Monday, October 24, 2011

“The era of the haunted house has long been on the wane.”

{Photo by rocketlass.}

“There is too much intellectual priggishness prevalent nowadays for the fine old crusted tales of the Moated Grange and its spectral inhabitants to attract more than an amused tolerance, as things only fitting for children.” So wrote Charles George Harper in 1907, in the “Introductory” to his book Haunted Houses--though certainly didn’t let that stop him from retailing story after story of visitations and haunting. Had he been able to look ahead, to the slaughter of the Great War and the swell of emotionally raw spiritualism that came in its wake; the atomization of contemporary society and its resulting isolation and psychological strain; and the slowly growing suspicion that, whatever science explains, we’ll only find that more needs explaining, perhaps he would have been more sanguine about the possibilities facing haunter and hauntee alike. Perhaps he would even have anticipated those of us who, a century on, still enjoy the prospect of a good fright.

One interesting tidbit from the introduction is that as of Harper’s day as in Scrooge’s, ghost stories were still considered Christmas entertainment. He writes of the “ideal haunted house, or Christmas scene of ghost-stories,” and frets that
In times such as these, when the traditional robin on his snow-clad spray of holly has been banished from the Christmas card, and such un-Christmassy things as roses and tropical flowers are pictured instead, the time-honoured tales of Christmas parties are outworn and disregarded, and hair-raising stories of ghosts, told by the flickering fire before the lights are lit, no longer form a delightfully appetizing prelude to the Christmas dinner; nor, later, send the guests to bed with raw nerves that jump at every shadow.
Halloween rates nary a mention.

Harper also laments the encroachment of modernity, and the destruction—which would pick up pace because of and following the wars—of ancient houses. Ghosts, he points out,
do not very appropriately haunt houses less than a hundred years old. Ghosts and newly completed—even newly furnished—houses are antipathic things.
There are requirements:
[F]or a moderately complete installation, a manor house, with wine-cellars, a butler, old family portraits (not necessarily those of your own family), and if you can manage old oak paneling and tapestry hangings, (let them, if possible, be “arras”) so much the better.
That, however, is the bare minimum—a list that grudgingly takes into account the limits of the contemporary. In the ideal haunted house,
the guest, primed with ancestral horrors, went to bed with apprehension, leaving the warm dining-room for some vast woebegone chamber, with a bed like a catafalque and hangings of a bygone age; with mysterious cupboards in which a dozen family skeletons might reside, and with a floor whose every board had a separate and distinctive squeak. It would nowadays be difficult to secure a house-party on such terms.
In the Ikea century, perhaps the best we can do is to hope for the opposite of that: spareness that verges on asperity; an open, untouched white space so well-lit that it leaves no place to hide secrets—but also nothing to absorb them, leaving them to ricochet and echo and feed back in an inescapable din of psychic vibrations; a soullessness that denies the very existence of a soul . . . with all the psychological repercussions inevitably generated by denial. Come on in and have a seat on the sterile white expanse of the bleached-wood daybed. I’ve got a story or two for you . . .


  1. The remake of 'When a Stranger Calls' was a fantastic example of using a hyperpostmodern clean bare house and turning it into a haunted house scarefest. No worries, the haunted house is not going anywhere, even if people live in one white room surrounded by windows.

  2. Agree with ToB! And I love your characterization of the modern, soulless spaces. One has only to look at the gleaming glass hill-house to know that something terrible will happen to the people inside it... who are inevitably architects!