We are all haunted houses.
– H. D.. A Tribute To Freud
You step inside the dilapidated walls. The door slams shut behind you, resisting re-entry to the outside world. You are trapped, awaiting whatever this cursed place has to show you. You never should’ve come, you should’ve listened. Now it is too late. THE HOUSE has you in its fangs.
You knew it was haunted. Like some Lovecraftian hero, you are pulled towards the darkness, like a moth to a nightlight. What is it about these grand decaying edifices that captures our imagination? For the next 4 weeks, we will be looking at haunted houses, across multiple mediums, and try and decipher what their black empty windows are trying to tell us about ourselves.
Haunted houses have been appearing in literature as far back as the Arabian Nights (“Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad”) and Ancient Rome (Pliny The Younger’s The Library). We have always been obsessed. What is it? Could it be that sense of tingling, that cold dread, that you can’t describe yet can’t explain away. A feeling of PRESENCE. I think we go into haunted houses looking for SPIRIT, for a glimmer of holy otherness that defies materialism.
With a haunted house, temporality dissipates, the past is allowed to live again. Perhaps wrongs may be righted.
For whatever reason, (and many reasons, which we will pick apart one by one), the haunted mansions fascinate us, and it is an enduring trend. Its aesthetic infects us, gets inside us. Like Rob said in High Fidelity, “Am i miserable because i listen to Pop Music? Or do i listen to Pop Music because i’m miserable?” The question here being: “Am i morbid and mad, because i am surrounded by gore? Or did the ghosts drive me mad?” These images colour our dreams, get inside us, so dismantling horror is a thick bloody good time. The presence of Sex and Death gives everything a potent edge, a mythological strain. Its about as deep and as subconscious as you can get, Scorpio swimming to the surface. Bringing our dreams to life.
Haunted Houses have always been my favorite, my #1 most obsessive genre, by far. I will stay awake for weeks, trying desperately to find something i haven’t seen. I’ll find a rich vein, and get lost for hours. I think its the shadows, i don’t know what it is. I greatly prefer haunted house movies to every other form of horror, so that’s why i decided to start here. In the process of looking into these articles, i got to thinking. The practice of thinking to which i strive is called DECONSTRUCTION. Its closely related to ONTOLOGY (French and German, together at last), in its quicksilver precision. The thing of it is, i’m not a philosopher; i’m not a cultural critic. Not an accredited one, anyway. I’ve been making it up as i go along, trying to keep up with the massive swirl of information and brilliance that surrounds us. There’s such a breadth of amazing study that’s already been done, but something is lacking, nonetheless.
All these academics, all these psychologists and Marxist scholars, speaking with the language of LOGIC, something that is inexpressible. Ineffable, as it were. In his book, The Philosophy of Horror: or, Paradoxes Of The Heart Noel Carroll says:
The cross-art, cross-media genre of horror takes its title from the emotion it characteristically or rather ideally promotes; this emotion constitutes the identifying mark of horror.
Horror is a feeling, see? (Or as he terms it ‘art-horror’ to differentiate from the sensation.) Similarly, K-Punk, (resident hauntologist) said, in an article for Rhizome.org (January 17, 2006):
Yet spectres are unsettling because they are that which can not, by their very nature (or lack of nature), ever be fully seen; gaps in Being, they can only dwell at the periphery of the sensible, in glimmers, shimmers, suggestions.
For the past 7 years or so, the media and the academics have been full of talk of ghosts, specters, hauntings. It is no longer a surprise that all media is a ghost, a moment (or moments) trapped in time. The essence of a body, transmitted. We are surrounded by the ghosts of the past, and in this way we are the first couple of generations to be this way. We have to come to terms with it, what it means, what it implies.
Haunted houses are the perfect metaphor for this, the state that we are living in: the past, alive. Memories dancing in front of your eyes, playing across your ears. You can listen to the voice of your dead father. You can see a picture of someone moments before they were brutally murdered. I think this has shaped our psychology, or just made clear something which was always obvious. Logic has been approaching the dark heart of Mysticism, the holy OTHER, and we are forced to crunch numbers and cope.
Also, in Paradoxes Of The Heart (which i have been reading, is entertaining and erudite, and which i highly recommend), Noel Carroll goes on to quote Aristotle:
That is, in the spirit of Aristotle, I will presume that the genre is designed to produce an
emotional effect; I will attempt to isolate that effect; and I will attempt to show how the characteristic structures, imagery, and figures in the genre are arranged to cause the emotion that I will call art-horror. (Though I do not expect to be as authoritative as Aristotle, it is my intention to try to do for the horror genre what Aristotle did for tragedy.) (8)
I’m going to pick apart some of the re-occurring themes in haunted house art. This is just to start, by way of investigating how this aesthetic bleeds across the mediums.
The house itself, of course, would be the main symbol of interest, in the Haunted House tale. In Freudian dream analysis, the house is supposed to represent the SELF. The attic represents the intellect; the basement: the instincts; the bedroom: hidden things. In this way, like H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) said up top, we are all haunted houses. We all have memories and instincts. Sometimes our ghosts come to life, come squinting into the light of day.
