Most haunted houses are just vessels for whatever monster is haunting them. But in Kitty Horrorshow’s Anatomy, there are no serial killers or malicious ghosts, only a search for a set of cassette tapes that provide a lecture on the personification of the home. Instead of a sprawling mansion, the setting is a mundane two-story house, an instantly recognisable setup. The player has probably lived in (and felt safe in) something similar, and can navigate the small space intuitively. Anatomy doesn’t rely on mazes and secret passages to disorient the player, to make them question what’s behind the next door and what monster might jump out at them while they’re poking around in it. The kitchen is exactly where you’d expect it to be. The question becomes why this seemingly ordinary kitchen is making you uncomfortable.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”
As Anatomy progresses, elements of the house that the player might have initially written off as the graphical limitations of an game made by a single person begin to imply that there’s something fundamentally wrong. What little furniture exists looks uncomfortable and impractical. The beds are awkward looking slabs; the kitchen and dining room have no cutlery; the living room chairs are too close to the old TV for comfort; the cabinets and drawers can’t be opened. Empty, useless space abounds—a bedroom contains a bed, a small nightstand, a dresser and one indistinct painting. There are no decorations, no touches of personality, and a swath of blank floor. It’s too simple, in a way that suggests the room no longer has any purpose. There’s not even any sound—the floorboards don’t creak, the AC doesn’t kick in, the furnace doesn’t grumble. Unlike a haunted house, rich in the details of the life that once unfolded in it before things went awry, Anatomy’s house is sparse to the point of inducing suspicion and unease.
You begin to notice that no one appears to live in the house. It’s dark, the bookshelf is empty, there are no clothes, there are no magnets on the fridge, there are no family photos. You realise that this house is unoccupied and unloved, and perhaps has been that way for quite some time. It accomplishes the architectural equivalent of the uncanny valley effect, creating a space that resembles the home you (or others) live in, but with something off about it. It’s hard not to feel uncomfortable in the home despite the apparent lack of a threat, and the tapes begin to suggest that the idea of a living house is more than a metaphor: When a tape tells you that the basement is a dark and unnerving place full of monsters, and you’re immediately told to search for a new tape in the basement, you can’t help but feel that you’re being taunted. When a tape reminds us that we trust our house to keep us safe through the night, we wonder whether we can trust this one.
The personification of the home is not a new idea—from books written to explore that very concept to a guest at an open house declaring that the kitchen feels uninviting, we all think of homes, especially our own, as having human characteristics. Homes can be cozy and warming, sprawling and impersonal, strange and eccentric. We can be happy to see a friend’s home after a long absence, or irate that we have to spend time in an in-law’s stuffy and dated house. But rarely do we think of a home as having the needs of a living creature, specifically the need for companionship and love. Rarer still do we think of a house becoming malicious when its needs are not met. We know homes can fall into disrepair, and we may consider that sad, but we don’t consider that the house may be suffering, and desirous of revenge.
“What happens to a house when it is left alone? […] What does it think of? What does it dream?”
If Anatomy has a clear antecedent, its Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There too the house isn’t merely a vehicle for the antagonist, but the antagonist itself. There too the terror comes from the protagonist’s reaction to their time inside the house. And, there too, the house seems to toy with its occupants. Sight-lines make no logical sense, doors shut unseen, and the occupants ignore these problems until it is too late and the house, after communicating with the heroine, destroys her. In the book’s famous opening (and closing) passage we’re told that “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” The house’s lack of sanity is stated as fact, prompting the reader to see it as sentient, hurting, and capable of evil.
Anatomy’s reveal is more gradual, although its personification—and malice—eventually becomes more literal and obvious. The tape quality degrades, furniture begins to jut out of the walls at impossible angles, doors open into unopenable doors, paintings and windows flicker in and out of existence. The house breaks down, both physically and mentally, before the player’s eyes. Walking through it becomes uncomfortable because the player is not entirely sure if they want to see the next way that the house will become less like what we understand a house to be. Eventually the house acquires red masses of flesh, making earlier metaphors literal. The front door vanishes; you can’t escape. Then, in the basement, the teeth emerge. Anatomy also closes with the question of what a lonely house might dream of, with its final tape beginning: “What happens to a house when it is left alone? When it has become worn and aged, when its paint peels, and its foundations begin to sink? When it goes too long unlived in, what does it think of? What does it dream?”
A decaying house is full of ways to betray its occupants
Though the tapes continually remind us that the house is a creature that can consume, it’s not until the end that the player truly realises that Anatomy‘s house is devouring the player, that it has betrayed the trust we place in a home to keep us alive. But we forget that trust has to go two ways. A home that isn’t cared for cannot protect us. While our own homes cannot literally eat us, the thought of dying in the one place we most associate with our life is a deep and primal fear. The trope of a lonely senior citizen rattling around their empty, decaying home until they trip down the stairs or slip in the shower is a powerful one, based-on an often grim reality. A house that can no longer be looked after decays, and a decaying house is full of ways to betray its occupants. Anatomy’s house does not consume for the sake of it; as the game’s closing tape implies, the house was abandoned, then became lonely, then became bitter. And, just like lonely and bitter people, a lonely and bitter house can do terrible things.
So when we personify a house, we must remember that houses are creatures much bigger than us. They can control us, if we aren’t careful. Jackson’s heroine thinks “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.” And Anatomy chides you, right before the basement’s mouth begins to close, “Did it not occur to you that as an organism existing within a greater organism, your intrusion would be felt?” The lesson in both stories is that a house does not need a killer or a ghost to be scary. The houses we haunt are perfectly capable of haunting us back.
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