Sunday, 29 March 2015

The house(s) at the end of the street

The haunted house is both an exotic and familiar location - most of us tend not to see ourselves as 'living' there (unless by accident), but we know it when we see it. We may outwardly turn away, but inwardly feel an irresistible call to walk in its preternatural pathways. The haunted house is the figurehead of uncanny domestic architecture; a building that is 'not quite' (or out and out) 'not right' amidst the fulcrum of civilisation. Its uncanniness stems from its subversion of 'right', because homes should be safe, ordered places; we see homes all the time, they follow patterns, they should conform. Empty houses should be temporary inbetwixt states - they are not designed to be uninhabited. They need the living, the social, the normal to fulfil their purpose and function.

Our home is the outermost layer, the visual beacon, of our daily lives. But homes emerge from houses, and houses are seldom limited to one single occupant. Here in lies the raison d'etre of the haunted house: we create our homes from the homes of others. And just as we can be territorial about our claimed personal spaces, so too can the dead. Films about haunted houses circle around and recontextualise this problem of ownership to varying degrees, and often the stake of the dead, or other supernatural forces, cannot be placated in order to allow the living to truly move in - think Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, The Woman in Black, even, in some respects, The Fall of the House of Usher. The idea that houses are tainted by, or bound to, past events is a useful tool for weaving together contemporary and historical narratives

I've been reflecting on haunted houses (more than usual) since spending an enchanting day of intellectual nourishment courtesy of The Alchemical Landscape conference organised by friends James and Evie. I've always been fascinated by haunted houses generally, but my imagination has often suckled inspiration from ruins and historical buildings, the haunted locale of the grandiose other. And then, quite unexpectedly, I found myself retracting the steps I would often take on my way to school, and thought of the house I passed there. The house reputed to be haunted.

There were not ghost stories as such attributed to this house, but it provided an uncanny fracture in an otherwise ordinary row of middle class suburban semi-detached and detached households. The house was un-tenanted because its previous owner had died, but the possessions of said owner still held court; you could see the tops of armchairs through the bottom of first floor windows. I knew this was somehow wrong, that it was in an inbetwixt state that suggested livedness and yet was not employed by the living. There is something deliciously sinister about furniture abandoned in houses, one of the most powerful representations - in my mind - of the inbetwixt and in-between.

In much of suburbia houses do not decay, they are kept in a constant flux of kemptness by the upkeep of their proprietors. One evening, a small group of childhood friends and I snuck around the back of this house after dark, and the sense of having entered into the uncanny was both frightening and delicious. No one lived there, but our presence was still an intrusion. Nevermind knowledge of the law, something deeper resonated that we were entering a space we should not be. We weren't the kind to push such trespass so left as quickly as we arrived, and yet a quiet part of me wanted desperately to stay and go further, to open the door and plunge into this strange portal. I was overwhelmed by my proximity to something mysterious, something that transcended the humdrum of a life I was already a little frustrated with.

I realise now my perceived sense of the house's ghostliness was its connectedness to neglect, and because it was a visual image of what comes after a demise, when there is not definitive end. This was lingering, a half life, a waiting. As is often the way, in areas that are reasonably affluent, and therefore desirable locations, the house was resurrected a few years later, the uncanny dissolved by a renovation and the reintroduction of living owners. I don't think I've been past there for well over a decade now. I don't think I'd recognise the site of it even I did go back, though it is only a minute or so from my parent's home.

The street that house stands on is still haunted though, albeit for an entirely different reason. You see, I walked past that house most days because I joined up with a friend who lived at the other end of the street. From there we'd brave the jitty (a small pathway linking that street to the back of a small church on a street at the other end), another liminal zone bordered by a wooden fence and trees that momentarily cut one off from the civilised comfort of being in proximity to other people's homes. Once in the clear, it was on to school and the dirge of adolescent education. The millennium ended and I left my home town for university... but such was not the course for my friend. L, who I had known since we were 7 or 8, was dead by the time she was 16, dead from a rare disease that had got into her brain after a bout of measles in early childhood, that had waited patiently, a quiet passenger until it finally killed her.

L's death was my first experiences of one that went against the natural order of things. Her parents, emptied by their loss, would wander vacantly, until a few years later their elder daughter had her first child and revived them. I raged against the Christian theology perpetuated by some of my peers and popular culture, for there was no argument that could satisfy as to why such a nice, innocent girl had been denied the rest of her life. 

I can see myself in her house, when we were young. The memories are almost sensuous, and the sound of her voice is like the tail end of an echo at the end of a cave. I'm not quite sure how to capture that sense of revisiting a place that no longer exists, and yet remains at the back of our minds. Perhaps it is like that abandoned furniture, sitting quietly and changeless. Eventually, the fabric warps and dusts smear the shines of surfaces, but something of its original incarnation remains.

These memories have a sense of haunting about them, of being caught momentarily in a time out of time, transported, giving two fingers up to the laws of linear time. There are of course feelings attached now to these memories; feelings of guilt because I was going to visit her in hospital when she was in a coma, but a mutual friend called me after I'd returned from a short trip away, and she was gone. I've wondered if I'd been as good a friend to her as I should have been - we were not particularly close at that point, as we had quite different personalities and had drifted into different social groups.

I have had two memorable dreams about L, both during my PhD research into spirit mediumship. In the first dream, it was very bright, and we were sitting in a field of green grass and flowers. She was serene, and looked a little older. "Its good to see you," I think I said. The second was similar, only I had boarded a bus and gone up to the top floor where she sat and looked out of the window. I was delighted to find her there, and went to sit with her, and we talked for a little while. Again, she had an ethereal air, and seemed content. I have friends whose spiritual beliefs would suggest that such dreams mean I have travelled to the spirit world to visit her. I like that explanation, although of course that doesn't make it true.

Increasingly, as I know understand life to be something punctured by the death, I see that our relation to the ghostly can become more and more intimate, as we are deposed from the armchair explorer whose curiosity and wonder can be put to one side. There are plenty of hauntings to explore like that, tantalising and numinous, wraiths and bogles and ladies in white who hover in and out of the everyday leaving questions and awe in their midst. But there are hauntings that become interwoven so tightly into our inner worlds, that we can not walk on past and leave them behind. L's house, in my mind, is as it was in the late 80s and 90s, and she and her family during this time will be its first, its last and its only occupiers. It won't age, though its clarity may fade, and I choose to go there, just from time to time, because though this all happened many years ago, it happened, and I remember.


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