"House of Dies Drear" Movie Summary

by Ana Purna

"The House of Dies Drear" introduces young viewers to the history of slavery in the United States.

Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

The 1984 made-for-television film "The House of Dies Drear" is based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Virginia Hamilton. The story is a kind of ghost tale concerned with the Underground Railroad used to shuttle slaves to freedom during the Civil War. The film was shot in Toronto, Canada, and produced by the Children's Television Workshop.


The main characters in "The House of Dies Drear" are the members of the Small family: Professor Walter Small, his wife, Sheila, and their sons, Thomas and baby Kenneth. Other central characters are old Mr. Pluto, who lives in a cave on the Smalls' property, and Pluto's son, Mayhew Skinner, with whom he has an ongoing feud. A smattering of locals also populate the film, including Mac and Pesty Darrow and their father. The Darrows also have a longtime feud with Mr. Pluto over some conflict between him and their now-deceased grandfather.


"The House of Dies Drear" takes place in mid-1980s in rural Ohio, primarily at and around the Small family's new home, the historic home of a Dutch abolitionist named Dies Drear. Local legend has it that there is treasure hidden in the house.

Plot Synopsis

The Small family relocates to Ohio and takes up the former home of a Dutchman named Dies Drear, an abolitionist. Thomas is apprehensive about relocating, and his grandmother warns him of impending "calamity." Once they arrive, locals warn the Smalls that the house is a troubled, haunted place, and encourage them to make a hasty retreat. The Smalls stay on, however, and soon enough they hear strange sounds and experience unusual happenings in the house, such as finding their kitchen being trashed when they return from church. Young Thomas suspects that it is not a ghost at all, but the work of Mr. Pluto, and he and his father decide to find out. They discover that the "hauntings" have been the work of Mr. Darrows, whose father had a long feud with Mr. Pluto over the Dies Drear treasure. Mayhew, Pluto, and the Smalls find the treasure, and set about cataloging the antiques and telling the story of Dies Drear. The questions of whether the house is or was truly haunted, or if Darrows and Pluto heal their rift, are left unanswered.

Themes and Reception

"The House of Dies Drear" is aimed at older elementary and middle school children. The story introduces the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad in the United States through the eyes of a contemporary child. The film and book are popular with a young audience, and are considered somewhat scary for the scenes and noises Thomas sees and hears haunting his home and its secret passages. The film remains beloved by adults who were introduced to the story when they were young. The production quality of 1984 television has dated the film somewhat, and children raised in an era of high-definition and digital film may struggle to relate to the film.

Main Cast and Crew

"The House of Dies Drear" was directed by Allan A. Goldstein. Howard E. Rollins Jr. portrayed Walter Small, Gloria Foster portrayed Sheila Small, and Shavar Ross was Thomas Small. Pluto was played by Joe Seneca, and his son Mayhew Skinner by Clarence Williams III. The part of Pesty was played by Tichina Arnold, and Mac Darrow by Kadeem Hardison. Wilbur Darrow was portrayed by Hank Ross, River Ross Darrow by Eugene Clark, and Russell Darrow by Gene Mack.

About the Author

Ana Purna has covered outdoor adventure, travel, health and fitness for a variety of publications since 2003. Her work has appeared on the websites FeministReview and PaperDolls. Purna is a writer and radio producer in Texas who graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Arts in history.

Photo Credits

  • Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images