The End Is Never the End
On haunted house films, part one of two
Note: The following two-part essay comes out of my the research for my video Haunting (2020). A shorter version was recently published in the journal Nova Express.
As their station wagon pulls up to the house, the family can’t believe what they see. The house is bigger than they expected, with more windows and floors than were listed in the classified. “It must be a mistake,” the father says, squinting. A smiling and weary real-estate agent waves to them from front porch. She meets them on the lawn, and after an enthusiastic greeting, she says that, no, they didn’t get the rental amount wrong. This house is the deal of the year, maybe the decade. The walkthrough begins, and the family separates to find their future bedrooms. There is a stain on the dining room ceiling, and despite the abundance of windows, the rooms are dim and shadowed. When the youngest brother unlocks the door to the basement, the agent interrupts her monologue and runs to shut the door. “The basement is too dangerous for children,” she says though a forced smile. The agent then calls for the family to gather outside. There, she tells the family that she can take one-hundred dollars off the rent if they sign by day’s end. The father, looking again at the house’s facade, notices that it is made of a complex crosshatching of wooden slats and shingling with interlocking gables that appear to have no stylistic logic. His wife pulls him aside. “I think we she should take it,” she whispers. “This was the house we were always meant to have.”
When the family returns, their station wagon is filled with suitcases and enough books and children’s toys to last the summer. Why the family is here is never fully explained. A vacation, maybe, an unfinished novel, or the need for country air. Or their reasons might be more desperate: the death in of a child or a violent argument over the husband’s black-out drinking. Whatever the reason, the countryside will do them some good, provide the necessary perspective. When they arrive, the house is just as they remembered it: large and confusing, with more rooms than they will ever need. They will be alone here for the summer, a dozen miles from the nearest town or store. Inside, the scene is chaotic: children explore rooms, grandma takes up her place by the window, moving men drop boxes in the living room. But something is wrong. Mom looks closely at the windowsills. The windows are nailed shut, she says, not quite sure what to make of it. In the dining room, the stain has spread across the ceiling. And, by the way, was this door always here? “It’s nothing,” Dad, says with his usual confidence. “All houses have their faults.” He then takes the kids under his arms and asks if they want to play hide-and-seek. His son looks up at him and says that there is a strange man standing on the lawn.
Ghost films are there from the beginning of cinema, but it is not until midcentury that the genre comes into its own. Many of the earliest surviving horror films are creature-based: Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, Satan himself. By the 1960s, the ghost film gains momentum with a flurry of stories produced by Roger Corman’s American International Pictures and Hammer Films in the UK. These films usually star Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, or Peter Cushing. They are often adapted from Poe or Lovecraft, and feature buxom female leads perpetually dressed in nightgowns. The recycled actors and sets and stories give these films an uncanny sense of familiarity and repetitiousness. Then there is break around in the mid-1970s, a crossfade to the present. The haunted family becomes middle class, contemporary. The marriage is on the rocks. The protagonists have two young children, perhaps a station wagon and a dog. The house is one century old, at most. By the 1980s, the setting will be suburban, Californian, ranch houses built in a still unfinished community. From now on, the genre is present tense, until, in the 2000s, it retreats again into the past.
What is that sound? It wakes the father in the night, interrupting a black sleep. At first, he thinks it is the boiler. But the sound—a distant metallic banging—is coming from upstairs. He dresses and grabs a flashlight from the hall closet. The rest of the family is asleep. Why does no one else hear it? The noise sounds like someone is banging a wrench on an empty oil can in a parking garage. The father ascends towards the attic, and as he approaches the attic door the sound grows so loud he covers his ears. He throws the door open, and the sound stops, revealing an empty room. On other nights, the noise comes from the walls, a quiet scratching, audible only to the children, as if caused by some rodent scraping its nails behind the drywall. Other family members hear a moaning—part sob, part lament. A woman’s voice, a grieving mother. It might even be sexual, and when the teenage son hears it one night he wonders if it isn’t his oversexed imagination. The moan is accompanied by cries sometimes, mutters, shrieks. Once, there was a song. The local historian tells them that there have been reports of “otherworldly music” in that house, strange songs heard while falling asleep. The husband doesn’t believe any of it, of course, and says that it must be a radio or someone’s television. His wife is not so sure.
The narrative has reached its crucial second stage: a stage of unknowing and indecision. Is what the family is experiencing “real?” Are there supernatural ghosts in this house or are they figments of the imagination? Are the stories about the house—its troubled former inhabitants, the burial ground, the family driven mad—urban legends? Tzvetan Todorov wrote: “The fantastic confronts us with a dilemma: to believe or not to believe?” For Todorov, the fantastic in fiction is a hesitation before a decision concerning reality: do the phenomena witnessed—voices heard, apparitions seen—have natural or supernatural explanations? Is the ghost some mechanical trick or mental hallucination? Or is the ghost a revenant from the spirit world? In every ghost film, the characters arrange themselves on either side of this divide. On the one side, the believers: usually women, sometimes wives, the elderly, spiritual mediums, children of either gender. The believers not only believe, they are also ghostlike themselves. They not only see these ghosts, but speak with them. They, too, are disbelieved, ignored, laughed at, especially the women, their beliefs in the supernatural taken for evidence of “feminine irrationality.” In Don’t Look Now (1973), John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) treats his grieving wife like a living ghost, as someone to be disbelieved and investigated. After their child’s death, she takes an interest in the occult and participates in a séance with two mediums. Baxter dismisses her newfound beliefs and then begins spying on her. In this way, Baxter is like most men in these films: skeptical rationalists, representatives of the law and science. (In Awakening, 2011, the rationalist skeptic is a woman, but she is also the only one who can see the ghosts, collapsing both positions into a single character.)
In The Entity (1982), after Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is assaulted by an invisible specter, she consults with a psychiatrist, Dr. Phil Sneiderman (Ron Silver). Given only a session or two, Dr. Sneiderman knows what truly haunts Carla: her father’s absence from her childhood and incestuous urges for her teenage son. Carla is convinced otherwise. Her bruises are real, her physical pain is real. Her ghosts are not delusions. The smug, cocky Dr. Sneiderman thinks this is absurd, and for the rest of the film he aggressively, sometimes violently, tries to convince Carla she is neurotic. Like so many of the scientists dramatized in these Todorovian dramas, he cannot accept the existence of ghosts. In Dr. Sneiderman we also glimpse the ghost of Sigmund Freud. The beard is the tell, but it is in Sneiderman’s speech—his insistence on incestuous wish fulfillment, on the revelation that the true monsters are our fathers—that the apparition of the psychoanalyst makes its strongest appearance. Psychoanalysis can never be on the side of ghosts, not really. In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida wrote how Freud’s “scientific positivism was put to the service of his declared hauntedness and of his unavowed fear.” Freud saw ghosts, wrote about them, entertained their existence, yet he also wanted to “explain and reduce the belief in [them].” Psychoanalytic ghosts are paradoxes of unstable being, they are the partial truths of repression. But, as Derrida points out, the moment repression no longer works, the moment the repressed speak, ghosts cease to exist.
End of part one.