Dream House Explained: A Case of Mistaken Identity More Than Ghosts

If you watch the trailer for Dream House (2011), you’ll notice that the film was marketed as a horror movie. Initially, at least for the first 20-30 minutes, it has serious Amityville Horror vibes. At first, the story feels familiar. A family moves into a house where a grisly murder occurred, or so it seems. But Dream House is a film with several plot twists, some more subtle than others. If you pay attention from the start, you will realize that the ending, for better or worse, made sense all along.

The “Atenton” Family Meets a Dream House

We’re initially led to believe that Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton, a writer who quits his job at APH publishing company to spend more time with his family and concentrate on his writing, specifically a novel. He apparently relocates with his wife and kids to a suburban New England town. Yet, from the start, there are clues that the story doesn’t quite add up. One of his co-workers says, “I didn’t know you had a family.”

When Will takes the train from the city and arrives at the house, it appears perfect, a symbol of the middle-class dream. Dusted with snow, it could be featured on a Christmas card or in a Hallmark movie. Further, Will and his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), appear blissfully happy. They kiss on the porch when Will arrives and tells her that he quit his job. Even their two daughters act content. Still, there’s something strange about the way that Will lingers outside of the house, studying it, before heading inside.

Additional clues key us in that not everything is at it seems. For instance, Will and Libby discover height markings etched into one of the doorways, indicating that two children lived in the house prior. To add, the neighbors, especially Naomi Watts’ Ann Patterson, and her ex-husband, Jack (Marton Csokas), act strangely towards Will.

The uncanny occurrences worsen when the girls claim to see a man staring at them outside and Will discovers footprints near the window. Not much later, he finds teens hanging out in the basement. One of them says, “I didn’t know anyone lived here,” while another adds, “He’s back.” These numerous clues indicate that Will just may be someone else.

Will Atenton or Peter Ward?

As the film progresses, Will becomes obsessed with the house’s ghastly history. He’s convinced a mother and her two daughters died at the hands of Peter Ward, the father and husband. He learns that Ward lives at a nearby psychiatric hospital, so, of course, he wants to visit him for answers. This leads to additional indicators that Will isn’t well, Will. A nurse asks to see his release forms. A minute later, he visits Peter’s room and discovers a framed picture of Libby and the girls. By this point, it’s clear that Will is indeed Peter.

This is confirmed after Ann invites Will/Peter inside of her home and explains what happened regarding the murders. She’s skeptical that Will/Peter killed his family. After he takes a bath at her place and does his laundry, she hands him a card for his previous psychiatrist. Will/Peter returns to the hospital and his doctor, Dr. Greeley (Jane Alexander), confirms that he is indeed Peter Ward and she couldn’t keep him because she didn’t have enough evidence pinning him to the murder. She doesn’t even seem fully convinced that he did it.

Earlier clues pointed to this. Specifically, Peter realizes that the heights etched into the doorway match the heights of his daughters, and in one scene, as he’s leaving the mental hospital, he sees all of his APH co-workers. It’s unclear if they’re his actual co-workers or other patients he knew from his time in the hospital.

Courtsey of Universal/Morgan Creek

Who Actually Killed Libby and the Girls?

The closing minutes clarify that Jack hired a criminal to harm Peter. It’s not totally clear why he wanted to do this, but in the process, shown through a flashback, the gunman killed Libby and the girls instead. During this flashback, Libby tries to protect her family by grabbing the assassin’s gun, and she shoots Peter in the head accidentally, just as he arrives home and rushes inside in a feeble attempt to save his family. This injury could explain the fantasy episodes he has in which he imagines his murdered family still alive in the home.

The fantasy shatters when we see actual images of the house condemned, with boarded up, busted windows and graffiti scrawled everywhere. A cop even informs Peter that he can’t stay there anymore. Further, Ann tells him several times that he must move on before revisiting the house drives him crazy. The house, then, becomes a metaphor for Peter’s grief and helplessness to save Libby and his daughters.

This still begs the question why Jack would want to murder Peter or his family. When he returns at the end of the film to finish the job and kidnap Ann, he tells her that she ruined his life. Perhaps she and Peter had an affair. She does look longingly at him early in the film when she realizes he’s returned to the house. And when she shows up to bring him food, Libby’s ghost, if you want to call her that, looks at her suspiciously, as if she knows something’s up. Regardless, Jack feels burned by his ex-wife, who he claims took everything from him, including his house, his kids, and his finances. Maybe, he’s just another angry white man who feels wronged by a woman.

Courtesy of Universal/Morgan Cree

Will the Writer Finally Finds A Dream House

Dream House concludes with a shot of Will/Peter walking down the street, the snow softly falling again. In a window, he turns to look at a novel displayed prominently entitled Dream House. The author’s name is Will Atenton. It’s finally evident that Peter adopted that identity as a pen name and to move on from his past. We at least know that he is indeed a writer and he finally completed the novel that’s haunted him for years. The book allows him to reconcile with his grief and move on from the past. The last shot literally shows him walking down the street, out of frame.

Overall, Dream House is a film with several red herrings and plot twists. But if you pay attention to the opening scene, it’s clear that things do not add up regarding Will/Peter’s identity. The clues are there from the start. Dream House may initially seem like an Amityville Horror-type film in which restless spirits haunt a family who just wants an ideal home. But that’s not what the film is. In fact, by the halfway point, it stops being a horror film and turns into a murder mystery thriller.

Dream House still has a six percent on Rotten Tomatoes. This seems harsh. Sure, it would have benefited from a better script, but Watts, Craig, and Weisz all give decent performances. If you haven’t seen the film yet, just go into it realizing that it’s not a horror film. Instead, it’s a mildly entertaining thriller with numerous turns. Once I realized that, I enjoyed the film much more.