“It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.” –Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Let’s talk about haunted houses.
A staple of the horror genre, the Haunted House is a concept that every culture recognizes. Generally, the story involves ghosts or spirits that remain in the world long after they should have passed on, inhabiting a dwelling and terrorizing the current residents or anyone who dares to spend the night. There are several variations on the trope. Instead of a location, a ghost may be tied to a particular person or object. The ghost may wish to harm living persons who dare stay in the house. It may want to impart some forgotten story, buried underneath the floorboards of the house. It may want to accomplish some unfinished task or fulfill some neglected duty. The ghost itself may not exist; perhaps the house isn’t haunted so much as the characters have imbued the walls of the house with their own secrets and fears. The house itself may be alive, or at the very least, not inanimate.
Without fail, this particular subgenre cares as much about the house as the ghosts that haunt it, creating not just a compelling setting but also another character. There are many questions to answer. Why is the ghost sticking around this one place? What holds it here? Is it something about the house? Or is the house passive, as much a victim as the restless spirit? Did the former occupants do something to deserve the haunting? Is the ghost trying to warn us or hurt us? Does the house want to warn us or hurt us? What will happen to us if we chose to stay? What will the house do to us?
I’ve always been fascinated by the way a building interacts with those who move through and within its space, particularly when it comes to haunted houses. From an early age, I was taught to pay attention to buildings and their construction, so while I am by no means an expert, I tend to notice certain elements. Obviously I am not alone in this fascination, since the discipline of Architecture exists in the first place.
People have studied and obsessed over their surroundings since the beginning of time, struggling to control and manipulate their environments. That’s why Feng Shui is a thing. That’s why interior design can make or break a room. That’s why cathedrals were built to tower above congregations and remind them how omniscient, intimidating, awe-inspiring God is. Psychologists have studied how the color of a room can impact on performance standardized tests. Casinos are built like mazes to keep patrons from leaving easily and purposefully lack windows in order to obscure the passage of time, tricking patrons into spending more time gambling.
But the interaction is never one-sided. My environment impacts me as much as I impact it, despite the degree of control I presume to possess. Every room I’ve ever slept in, every apartment I’ve ever rented, every office I’ve worked in, is altered by my continued presence—the way I close the doors, the way I let the sunlight shine in, the way I keep the room clean (or not). Even a restaurant I visited once was changed by my presence, how I touched things, breathed inside of its walls, contributed to inevitable wear and tear.
On the other hand, something as small as the placement of the utensil drawer can make a huge difference to my level of comfort in my own kitchen. When the office copier is moved, I find myself altering my routine. I had an apartment in graduate school with a layout so awkward that I didn’t venture into certain parts. Objects I had placed in those parts became somewhat lost because I forgot all about them. They were swallowed up in dead space. I once spent a night in an attic bedroom with a low, slanted ceiling. During my entire stay, I had nightmares that the roof collapsed on top of me.
It’s no different for a haunted house. These stories examine the interaction of spaces and people and we can learn a lot.
For thousands of years, we have been told stories about the intersection of people and places. Today, we hear the same old tales and some new ones, about the Winchester House, the Menger Hotel, and the Visilica Axe Murder House, among countless others. The future will bring more, stories not yet written about houses that are not yet haunted. Every one is an opportunity to examine who we are, what the relationship is all about.
As part of this blog’s stated mission, I’ve decided to research and investigate haunted houses in an attempt to explore the relationship between the inhabitants and the location. I will be doing a series of blog posts about purportedly haunted places in my city, in my state, and in my country. Hopefully I’ll get to explore haunted houses in other counties. I want to see the buildings for myself and interview people who interact with these buildings on a daily basis. I will document my experiences here and share my thoughts on the location.
I’m not saying that ghosts do or do not exist. Personally, I think that they probably do exist, but I also think that a lot of supposedly “haunted” places are not haunted. I’ve never experienced a haunting, but I don’t feel comfortable discounting what others have witnessed without at least visiting the location. Ghosts or not, these “haunted houses,” buildings of our own creation, continually and persistently mold us to fit their confines. I try to keep an open mind, not just about ghosts, but also about the unceasing relationship between our surroundings and us.