The Memory Palace of Fear: On Haunted Houses, Abandonment, and Other Frights
Imagine yourself at the gate. Reach down and push it open. It creaks a little bit, and up high in the dark branches of a tree stripped bare by winter, a crow cocks his head. “Cawcaw,” he says – and his cry echoes off the roof of the house.
You walk down the small path, stones choked with deep-rooted weeds, overgrown grasses lashing gently at your calves. It’s chilly. Windy. Probably October. Behind you the street is quiet – no neighbors; no traffic. Down around the corner, children play. Maybe you can hear them laughing in the distance. But they only come this way if the ball is lost, and even then they beat a hasty retreat. Don’t go in that house,” they tell each other, repeating down the chain, largest to smallest. “It’s haunted.”
You mount the porch steps, the rotten wood splintering beneath your heel, and approach the forbidding door. In the attic, a light flickers on.
Open the front door and step into the darkened hall. At your feet something skitters across the floorboards, disappearing into the gloom with a rasp and a squeak. The door slams shut behind you, and a chill blows through the hall and you shiver, pulling your sweater tight around your shoulders, hairs raised on the back of your neck.
On your left, the dining room. On the right, the parlor. One haunted by the ghosts of hunger, the other by loneliness. They leave impressions in the cushions of the wingback chair where they wait, alone, for someone to visit, to keep them company – and it seems as if at any moment a vaporous limb might reach up from the armrest, wrap itself around your wrist, and beg you to stay.
In the dining room the ghosts leave traces in the dust of unused plates. The high ceilinged room has seen no roast beef, no conversation, no clinking glasses of wine in years. It hasn’t even seen any rice and beans, for that matter, or a bowl of soup, or a lousy piece of toast.
Go through the dining room and into the kitchen. Cupboard doors swing on their hinges, exposing empty shelves within. Tiny dark pebbles, dessicated feces from a mouse, or nine, pile in the corners, behind a box of crackers, stale and forgotten.
Rings of rust stain the porcelain sink. Turn on the tap and, after an anticipatory gurgle and pause, a trickle of brakish water descends, heavy with lead, poisoned by indifference and greed,
What is a haunted house?
A haunted house is a peculiarly American invention, the new world’s interpretation of the ghost stories that tickled the Gothic fancy of Romantic Europe. The spooks of the old world lurked around their gloomy castles, tantalizing readers with their undercurrents of sexual repression and their ontological uncertainty – do they really exist?
But in The Fall of the House of Usher, the original American haunted house story – or arguably enough so for our purposes today – the existence of ghosts is no longer in question. In Poe, the house itself that is doing the haunting.
“You scan more narrowly the real aspect of the building. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old woodwork which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.”
Poe invests his grand old house with an essential evil visible to the keen observer.
The barely perceptible fissure that zigzags down its face, a warning that something rots within
“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house,” wrote Shirley Jackson, in The Haunting of Hill House. “And yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”
The Gothic ghost story trafficked in the subversion of traditional aristocracies – the church, the nobility. But in an America supposedly free from the baked-in oppression of class, what does the haunted house – sentient, undead, possessed of a face and apparently a free, albeit malicious, will – subvert?
Maybe … it’s money?
Continuing your walk through, climb the maid’s stairs to the second floor. On the right is the nursery, but it is silent and still, save for spiders spinning their webs over the cradle, layer after layer, weaving a blanket of silk. Ahead down the hall is the bedroom – but there’s nothing to light the way. The electric bill hasn’t been paid in years and the fixtures have long since been stripped bare by scavengers.
Feel your way down the hall, running your hands over strange textures – here was wallpaper but here are splinters of wood, and here is mold.
The floor shifts beneath you; it’s unstable, soft in the corner, where the parquet was removed years ago to feed the stove. If you’re not careful your foot will go straight through.
Open the door to the bedroom – the sky sends a shaft of light through the broken window, illuminating the bed at the center. Step closer.
And then you see that it is moving. Wait. Has someone been sleeping here? Is there someone hiding in the house? The mattress is alive, shimmering, as waves of bedbugs thrust themselves from the seams and race across the ticking, hungry for human blood.
Have you ever watched American Horror Story? The FX show, by the guys who made Glee? I hadn’t until recently, when I made my way through most of Season One. Most of it because – honestly – its not a very good show. It piles up horror tropes and clichés in a presumably knowing pastiche that by midseason is clearly going nowhere save for a series of dead ends that are programmatically disrupted by bursts of gratuitous violence.
