Home is where the horror is. That’s the underlying logic of This House Has People In It, which debuted with little fanfare at 4am Tuesday morning as part of Adult Swim’s elusive “Infomercials” initiative. The network, a ratings powerhouse which nonetheless airs some of the most ferociously experimental stuff on TV, used this horror-comedy-parody umbrella project to launch a genuine viral hit with last year’s smash sitcom satire Too Many Cooks. But its successor, Unedited Footage of a Bear, was the best and most brutal of the bunch—a send-up of medication commercials that rapidly devolved into one of the most frightening works of doppelgänger horror this side of Mulholland Drive, as well as an emotionally upsetting vision of how severe mental illness can hold entire families at its mercy.
Now AB Video Solutions and Wham City Comedy, the overlapping Baltimore art, music, and performance collectives who unleashed Unedited Footage, have returned with This House—an even more ambitious stab at the horror genre. Constructed as an assembled collection of surveillance-camera recordings of a seemingly ordinary blended family, the 11-minute movie takes place on the day of their son’s birthday, when his older sister’s…condition, let’s say, threatens to shatter the suburban tranquility forever. But the story spills beyond the confines of the video, into a website for “AB Surveillance Solutions” that’s packed with hidden links, videos, text files, images, and audio recordings that further flesh out the family’s plight. We don’t want to spoil the sick surprises, but they involve a mysterious ailment called Lynks Disease, a kids’ cartoon character named Boomy the Cat, an amateur sculptor with a hankering for clay and a dark secret, a whole lot of screaming, and a very special houseguest who’ll keep you from feeling comfortable in basements, bedrooms, and backyards for a long, long time. Sure enough, Reddit sleuths have been working round the clock to unearth every hidden horror.
We spoke with This House co-writers and executive producers Robby Rackleff, Alan Resnick, and Dina Kelberman—all of whom played multiple roles in its creation alongside fellow ABV members Ben O’Brien and Cricket Arrison, with Resnick making a cameo and serving as director, cinematographer, co-editor, and effects supervisor, Rackleff co-editing and co-starring as the family’s father, and Kelberman providing web design—about the video(s), the site(s), the superfans, and the reason suburban families provide such fertile territory for terror.
OBSERVER: What was the reception to Unedited Footage of a Bear like?
ROBBY RACKLEFF: Better than we expected. By far. But the biggest surprise was the depths which people were willing to plumb to find meaning in the show. The people who visited the website and went through it all uncovered a lot of information that we assumed was too hidden. The mini-game and the website Dina made had just enough secrets that people seemed to feel really rewarded, And they felt like they had enough information to go and construct informed theories on it.
How did that shape This House Has People In It?
ALAN RESNICK: We started brainstorming ideas almost immediately after Unedited Footage of a Bear aired. We kept thinking about that 4am audience.
RACKLEFF: Like Alan said, we were thinking of that specific audience. The response to the horror elements was really strong, so we wanted to build on that. When we first started brainstorming, we talked about a series about a cult which would use different camera types to create two different visual narratives. The cult lived in a compound which would be shot like a ’90s WB show, with a similar level of un-threatening melodrama. Whenever the cult ventured outside, however, the aesthetic would shift to a grainier, grimier tone. The outside world would feel threatening and oppressive. The trouble was that we couldn’t really break through on how to make it funny and rewarding to watch. But one day Dina and Alan came in and started talking about watching a normal family through security cameras as they struggle with something horrifying and insane. That opened up a whole universe of possibilities.
More so than Unedited Footage, This House works within two established horror genres: found footage, from The Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity, and in its online component, web-based horror, alternate reality games, and creepypasta, from Ted’s Caving Page to Marble Hornets—to your own alantutorial YouTube series, for that matter. Were you conscious of these genres while making this? Were certain examples particularly inspiring?
