copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Ed Gein's house, a haunted residence if ever there was one!
Think of the haunted house stories and novels you’ve read and of the haunted house movies you’ve seen. Most have specific elements in common. In considering how to haunt the house in your story, novel, or movie script, you’ll want to learn from your predecessors as to what they (and their readers or viewers) found particularly effective. Then, you’ll want to emulate them, but by adding to, rather than simply copying, the conventions they employed.
Even a nodding familiarity with the haunted house as a horror story setting suggests that such a domicile needs to be spacious--the roomier, the better. In Gothic horror, from which contemporary horror fiction in large part originates, the original haunted house was a castle or a manor house. Often, it was of several stories, including an attic and a basement.
When castles and palaces became untenable in horror fiction (which, today, anyway, is written, after all, for the masses, not for the fortunate few), authors employed mansions and--in the case, at least, of Stephen King, hotels (The Shining, “1408”)--and, in the case of Bentley Little, both mansions (The House) and a resort (The Resort) (2004). King (and others) has even haunted entire towns, albeit not necessarily with ghosts per se: in Desperation (1996) and its companion volume, The Regulators (1996), the demon Tak haunts a Nevada mining town and a suburban community, respectively, and, in ‘Salem’s Lot, a vampire is the culprit who disturbs residents and brings down property values, whereas, in It, the haunt is a protean shape shifter.
The point is (and, yes, there is a point) that haunted houses must be big, spacious dwellings. Cottages and bungalows need not apply, nor should efficiencies, garden apartments, or small condos.
The Psycho house
Houses have to be palatial for a couple of reasons. First, if the ghost pops up in the same location all the time, he, she, or it soon becomes predictable, and a ghost whose actions are predictable isn’t all that scary. In addition, it’s pretty easily avoided unless, perhaps, it’s haunting the domicile’s one and only bathroom’s commode (an unlikely point of interest for even ghosts, it would seem). A ghost that has the run of the house--especially a palatial abode--can pop up unexpectedly, since he, she, or it is not restricted to one or two rooms. The resident is as likely to see the ghost in the basement as in the attic, in a closet, in a mirror at the end of the entrance hall, or on the staircase between floors.
Various rooms also allow it to do various things, all of which could (and should) be fairly horrific. In It, after building suspense for beaucoup pages, King lets his readers walk downstairs with one of his characters, and, entering the dark and clammy subterranean chamber to feed the furnace, the character, and readers along with him, sees, in its flooded interior, the bloated corpse of the character’s brother as it floats past among other debris when there’s no way in hell that the boy’s body (or the debris) should be there. The result? Readers, like the character in the scene, are horrified--and terrified. This scene wouldn’t play out as well in the pantry, the linen closet, or the attic.
Likewise butcher’s knives and meat cleavers, available in the kitchen, make frightful props for ghosts (especially poltergeists) to wield, and a bedroom pillow makes a handy smothering device in hostile ghostly hands. Foods in pantries can include nasty surprises--maggots are only one of the many things that squirm to mind. Anything can crawl out from under a bed or spring from a closet, and God only knows what sights may be seen in hallway mirrors. A drowned person’s ghost may appear in the shower (An American Haunting) or in the bathtub (The Shining).
A spacious house has space enough to house many rooms, and each room, as a good (or even a not-so-good) dream dictionary makes clear, is often symbolic of a particular aspect of the self. As Dream Moods’ “Online Guide to Dream Interpretation” points out:
To see a house in your dream, [sic] represents your own soul and self. Specific rooms in the house indicate a specific aspect of your psyche. In general, the attic represents your intellect, the basement represents the unconscious. . . .To ascertain what each room represents in the iconography of dreamland, simply look up each room; “Online Guide to Dream Interpretation” will offer specific suggestions, and, as a writer, you make the connections between the character’s inner emotional or mental state and the room (and the condition of the room):
Dream Moods’ dictionary indicates that various parts of the house and the condition in which these parts appear also represent aspects of the dreamer’s (or the haunted character’s) self:
To dream that you are in a basement, [sic] symbolizes your unconscious mind and intuition. The appearance of the basement is an indication of your unconscious state of mind and level of satisfaction.
To dream that the basement is in disarray and messy, [sic] signifies. . . confusion . . . which you need to sort out. It may also represent your perceived faults and shortcomings.
There are plenty of other entries (and punctuation errors) in the dictionary that suggest ways in which the rooms of a haunted house may be used to symbolize the haunted character’s (or other characters’) states of mind. Make a list of the rooms, the parts of a house, and even the furniture and other accoutrements of a residence, and look them up in this or another dream dictionary or a dictionary of symbols to see what such places and things have tended to suggest and symbolize concerning human minds and behavior. Your fiction can capitalize on such leads by using appropriate rooms to suggest specific characteristics and states of mind with respect to your characters, including the ghosts themselves.
To see a roof in your dream, [sic] symbolizes a barrier between two states of consciousness. It represents a protection of your consciousness, mentality, and beliefs. It is an overview of how you see yourself and who you think you are.
To dream that you are on a roof, [sic] symbolizes boundless success. If you fall off the roof, [sic] suggests that you do not have a firm grip and solid foundation on your advanced position.
To dream that the roof is leaking, [sic] represents distractions, annoyances, and unwanted influences in your life. It may also indicate that new information will dawn on you. Alternatively, it may suggest that something is finally getting through to you.
Perhaps someone is imposing and intruding their thoughts and opinions on you.
