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GhoStory Guru: The Nature of the Haunted House

I did not grow up in a haunted house. Well, I did, but it wasn’t haunted in the way most people think—it was haunted by all of its occupants’ sorrow. There was no mistaking the creepy, oppressive feeling the second anyone crossed the threshold. I always felt that the house had a personality, and not a pleasant one.

Recently, while knocking around Baltimore’s Normals book store, I came across a collection of ghost stories I’d never seen or heard of before: Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, edited by the familiar Martin H. Greenberg (if you’re a ghost story freak, then you know who this man is and why anything with his name on it is a collection you simply must own). The collection has stories by some big names: Charles L. Grant, Joyce Carol Oates, Charlotte Perkins Gilman,HughB.Cave. This was a tome of classics.

It was likely I would be featuring some of these stories in upcoming GhoStory Guru columns, so I dove right in. Before I could even get started, I was captivated by Greenberg’s Introduction: “Haunted Houses: The American Nightmare.” Greenberg writes:

            “Several films have…[played] on the fear of discovering an unknown evil in the place which is supposedly a sanctuary for your family, and making it perhaps the greatest terror of all.

            “If a house in a story or film is found out to be haunted, the reader’s first reaction may be sympathy for the main characters. After all, they’re just trying to find shelter, to provide a basic human need. It’s not their fault that the dwelling they chose had a sometimes unspeakable history that’s now causing them to suffer.

            “But if you look at the situation from the other side, who is the interloper? Aren’t the people who move in trying to impose their own sense of history on the house, replacing what happened years ago with their memories, their emotions? Some houses may resist this change. Some may resist violently.”

I found this very interesting within the context of the house in which I grew up.

There’s a theory out there that residual hauntings exist because the structure’s materials—like wood, tile, sheetrock, maybe even carpet—“absorb” the energy from a past event and replay it periodically: the “ghost” we’re seeing isn’t intelligent, it’s just a playback, as on a videotape. The same has been said about the materials absorbing the emotions of the people who frequented or lived in it: for example, a home can make a person feel on edge the second he steps inside it if the home’s occupant has exuded nothing but anger for fifty years.

I wasn’t sure I supported this theory until after my childhood home’s renovation was complete: although the pine boards were intact and hadn’t been touched or changed, the sheetrock in nearly every room was brand new, as was paint and carpet. And even though there hadn’t been much change in terms of color scheme and layout, the house felt completely different. It didn’t feel creepy anymore. The oppression was gone.

Out in the driveway, I walked past the dumpster that held the discarded carpet and sheetrock. I had an odd feeling when I passed: I guess you’d call it spooked. I hurried to my car, and on the drive home, I marveled at the house’s new atmosphere and my very strange reaction to the dumpster.

In short, the house was no longer “haunted” because the materials that had retained the sorrow and grief had been removed. And the house seemed to be, well—happier about it.

The new family is, I’m sure, working hard to create its own memories within the house’s walls—making it, as Greenberg pointed out, a “sanctuary”—but what if some tragedy befalls them and the cycle starts all over again? The Haunted House isn’t necessarily about what’s there before we arrive; it’s about what we create while we’re in it—and what we leave behind.

If you’re interested in the Greenberg collection Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, you can get it here:

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