Features||

My Three Favourite… Fictional Haunted Houses

31st Oct 2011

Haunted House
When it comes to scaring the bejeezus out of people, setting is everything. To really put the fear up a reader, they need to be immersed in the environment, feeling as confined and confused as the tale’s hapless inhabitants. Hence the haunted house holding a special place in the popular imagination.

 

Around the world and since time immemorial, we have invented stories about our neighbours; a witch lives in that old cottage in the woods; in that house, a man went mad and killed his family- they say you can still hear them screaming; I think the people next door are terrorists.

By singling out “others” humanity defines acceptable behaviour and, because this particular definition of otherness takes place within the residential sphere, the character of the other is inevitably tied to their environment.

So although there are other buildings that serve well as locations for scary stories – such as hospitals, churches or schools –  it is the home, the source of comfort and familiarity that, when undermined, provides the greatest chills.

The disintegrating stately home, with its implications of decadence and decay, has been a staple since the horror genre’s inception, thanks largely to Anne Radcliffe in the late 1700s.

The haunted house was usually the hereditary seat of a formerly wealthy family which, usually through some combination of sin and secrecy, had fallen apart. Vines creep and stone crumbles as civilisation falls to base nature, a metaphor for the perils of immorality and ghosts, the misdeeds of the past, lurk in dark corners to remind the unfortunate descendants that the past will not remain buried.

In the Victorian period, writers began to see the potential for the haunted house to represent more than the bad old days and the abuse of wealth and power. With a growing interest in psychology came the haunted house as a metaphor for the human mind, its animal desires becoming monsters, its secrets ghosts.

In 1895, Charlotte Perkins Gilman revolutionised the concept with her chilling suffragette rallying cry, The Yellow Wallpaper. The attic room to which our narrator is largely confined certainly fits the bill for a classic haunted setting.

“A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the heights of romantic felicity,” she writes, fully aware of her genre. In the attic itself, our hero discovers that the bed is fixed to the floor, the windows are barred, there are rings in the walls and the titular wallpaper has been ripped and stained.

The implications are horrible to a reader, but our narrator prefers to keep herself oblivious to the potential history of her summer residence, contriving instead the cutesy explanation of boisterous children.

Her initial hatred of the fussy wallpaper deepens into obsession over the course of the story until she begins to see the ghost of a woman creeping in its pattern. By the end, she has been completely “possessed” by the woman in the wallpaper.

Who that other woman is, whether the ghost of the room’s former occupant, the personification of the narrator’s descent into madness or that of her abandonment of angelic Victorian wife identity, remains frighteningly obscure.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Shirley Jackson rolled out the by-now clichéd setting of the haunted mansion for her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House.

What from the title sounds like a classic hackneyed ghost story marks itself as different from the opening paragraph where we discover that it is the very architecture of Hill House that makes it conducive to insanity.

Though our hero Eleanor is made aware of the tragic history of the place, there is little in the story that explains the occurrences in the house or the increasingly strange behaviour of its guests.

Remember, not all fictional haunted houses are Jungian manifestations of repressed fears and desires.Much is made of the building, the madness-inducing nonsensical lines of it, but far more is said about the state of mind of the visitors, their paranoia, their feelings toward each other.

As it becomes clear that the apparent supernatural status of the house is simply giving free rein to the dark secret psyches of the guests, and Eleanor fulfils the horrible promise of Hill House’s history, so is it clear that what haunts the mansion is not the ghosts of the dead, but of the living.

History must always be present in a ghost story, but as we discover in Pat Barker’s recent Another World, the past is closer than we might like to believe. While an old man lies dying in hospital, haunted by his memories of war, his family move into a terraced house in suburban Newcastle.

The family, each in their own way disturbed by their own demons, discover an awful painting, a dark mirror of themselves, behind the civilised veneer of the living room wallpaper.

The picture accompanies a ghost story, a girl who may have killed her little brother and may yet haunt the rooms. But this gothic drama becomes a background to more banal and modern sources of crisis, such as bullying, pregnancy and familial breakdown, each grotesquely presented by Barker.

The ghosts, of course, lurk in the unsaid fears and hatreds of the family and in the context of the modern, rational suburban world they inhabit, little can be done to exorcise them.

Trick or treat! Special Halloween bonus entry. Since it’s Halloween, it’s a good time to remember that not all fictional haunted houses are Jungian manifestations of repressed fears and desires.

All four of the houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have their own ghosts, seemingly for decoration and ambiance as much as anything else.

True to form, Slytherin house has the most gothic of all house ghosts in the form of the Bloody Baron and is, frankly, the best haunted house in Hogwarts. And don’t you dare argue, muggles.

Which fictional haunted houses would you add to our list?

(Image via barb_ar’s Flickr photostream)

Comments

  • Kirsty Logan says:

    Oooh, I love a haunted house story! This is a fabulous post – now I’m off to request ‘Another World’ from the library.

  • Sarah says:

    I love the Yellow Wallpaper and will be reading the other two asap!

  • Boomskilpaadjie says:

    So technically it’s not haunted but I think we’ve got to mention Manderley in Rebecca. Creepy from the opening sentence!