One expects strange things to happen in a haunted house because, well, it’s haunted. Ghosts aren’t like us. They’re spirits. Of the departed. By all accounts, mythical, religious, literary, and otherwise, there’s a world of difference between the quick and the dead. Therefore, ghosts should be expected to do the unexpected, to behave in a bizarre manner, and to be frightening, if not terrifying. Many choose to set up housekeeping in a house, rather than in, say, a house trailer or a flophouse. Consequently, the house, haunted, may also be expected to do the unexpected, to behave in a bizarre manner, and to be frightening, if not terrifying. In other words, if a house is truly haunted, one is entitled to expect to see (and, often, to hear, smell, taste, and feel) signs and symptoms of is condition. A home may be where the heart it, but a haunted home is where the horror is.
Anyone who has ever read a story or seen a movie about a haunted house (which is to say virtually everyone) knows some of the things that happen in such a place. Let’s consider these phenomena in relation to the senses by which they are perceived:
Walls or ceilings (or both) drip blood. Bathroom faucets pour blood. Black slime oozes from the walls. Walls bulge. Floors rear or buckle. Stairs flatten to form long, steep ramps. Mirrors exhibit horrific images. Furniture or dishes move by themselves, and are sometimes thrown across kitchens, dining rooms, or other chambers. Appliances turn off and on by themselves. The press of a hidden lever reveals a hidden room. Trapdoors drop into basements or water-filled wells. Oil paintings depict ghastly scenes, and the eyes of the subjects of portraits seem to follow the observer wherever he or she goes. Flies or wasps or insects may swarm within the house. Horrifying messages, written in blood, may appear on walls or other surfaces. The house’s floor plan may change overnight or even more abruptly. Doors may open upon other dimensions or even hell itself. And, of course, sooner or later, the ghosts themselves--or something even worse--will make a grand entrance.
Strange noises are heard in the attic or basement. Doors slam shut. Mysterious footsteps are heard in vacant rooms or hallways. Doors may open or close of their own accord. Shadows may be cast by invisible forms or figures. Pets may behave strangely--cats may hiss or dogs may bark or growl for no apparent reason or may run from something that only they seem able to sense. Moans, groans, cries, or voices may be heard when no one is there or music may be heard when there is no musical instrument in the house.
Familiar foods may taste bitter, sour, or disgusting. Things that do not have a flavor may develop flavors--nasty ones, of course.
The stench of decaying flesh or some other particularly disgusting smell may waft through the house.
A heavy, oppressive feeling of dread seems to cling to the house or to a specific location within the house. Cold spots appear in unlikely places. Residents may feel as if they are under constant visual surveillance by an unseen observer. Residents may even feel as if someone--or something--has touched them. Something--or someone--may bear down upon or sit atop one’s body as he or she sleeps or rests in bed. Residents may undergo physical or sexual assault by invisible assailants.
Remember, House = Self
In general, it’s a good idea to associate such phenomena with the main character of the story. Since it is he or she who will see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch most of these phenomena, they should be related to him or her in some manner. Perhaps the phenomena are really signs and symptoms of a mental illness with which the protagonist is “haunted” rather than clues that the house in which this character resides is haunted. Maybe he or she needs a psychiatrist rather than a ghost buster.
The phenomena could have a moral significance. Maybe the sights, sounds, and other perceptions of strange and horrific incidents represent feelings of guilt and sorrow concerning past or present misdeeds that “haunt” the protagonist.
An elaborate prank, a practical joke, or a more sinister hoax could be the cause of the haunting, as in the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in which a house is made to appear to be haunted in an effort to drive the protagonist mad so that her relatives can have her committed to a mental institution and inherit her estate. A bed-and-breakfast inn might be rigged to appear to be haunted in order to generate publicity.
Houses become haunted--or are said to become haunted--after famous people live (or die) in them. If your story features such a house, obviously the manner in which it is haunted, and the identity of its ghost or ghosts, should relate to the celebrity in question. One might expect a piano to play in Liberace’s house, for example, were it to be haunted, and maybe, in Charlton Heston’s abode, the actor still clutches a rifle in his “cold, dead hands.” Remember the metaphor that equates a house to the self of the person who resides there. A haunted house should be symptomatic of the haunted soul who lives within the distressed domicile.
In this post, we deduced these additional rules for haunting a house:
- To be, horrors must be perceived (even mysterious phenomena, whether paranormal or supernatural, must be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and/or touched).
- A haunted house will probably have an emotional effect upon its resident.
- The phenomena associated with a haunting should also be associated with the resident and with his or her mental states, moral failings, or personal experiences.
- A haunting may result from a condition or set of circumstances other than ghostly habitation (mental illness, practical joke, hoax).