by Jessie Lynn McMains
All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from “Haunted Houses”
Every house is a haunted house. The things which haunt them might truly be ghosts, or they may just be the ghosts of memory. They may exist independently of us, may reside in the pipes and floorboards, or they might live inside our minds. It may be that we carry our ghosts from place to place, moving from one haunted house into the next. Over and over, again.
(Shadows sliding down the hallways. The rain tap-tapping at the window and the wind a loud sigh. And what is that noise, that scritching in the crawl space?)
…real physical houses may have their own memories—or at least memories we project onto them. A haunted house is a memory palace made real…
—Colin Dickey, from Ghostland
The mind is a house full of memory. We project this memory onto the spaces we inhabit. We haunt ourselves. We are houses, ghostful. Ghost-full. (The brain has corridors surpassing material place.)
(This happened here, and here, and here. Surely places have their own memory. Or. This body I am housed in is, itself, haunted. A haunting which my home then mirrors. Whose face is that—is it even a face, that smoky blur—behind me in the mirror?)
…That if you return somewhere often enough it becomes infused with your energy; that the past never leaves us; that there’s always atmosphere to consider; that you can wound air as cleanly as you can wound flesh.
—Carmen Maria Machado, from In the Dream House
Oh, how we carry those places with us, those haunted places now haunting our bodies. House after house stacked atop one another. A pile of bones. A pile of bodies.
(Now I lay me down to sleep. And when I dream I will dream of the houses which haunt me, which tug at my blood like a moon.)
All the old stories have it wrong; it’s not the ghost that haunts the house, it’s the house that haunts the ghost. In the end it’s always home that damns us.
—Damien Echols, from Life After Death
Home. The site of traumas. The place, the palace of dreams. And births, and deaths, and bridal-days. Does it make you long to run away, or never want to leave? Every old life is a haunted house, foreclosed on. (You can’t go home again.)
A house is a family. A house is a history. A house is a body. One subject that comes up again and again in horror, both new and classic, is houses. Haunted houses, home invasions, ax murderers lurking in the attics and chasing us into the basements. Our homes are a site of endless terror.
We are afraid that someone will come into our houses when we don’t want them to. We are afraid that the thing we fear is already inside. We are afraid that we can’t make it leave. We are afraid that the lock on the door will not hold.
—Kirsty Logan, from Things We Say in the Dark
(Walls sweating in the summer heat or shivering in winter’s cold. Difficulty breathing. Everyone weeping. Black mist; black mold.)
The word uncanny comes from a German word—unheimlich. It translates, literally, to unhomely or not of the home.
The haunted house is precisely that which should be homey, should be welcoming—the place one lives inside—but which has somehow been emptied out of its true function. It is terrifying because it has lost its purpose yet stubbornly persists.
—Colin Dickey, from Ghostland
In the haunted house stories of film and literature, the houses come in two main varieties—Stay Away Houses and Hungry Houses. Stay Away Houses don’t want anyone to visit or live inside them. Hungry Houses very much do. No matter who or what else haunts these places, they are characters in their own right, with their own memories, urges, instincts, habits. Their own ways of making the inhabitants unable to stay. Or unable to leave.
(You can’t leave but you can’t stay here.)
Most of the places I’ve lived that I would say were truly haunted (and even then it begs the question: haunted by who, or what?) were Stay Away Houses.
(The black and red beetles—they got in and wouldn’t get out. The exploding lightbulbs—faulty wiring. The flooded basement—a storm, a power outage. I can explain it away, but it never felt like it wanted me to stay.)
The house I now live in, I wouldn’t say it’s haunted. Not by anything supernatural. The first week we lived here, I thought it was—my bedroom door would slam open and shut all night long, for no apparent reason (everyone was tucked in bed). But I soon realized it was only the wind through the windowscreens, opening and closing a door that doesn’t latch. I started propping a laundry basked against the inside, and the slamming stopped. No, there are no ghosts here, but…
It is a Hungry House.
Just by lingering in a house, you could say you end up sinking into its history. Houses seem to live, in other words, because we spend so much time living in them. Buried inside the word inhabit is habit: a way of being, the patterns and repetitions of life.
—Colin Dickey, from Ghostland
(Piles of dust in the corners; flakes of skin and hair and lint. Clutter and cobwebs. Paint peeling from the walls when I pull my children’s taped-up drawings down. Life’s detritus.)
We carve our habits into our living spaces. We breathe and the house breathes with us. We hunger, and so does the house. Wants more. And I have spent more time inside this house in the past year and a half than I have spent inside any other place I’ve lived. Most of us have, because— Our homes were the only places that felt remotely safe. Where we could be unmasked; alone, or with our families. Because—where else was there to go?
My house was my refuge amidst the pandemic and now I get anxious being away from it. I have done so much living here, carved myself into its bones. It is hungry. I haunt it.
I float from room to room, a phantom. Ghost-writing, tea-drinking, reading, lying in bed. I press my hand to the window, longing to go somewhere, anywhere, but I fear my borders might dissolve into mist if I cross the threshold.
There’s a hungry ghost in my house, and it’s me.
I staged/costumed all the photos. A few of them were taken by me, the rest were taken by my long-suffering husband. (Love you, boo.) I linked all the sources of my direct quotes in the body of the text, but there are a few other indirect references. In order:
- Against Me! – “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts”
- Emily Dickinson (The brain has corridors surpassing material place.)
- Dorothy Parker – “A Portait” (A birth, a death, a bridal-day.)
- Thomas Wolfe (You can’t go home again.)
- How to Understand the Great Haunted Houses of Literature
- The Fall – “There’s a Ghost in My House”
- Richard Brautigan – “Boo, Forever”