The Past is Haunted

I grew up in a two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse. Like many houses houses of that age, it was full of peculiarities left over from the many generations who had lived there before us. There was a set of stairs we never used. My bedroom had a blocked-up door in one wall. If you measured out the rooms, you would find a big blank space between the dining room and the living room where the walls hid an old brick oven. In the decades they were living in that house, my parents were always in the midst of some renovation project, during which they often came across the remnants of previous renovations, and not always very well done ones at that (one of the old families in town had a reputation for having some odd notions about how houses should be built). That house was never quiet, even when the people in it were; the background noise of my childhood was a slow symphony of creaks, groans, gurgles, and yawns, all of them as familiar and comforting as my favorite songs. I never imagined that my house was haunted, but I can understand how someone who hadn’t grown up there might think so.

Our sense of hauntedness, the feeling that some presence we can barely perceive occupies a space, is often attached to places like my old house. Not just places that are old, but places where there is evidence of a previous life we no longer fully grasp. The traditional sites of ghost stories and Gothic novels are such places: abandoned houses, ruined castles, derelict towns. Stories about haunted places manifest our unease at finding ourselves in places that once belonged to other people but whose lives and experiences we cannot recover.

There is nothing new about this feeling that the past is haunted. Many cultures in history have shared the sense that there is something supernatural or unsettling about places that show the trace of lost lives. In classical Greece, temples and shrines to the gods were built on hilltops that had ruins of Mycenaean palaces from hundreds of years earlier, while ancient Greek tourists in Egypt were regaled by their guides with ghostly legends about pyramids and tombs that were thousands of years old. In early medieval Britain, folklore connected supernatural forces with the prehistoric tombs, mounds, and megaliths visible in the landscape. In Edo-period Japan, the popular parlor game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, in which players took turns telling ghost stories and extinguishing lanterns, encouraged the collection of scary folktales grounded in old rural traditions.

Some places have even been built to artificially evoke the same sense. The classic haunted house in US culture is the Victorian mansion. When houses of this type were built in the 1800s, they were designed in accord with the Romantic style of the times to include asymmetrical layouts, odd corners, superfluous towers and gables, intentionally irregular decorations, and other such purpose-built neo-Gothic oddities meant to evoke the sense of a lost past the house never had. As these houses have themselves become old and sometimes decrepit, it is no wonder that they have attracted more than their share of ghostly tales.

Like any other supposedly supernatural phenomenon, haunted places may lose some of their glamour when we find out the mundane explanations for them. Those eerie sounds are not the wails of ghosts but the whistling of the wind through lose clapboards and decayed horsehair insulation. The empty space between rooms is not a hidden chamber of untold horrors but a brick hearth covered over decades ago when modern heating made it superfluous. The staircase that leads nowhere is not a portal to unknown dimensions but the trace of household servants whose bedrooms have since been turned into storage space. What we sacrifice in eeriness, though, we gain in understanding as history and archaeology help make ways of life of those who went before us more visible and comprehensible to us today.

Image: Historic James Alldis House, photograph by Droncam via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Torrington, Connecticut, built 1895)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

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