But the house. The house is a wonder. A looming brick-and-stained-glass Tudor mansion – with a turret! – it is, hands down, the most hauntedest haunted house in the history of haunted houses. It doesn’t just have one ghost, or two, it has twenty, or maybe more; I lost count. It is a house of haunted excess. They haunt from every room – from the basement, from the attic, from under the gazebo – as in Gothic tradition the show runners map every fear of female sexual power they can come up with onto the characters – pregnancy, miscarriage, fetish, castration, puberty, demonic possession — to patch together what is supposed to be a psychological thriller but only sometimes succeeds?
Sure, it has its charms but to me the most interesting thing about American Horror Story is that the horror that drives it is, truly, fundamentally, mundanely American.
You remember that bit from Eddie Murphy’s Notorious, where he wonders why white people don’t just LEAVE the haunted house?
In season one of American Horror Story, which originally aired in 2011, the Harmons can’t leave their haunted house because … they can’t sell it. The market has collapsed, the economy is in the toilet, and nobody’s buying. The Harmons, who start the pilot eager to make a fresh start in a new home, in the promised land of Los Angeles, wind up trapped, killed by the housing bubble’s burst.
What is a haunted house?
Is it the brick-and-mortar manifestation of some unkillable evil?
Carefully skirt the bed and its living blanket of bloodthirsty bugs. On the far side of this room there’s a bathroom. The door is already cracked open. Gently push it the rest of the way, and step inside. You may need to use the flashlight on your phone to get a look around.
The shower rod lies in the tub, the curtain rings puddled at one end, tendrils of dessicated vinyl glued to the yellowing plastic. Mold blossoms from the grout between the tiles – where the tiles still remain. The sink has been stolen and the backsplash and vanity are shattered. In the toilet bowl, something stirs. The liquid within is oily and black, with a rank smell riding that fine edge between biologic rot and industrial poison. Suddenly, a gaseous bubble bursts forth, and then another – and the foul water rises to the rim and keeps coming. It spills over out of the bowl and you frantically reach down to try and mop it up, contain the filth as it spreads across the floor
Oh but wait – that’s actually not you, unless you are Margot Kidder, in the Amityville Horror, trying to keep evil at bay as your aunt, WHO’S A NUN, bangs on the front door.
The Amityville Horror came out in 1979, and like American Horror Story it’s also not very good. But despite wooden dialogue and some ferocious overacting, the film does offer its own towering example of a sentient haunted house, a house with a face — the light in its pie-shaped attic windows famously blinking on to flank the nose of its chimney. In addition to bubbling up black gook from the toilet and driving the nun to vomit, the house sends flies to swarm another pesky Catholic, it slams its window sash down on one child and electrocutes another. And it talks, for crying out loud. It’s “GET OUT” the prompt that, to circle back for a sec, famously inspired Eddie Murphy: “A ghost say get the fuck out? I would just TIP the fuck out the door. … Too bad we can’t stay baby.”
Just before the toilet bowl in the Amityville house filled up and then overflowed with ghastly black goo, Margot Kidder, virginal in a plaid skirt and knee socks, implored her new husband James Brolin – who, himself tormented by the pressures of mortgage and family, has become dismissive and cruel – to be kind to her aunt. The visiting nun.
“C’mon George,” she says, “this is a big deal for my family. We’ve always been a bunch of renters. This is the first time anyone in my family has bought a house.”
Eventually, at the end, they do run away. They grab the kids, rescue the dog from the firey mouth of hell in the basement, and screech out of the driveway, never looking back.
What is a haunted house?
Is it the collapse of the American Dream?
Forget the bathroom. Back carefully away from the oozing muck and cover your nose and mouth against the smell. Carefully step past the bed and get yourself safely back out into the hall. At the far end you see a set of French doors that open out onto a small balcony.
The fresh air is bracing. After the fetid stink of the bathroom and the claustrophobia of the moldy hallway and the buggy bed, it’s like life itself. You gulp it in – not even noticing the clouds churning from the smokestack barely visible through the trees.
Your heart rate slows; your breathing calms. It’s actually kind of a nice day – overcast but not so very grim. Birds are chirping in the trees even if, of course, nothing grows in the garden below. The soil is soaked in heavy metals and PCBs – runoff from the factory.
Just as you’re getting your equilibrium back three squad cars, lights flashing; sirens blaring, scream down the street, screeching to a halt at the corner. You hear shots – and the sound of screaming kids. And you notice that one of the cops has turned around and has you in his sights.
