The Haunted House Movie is one of my favorite types of horror movies. Multiple factors contribute to my appreciation, but the biggest thing for me is what a haunted house movie accomplishes as a trope. Haunted house movies may not be the scariest genre, but it is certainly the most unsettling in my book. These movies are about the pollution of the sacred sanctuary of a home. Otherworldly forces beyond human control destroy the integrity of a house as a protective dwelling, which terrifies me on a deep level.
This visit to the Winchester Mystery House is the latest entry in Project: Haunted House, a series of posts where I visit “haunted” places and write about my experiences. Read more here!
The crazy, reclusive woman is a well-worn archetype in literature and film. Emotionally and psychologically unstable, she is damaged goods, unable to escape from a painful past. She is isolated from others. Those around her define her by sorrow, anger, and “insanity.” Her behavior is misinterpreted, and her motivations are ignored. She might start off as a psychologically stable character, but cruel psychological manipulation breaks her down. Sometimes, she really is insane, but her mental illness is far more complex than portrayed, and we’re never given her full story. These portrayals twist her into something both delicate and dangerous
You know this archetype. The most famous example is Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, but she shows up in different versions as the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and Jennet Humfrye in The Woman in Black. She also appears in films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Gothika, and The Ring. Some of these works are my all-time favorites. I’ve always been intrigued by these characters, probably because I’ve always seen them as very misunderstood.
The Crazy Lady also shows up in tons of myths legends, and ghost stories. One of the most famous examples of a weird, reclusive, possibly bat-shit lady is Sarah Winchester, mistress of the infamous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California.
Halloween is only a few days away! In case you aren’t yet in the spirit, or if you are and you want to add a bit more scary fun to these last few days, consider picking up one of these classic horror books!
There are a lot of scary stories out there, too many to read. However, if I have to recommend some good scary books, I’ll recommend the following eight classics of the genre. These books are essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in horror fiction because they are 1) thoughtfully written and well-crafted; 2) unsettling, creepy, and horrifying; and 3) insanely influential. Stephen King wouldn’t be famous at all if it weren’t for Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, and Robert W. Chambers.
Also, its worth noting that while you may “know” about these classics, if you haven’t read them, you’re missing out. So run to your nearest bookstore, library, or Amazon account and get yourself any one of these for a spooky read. If you’re pressed for time, you might like some of the short story collections, which are quick, morbid reads. Enjoy!
Every once in a while, I find a hidden gem of a horror film. Something with a low but meticulously managed budget. Something that prefers spooky lighting to buckets of blood. Something inventive, moody, and unsettling. Something that I can’t stop thinking about, even a week later.
The most recent movie to make me feel this way was 2013 Venezuelan psychological thriller/gothic horror film La Casa del Fin de Los Tiempos, or The House at the End of Time. Written and directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, this movie is old-school gothic horror, in the same vein as The Others (which is one of my favorites).
Odds are, Dear Reader, that you own a least one IKEA item. Odds are even higher that you’ve visited an IKEA at least once in your life. Those stores are everywhere—a quick Google search tellls me that IKEA operates 351 stores in 46 countries on 5 continents. Its furniture is endemic to college dorms and first apartments because its relatively good furniture for being dirt cheap. While IKEA furniture is ridiculously easy to assemble, the shopping at IKEA is like running a gauntlet. Huge crowds, a maze-like showroom floor, and a massive warehouse are only some of the obstacles you must overcome to get your Klippan sofa home.
Seriously, you don’t know the meaning of existential frustration until you go to IKEA for one thing, but you are funneled into the showroom labyrinth through no design of your own, and for two hours you are stuck behind a family that takes up the entire width of the path and stops to touch every. Single. Thing.
I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home,
I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read—I tell you where you are.
Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look.
Home. There place where we belong. Where we put our things, our emotions, our past. More often than not, it is a dwelling of some sort—a room, an apartment, or a house. You know every room, every door, all the corners, the way the fourth step from the top creaks, and the way the sunlight enters the windows. You know it intimately. You will carry this knowledge with you forever.
I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between a person and the building she inhabits. It is a relationship, and both person and dwelling provoke change in each other. I’ve written about it before on this blog, particularly to examine the ways in which purportedly haunted buildings physically interact with the people who move about inside.
Even after we have left, we carry the physical presence of home. It is part of us, and we have become a part of it. Home is a record of our lives. We dirty it. We wear it down. Sometimes we break it or fix it up. Home is the intersection of our past, present and future.
