One’s home is not only one’s castle, it has been argued, but one’s self. Writers of horror fiction from Edgar Allan Poe (“The Fall of the House of Usher”) to Jay Anson (The Amityville Horror) have capitalized upon this metaphor. Both the house itself, whether Roderick Usher’s ancestral mansion with its “vacant, eyelike windows” or the Lutzes’ Dutch Colonial with its own eyelike windows, glinting with obvious madness, and its inhabitants are haunted. Indeed, the spirits which afflict the residents’ domiciles are the very demons (the situations or the conditions) which torment the denizens of the houses themselves. In horror fiction which involves a haunted house as its setting, the setting is the destiny of the residents, and, whatever they do, whether they escape or are doomed, their actions constitute their working out of their fates.
In “Middle-Class Nightmares,” a chapter of Dale Bailey’s excellent critical assessment of American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, the protagonist of Robert Marasco’s novel Burnt Offerings, dreams of what she can make of the apartment into which she moves. The novel critiques, Bailey notes, what “historian Daniel Bell” calls “a consumption society” which is “undermining the traditional value system with its emphasis on thrift, frugality, self-control, and impulse renunciation”:
Her glossy apartment is a virtual shrine to consumption, simultaneously mirroring her aspirations and their failure. . . . Marian simply loves to buy things, good things— not a buffet but a “French Provincial buffet,” not a desk but a “mahogany and bronze dore desk”. . . not an ashtray but a Belleck astray, not chairs but Bergere chairs (72).This equation of material wealth to personal worth is reinforced and, in fact, made explicit in subsequent passages of the novel. Whereas Marian’s husband Ben sees, in “the Allardyce estate,” into which Marian wants to move, in order that she might, at last, fulfill her dreams, “a house disintegrating into decay,” Marian herself perceives “a house that might be made perfect again.” The mansion represents a new chance at realizing her version of the American Dream:
However, as Bailey points out, there is an insurmountable problem, of course, with such an attempt to validate one’s personal worth:
If the apartment suggests the failure of Marian’s dreams and aspirations, the Allardyce estate embodies her desires come to fruition. . . . She no sooner walks in the door then [sic] she begins to catalog the Allardyce’s possessions—Waterford crystal
chandeliers. . . an Aubusson carpet, a Chippendale mirror. . . . She assumes a proprietary air. . . . and she blushes when Roz Allardyce recognizes her state of mind: “you’re thinking of what you could do with it, aren’t you?” Roz asks her, and Marian cannot help asking herself, “Did she look that hungry?”. . . She does, of course, for she desires nothing more than to live in such a house— to be the kind of person who could possess (and be possessed by) such a house (73).
If Marian’s conception of the American Dream reminds us of the kitschy bumper sticker— Whoever has the most bumper stickers when he dies, wins— Marasco’s novel reminds us of that bumper’s subversive subtext. All the toys in the world don’t change one central fact:Marasco himself likewise points out the futility of Marian’s desire to express her value as a person through her acquisition of the material wealth, as represented by her possession not merely of things, but also of valuable things, of the right sorts of things. As if a “wall of photographs” in the mansion’s parlor were the pesky “subtext” of the bumper sticker to which Bailey earlier alludes, the images they contain likewise undermine the text about one’s collection of toys’ making one a winner (or a loser) in the competitive game of contemporary America’s “consumption society.” As Marian and Ben examine a set of framed photographs on a wall of the palatial home’s parlor, “Marian is quick to rationalize” an eerie, potentially revelatory fact: “none of the faces was smiling, not one of them. The expressions were uniformly, and chillingly, blank. And one of the faces, an old man’s, was looking at her with what had to be outright terror. Like that boy’s. And the child near the edge” (73).
Dead is dead (73).
In part 2 of my six-part series of articles concerning “How to Haunt a House,” I argue that not only the house itself is a representation of the inner state of its occupants, but that each room— and, indeed, even the furniture— of a haunted house can represent the resident’s own thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and values:
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.Rooms can also represent specific roles that characters play and their thoughts and feelings about these roles. For example, the kitchen may represent one’s capacity for, and interest in, nurturing, since it is the room in which meals are prepared. Likewise, the bathroom is apt to suggest one’s attempts to cleanse him- or herself not only of the dirt that one has accumulated as a result of going about the day’s business, but also of the spiritual “dirt” with which one has soiled his or her soul, either during this same period of time or throughout his or her lifetime. In such cases, problems with the stove, the sink or the shower, or even the toilet can be telling, indeed! The smoke that pours from the oven, the black goo that drips down the walls of the shower stall, the serpent that emerges from the toilet bowl, as representations of the protagonist’s problems, real or imagined, with one or another of the roles that he or she plays, as either a single person or as a family member, are nasty enough in themselves; they are nastier still because of what they may represent in philosophical, psychological, sociological, or other terms that relate to the inner man or woman— or, rather, to his or her inner demons.
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.
Bailey, Dale. American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. Bowling Green, OH. Bowling Green University Popular Press. 1999. Print.