Monday, September 3, 2012

The Allure of the Haunted House

A couple months ago I did a piece on the romance of haunted houses.  It got a lot of really good email conversations started and I was recently asked to elaborate more on the topic. Fortunately, between those conversations and others offline, etc., I have been given a bit more to ponder and add to the subject.

What is it that draws us to old haunted houses? In this case, I am not speaking of gore-fests and haunted corn fields that crop up (pardon the pun) all over from September through the first of November, but the genuinely run-down, spooky old homes and century-/centuries-old homes and hospitals that seem to beckon to us as we pass by, sparking a sense of curiosity just as strong as the chill that finds its way up our spines.

This is a conversation I used to find myself having this time of year, as the days become shorter, breezes seem to hug the ground and leaves change and fall, creating a beautiful crimson carpet and a sense of mystery fills the air. However, these days, it is year round. Granted, this also makes me a very happy person.  When someone asks me “Why haunted houses?”, I can’t help but respond with “Why not?” but I do not leave it at that. If they have taken the time to ask, it’s fairly evident that the same appeal exists for them. So I begin by asking what their first thought is when they hear “haunted house.”  Two answers tend to be top of the list: 1. Images of great huge Victorian homes with overgrowth, dead shrubs, worn paint and broken windows, and 2. Some memory of an old, seemingly-abandoned house in the neighborhood where they grew up.

Both answers are accompanied by a slightly faraway stare, a glint in the eye and a look of sparked excitement. There is a sense of adventure because these places are spooky, but at the heart, there is a strong sense of sentimentality as they revisit childhood memories and recall old friends about whom they may not have thought in many years.

Perhaps this is primarily because I am a Sentimentalist writer, but I have yet to find myself alone in noticing that one of the main attributes of any group of individuals seeking to explore a haunted house, haunted historic building or haunted hospital/asylum is Empathy. There is a sense of compassion, a need to reach out and share the pain, fear and suffering of those believed to be haunting these places.  And perhaps in a world where many feel so helpless to make any form of difference for more than one or two living people at a time making their way through tragedies, and where suffering seems the “norm” (How many times a day does your Facebook feed flood with ‘woe is me’ posts over the most mundane stuff?), there is a desire to reach across time to understand the very real suffering of another era, so strong as to tether a soul to this world and to a place indefinitely.  

The haunted house offers two things. It brings that sense of emotion and connection to another soul very close and allows the sympathetic visitor to get a feel for what someone went through. It also brings that momentary glimpse into the glory of a past age. Now this is the real seduction behind haunted houses.  When is the last time you stood in front of an old dilapidated house and for a fleeting moment heard the laughter of children, a glimpse of flowers blooming in the garden or heard the grinding of tires on a gravel driveway? How often do you gaze at old sepia-toned photos of people standing in front of an old house or building and for a split second the figures seem to move? The sky turns blue there is life in the background. Most of us do not look at haunted homes and buildings simply to be depressed or scared. We see potential; the long-past heyday of the building, the spirit of the place and the many lives that filled the windows with a warm glow on a soft evening.

There is a moment where many of us walk in the footsteps of the ghosts, reliving the good days, cringing at the bad ones and mourning those last days with a sense of  “Why?” and “What if?” Many people have told me that they actually view ghosts as a good sign, and I tend to agree. It is comforting, in a rather odd way, I suppose, to know that death is not so final, and that we live on in memories and that our spirits can still touch the hearts and souls of future generations of the living. Even when some of those “ghosts” are simply energetic memories, it is a reminder that memory, emotion and realization do not simply dissipate at the moment of death.

And with that said, please let me ask that if you do ever visit a haunted house or building, especially one with a history of suffering, and if your intention is similar to those I have shared above, be respectful of those still there. They are not there to do parlor tricks for you, though some may (and often do) interact with the living.  If you are looking to challenge the more malicious presences, keep in mind that you are bringing it on yourself if and when they do respond.  But also remember that the human mind is a powerful thing. Our imaginations are responsible for that initial fight or flight reaction, the quickly beating heart, the jump or squeal at every sound or gasp at each presumed “phantom breeze” that is just a breeze. Our peripheral vision is intended to pick up movement, not detail and a plastic bag blowing in the distance soon becomes a story of a spirit whooshing past, and a squirrel becomes a ghost child hiding in the bushes. Then there is the fact that our brains are wired to matrix and single out faces and words by filling in blanks in repetitive patterns (leaves in trees, puffs of smoke or reflections in windows). 

Balance your sense of adventure and sentimentality with knowledge and a touch of skepticism. Revel in the beauty of old buildings and let your imagination run wild with “what might have been” while keeping your feet planted firmly on the ground. And if you happen to meet a ghost, you may understand why so many people in haunted houses choose to cohabitate peacefully with their wispy roommates.

Keep it Spooky and Respectful. Get lost in the Romance and Glory of the season.


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