely absent from home invasion horror.

[5] The Purge: Anarchy (2009) and The Collection (2012) are examples of an urban home invasion film.

[6] It is possible that Leo Barnes in The Purge: Anarchy is an active duty soldier, but there is no clear indication of this – or indeed what his actual profession might be. It is suggested by another character that he’s either “a cop or a criminal”, but the viewer is given no confirmation either way (2014). The Bloody Stranger in The Purge is indicated to be former military (2013).

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