There is something uniquely terrifying about haunted houses. They take places where we feel safe, places of comfort and stability, and turn them into places of terror and dread. It is the ultimate violation of what a home should be. As such, it plays on a deep and innate fear within us.
As Scott Thomas’s book Kill Creek says, “No house is born bad.” Instead, these haunted houses become a dark reflection of their painful, tragic, and often bloody pasts. It is this interplay between the past and the present that fascinates us. After all, can a house truly be haunted if it doesn’t have a gruesome origin story?
In reality, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the dark origin story may not be required. In fact, it is often the houses themselves, their very architecture that can send our imaginations running wild. If you are familiar with the concept of psychogeography, you will know that places can exert a real influence over the way that people feel. There are places that are unsettling and cold, regardless of what their pasts might be.
Colin Dickey’s book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, explores this idea with relation to haunted houses specifically. There are places like the Winchester Mystery House where the unsettling house has created a dark narrative instead of vice versa (see Atlas Obscura's great article on the Winchester house here). In the Winchester house, stairways run up into the ceiling and doors open up to two-story drops. The house constantly surprises us and subverts our expectations. It feels unfamiliar, strange, and unsettling, leading people to claim that it is haunted. No gruesome murders occurred on the property, there was no blood-soaked horror scene, just strange architecture and an eccentric owner.
Unsettling places are a fixture of literature too, especially in gothic fiction. From Shirley Jackson’s iconic book The Haunting of Hill House and classics like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to bestsellers like Stephen King’s The Shining, haunted houses have long captured our imagination. The subject is one that inspires all kinds of tales exploring the worst parts of us and how we can leave a lasting scar on a place and vice versa. Haunted places have a real, emotional effect on us. In many ways, both the people that inhabit a place and the place itself are haunted by trauma (see an interesting article here on why we love to be haunted).
Haunted house stories are some of my favorites. Whether they are bold and brash, like Jack Nicholson wielding an axe in The Shining, or quiet and cold, like Ruth Wilson’s timid nurse in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, these stories find a way to leave us feeling disquieted and anxious about the places that are supposed to be a safe haven for us. As someone deeply interested in how places can affect our emotions and actions, these stories take the concepts of psychogeography to an extreme. A home is a universal concept, something both commonplace and deeply personal for us all, which makes these stories all the more disturbing. At their core, haunted house stories suggest to us that just maybe we aren’t as safe in our homes as we think we are. Homes may not be born bad, but they can certainly grow into something nightmarish.