RACKLEFF: Definitely. I can only speak for myself here, but the single scariest movie I’d ever seen was Blair Witch because it was like no movie I’d ever seen, and I’d managed to walk into the theater utterly uniformed about what it was. I felt like such a bumpkin afterward, but for a good 24 hours I was beyond myself with fear.
RESNICK: I think we were all aware of that genre, but I personally had never watched any of it. For me, one of the most exciting things about security cameras is how crappy they are. How bad the image quality is. Robby, Ben [O’Brien], and myself all come from video art, working on crappy DV camera. When I was first learning video, there is something so unsettling about the low-end video quality. After making a few higher-production-value projects I was excited to make something ugly.
RACKLEFF: Grainy video camera footage is a great foundation to build weird terror upon because for a long time it was how we recorded our family history. Family VHS tapes are a sublime mixture of uncommon things—parties, holidays—that are not that interesting, but still hold a strong sentimentality for a lot of us. There’s a switch that flips when watching old America’s Funniest Home Videos where we recognize that the desire to be recorded stretches way back. It’s universal and comforting. People see the camera and perform. but for similar circumstances—say, a birthday party—to be recorded without [acknowledging the presence] of the camera upsets that narrative and becomes something warped.
This House and Unedited Footage use of horror as a metaphor for mental illness in a fiercely compelling fashion. The way a sufferer can sort of “infect” a house or a family, warping the contours of reality around the illness…I relate very strongly to that, and I imagine a lot of other people do too.
RESNICK: Metal illness is an important theme that we keep coming back to for some reason. For me, a person acting irrationally is scarier than a monster, because it’s a real thing that happens.
DINA KELBERMAN: Yeah. The thing with an irrational person is that they make you question whether or not you are the one who is crazy, which does not happen with a regular monster because it’s definitively outside yourself. Have you ever seen that Duck Tales—a-woo-woo—movie, with the scary dog that loves gold and then dies as a result? That terrified the shit out of me out as a kid. I’ve subsequently had a lot of friends deal with that kind of thing and it’s really rough. But so far none of them have been buried alive in a golden pyramid, so, still better than Duck Tales.
RACKLEFF: We definitely use [mental illness], but it’s important to all of us that when we do it doesn’t come from a mean-spirited, let’s say, “Slipknot” perspective of mental illness and horror. Just focusing on the parents [in This House] for now, some of the discussions we had during the early stages of the script revolved around depicting adulthood as pain. Unrealized dreams can make us into someone like the dad, who is weak-kneed, detail-oriented in all the wrong ways, theatrical, and ultimately useless. The demise of the mom’s dream has made her cold and indifferent, but she becomes a pragmatic person of action. Adulthood is painful, but it requires us to bury a lot of that pain, especially in the context of family. The event that occurs in the show is just the weight on the stress point that forces the adult characters to become exaggerated personifications based on how that pain changed them.
I’ve watched a lot of those A Haunting shows where they dramatize reported haunted-house occurrences, and they almost invariably involved blended families or divorcées with adolescent children moving someplace new “to make a fresh start.” The setup of This House turns out to be pretty similar, especially the deeper you dig into the videos online. What is it about this kind of family situation that lends itself to horror stories?
RACKLEFF: I think it’s a couple things. The first is that family is where you are supposed to be safe. Home is where things are predictable. Most people are at their most innocent and vulnerable at home with their loved ones. It is meant to be a place of unconditional caring. When something terrifying or unnatural happens to your family, it can very easily feel like tragedy, like a chunk of something is lost.
Also, family is an inherently weird situation. People are born into a living arrangement with other people, with all its norms and rules, that they have no input on for all of their early lives. There’s a natural tension in which people are trying to live independent, interior lives, but can’t, because their parents sleep fifty feet from where they do. There’s already a sense of foreboding, especially when kids start to really form into individuals, because it inevitably leads to secrets and obfuscation. I guess what I’m trying to say is that family is like a natural form of surveillance. It’s like we are always preparing for some kind of calamity
At the same time, I found This House funnier than Unedited Footage. “Funny” might not quite be the right word for it, but it had more of a Halloween haunted-house feeling: I’d jump and yell from something creepy happening, but then I’d let off some nervous laughter. You guys do often bill yourselves as a comedy group—do you work to make stuff funny and scary, or do you just let the chips fall where they may?
