“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.” – Shirley Jackson, “The Haunting of Hill House”

“C’mon George, 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.” – Margot Kidder, “The Amityville Horror”


What is a haunted house?

A Memory Palace of Fear is a theatrical installation that attempts to answer that question several times over, in probable cacophany. Employing performance, text, sound, and visual art elements, the project marries an examination of the role of the “haunted house” in popular culture with research into issues impacting housing stability and fears in general.

These issues can be economic (eviction, foreclosure), environmental (lead poisoning, asbestos), or social (violence and other criminal or criminalized activities). By seeking common ground between the haunted houses of ghost stories and Halloween entertainments and the troubled properties that haunt Chicago, we aim to examine the ways we understand the role of fear as entertainment, how we think about stereotypically “scary” buildings and neighborhoods, and how no matter their situation our homes can both menace us and keep us safe.

This is all ridiculous, of course. But perhaps not so far fetched. The language of housing can be spooky! Vacant properties that prompt 311 calls are classed as “troubled buildings.” Properties in ownership limbo between foreclosure and bank repossession are known, in the lingo, as “zombies.” This year, with the south and west sides of Chicago demonized in the popular press and by the Republican candidate for president as “war zones” where residents are “living in hell,” it might even makes sense to combat bombast with fantasy.

Humboldt Park – stretching west and south from the actual park that gives it its name – has seen redlining, violence, arson, and widespread disinvestment over the past fifty years yet remains diverse and vital. According to data recently released by the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul, Humboldt Park experienced high rates of foreclosure between 2005 and 2011. Between 2010 and 2014 vacancy rates in the neighborhood hovered steadily between 3.9 and 5 %. Higher than the city average (around 2.5 %) but lower than in south-side neighborhoods like Englewood or South Chicago, where vacancy rates have climbed as high as 11.1%.

Over the summer I talked with people who live and work around the Silent Funny space to get their take on how “haunted houses” affect their daily lives. But while there’s a documented correlation between vacant buildings and criminal (or criminalized) activity in general, empty buildings don’t generate fear so much as a frustration, anger, sadness, fatigue. Lost neighbors are missed; community is frayed. “It’s like the block is missing a tooth,” one person told me. “They don’t bother me,” said another, who works with Neighborhood Housing Services to stimulate ownership and avert foreclosure. “I just think about how to fix it and make a difference – how to put people in it.”

Just as the haunted houses of ghost stories can be seen as externalizations of other unresolved terrors such as familial strife or sexual repression, the haunted house on the block is a marker of other social terrors: structural racism, predatory lending, unemployment. Stable home ownership’s so often held up as the key to turning around a “bad block,” but functional streets and safe public spaces are equally important aspects of city life that require investment by forces larger than the individual or family. In West Humboldt, for example, the closure of the community center and pool at Orr High School in the late 1990s was repeatedly mentioned as a tipping point that left neighborhood kids without anywhere to go after school.

One neighbor remembered staging a haunted house in her two-flat on Halloween, several years ago:

“We had to take everything out of the house because we had just got through the lead program, so all the furniture was in the garage. And it was close to Halloween and I don’t know who’s idea was it was to do a haunted house, but we did. My sister downstairs and we up here, and we had the blinking lights and the CD player going with the music, and the kids came upstairs and I was at the door with my little witch outfit on, and there was a black curtain here and one of the girls behind it. Every door that I had there was something happening. You know, just scary — and when you got through the last one and downstairs to the back yard, there was a party back there.

“Everybody loved it. It was supposed to be just for the kids on this block but word must have got out and I had a line out there, like oh my god. But we were enjoying it. There wasn’t all this craziness going on then; you could have a line of kids out there and they could just come on in. But now you’re afraid to let a line of kids be out there on the street.”

So, what’s a haunted house?  We’ve come up with a few ideas so far.

-A haunted house is the collapse of the American dream.
-A haunted house is a mnemonic device for the collective remembrance of fear.
-A haunted house is a story we tell children to keep them safe.

We plan to look for more answers in the coming year, incorporating more collaborating artists, further community outreach, and other elements, with the aim of staging a fully realized production of this project in late 2017.

Thank you!

— Martha Bayne