Which brings me to my new favorite book, White is for Witching.
Last week, news of the Poltergeist remake set fire to the Internet, and not in a good way. In an interview with Collider, Sam Rockwell, who has been cast as father figure Eric Bowen in the remake, dished out details about the new film. And what he shared may give pause to some fans of the original, including myself.
I should probably disclose that the 1982 film Poltergeist is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love it. I’ve loved it since I was a small child and I love it now. Every time it comes on TV, I drop everything and let myself get sucked into the world of the Freeling Family—mother Diane, father Steven, and children Dana, Robbie, and Carol Ann. Poor, sweet Carol Ann. It’s utterly compelling—well-acted, scary, and an incredibly well-balanced story. It’s amazing and awesome and you can’t convince me otherwise. It doesn’t need to be remade.
So it’s not surprising that my immediate reaction to news of a remake (an unnecessary remake) was to make this face:
Alcatraz. The Rock. The most infamous prison in America.
Ask anyone about it, and almost everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about. Even though Alcatraz only operated for twenty-nine years, its impact on the popular consciousness is legendary. It’s inspired many films, most notably the 1979 classic Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, and the 1995 classic The Rock, starring Nicholas Cage.
It even had a TV show, Alcatraz, a few years ago (my personal favorite, due in no small part to the amazing Sam Neil).
Gone too soon.
The story of the prison looms large in our collective history, an archetypal prison made real. We’ve heard about the freezing, shark-infested waters surrounding the island. We’ve heard that the United States Prison System ran the prison with an iron fist. We’ve heard about the men who stayed there—Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr., to name a few. We’ve heard that it was a “super prison,” an inescapable, impenetrable fortress. We’ve heard about the failed escape attempts, including the six men who broke out and were never seen again. Did they drown in the frigid, black waters? Or did they make it the Mexico after all?
I don’t know about you, but I love Christmas time! I love the songs, the holiday parties, the food, and spending more time with family and friends. As much as I love my family, however, sometimes it’s nice to wander off to a quiet corner with a cup of hot cocoa and curl up with a good book.
And given that Christmas occurs around the winter solstice, when the days shrink at the onslaught of frigid nights, this is the perfect time to branch out into some scary wintery tales.
I’ve done some research and compiled a list* of horror novels related to Christmas or wintertime. So, in no particular order:
For the first installment of Project: Haunted House, I decided to pay a visit to one of my favorite bars in Houston—La Carafe.
Built in 1847, the building that would eventually host La Carafe stands at the corner of Travis Street and Congress Avenue in the heart of the Market Square Historic District in downtown Houston. It is a narrow and long structure, slouching to one side and threatening to topple over. The balcony porch, door and window trim, and drainpipes are painted a vibrant green, which contrasts nicely with its practical yet charming brick exterior.
Throughout its life, the building has functioned as everything from a bakery to a trading post. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it became a bar. Due in no small part to its longevity, many believe that the bar is haunted. Some swear that a woman in gauzy white will push women down the stairs because, even in death, she is jealous of their beauty and sees them as competition. There are reports of ghostly lights and orbs floating about, some of which have been captured on film. Supposedly. The building’s second floor, only open after 9 PM or for a semi-annual séance, is a common denominator in the tales. The ghosts of young children are said to play on the second floor. The spirit of a bartender named Carl is believed to inhabit the building, making his presence known with a disembodied voice that announces last call as closing time approaches.
I’ve never experienced a supernatural encounter there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were actually haunted. There’s so much history soaked into the walls, into the floorboards. The owner adamantly resists many modern influences. La Carafe is a cash-only bar. There are no TVs. At night, candles light the interior, and electrical light is employed sparingly. During the day, the main source of light comes from outside, resulting in long, soft shadows throughout. The heavy scent of incense fills the whole space, creeping to the upper level, wafting out to entice potential customers. The actual bar is an old, Art-Nouveau piece, probably hand-carved.
This is the bar you go to when you feel contemplative and nostalgic, eager to enjoy some wine and good conversation with your date, your friends, or random strangers. You go there to stare at the old photographs, the ancient newspaper clippings about local events, and oil paintings of gorgeous and nameless women, all flickering in the dim light.
For this blog, I find La Carafe intriguing because, even though it’s purportedly haunted, it doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. It’s open every day, including holidays and hurricanes. There are always customers, many of whom are aware of the reputation. I had my hypotheses as to why, but I went to investigate with as open a mind as I could muster.
