copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Even Victorians can intimidate.
In the previous post, we considered two rules concerning how to haunt a house:
- Make it spacious--the bigger, the better.
- Fill it with rooms.
If ever a home was a reflection of its resident, Gein’s house certainly indicated his mental state. The house was a veritable garbage dump. The floors were littered and strewn with old magazines and newspapers, and boxes stood in precarious stacks along the walls and among piles of assorted materials that should have been discarded but weren’t. Among the rubbish were the trophies, consisting of human body parts, that Gein collected from the female corpses he robbed from the cemetery in his hometown, Plainfield, Wisconsin, and from Spirit Land, a graveyard located a few miles to the north. One box contained a bag, inside which, police found, was a mask that had once been the face of Mary Hogan, the owner and operator of a tavern that Gein had once frequented. The walls of some rooms were decorated with other such masks, and Gein ate soup from bowls he’d fashioned from the upper halves of human skulls. He also kept a torso, or mammary, vest; a collection of women’s noses; female genitals; and a belt made of women’s nipples.
After his mother died, Gein, who was a momma’s boy, missed her so much that the psychiatrist who examined the killer after his arrest concluded that Gein collected cadavers and female body parts in an attempt to fill the loss of female companionship that ensued his mother’s death and burial. In some ways, he was thought to be trying to bring home a bride (or parts thereof) or, perhaps, his dearly departed mother. Gein also kept part of the farmhouse he inherited upon his mother’s demise sealed off from the rest of the residence as a sort of shrine to his mother’s memory.
From Gein’s example, we see that haunted houses may be cluttered, and that the clutter may include some grisly, ghastly artifacts--perhaps human body parts--and that the resident of such a house might keep a door locked or even part of the house sealed off, either as a shrine or for some other purpose (hiding a body, an insane relative, or a secret of some sort, perhaps). In A Winter’s Haunting (2002), Dan Simmons’ sequel to Summer of Night (1991), the protagonist, Dale Stewart, keeps the upper floors of the house he rents--it belonged to a childhood friend who was murdered, years ago--sealed off from the lower floor, where he resides. Likewise, there’s a locked attic in The Skeleton Key (2005). After hearing voices from inside the locked room, the movie’s protagonist, Caroline Ellis, becomes curious. When she finally manages a look inside, she finds evidence that maybe demons do cause illness, and, in fact, maybe the invalid she’s been hired to care for may be a victim of dark magic. We all know what’s said about curiosity and the cats it lures. Other horror stories, both in print and on film, make use of the locked room motif as well.
Other novels suggest other approaches.
Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, suggests that it may be the individual within a house, rather than the house itself, who is haunted or (depending upon one’s reading of her story) that a haunted house may, in turn, haunt its residents. This novel, like Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and many lesser narratives, drives home the relationship--indeed, the interrelationship--between resident and residence. A home is a reflection of its owners or occupants. The disorderly state of Gein’s house reflected the disordered (confused) state of his mind, because normal people not only do not live among filth and clutter, but they also do not reside among human body parts and eat out of human skulls. Often, ghost stories are symbolic of past sins, of guilt, and of remorse or of past trauma and its continuing, present-day effects.
Therefore, many ghost stories connect with past events, and the incidents that occur within haunted houses represent such sins, such guilt, and such trauma. In The Others, the mother keeps her house dark because her children suffer from photophobia, a fear of light. Her concern with keeping them in the dark represents her love for them, but the darkness of the house also represents her ignorance of--and her refusal to see--the truth about her past. She has killed her children, and they, like her, are the ghosts who actually haunt the house in which they reside, not the residents of the house whom she imagines are its ghosts.
In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, college students transform a fraternity house into a haunted house as a setting for a Halloween party. The partygoers become more than amorous, all but having sex in front of one another. Buffy stays in bed with her boyfriend, Riley Finn, from the time they arrive until their friends rescue them. When the partygoers touch a wall, they experience an orgasm, and playing a game of spin-the-bottle becomes the occasion for more than a friendly kiss between players. Buffy’s mentor and friends discover that the house is haunted by the souls of adolescents who’d lived in the house under the stern and disapproving tyranny of a foster mother who feared and hated sex and severely punished her charges when, at the onset of puberty, they began to experiment with sex, murdering at least one boy by drowning him in her bathtub. The dead child--or, perhaps, children--having been abused, now, as ghosts, become the abusers.
The Winchester mansion is allegedly haunted.
The furniture and décor in a haunted house also often reflect the resident’s state of mind. Bizarre images in a mirror which are seen only by one character suggest that these images are not real. Rather, they are likely to be but the contents of his or her own mind, projected onto his or her environment--the looking glass sees within, rather than reflecting that which truly exists. Therefore, only the one who sees such images can perceive them. The mirror mirrors his or her own thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. If a character ascends a staircase (or, for that matter, descends one), what type of revelation does he or she experience as a result? What happens at the top or the bottom of the stairs is indicative of what this character believes, feels, or thinks, and it is likely to be either transcendent or reductive in nature, depending upon whether the stairs lead upward or downward. An ascent into the attic is apt to represent an elevation to consciousness and knowledge; a descent into the basement is likely to symbolize a decline into the subconscious and the unknown.
When a locked room or a shut-off part of the house is part of a haunted house, the secret it contains will probably be the heart of the narrative’s mystery and, most likely, it will represent a great truth about the haunted character’s nature, behavior, goal, past, or present. Unlocked, the door may admit the resident to madness--or to revelation. The secret within the locked or sealed-off room or suite may deliver or destroy.
H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” show that basements can be portals, as it were, to other, darker places, such as subterranean cities or dwellings in which cannibalistic mutants reside. His example reminds us that haunted houses often contain secret passageways, hidden rooms, and trapdoors to subterranean chambers or tunnels that allow villains to come and go in secret or to conduct clandestine operations. Sometimes, dungeons are accessed through trapdoors, wherein sadists torture, dismember, and kill victims. Such portals may even be gateways to another dimension or to hell itself, as in William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderlands and Bentley Little’s The House.
From this consideration of how to haunt a house, we may deduce three additional rules:
- A haunted house often symbolizes its resident’s state of mind.
- A haunted house is often associated with the resident’s past.
- A haunted house may be the portal to another dimension or to hell itself.