What is a haunted house?
The haunted house is a mnemonic device for the collective remembrance of fear.
I started writing this piece last month in Los Angeles, where I spent the Christmas holidays rattling around a very large, fancy house belonging to a very wealthy friend. Behind the locked gates and the high hedges, in the unseasonably cold California wind, the house sat secure — warm and clean and haunted only by the cries of two hungry kittens. In that house, hunger was adorable – and easily satiated. The cats – strays born under my sister’s porch who had hit the Los Angeles jackpot and moved to the Palisades — got organic kibble and free run of the grounds. And the humans got the most mundane manifestation of plenty imaginable – a fully stocked pantry that included no fewer than 18 boxes of cereal. I marveled at those cereal boxes daily, knowing that whenever the children of the home’s owners reach the bottom of a box of Honey Nut Cheerios a fresh, full box will magically appear the next day.
In this house, money protected its inhabitants against want and insulated them from fear. At night it was wrapped in an unearthly quiet: no traffic sounds, no rowdy neighbors. No creaky floors or chill winds. No things going bump in the night. The only thing resembling a police presence were the private security guards who cruised the streets in silent cars.
Every night in that big money Los Angeles house, we watched movies in the screening room, new releases, Oscar contenders, marked “for your consideration.” We watched Carol, and Brooklyn, and Spotlight, and we watched The Big Short.
The Big Short, as you may recall, is a … comedy, of sorts, about the great subprime mortgage and credit default swap swindle of the 00s, that first inflated the housing bubble and then precipitated the collapse of the housing market in 2007. It’s made by the guy who made Anchorman, and it’s got a bunch of big name stars like Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell in it. And it is funny. It’s very snappily edited and paced like a caper movie, with direct-address fourth-wall-busting cameos from celebrities like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain explaining things like the logic of collateralized debt obligations. It’s brash and loud and entertaining, until suddenly it’s not, and people are getting evicted and living out of their cars, losing their homes to foreclosure, or not able to cope, just disappearing one day, and leaving everything behind, including the cereal on the table. And the comedy is sucked out of the film like the devil by a priest, and what’s left behind is silent and heartbreaking.
Watching The Big Short from the comfort of this very comfortable house was disorienting. The floor shifted, rotting, unstable beneath me.
What’s a haunted house?
Is it just an entertaining fiction?
I’m going drop some journalism on you now. Consider it our own Selena Gomez interlude:
According to a 2014 report by the Chicago Reporter, there are an estimated 18,000 abandoned houses and apartment buildings in Chicago, and at least one in five have been empty since the early days of the foreclosure crisis in 2008 or 2009. Of those 18,000 abandoned buildings, about half are tied one way or another to one of the six big banks doing big business with the city. With the inhabitants long gone, they sit empty and decaying – stripped of copper and fixtures, breeding grounds for vermin, havens for drugs and crime. To their institutional owners, the upkeep isn’t worth the money, so the banks just walk away – leaving them to die — often without following through on the foreclosure process.
About one-third of them – 6,000 – linger in this ownership limbo. The banks don’t want them; the owners can’t have them. In the lingo of housing policy, these properties are known as “zombies.”
An army of them, 6,000 strong, stretching across Chicago, accountable to no one — ignored, underestimated, hungry to feed on the city’s ugliness and pain.
Zombies. I mean really? Did the mortgage crisis give birth to a city of undead houses? The red X’s on their facades a sign to first responders to steer clear – not to bother trying to save them if they burn? Not run the risk of being bit.
And, of course, it’s just a city, a whole region — Gary, Detroit, Akron, Youngstown – has been abandoned by public policies that subordinate humanity to profits. Where red X’s might as well be painted on the foreheads of the residents left for dead. As they have been, in of course, Flint. Where the collapse of the industrial economy met the housing crisis, and austerity governance lit the arsonist’s match. If I was starting to work on this lecture today, the whole thing would be about Flint. But right now all I have is this, pulled from the Washington Post this weekend, the latest dispatch from a city where evil flows through the veins of every house.
“The crisis has created a perfect storm to strip their houses of their remaining value,” one resident says. “People feel absolutely trapped,” says another. “We feel like prisoners in our own homes. We’re being poisoned by the very homes we live in.”
