I initially delved into these movies with the aim of revisiting some great horror comedy. What I unearthed instead was an instruction manual for becoming a man in the 1980’s. These texts are just as rich with gender ideals as uncovering a 1950s Ladies Home Journal. Within both films I noticed a not so subtle description of what passes for appropriate masculinity. The narratives are different but the trajectory of the leading man is the same. In House, Roger Cobb (William Katt) has to overcome his failures in Vietnam to become man enough to have his family back. Similarly in House II Jesse (Arye Gross) isn’t even worthy enough to have a family until he butches up. Cue up your Betamax and your VHS as we are going to revisit the 1980s version of how to become a man.
If you are a wimp, you will lose your family. Roger Cobb (House) is a once famous author who presumably loses his wife after his son disappears. However, we quickly gather that Roger is failing at life, love, and being a man. His son is kidnapped (by the house), his wife leaves, his books are failing, and he is left sitting alone in his library surrounded by the great stories of other greater men. His impotence as a man seems rooted in his failure to perform in Vietnam. While in battle, Roger never took the lead, and when his buddy Ben was mortally wounded in battle Roger refuses to put his friend out of his misery. Thus, Ben is captured and tortured to death and left to haunt Roger. When later confronted by his (literal) demons, Roger is emasculated by Ben (Richard Moll) who states that Roger “hits like a little girl”.
House II takes it one step further with its emasculation of the leading man. Jesse is visibly a wimp, his girlfriend laughs at him with her boss and even his parents gave him up for adoption. He too lusts after the adventures of his great grandfather. Jesse pines away in the library reading about the lived experiences of his family member. When Jesse admits he is scared to go first into an Aztec temple, his buddies taunt him “don’t be a fag”. Jesse is juxtaposed by his great great grandfather for whom Jesse was named after. Gramps was a world traveler, he was an adventurer, a man’s man who boasts about how “This Ronald Reagan fellow is a real pansy” who wouldn’t have lasted a day back in Gramps’ time. Jesse wants everything that Gramps represents, if only he knew how to get it.
No final girls in these films, only scared little boys. Both Roger and Jesse replicate damsel in distress horror tropes. When face to face with the monster they run and they usually run upstairs, or they fall down. They scream, cower, and run. However, there is a twist to this damsel in distress trope. Instead of being rescued by a man, they must learn to become a man in order to vanquish the monster. Eventually Roger and Jesse fight back after they embrace the appropriate dose of masculinity.
Hypermasculinity will kill you. At the polar opposite of Roger and Jesse are Ben and Slim. Ben (Moll) plunges into battle, offering to lead the troops in Vietnam. He acts irresponsibly, doesn’t keep his head down, he taunts the enemy. Ben represents unrestrained hypermasculinity and ultimately he dies for it. Similarly, Slim (Cleverdon) is a quintessential cowboy but he breaks one code…guy code. He lets money get between him and his best friend and wears his disloyalty like a peacock plume.
Toting a gun makes you tough enough to confront your issues. It’s not the size of your gun, but the way you use it. Manly men are soldiers and cowboys. Does it get anymore stereotypical than this? When Roger decides he is going to combat the monsters in his closet, he dons his battle fatigues. He begins to fight back by mowing down a ghoulish girl with his rifle. After this Roger Cobb steals a few moves from The Greatest American Hero and rappels into the abyss locked and loaded for battle. Roger now has the wherewithal to confront his issues but it is still not enough. Similarly, Jesse starts out always getting the wimpiest weapon. His first gun built his esteem until he is impotent in battle because his tiny gun didn’t pack a punch (as it was a cigarette lighter). Not until Jesse becomes comfortable with a six shooter and a gun belt does he have the confidence to lead the team in an effort to recover the skull.
Doing the right thing builds character. Part of doing the right thing is being a good friend and protector. Roger is no longer a sobbing mess of a man in battle. He takes the opportunity to do what he should have in Vietnam…he kills Ben. Since there was no way to prevent the ambush, Roger should have killed his friend and saved him from a horrific and slow death. Jesse becomes a true cowboy when he protects Gramps. After Slim steals the skull, Gramps’ life depends on Jesse’s ability to spring into action. Not only is Jesse able to return the life source for Gramps, but he also avenges the deaths of his mother and father. Now that Roger and Jesse have proved they are tough enough, they are worthy of dependents.
Having a little help from your friends (or anyone from the sitcom Cheers) will get you through any challenge. Roger’s neighbor turned best bud, Harold (George Wendt) stood by Roger even when he presented as crazy. Harold beckons Roger’s wife to the scene just as Roger emerges a changed man. Much like Harold in House I, Bill (John Ratzenberger) serves as a conduit for success. His presence opened up the opportunity for Jesse to discover the parallel universe. And again, he leads the newly masculine Jesse to the girl. While in the Aztec temple, Jesse runs into the virgin sacrifice who will become his girl. Only question left here is, how different would this story be if Roger and Jesse ran into Rhea Pearlman and Bebe Neuwirth instead of Wendt and Ratzenberger.
Masculinity is a family magnet. And having a family makes you a man. Once Roger Cobb puts on his masculine attire, picks up his manly gun, and protects those around him; he is able to find his son. Once he finds his son, his wife comes back and they can all live happily ever after. Although Jesse was dealt a different hand, the outcome is the same. He had no family but as he developed more masculine traits he was able to build a new family. His new family includes the dogapillar, the pterodactyl baby, the virgin, and his best buddy Charlie. Jesse undergoes a full metamorphosis from nerdy twit who can’t keep the attention of his girl, to a cowboy with a family.
I hope you enjoyed opening up this little time capsule as much as I did. For what it’s worth, the films are good and they offer an interesting glimpse back at what it meant to perform like a man in the 1980s. Not surprising was the family values mantra or the rigid gender stereotyping which were both often indicative of the 1980s. I don’t find the content of these films nearly as surprising as the complete absence of so many other horror tropes. Perhaps memory fails me but I found it noteworthy the overall absence of women along with the dominant narrative of one leading male, especially as the 1980s was dominated by slasher films and naughty teen groups. Nonetheless, House (1986) and House II (1987) offer an indication of how society reflects the values of being a man.