What Haunts You About That House
My daughter and I took a long walk on Thanksgiving. We were in St. Joseph, Missouri, walking through a neighborhood that had once been very wealthy. In fact, the current residents probably still have money. However, the houses were clearly the product of another era, the mansions of their day.
I told my daughter: “All these houses look haunted!” She agreed that almost every house on the street looked like a prime candidate for ghosts, and we continued with our walk.
That night as I closed my eyes on my air mattress – one of the great traditions of holiday travel – the mental image of one of those houses popped into my head. Or maybe it was the composite average of most of those houses. It was genuinely spooky. Like the final image of The Blair Witch Project popping into my head three days after watching the movie. My eyes shot open.
As I lay there, staring at the desk where my mother-in-law assembles scrapbooks, I started wondering how and why we had decided that those houses were creepy. I understood why neglected or dilapidated houses might automatically look haunted. Entropy is the abandoned future; decay is the shadow of death. While these houses might have been older structures, none of them were falling down. Most were well maintained and landscaped, impeccably restored in some cases.
In addition, none of these houses were, so to speak, symptomatic. They had not caused the hair to rise on the back of my neck or emanated an unclean aura. No shadowy figures were observed at attic windows. No bats. There were no paranormal investigators parked out front either. And yet, their images had still paid a return visit to the turkey-stuffed corners of my imagination.
So what, then, makes a house “look” haunted? Did the houses we saw simply approximate the socially constructed archetype for what “haunted houses” should look like?
It is easy enough to describe that archetype, its variations constantly replicated in our culture and in media. A big house with at least three stories, its Victorian style (or something like) is suggestive of many rooms, of nooks and crannies, of interior doors and corridors. The height of the house also suggests an abundance of creaking stairs. The shingles are scalloped wood or slate, never asphalt. Tall windows arch at the top with Gothic flair. The porch looks like a hat brim that shades a sinister face. Its mansard roof might be crowned with wrought iron cresting, and a wrought iron fence surrounds the yard as well. The trees have lost their leaves, and the wind scrapes those dry leaves across the sidewalk. It is Hill House, Hell House, the House of Usher. It is the Ghost and Mr. Chicken, the Haunted Mansion, the Addams Family. It is the first ten seconds of Scooby Doo. Every time we see a variant on that theme, the cultural iconography is reinforced.
This litany of features makes me wonder if there was an original inspiration. After all, the dawn of photography and the proliferation of imagery that followed in its wake, including the ability to capture ghosts on film, coincided with the Victorian era. It seems like this could explain the mechanism by which the Victorian style was established and frozen as the archetype for haunted architecture, especially if there was a famous haunting during that era that became the ur-house for the imagery that followed.
However, might we also derive this sense of “haunted” from something apart from iconography, apart from historical precedents that we do not know? Is there something that sustains the archetype, an active foundation beyond its general circulation in the popular imagination? After all, very few of the houses my daughter and I observed really looked like the house I just described. One of the bigger mansions was actually adorned with pink stucco; we still thought it looked haunted. Were these houses still just close enough to our archetypal image, like how Home Alone is just barely close enough to The Breakfast Club to still seem like a John Hughes film, or is there something more to it than that?
Maybe another way to ask my question is why we associate big, old houses with “spooky” even when they don’t fit the iconic template particularly well. Red brick, small windows, no porch to speak of . . . that one looked haunted to me too. As I lay on my air mattress that night, I developed some different theories. I want to share them here and I note that none of these theories strike me as particularly incompatible with each other. They could, in fact, all be simultaneously true.
If It Quacks Like a Duck.
A supernatural-friendly version of Occam’s razor might simply argue that we thought all those old houses were haunted because, well, they were. This has a certain logical consistency with ghost lore. The lavish materiality of a mansion is fundamentally suggestive of an individual who might place too much value upon things and have trouble “letting go” when the time comes. And the longer a house stands, the more likely it is to absorb the spiritual energies of its former occupants and/or to be inhabited by a soul that fails to move on. And since the whole premise of “haunted” is that you can sense something, well, why not sense it from the street?