The haunted house as popular entertainment – for which the term of art, I have learned, is “haunted attraction” – has roots that stretch all the way back to the booby-trapped labyrinths of Egyptian funeral pyramids and the simple machines of Greek theater. Christians travelling through medieval Europe staged bloody pageants of Bible stories designed to scare the populace away from pagan and Celtic religions. 19th century spiritualists popularized the literal use of smoke and mirrors to conjure “ghosts” and that same century the original Madame Tussaud’s wax museum opened in London. Its notorious “Chamber of Horrors” – featuring the decapitated wax death masks of the likes of Marie Antoinette and Robespierre — paved the way for the “walk-through” model of haunted attractions that endures today.
But of course, the modern haunted attraction is, like the haunted house itself, a thoroughly American invention, borne out of the traveling carnivals of the early 20th century, where patrons would pay money to enter the tent and walk the darkened aisles of the “freak show.” Later, the midcentury boom in amusement parks brought about the innovation of the haunted “dark ride” – in which patrons rode through the fun house in little carts or trains, which reached its zenith with the opening, in 1969, of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. But even during the Depression people were beginning to stage their own “haunted attractions” around Halloween – in part as a way to keep kids out of trouble. An article in Smithsonian magazine cites a 1937 pamphlet that offers parents instructions on how to create a “trail of terror” in the cellar or attic:
“Hang old fur, or strips of raw liver on walls, where one feels his way to dark steps. … Weird moans and howls come from dark corners, damp sponges and hair nets hung from the ceiling touch his face …. Doorways are blockaded so that guests must crawl through a long dark tunnel …. At the end he hears a plaintive “meow” and sees a black cardboard cat outlined in luminous paint.”
Haunted attractions really took off in the 70s though, when they were popularized by the Jaycees, whose members staged thousands of haunted houses across the country in abandoned buildings and cornfields. These annual fundraisers were so successful that in 1975 two members of the Bloomington, Illinois, chapter published a handbook to building and marketing your own haunted attraction that sold more than 20,000 copies (and which is, sadly, now out of print).
And of course, also in the 70s, evangelical Christians tapped into their history of medieval pageants to stage elaborate “Hell Houses” – gory, graphic attractions designed to terrorize teenagers with threat of eternal damnation as the consequence of premarital sex, drug use, abortion, homosexuality, and other “sins.” Jerry Fallwell opened the first such Hell House in Lynchberg, Virginia, in 1972.
Forty-some years later, the industry has been professionalized and haunted attractions are big business. Today, the estimated 2700 professionally run haunted houses in the U.S. rake in as much as $300 million a year. And – perhaps taking an unintentional cue from Jerry Falwell – they’re as likely to terrorize visitors with horrors ripped from the traumas of life as they are with the supernatural and spooky.
At the long running Blackout Haunted Houses in New York and LA, visitors have been taken hostage and grabbed, hooded, and waterboarded by unseen jailers. Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare, in Villa Park, notoriously featured scenarios inspired by the atrocities of the Manson Family, David Berkowitz, and John Wayne Gacy. And even the relatively low-rent The Raven’s Grin, an unlicensed haunted house outside of Galena run by one obsessed guy, is decorated with such an alarming amount of Nazi paraphernalia that, I’ve heard, it makes visitors deeply unsettled – if they’re not already.
In these contemporary haunted houses the real-life chills run up against the unapologetic absurdity of the whole idea – what might happen if Ionesco’s rhinos stormed the Grand Guignol stage, the collective terror goading them to abandon their gentler pursuits and start goring each other with their horns.
Some haunted house actors, I’ve heard, compete to see how many patrons they can scare into peeing their pants – or worse. A friend of mine who years ago worked at a haunted house in the Chicago suburbs told me it was actually traumatic – the constant noise; the darkness; and worst of all the way the panicked public would turn on the performers, cursing at them, fighting, sometimes punching them in the face.
What is a haunted house, after all, but a way of training the populace to accept the unthinkable and then, perhaps, perpetuate it.
You are frozen with fear – a zombie, one might say. You stare at the cop; he stares back at you.
And you wait.
Until suddenly, in the tree above, a bough breaks and the crack snaps you out of your trance and you dart back through the French doors and fling your body to the floor
Outside, yelling, then silence, save the wail of another siren, approaching fast. Still flat on the ground, you turn your head to scan the hall and lock eyes with – not a cop, but a rat, itself pressed against the baseboard, frozen in fear for a moment, before it too turns tail and disappears down the stairs. Just as, from below, someone begins to pound on the front door.
That’s enough for you. Jump up and hug the wall as you round the corner and yank open a small door you haven’t seen before. It’s the attic.
