Halloween season is the perfect time to watch horror movies, and a reliable standby of the genre is the haunted house story. Recent examples range from the understated (The Woman in Black ) to the sensationalized (The Conjuring ) to the crassly commercial (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones ). Such tales of domestic tranquility disrupted by malevolent spirits have been popular for over two centuries, tracing their lineage back to The Castle of Otranto , generally regarded as the first gothic novel.
“It specifically foregrounds the importance of the home, especially the ancestral home, the home with a certain amount of history to it,” says horror author and English professor John Langan. “Which does seem to have become one of the requirements for a haunted house setting.”
Later books and films have largely followed that lead, featuring houses whose dark histories are replete with slaughtered children and desecrated burial grounds. The idea that locations resonate with their collected history is one that appeals to South African author Lauren Beukes. Her new novel Broken Monsters is set amidst the blighted urban landscape of modern-day Detroit.
“You step into these places and there’s a vacancy,” she says. “And it’s what you bring to that vacancy—whether it’s your own baggage and malaise and malevolence and psychology, or whether there’s something there waiting to feed into it, is what makes it so interesting. And that dynamic of what rushes in to fill the vacuum is really the haunting.”
But author Grady Hendrix says that in his experience it’s not so much places that are haunted but people. His work with a parapsychology group taught him that pretty much everywhere feels haunted to someone.
“There were haunted novelty supply warehouses and medical record filing facilities and gardens and sidewalks and barns,” he says. “They were really subjective, very emotional experiences, like they were just for them.”
He points to The Amityville Horror as another example of haunted people. America’s most famously haunted house has been the subject of countless investigations, but in all that time no one ever saw the real horror, the abuse of the children living there, a tragic situation highlighted in the recent documentary My Amityville Horror .
“No one ever stopped to listen to them, no one ever did anything for those kids,” says Hendrix. “It was the people, it wasn’t the house.”
Listen to our complete discussion of haunted houses in Episode 121 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast—featuring Langan, Beukes, Hendrix, and David Barr Kirtley—above, and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
John Langan on materialism:
“One of Marx’s critiques of capitalism is that in capitalism things become more real than people are, and he talks about these moments where an object ‘hails’ you, as he puts it, the object gives you reality. I guess we would think about it in status terms—I’ve got my sports car, or whatever it is, and that makes me real, having this thing. … In The Amityville Horror you’re buying that house, you’re buying that house and it’s all full of horrible things. Oh my god, think about the money! Think about the bills! … And I do think the economics of haunted house stories are kind of interesting. You don’t see a lot of haunted house stories that are about a haunted shack or a haunted double-wide trailer or something like that. It’s almost as if it has to be opulent to be haunted.”
Grady Hendrix on rational explanations:
“There was a guy I knew a long time ago named Bill Roll who did a lot of research on electromagnetics and haunted houses and things like that, and a British TV crew brought him over to London to do a show. There was a guy who was living in SoHo over there, which had just been built up, and his house was an old warehouse, and they were like, ‘Look, even in this modern flat with all these modern appliances this guy’s got a ghost, and he hears children calling his name, and he feels cold spots, and his bed shakes at night.’ And so when they got there Bill Roll was looking at it, and he’s like, ‘Well, actually where the guy’s bed is … there’s the electrical transformer for the neighborhood right on the other side of that wall. … Can we just move his bed to the other side of the loft and see if this stuff persists?’ And none of it persisted. It all went away. And the TV crew was so pissed off.”
Lauren Beukes on haunted places:
“I think what’s also interesting is looking at the psychogeographies. … There are really horrible things that happen in the world all the time, or good things—I went to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for forty years, and stepping into that cell, this tiny cell where he spent so much of his life, is very poignant. There’s something powerful there. And that’s powerful good, because good came out of it, but if you go to horrible places where bad things happened, these layers of history endure, and I think that we are haunted by the past in the way that we make mistakes over and over again, and that we have to acknowledge that, and that that kind of echoes into personal hauntings and things that we’ve done in our own lives.”
Grady Hendrix on labyrinths:
“Haunted houses are designed to produce one effect, and that’s the labyrinth. … It’s circuitous, and it takes you to the middle, and it’s almost like spinning someone around in blind man’s bluff. It’s designed to disorient you, and make you forget about your daily life, and cut you off from your day-to-day life. … Whether it’s the Overlook Hotel or in The Haunting of Hill House where they can never quite go to the same room by the same route. … That was one of the interesting things about writing a haunted house book set in an Ikea, because at Ikea the route you take is specifically designed to produce something called ‘the Gruen transfer,’ which is you disorient people when they come into a space—it’s the reason casinos have densely patterned carpets and no clocks—because what happens when people get disoriented in a new space is they walk slower, they pay more attention to their surroundings, and they’re a lot more suggestible. So labyrinths are what haunted houses are, they’re designed to disorient you.”