However, even though the “we think it is haunted because it is” argument makes for an interesting universe, it obviously feels circular. In addition, this theory also undermines the distinction inherent to those individual houses that are symptomatic, those places where people have actually reported feeling something unsettling. And if every mansion on the street were verifiably haunted, I feel like I would have heard about that.
The Amityville Attic
The size of old mansions, and the desire to provide natural light as often as possible, almost always means that windows proliferate, not always symmetrically per se, but usually with some sense of balance and proportion. Windows are for looking, both in and out; they offer the constant connection between the interior and exterior. They, more than any other feature, give the bystander the sense of possibility regarding what lies behind the walls, but you can usually see only a glimmer, a glimpse, an implication. At the same time, eyes are commonly considered the windows to the soul. Is it possible that larger houses, and their many windows, simply amplify the sense that the architecture is looking at you? I call this the Amityville Attic Theory after the distinctively eye-like pair of windows at the top of that iconic haunted house. However, it is worth noting here that the Amityville house also mostly fails to match the archetypal image I described earlier.
This urge to interpret windows as eyes actually has a scientific name. It is a particular species of pareidolia. Humans have an ability and tendency to impose patterns and connections where none inherently exist, to organize sensory data into something recognizable; and one of the most common manifestations is the mental imposition of faces onto inanimate objects; you see skulls in wallpaper patterns, Elvis on a potato chip, the face of a witch in that knotty tree outside your window. In other words, psychologists tell us that we fundamentally like to see things as having eyes. Do the dimensions of old mansions, and their arrangements of numerous windows, simply make it easier to experience a mild sense of being eyeballed by the house? If you couple this with the fact that the play of light upon the windows changes as you walk past, even while the light upon the rest of the structure does not, it seems entirely possible.
The Artist in the Machine
In a world full of cookie-cutter apartments and subdivisions, all cranked out from a limited menu of blueprints, it is worth noting that most of the mansions from another era simply all look different from each other. They mostly all have the trappings of individual design choices. After all, what is the good of being rich if you can’t customize a few things? And conspicuous consumption was not “off the rack” back then to the same extent it is now. Even mid-level extravagance probably required extensive interaction with architects and craftsmen. Is it possible that this sense of artistic individuality comes across as a sort of haunting, the visible presence of personal agency in the work acting very much like the kind of spiritual echo we associate with ghosts?
Here is a simple thought experiment to underscore my point: imagine coming across a house that was more idiosyncratic in its design, weirder than the other houses on the street, clearly designed by an eccentric genius with a unique vision. Would you be more or less likely to think it haunted?
One might argue that, by my logic, everything that looks like a designed object has the capacity to look haunted, that my formulation could apply to paintings, silver tea sets, pottery, decorative gardens, scrapbooks, twice-repaired axe handles, hand-painted dolls, old furniture and more. I pretty much agree with that. In fact, I would offer three points in support of this broad interpretation:
- The idea of spending a night alone in a museum, any kind of museum, is almost universally considered a creepy prospect; it is usually because of the stuff.
- While most paintings with an iconic status have been sanitized through familiarity, have you ever seen an obscure painting at a garage sale or estate sale, even just an innocuous landscape, that did not jiggle the needle on your haunt-o-meter?
- Antique shops. All of them.
All three of these scenarios support the notion that, whether we know it or not, we all tend to believe that most designed objects are imbued with a kind of energy, something that transcends their inanimate status; and the creativity imparted, the signification of human emotion and human intelligence that is inherent to design, seems as good a candidate as any for describing the source of that energy.
With that in mind, the basic idea is that all these old houses, through their individuality, whisper that they were created by individuals, that some grain of living personality, however small, remains vital in the ordering of wood, brick and stone; or in the pink stucco.