The traditional haunted house tends to be a sprawling, Gothic affair, and in fact is one of the prerequisites of the Gothic tale. They often deal with family secrets, hidden things, imprisonment. Britain is one of the hotbeds of haunted lore, with their sense of history and duty. Perhaps the sprawling edifices represent the British being trapped by their families, their expected role in the class system, and a defiance of that, running off screaming into the night. The fact that most of these houses tend to be huge and ruined examples of upper class decadence and madness, shows a lower-class resentment against the rich, as well. As long as there has been media, there have been depictions of the rich. Either you’re for it, or you’re against it, showing pale willowy aristocrats in long shadows beleaguered by demons. You begin to see how one symbol is so loaded, so deep. Levels upon levels upon layer, you gaze at flickering images like a mirror pool, images begin to coalesce in front of your eyes, pulling you ever deeper.
The black hole in the center of our story; the thing that we are looking for. That elusive specter, the man who wasn’t there. Too much can be said about ghosts, it shall have to come light over time. TVtropes.org lists 19 different types and reasons for being a ghost, with different psychological/cultural implications for each.
The fact that we are looking at ghosts in particular shows a particular kind of fascination. Its a fascination with the afterlife, the soul; we are looking for it, looking for it everywhere. In art, in our house, we are looking for windows to the sublime. Noel Carroll placed ghosts on the fantastic/marvelous continuum, haunted house stories are generally understood to be Fantasies, sometimes invoked with sayings like Once Upon A Time…. The motivations of the fantasist are quintessentially different than the logician. We are looking for other worlds within our own, or taking delight in pure imagination. It is what i call Inverted Spirituality (pretty sure i got that from Cliver Barker), but you’re looking for the HOLY, and you might have to crawl through Hell to get there. It still suggests a religious ordering to the Universe, something that science and philosophy has been taking apart, brick by brick, for hundreds of years.
If you’re going to read Critical Theory, you are going to rub against the theory that the word for something, the name of something, is not that thing. “The map is not the terrain,” “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” blah blah blah. Its basic post-modernism, and we are left to swim in a world without language or definition. Some take to those dark waters, but this is inherently mysticism, and some cling to the bright light of reason, attempting to put order over chaos.
Perhaps looking for ghosts is a way to connect those two hemispheres, to bring peaceful harmony. The mind and the intuition getting together. ‘Art-horror’ is a feeling, see? Its that tingle when you’re nervous system stands on end, when you’re totally alive and alert and intrigued, like a hungry cat. Logic and reason, alone, are cold and inert, cutting. You defy emotions and instinct, which is essentially our bodies, if you try and define and categorize everything. You miss the beating heart of the moment.
Time, the other invisible elephant in our house of horrors. The sense of time, and the past, is essential to the ghost story, and it is one of the unique situations where the past and the present are allowed to co-mingle. The past haunts the present, and is alive. Often the past is troubled, unable to rest, begging the present to do something, to write some wrong.
One of the other central tenets of any hauntological discussion is the notion of the Uncanny. The uncanny (Das Unheimliche) “is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar.” (wiki). It evokes the Deconstructionist OTHER, yet again. The feeling that something is wrong, that something must be set right, indicates that there IS a sense of the right, what Socrates was looking for. Again, its mental fingers pointing at invisible concepts, and this meta-philosophy is essential to navigating the cultural waters of modern times, especially if you don’t want to be a puppet to influences you whole life.
Since the dawn of recorded media, around the turn of the 20th century, we’ve been able to document the aesthetic, the -geist, of an era, and we are transfixed. Its like living in a grand old movie palace of the Hollywood Hills, with a haunted ballroom sprung to (half)life around you. The whiff of decay is everywhere, its like living in the House Of Usher, yet there are so many secrets, so much history. You could theoretically live your entire life, surrounded by 1920s paraphernalia. Or 1950s. Pick your poison. This is becoming ever more possible, with artifacts making their way to the digital archives. You could spend a year on a minute from 1927, stretching that time out, relishing in its infinity.
“These ornaments are ancient!”
“You might come to find that the word ancient loses all meaning, when your whole life is one long day”
American Horror Story, S01E13
In this way, it is possible to choose your own reality, to look at the world the way you want to see it. To surround yourself with whatever aesthetic you see fit, whatever you like. In this way, it is possible to look for ghosts.
Over the next 3 weeks, i’ll be looking at the Haunted House aesthetic, and its permutations of film, record, and in print. I shall point you in the direction of some dusty gems, to let you wander in endless dusty corridors for whole afternoons, weekends. Just cracking the surface, while researching this article, has opened up vast crypts of macabre study, and i’ll be passing some of that along to you. Intellectual, artistic, weird, brilliant, there’s some exciting work being done, in the realm of cultural studies, interdisciplinary analysis, art theory, but there is much to be done! I shall find the weirdest of the weird, and report what i find along the way.
We’ll see you next week!