LETHE DICKINSON explores the psychology of traumatised houses and haunted brains.
Have you ever been kept up all night by past mistakes? Or perhaps walked past the library, avoiding the next impending deadline, and felt it staring down at you? Breathing down your neck?
Gothic literature is interested in the way our brains trick us in becoming afraid when things are off. This is because it often takes something familiar and safe and makes it terrifying because of subtle attributes; this inspires ‘terror’ and is the highest form of horror according to horror author Stephen King (Stephen King’s 3 Levels of Horror, 2019).
Unearthing the Uncanny
The haunted house is such a common trope in Gothic literature because it takes the very familiar setting of the home and twists it. A common way to achieve this is to make the characters feel uneasy or afraid without any apparent reason within the building. This is ‘psychogeography’: the idea that the place where we are affects our emotions or behaviours (Debord 1955). Gothic literature uses this real-world feeling to indicate that something is wrong before the house is even revealed to be haunted or secrets unearthed.
Psychogeography can be seen with servants taking on ‘the shivers’ and ‘the trembles’ and refusing to work there for more than twenty-four hours, in Mrs J.H. Riddell's The Uninhabited House (1875, Chapter 3, para. 13). Or how Eleanor Vance finds Hill House ‘vile [and] diseased’ the moment she sees it (Jackson 1960, p.26). Furthermore, the haunted house often works as both the setting and as a character (Grider 2007, p.144), and the anthropomorphising of buildings is often used to create uneasy feelings. Commonly, this is done by the houses being perceived to perceive. Windows become eyes, looking down and watching the protagonist. Take Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher wherein just the sight of the house and its ‘vacant eye-like’ (1839, para. 1) windows which knock the unnamed protagonist queasy with a ‘sickening of the heart’ (1839, para. 1). This incorporates Jacques Lacan’s gaze theory, with the uncanny idea that what you are looking at is watching back with its own will, thus changing the power dynamics at play (Felluga 2011).
There’s Whispers in the Walls!
Since the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764 – widely accepted to be the first gothic novel (Kennedy 2015) - Gothic literature has often centred around haunted buildings. Haunted houses are not necessarily filled with the literal ghost who shouts ‘boo!’. They become ‘haunted’ by the history that the house has witnessed. Houses hold history within their walls; every birth, death and secluded secret in between makes up the history of a house.
Christine Berthin, in her book Gothic Hauntings (2010), argues that houses are prime for ‘mak[ing] secrets’ (p.66) because of the way buildings enclose space and are settings of private thoughts or intimate relations. Therefore, houses are settings of ‘interior life’ (Mezei and Briganti 2002, p.839). The connection that houses have with their inhabitant’s ‘interior lives’ means that it is no surprise that haunted houses work in eerily similar ways to brains: houses are haunted by the past while brains are haunted by trauma. The Shining (1977) explicitly explores this with the ways that the Overlook Hotel’s hauntings represent and play off Jack Torrence’s childhood trauma from his abusive father. As the book progresses and Jack becomes possessed by the Overlook, he repeats his father’s phrases that haunted his childhood while hunting down his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny to ‘fix’ (p.409) them.
Freud’s Attic of Anxieties
Houses are haunted by the accumulation of history that is not ‘in the past’ but more ‘in the background’ with the ability to become ‘foregrounded’ to haunt the characters. This is often claimed to be the ‘return of the repressed’, based on Freudian theories of unconscious and dream reading (Friedman 1993). The ‘return of the repressed’ is the idea that – like shoving old junk into the attic to only emerge when you’re hunting down the Christmas decorations – anything you do not want to face in day-to-day life is repressed into unconscious areas of your brain. However, when your guard is down or you are sleeping, it insistently returns to the conscious brain in ‘displaced’ (symbolic) forms (Zhang and Guo 2018). It’s getting your terrible baby pictures instead of tinsel, except instead of reminiscing you’re just hit with everything you did at 12 to make you cringe.
While Gothic literature and Freud investigate very similar ideas that are contemporarily associated together, it is not generally assumed that Gothic literature anticipated Freud (Berthin 2010, p.2). However, since ghosts are projections of subconscious and repressed guilts or fears of characters, they deal in the ‘world of dreams’ (Berthin 2010, p.1). Therefore, Gothic literature goes hand-in-hand with Freudian psychoanalytic discourse.
As Above so Below
Later Gothic literature often explicitly draws connections to Freudian psychoanalytic discourse and suggests that unused or hidden parts of houses, such as attics or basements, act as the unconscious area of the brain while the used parts of the house are the conscious which repressed traumas return to. Therefore, the house becomes haunted because of what is hidden in the attic or basement. A contemporary example of this would be Trang Thanh Tran’s She is a Haunting (2023) which involves a Vietnamese French Colonial manor haunted by a history of colonial violence and that wants to be heard. Jade, the protagonist, finds a collection of pictures featuring violent histories within the attic’s chimney wall. Because the ‘house wants to be known’ (p.221), it leads Jade to this evidence of the violent history that happened that haunts the house.
From Classic Chills to Modern Reflections
Buildings are haunted in the very same way that the brain is haunted – unsettled history comes back, especially if it is traumatic. And many places affect how you feel – you feel much better in a sunny beer garden than cramped up in a university library. Gothic literature puts ‘return of the repressed’ together with psychogeography and a leading incident or secret and gets a haunted house. It always has. But it is in the versatility of the trope and the use of the haunted house as a tool to discuss contemporary issues that keeps the trope alive and in the forefront of Gothic horror over 250 years after Gothic literature’s conception.
Written by Lethe Dickinson
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