And the fact that these houses are older in style also helps us to see these elements of individual design more clearly because the features readily stand apart from the fashions of the current moment. I.e. when we see movies from the 80’s where the women wear shoulder pads in their dresses, there is, ironically, a heightened awareness of the individual fashion decision, even though we know it was a fad that many women followed then. We see it more clearly because we are afforded a degree of aesthetic distance; because we no longer believe that women should have giant shoulders. In the same way, even though lots of Victorian houses had a corner turret room with a conical roof, new houses rarely add such rooms now, so when we see one, we think: “Somebody decided to put that there!” And whether we know it or not, we might also feel that they are still present through that decision.
Finally, the houses my daughter and I saw were all quite large, inching towards mansion status in some cases, and surely intended to communicate a certain level of success. This message was also enhanced by the presence of ornamental elements. While all buildings are designed, not all buildings sport flourishes of indulgence. Nobody needs dentil molding. Nobody needs a second-floor balcony. In other words, it is hard to imagine an aluminum shed giving off the same vibe, even if it was as large as a mansion.
In the famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the ruined statue of Ozymandias still commands those that behold it to: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” While the tycoons of St. Joseph, Missouri probably did not think of themselves as pharaohs, it is no stretch to believe that they still hoped that others might see and remember their success. Could the “haunted” that we intimate as we look at these houses be the imprint of aspirations? The shadow of ambition, the quest for attainment, seems to fall heavily across them. We catch a certain glimpse of striving souls when we look at them, the vanities of the living written into the architecture. And if the bricks and mortar are expressions of ego, and not just shelter and storage, it should be no surprise, then, that the frozen echo of a departed ego feels just a little like the presence of a ghost as we stand before it.
This Ozymandias Theory also suggests an explanation for why we do not pull the same impression from most new homes, no matter how large they are, no matter how idiosyncratic their design, even if they have two beady windows below bushy awnings. For such newer construction projects, we can imagine that the builder of the mansion is still enjoying it. An outdated architectural style tells us for certain that the mansion is old, even when it has been impeccably maintained; and we can infer that the creation has outlived the creator. Just like the statue of Ozymandias, now nothing more than a “colossal Wreck” in the desert, the house both testifies to the aspirations of the builder and documents the tragic inevitability of their departure. It proves that possession was fleeting. The house becomes a sort of unintended reminder that you too will die, a memento mori with a driveway.
Is It for Sale?
Unlike the aging court house in the town square or an abandoned amusement park out past the edge of town, an old mansion offers an especially poignant and conflicted reminder of the passage of time. Like all memento mori it reminds you of mortality, of the material world that you cannot take with you. However, unlike a skull on a shelf or a cemetery down the street, it can also still stir your own material aspirations. Who among us has not walked or driven by an old mansion and thought, even as we feared that it might be haunted, “Man, if only . . .”
And in that moment of desire, the shadow of striving ambition falls across you too, even if only as an idle whisper, just as it did across those who created the house. In finding the house desirable, at least as a kind of emotional proxy for the house you would build for yourself if you had the means, the house becomes a point of connection between you and the departed, his or her aspirations rippling through your moment of observation.
That grim recognition of mortality competes with an envy of material things, with the desire for luxury. And like currents of cold and warm air swirling together in a single room, its furnace grate beneath a poorly insulated window, this internal conflict can haunt your own perception. In such moments, you are haunted by the house and what it tells you, whether the house is haunted or not. You are briefly its ghost, a restless spirit on an air mattress, caught between the eternal and the ephemeral, between desire and its extinction.
Jim Hohenbary lives in Manhattan, KS where he currently serves as the Associate Director of the University Honors Program for Kansas State University. He has previously published work in The Molotov Cocktail and in Phi Kappa Phi Forum; and his debut novel, Before the Ruins, was published in late 2019 by Blueberry Lane Books.