Carefully, cautiously climb the darkened stairs. It smells of dust and memories. Above, a floorboard creaks once. Then again. A regular scree-scree-scree. You pause on the penultimate step before screwing up the courage to advance – and as you poke your head into the gabled space you see, by the broken window, a rocking chair gently listing back and forth, scree – scree, with the breeze. And next to it, forgotten, abandoned, a soccer ball.
Something brushes against your head. You reach up to push it aside and it crumbles off in your hand. Gray-brown vermiculite insulation. Asbestos. It coats everything with a fine and lethal dust. The box of old photos; the crumbling wedding gown. The Christmas tree stand and the bags of broken lights. The sewing machine and the typewriter and the disassembled bed, the pieces of a life left for dead.
You cough. Your hand burns. Downstairs the banging abruptly stops. You can hear the vehicles outside pulling away.
Behind you the floorboard squeaks again – but the rocking chair hasn’t moved and you feel a hot flush of breath on your itching neck and hear the sound of water crawling through the pipes below, as though somewhere, someone has turned on a tap.
And you run. You run down the stairs and past the bedroom, with its bugs, and the toilet with its sewage; you run down the hall, skirting the holes in the floor, and down the second flight of stairs, through the kitchen where – yes, the water is running and the empty cupboards swing on rusty hinges and the box of stale crackers lies open on the ground. Run through the dining room, and into the parlor where the cushions are warm and the faintest indentations linger. And then out the door and down porch steps and through the gate, and you just keep running and running because the house next door is haunted too, and the next one and the next and the next.
Is it a coincidence that the 1950s – the Donna Reed, sock hop, Leave it to Beaver 50s – was the last moment the American Dream seemed to hold water? When it was possible to get that good job at the plant, work 40 years, raise a family, buy a house? And yet it was also the era in which, across the Midwest, the Victorian homes of the 18th century began to fall into disrepair, as suburbia sprang up around them. To warn kids away – keep them from going exploring and falling though a hole or stepping on a rusty nail, adults made up ghost stories. “Don’t go in there,” they said, “It’s haunted.”
Once upon a time, a haunted house was a story we told children to keep them safe.
According to French philosopher Gaston de Bachelard, the house is the totemic example of intimate space, in which our fundamental memories of childhood and family are inscribed. To Bachelard, the house is a fundamentally safe space of happiness and protection. And they too, are sentient: mothers and fathers and warriors, fighting to protect their inhabitants from the menacing world outside.
In the 70s, when I was little, every Halloween my friend Tanya’s father – perhaps taking his cues from the Jaycees — would make a haunted house in his basement, transforming it with cardboard and cobwebs from a spray can into what seemed, to at the time, a labyrinth of frights. There was no liver on the walls, but there was spooky music, flashing lights, cold spaghetti “brains” on the ground, and peeled grape “eyeballs” in a bowl.
I loved this, and I looked forward to it every year – the lure of the haunted maze wrapped up in the allure of her dad’s place across town. I remember her mildly hippiesh father as gentle and kind, his little house shabby and smelling vaguely of incense (or maybe it was pot) and wildly exotic when compared to the square bungalow down the street from me where Tanya lived with her mom and sister all but every other weekend. Harry’s house may have been haunted – but it was deeply, protectively safe. Once you made your way through the basement maze you were rewarded with hot cider and candy in the kitchen.
Now though, forty years later, I hate haunted houses.
An apprehensive walk into darkness and the unknown does not thrill me. I do not relish the dreadful tease of creaking doors and rattling chains. I feel no cathartic release when a chainsaw-wielding ghoul dripping with fake blood jumps out from the shadows. I don’t even pee. I just get scared. Really scared, and angry – at my own predictably disappointing reactions, and at myself for putting myself in this ridiculous situation in the first place, and angry at the ghosts and zombies that are such powerful agents of embarrassment, paralysis, and fear.
The promised function of the haunted house as a safe space in which to confront ones fears – whether childhood terrors of loneliness, darkness, and spiders or the externally wrought horror of poverty and class – rings hollow these days. I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which houses subvert their promise of safety thanks to outside forces – whether emergency managers or evil spirits — bent on mischief and bottom line gain.
Nowadays, the haunted house – the undead house — may still be a story for children, but it’s not clear who, if anyone, it is keeping safe.
Monologue performed at the 2016 Rhinoceros Theater Festival (1/25/16 & 2/1/16), Chicago