Home is where the horror is, or at least it’s where you can most often find horror.
The genre has long explored the home, and its family bonds stretched to their extremes. Horror films have explored fears involving inherited skeletons in the closet, unhealthy relationships between parent and child, or even among siblings, and every terrifying facet of raising a family in a world where dangers lurk at every possible turn, realistically or supernatural. Horror is that fantastical space that brings its fictitious families closer together in opposition of looming threats, or it exposes their worst dysfunction.
Families like the Freelings use love as a weapon against the supernatural in Poltergeist. Grief and inherited plans of demonic transference expose the flaws of the Graham family in Hereditary, and they unravel quickly. With the twisted sibling relationship of The Turning and the sordid family drama of The Lodge on the near horizon, we’re looking back at some of horror’s most dysfunctional families. These ten families put the fun in dysfunction (more like fear) and their compounded conflicts and emotional issues become a mere starting point for the terror they unleash.
The Coleman family is a mess long before the adoption of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John’s (Peter Sarsgaard) marriage is under severe strain after a miscarriage. The loss gave Kate nightmares, and she turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. That alcoholism led to a car accident that left her daughter Max deaf and mute. In other words, it didn’t take much for Esther to effectively turn people against Kate and wreak havoc on their lives. The moral of the story is that a new child won’t fix your problems, and a creepy adult posing as a child will undoubtedly infiltrate and exploit your worst flaws.
Bill Paxton’s feature debut is an underrated entry in psychological horror that showcases how dysfunction tends to be cyclical. He also stars as the Meiks family patriarch, a man wholly convinced that he’s been tasked with a divine mission from God to destroy humans masquerading as demons on Earth. He also thinks that it’s a family business and brings his two young sons into the bloody fold. Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) believes his father, while Fenton (Matt O’Leary) thinks dad has cracked. While the truth is eventually revealed, teaching your sons the trade of ax murdering isn’t healthy for anyone’s psyche.
At first glance, the Davison family seems relatively normal. Sure, the siblings seem to annoy each other, but what siblings don’t know how to push each other’s buttons? Mom and dad- especially mom- radiate love for their children, so they can’t be that messed up, right? The more we get to know the family, the more their issues become apparent. Mom likes pills, so does the eldest brother’s wife, another sibling’s significant other is aroused by dead bodies, and when a trio of masked killers interrupt dinner, they devolve into bickering over who can run the fastest. Priorities are not their strong suit. Of course, there’s the whole other matter of two family members hiring the killers in the first place, to get a head start on collecting their inheritance.
Seed of Chucky
Up until this point in the series, murderous Good Guy doll Chucky struggled with life in a plastic shell. His driving goal, aside from murder, is to find a new human body to inhabit. A serial killer with an identity crisis and a viciously volatile relationship with lady love Tiffany makes for one of horror’s most dysfunctional couples of all time. Add in a son who’s also navigating the murky waters of identity and a significant aversion to violence, and well, Seed of Chucky makes The War of the Roses look like Disney fare by comparison.
This sequel to Offspring switches gears in a big way; a cannibal becomes the protagonist thanks to one messed up family. Patriarch Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) captures The Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) while out hunting and decides the best way to handle her feral nature is to bring her home and domesticate her. Chris’s plucky family man demeanor quickly gives way to depraved violence. A trait his only son has eagerly picked up on. The women in the family tend to live in fear, at best. That doesn’t even touch upon Socket, a secret Cleek daughter. This family, thanks to dear old dad, revels in chaos and evil.
House of 1000 Corpses
The twisted family tree of the Firefly clan is a winding one made even more complicated in that every single branch comes with its own brand of crazy and cruel. It’s clear they all love each other, even when fighting, but it’s all very unhealthy. Poor Tiny’s dad tried to set him ablaze, so they locked him in the catacombs with Dr. Satan’s experiments. Otis Driftwood tends to act as the father figure, but his penchant for necrophilia means he’s not exactly the father of the year type. None of that even scratches the surface of just how much this family loves to torture, maim, and murder.
The People Under the Stairs
The Robeson family is a wealthy but frugal bunch. Or at least Mommy and Daddy are, while their only daughter Alice is the epitome of well-behaved. Until Fool comes along and learns the horrific truth, Mommy and Daddy keep a slew of discarded “sons” in their basement. Boys that have broken the rules and have had their tongues or ears removed as punishment. That they’ve resorted to cannibalism to survive is enough to land the Robesons near the lead of the dysfunctional pack, but they take it a step further with the reveal that Mommy and Daddy are brother and sister.
After the disappearance of Frank Cotton, his brother Larry moves into his house as an attempt to reconnect with his wife, Julia. Blood from a gash on his hand unwittingly resurrects Frank from the floorboards of the attic, and Julia’s lust along with it. Poor Larry learns of the affair between Frank and Julia the hard way, and Julia learns the cold hard truth about what an unsympathetic user Frank is when a puzzle box opens the doors to another dimension. The love triangle gets even more complicated when Frank kills his brother, then wears his skin to fool Larry’s daughter Kirsty. Under the guise of Larry, he makes sexual advances on her. Incestuous desires, fratricide, and toying with Cenobites equals a family in pressing need of therapy. Lots of it. The Cenobites looked like angels next to the Cottons.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
There’s no question that a family of graverobbers with a taste for barbecued human flesh exists at the most dangerous end of dysfunction. None, save for the patriarch and proprietor of the family-owned gas station, seem capable of surviving in a healthy society. Not the loose canon hitchhiking brother, not the barely alive grandfather that suckles blood when offered, and mainly not the hulking mute that uses hand-made masks of human skin to convey his emotions and personality. Leatherface might be the family enforcer, but he’s a cowering softie that bears the brunt of his family’s abuse. This bizarre clan only gets weirder as the franchise progresses.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Torrance family, a small unit trying hard to overcome their dysfunction. Schoolteacher turned aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) pursues a job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel as a means of getting his life back on track after alcoholism threatened to derail it altogether. The quiet winter months mean plenty of time to pursue his writing, but it also means quality time spent alone with the family. A necessity considering how physically abusive his drunken state propelled him to be. That’s what makes The Shining so tragic; the evil of the hotel brings out Jack’s worst qualities, taking a chance at redemption and corrupting it to its fullest. It meant his only child, Danny, grew up battling the same exact demons as dear old dad, too, in sequel Doctor Sleep.