When I arrived, John, the bartender, was on duty. He was accommodating and eager to chat about the building’s history. He’s worked at La Carafe for over a decade and has been a customer for twice that time. Almost right away, I asked him about the ghost stories and whether or not he believed them. He claimed to be a skeptic about the resident ghosts, but he did admit that it was entirely possible that ghosts might inhabit the property, adding that if any place in Houston was haunted, it was La Carafe, and if any ghosts were there, they would be friendly more than anything.
John recounted his versions of the stories, rattling them off as he poured drinks. His first involved a bartender who had passed away years ago. The bartender had been a fixture at La Carafe, and everyone missed him a lot. One night, sometime after he had died, the bartender hired to replace him was closing up. This new bartender was by himself, as he was much of the time when it was his turn to close the bar. He had almost finished when he saw someone on the second floor, a man he’d never seen before. He rushed upstairs to kick the man out, but when he got there, the second floor was deserted. The next morning, the new bartender told the owner what had happened, describing the mysterious man as best he could. The owner was not surprised that the new guy perfectly described the old bartender’s appearance.
John himself had experienced something similar. One night it was John’s turn to close up, and after the bar had emptied, he heard a loud thud come from the second floor, like the sound of someone falling off his or her barstool. He ran upstairs to make sure no one was trying to stay past closing. When he got there, the second floor was deserted.
Another story involved a couple who wandered into the bar one day, looking for a place to grab a drink. The couple was curious about the old building but unaware of the history or the reputation of the bar. At some point, the man excused himself to the bathroom. Now, a quick word about these restrooms—they are tiny. Only one person at a time can fit in the restroom, which makes for a very tight and claustrophobic space. Suddenly the man came tearing out of the restroom, swearing up and down that someone had grabbed his shoulder while he was washing up. John insisted that the man wasn’t acting and was indeed shaken. “White as a sheet,” claimed John.
John’s favorite story, and the thing that was most interesting to me, and involved the ghost that pushes beautiful women down the stairs, only John seemed to think the ghost is that of a man, not the ghost of a woman.
John’s feelings on the matter were a mix of amusement and genuine concern.
“I can’t tell you how many girls go up and down those stairs and get actually upset that they didn’t fall. ‘Oh, I must not be pretty! The ghost didn’t push me!’ But how pretty are you going to look if you fall down those stairs? Hit the brick walls and the sharp edges on the way down?” John asked.
“Yeah, that’s not really what I would call a compliment,” I said.
“Here’s what I think. This building is old, and those stairs are really uneven and steep. They wouldn’t pass code today, but because the building is protected as a historical marker, they are grandfathered in. Now, going up and down those stairs in high heels, four glasses of wine in you, you might fall down those stairs,” he explained.
It was an excellent insight. As I’ve discussed before, I’m very interest in how and why people interact with their environments, I went up and down those stairs and found them to be tricky. If I had been intoxicated, I would have had a hard time managing them. They were uneven, steep, and my foot didn’t fit on the individual steps. These stairs were no joke. I definitely didn’t want to take a tumble down them.
Still, I found myself wondering if there was a ghost and if it would push me. Thankfully, no one pushed me. I chose to believe that it’s not because I’m not pretty, but because the ghost realized that this was a very mean thing to do to unsuspecting women. Or the ghost knew that as soon as the ER discharged me, I would come back to ruin the ghost’s day.
Later, as I wrote this post, I couldn’t help but question why I’d even wondered if I would be pushed. I suppose it’s because I care about what others think about my physical appearance, even if it’s a ghost, which says a lot about me. The fact that I entertained, however briefly, that I could how pretty I was by whether or not I ended up as a broken heap at the bottom of a flight of stairs says even more about me. It’s a harmful and backward way of thinking. I’m still reflecting on the experience.
At the very least, I suppose that people, myself included, harbor certain desires to be close to the past even as we enjoy the advances we’ve made. We are drawn to it. The desire can manifest itself as harmless and useful, especially when old buildings are renovated or vintage furniture is repurposed. But this desire can be misunderstood. It can play upon our insecurities, making itself known in the very real safety hazard caused by outdated stair construction.
After all, the past creates the present, but its meaning comes only from those who look back. The past wants to be remembered and yearns to be studied. It wants to explain how we all got to this point.
We all hope that we will be remembered and studied. We hope that generations to come will care enough to ask for an explanation. If nothing else, we hope they find the old, historic bar, slouching to the side, order a glass of wine, and wonder if that stumble on the stairs was because we were trying to reach them.