The thoroughly irritating first two-thirds of Monster House, produced by archboomers Spielberg and Zemeckis, is, like the last animated move I saw, Pixar’s Cars, a giant playground for baby-boomer solipsism. Whereas Cars enacted an escape from today’s crass celebritydom and Nascar vulgarity into the authentic embrace of midcentury small-town, roadside-attraction America (the death of which, the movie reminds us at great length, should be of great concern to today’s youth, who never experienced it but are supposed to mourn it anyway), Monster House opts for a less sentimental but no less self-regarding view. Rather than sweetness, it presents a more cynical version of traditional America, with a frantic mother, an undemonstrative father, and duplicitous, wholly self-absorbed teenagers, but nonetheless asserts the universality of the baby-boomer childhood: the family is slightly dysfunctional but still nuclear; the preadolescence is slightly troubled but ultimately innocent; the suburb is leafy; the milieu, if not the time, is the 1950s. As if to reinforce this point–and to declare the right of authorship of the human body–the film is animated in a way that is unerringly, almost creepily, “realistic”; I’ve never seen animation that represents expressions, movement, postures, and gestures in such lifelike ways.
But then about an hour in, the tone and focus of the movie change, as it drops its suspense/coming-of-age genre trappings for a more serious tenor. At this point, and skipping most of the plot details–the elegant form of which can be read at the Naked Gaze, or a quick synopsis here–it is revealed the Mr. Nebbercracker, the old man who lives in the monster house and who torments neighborhood children by harassing them, is really acting as the kid’s protector. Nebbercracker’s wife, Constance, a circus fat lady who was rescued from her miserable life by Nebbercracker, had, 45 years previous, accidentally fallen to her death (and her body was covered in concrete) in the house they were building while she was being bullied and teased by some local kids, and her ghostly incarnation as the house endlessly exacts revenge for her death by swallowing all toys that land in her yard and the people that get close enough to her front door. Despite terrifying the kids with his wild screaming and murderous threats, Nebbercracker acts as a buffer between them and Constance, warning them off his property so that Constance does not abduct them and imprison them in her house forever.
It’s hard not to read this part of Monster House–that is, Nebbercracker’s turn into the benevolent guardian–as an enactment of and endorsement of security-state paternalism, of the simultaneous War on Terror abroad and open surveillance and repression domestically. Nebbercracker may be cranky and violent, unpredictable and unstable, omnipresent and fearsome, but his aims are pure and beyond reproach–the security of the people (the homeland) from the monst(e)rous menace of the phantasmic, nearly invisible outsider (the terrorist). It’s also hard, as the Naked Gaze also points out, not to read Monster House in gendered ways. Nebbercracker, the protector of the people, it of course the male through whose rationality and improvisational sensibleness the children are kept safe and, ultimately, the house is destroyed. Constance, the woman/house, was in life an object of pity, a fat woman jeered at by carnival crowds before she was heroically whisked away by Nebbercracker. In death, as a mere spirit, she is denied her most salient quality, her body, and can only obtain an existence by inhabiting a new structure, which was constructed and is defended by her husband. As a house, she is mute, ferocious, and all messy desire, unable to hear Nebbercracker’s pleas for reason and to control her impulse to gobble up things and people. Constance is, in short, the feminine.
Still, there’s the hint of a line of flight grabbed here. Refusing both the security offered by her husband and the exclusion and death offered by society, Constance opts to keep on living. Her strategy is to take quite literally the maxim that the woman’s place is in the home. Or, as one of the kids says to Nebbercracker at the end of the movie, after Constance has been destroyed, “Sorry about your house. Uh, your wife. Your housewife.”