To dream that the roof is falling in, [sic] indicates that you high ideals are crashing down on you. Perhaps you are unable to live up to your own high expectations.
Another source worth checking out is Fantasy and Science Fiction's Dictionary of Symbolism, which offers this entry concerning “house”:
Just like the city, the TEMPLE, the palace, and the MOUNTAIN, the house is one of the centers of the world. It is a sacred place, and it is an image of the universe. It parallels the sheltering aspect of the Great Mother, and it is the center of civilization. In Jungian psychology, what happens inside a house happens inside ourselves. Freudian psychology associates the house with the WOMAN, in a sexual sense; a house is undoubtedly a feminine symbol. Shelter and security are words commonly used surrounding house. [It] has a correspondence with the universe, [with] the roof as heaven, the windows as deities and the body as the earth. [It is] the repository of all wisdom.One is also advised to study Edgar Allan Poe’s masterful use of a house, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), to represent the emotional and mental states of his protagonist, Roderick Usher.
Other haunted house stories (listed chronologically) you’ll want to read are:
- Castle of Otranto, The (1764), by Horace Walpole: Conrad Manfred’s decision to divorce and remarry causes horrifying events to occur within his family’s castle.
- Mysteries of Udolpho, The (1794), by Ann Radcliffe: After the death of her father, Emily St. Aubert moves in with her aunt, who marries Montoni; the women go to Udolpho to live, and Emily is separated from her suitor, Valancourt, as Montoni seeks to force Emily’s aunt to sign over the estate which Emily would otherwise inherit.
- Haunted and the Haunters, The (1857), by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Mesmerism and magnetism combine with alchemy and Rosicrucian mysticism as the protagonist seeks immortality.
- “Red Room, The” (1894), by H. G. Wells: A skeptic discovers that an allegedly haunted room really is haunted, but not by ghosts.
- Turn of the Screw, The (1898), by Henry James: Is the governess seeing ghosts or is something even more horrible happening to her (and the children in her charge)?
- House on the Borderland, The (1908), by William Hope Hodgson: Two men investigate a house that seems linked to an identical dwelling in the very pit of hell.
- “Rats in the Walls, The” (1924), by H. P. Lovecraft: Investigating the sound of rats in the walls of his ancestral estate, the protagonist discovers that his family lived in a subterranean city, feeding upon their fellow humans.
- Stir of Echoes, A (1958), by Richard Matheson: This novel inspired the movie of the same title.
- Haunting of Hill House, The (1959), by Shirley Jackson: Psychics investigate an allegedly haunted house, and one of them, Eleanor, is possessed by the supernatural entity they encounter there.
- Hell House (1971), by Richard Matheson: A millionaire hires psychics to explore the possibility of life after death.
- Shining, The (1977), by Stephen King: An alcoholic writer’s descent into madness ends on a bad note when he takes on the duties of caretaker during a hotel’s off season.
- “1408” (1999) by Stephen King: A skeptical writer learns the errors of his ways after he stays in a hotel room that is supposedly haunted.
- House, The (1997), by Bentley Little: Five strangers discover they all grew up in an identical house situated on the gateway between this world and another, far darker place.
These movies, featuring haunted houses, are also worth a peek, preferably between one’s fingers:
- Uninvited, The (1944): A couple buys a haunted house.
- Ghost Ship (1952, 2002): A salvage crew, towing a lost passenger ship to harbor, finds it is haunted.
- House on Haunted Hill, The (1958, 1999): Partygoers will receive a cash reward, if they can survive a night in a haunted house.
- House That Dripped Blood, The (1970): A Scotland yard investigator investigates mysterious disappearances related to a vacant house.
- Amityville Horror, The (1979, 2005): In this movie, based upon an actual hoax, newlyweds move into a house in which a murder was committed.
- Changeling, The (1980): A man’s isolated country estate is haunted by a ghost.
- Shining, The (1980): An alcoholic writer’s descent into madness ends on a bad note when he takes on the duties of caretaker during a hotel’s off season.
- Poltergeist (1982): Ghosts haunt a family in their new house.
- Sixth Sense, The (1999): Cole, a boy who sees ghosts, helps a depressed child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe. Coincidence?
- Stir of Echoes, A (1999): A hypnotized skeptic, Tom Witzky, begins to see a ghost, which leads to the solution to a murder.
- What Lies Beneath (2000): A woman starts seeing things--and hearing things--or does she?
- Others, The (2001): The residents of a house turn out to be the ghosts who haunt the residence.
- Rose Red (2002): Psychics investigate an allegedly haunted house.
- Grudge, The (2004): A ghost, born of a grudge, haunts a nurse who cares for a housebound invalid.
- Skeleton Key, The (2005): A hospice worker decides to risk it all on what lies behind a locked attic door.
- American Haunting, An (2006): A girl’s father has a split personality, one of which she mistakes for an evil ghost.
- 1408 (2007): A skeptical writer learns the errors of his ways after he stays in a hotel room that is supposedly haunted.
In this post, we learned two rules about how to haunt a house. The first rule in haunting a house is to make the residence a big house (but not necessarily a prison). The second rule is to make sure that your haunted house houses many rooms, or, as many writers would say, chambers, each of which is an appropriate and handy opportunity to present a different ghost or a different aspect of the same ghost (or the protagonist’s own inner ghosts).
In our next post, before going outside, we’ll examine another rule or two concerning how to haunt a house.