The Uncomfortable Subtext of Reality: Home Invasion Terminology, Self-Defense Laws, and Castle Doctrine

The anxieties about home invasion, the complexities of self-defense, and violence exist outside of the films. They are prominent concerns and questions in the outside world as well, and it behooves a student of home invasion films to be aware of the legal concepts that underlie the fiction.

First, one must define what, exactly, constitutes a home invasion. It is thought that the term was first coined in 1912, though it was not brought into the American legal framework until around 2008 (OED). In general, home invasion is defined as the act of coming into an occupied dwelling with the intent to commit a violent crime. It is assumed that the assailant was aware that the dwelling was occupied before the commencement of the crime. Home invasions are differentiated from home robberies by the level of violence associated with them (“Home Invasion…”).

Despite its media prevalence, home invasion is not defined as a crime on the federal level, and very few states have home invasion laws on the books. Of the fifty states, only Michigan, Connecticut, Louisiana, Florida, Illinois, and Las Vegas, Nevada, have clearly defined home invasion laws (“A Review…”). Home invasion is also rarely defined as a crime outside of the US, with Australia being one of the notable examples. Defendants arrested for what might be termed “home invasion” are usually charged with assault, kidnapping, rape, or homicide. Though statistics on those crimes have been made public, it has been harder to gather data on what might be called home invasion, since it is rarely termed as such in court. Thus, it is nearly impossible to gather accurate statistics on the prevalence of home invasion crimes. Some examples of home invasions include the Keddie Resort Killings in 1981, which were never solved, and the murder of the Clutter family by Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith in 1959 (“Haunted Places…”). The murders were later made famous by Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. Interestingly, Richard Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, though they were found guilty, were charged with homicide and robbery rather than home invasion. More recently, Washington Redskins player Sean Taylor was killed after a home invasion in 2007. Four defendants were found guilty of the crime (Breech 1).

One of the major legal and theological concepts behind home invasion law is the Castle Doctrine. The modern day ‘Castle Doctrine’ is an American legal concept, which posits that one’s living place is an area in which a person enjoys certain immunities and protections, and where one is not obliged to retreat if threatened (Assembly, No. 59…). At its most basic element, the Castle Doctrine states that a person is allowed to use deadly force to defend their home if they see fit, and should not fear legal prosecution for doing so. Though Sir Edward Coke is credited with defining the early legal terminology, it is believed that the ideas behind the castle doctrine first emerged in Roman times. The Castle Doctrine forms the basis of most modern home invasion, robbery, and some self-defense laws.

The modern version of the Castle Doctrine evolved out of English Common Law. The concept of the Castle Doctrine was first established in 1628 by Sir Edward Coke. It is detailed in The Institutes of the Laws of England. This resulted in the common phrase “an Englishman’s house is his castle”, with variations of the saying having survived into the modern age. Sir Edward Coke wrote that, “For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge]” (“An Englishman’s…”). It is believed that the idea of the Castle Doctrine extends back to Roman times.

The concepts behind American self-defense laws do not end with the Castle Doctrine. Put simply, self-defense laws state that one can exercise reasonable force in order to protect oneself or members of the family from attack. Self-defense laws do not allow for the person in question to use excessive force or prolong the attack. In addition, the defendant must be “free from fault or provocation, must have no means of escape or retreat, and there must be an impending peril” (“Self Defense Law…). The specifics of self-defense laws vary from state to state. However, hard and fast definitions of excessive and reasonable force have not been decided on. This has led to cases where the killing of an unarmed individual can be considered self-defense, such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and Darrien Hunt, and where the firing of a warning shot against an assailant is enough to send a defendant to prison, as in the case of Marissa Alexander (Tienabeso 1). These three cases are just a sampling of many that have gained media attention in the last two years. It must be noted that all three of the defendants in these cases are black.

Without going into the complexities of America’s legal system, it is important to notice that questions have begun to arise concerning who, exactly, has the right to fight back against attack, what is considered acceptable and excessive force, and how issues of gender, race, and class play into those considerations. Considering American’s rampant gun culture and the increased media attention on self-defense cases and Stand Your Ground Laws, it is hardly surprising that some of these anxieties would translate over to film. While many action and thriller films present violent self-defense as both acceptable and even expected, home invasion films twist that premise by asking exactly what a person must do to survive – and if they will recognize themselves afterwards. The murkiness of self-defense laws in the US has fueled the crossover of uncertainty about the different levels of self-defense and survival cost in horror films.

Furthermore, it is interesting that such a clearly defined subgenre has risen out of a hazily defined fact. Home invasions certainly occur, but not in the way that they are portrayed on film. In this case, 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 its repercussions will be the main concern of the film, and will take up the majority – if not the entirety – of the screen time. Though home invasion films are usually seen as a well-defined horror subgenre, not all of these films fit into the horror category. Indeed, the very first home invasion films were thrillers instead of horror. One of the more famous examples, Home Alone, is a comedy. One could then conclude that even though the legal definitions of home invasion are shaky, the anxieties the event represents have been solidified over time into an easily recognizable storyline and film subgenre.

Works Cited

OED, 4th ed 2004: 1912 Washington Post 1 Feb. 4/3.

“Home Invasion Crime Stats | Home Security Tips by The Security Sensei (Jordan Frankel).” Global Security Experts. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <;.

“A Review of State Home Invasion Laws in the U.S.”. Home Invasion News. July 26, 2011. Retrieved November 20, 2011.

“Haunted Places.” Keddie Resort, Calif.: The Unsolved Nightmare in Cabin 28 — Top Ten — Crime Library. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <http:;.

Breech, John. “Jason Mitchell Found Guilty in Sean Taylor’s Death, Sentenced to Life.” 10 June 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <;.

“Assembly, No. 159, State of New Jersey, 213th Legislature, The “New Jersey Self Defense Law””. May 6, 2008. Retrieved 2009-03-19.

An Englishman’s home is his castle”. Retrieved 2012-01-11.

“Self Defense Law & Legal Definition.” Self Defense Law & Legal Definition. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <;.

Tienabeso, Seni. “Florida Woman Imprisoned for ‘Warning Shot’ Released From Prison Before Thanksgiving.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 28 Nov. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <;.


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