RESNICK: “Letting the chips fall where they may” is a good way of saying it. Nervous laughter has always been my favorite kind of laugh. This was originally conceived of as a series, where some episodes would be straight up comedies like a sitcom, some would be very mundane, and some would be unsettling or surreal. The idea being, every time you tuned in you had no idea what you were in for. We only got to make one so we tried to balance them all.
RACKLEFF: We wanted there to be constant action like a slapstick comedy, but that it would weave manically between laughable moments, terror, and sadness. There is a magical place where you can laugh and feel utter despair all at once.
RESNICK: One of my favorite depictions of mental illness is Nicholas Cage in The Vampire’s Kiss—
RACKLEFF: I think Vampire’s Kiss is a good reference point, because ultimately you get to watch an unlikeable person come apart. It manages to be hilarious, gratifying, upsetting, and pretty scary at times. It’s a breathless movie. it just keeps charging forward.
What’s it like to just drop this stuff on a largely unsuspecting populace at 4am? Do you track the reactions?
RACKLEFF: No comment.
KELBERMAN: We stay up to watch the first night on TV, and then check out if people are tweeting or whatever about it. So far, with both Unedited Footage of a Bear and This House Has People In It, I’ve woken up the next day to Alan saying “they found everything!” [Laughs]
Yeah, some people do pay attention to what’s on its way from you very closely. There’s a Reddit thread where people who knew the show was coming began analyzing it and finding all the clues almost immediately when it aired. Is that flattering, or intimidating?
RESNICK: Both! It’s unbelievably fun to all of a sudden have a huge group of people joining in on some inside joke that was previously just between a small group of friends.
RACKLEFF: The folks digging through it all managed to uncover little meaningful details and threads of intention that even I’d assumed would be completely off-radar. I assumed most of everything would be found, but they bested that assumption. Have you seen the South Africa clay connections people made? Or the theories about pizza? It’s amazing!
KELBERMAN: Those are probably the only people whose opinions I care about.
RACKLEFF: It can be a little intimidating, however. My twitter account was hacked last night!
That’s maybe taking it a bit too far, but I’ve noticed that in fan reaction to work like this there’s an emphasis on “figuring it out”—“Here’s exactly how everything connects, here’s what everything means.” People are even working to connect This House and Unedited Footage in some kind of mega-arc. To be fair, I thought I spotted one of the defaced photos of the little boy from Unedited Footage on the shelf in this house, so I get the impulse. But is that important to you? Do you even do that kind of world-building up front?
KELBERMAN: Absolutely, that’s one of the most fun things. We didn’t necessarily intend for this to be in the same universe as Unedited Footage of a Bear, but it totally could be. With this project we wanted to push that a little farther than with Unedited Footage by making all the extra video content, and we ended up each putting in so many little details that I don’t think any of us know about all of them. We try as hard as we can to make sure everything fits together, but sometimes there’s small errors, and those just end up getting scooped into the theories. And then, of course, there are theories we never even considered, which is great—often they’re really good ideas! This is my favorite part of everything.
RESNICK: We always wanted this to have a large web component. When we realized we could only make one episode, we felt like [it] was a disservice to the idea, so we used the website as a way of giving a fuller picture to what’s going on with this family. In an ideal world we would keep adding content, and continue fleshing out whats going on.
KELBERMAN: Everything should have a website. Every tree, every blade of grass.
RACKLEFF: It’s most important that people feel included in all of this. We really wanted to give them enough material that they feel as rewarded as we do. There are a lot of answers that we could give away that would ruin the adventure. So yes, the world-building is up front, but we won’t answer the question of what the world is. Yet.