The House is a Body is a Horror

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

When I was younger—around twelve or so—I started having these recurring dreams about finding a new door in my room. The door was square, small enough that I had to crawl through it, and it always appeared in a place just out of the way enough to make sense that I hadn’t seen it before: Under my bed, behind the dresser, in the space beneath my desk where I’d kick my legs. 

Here is how the dreams went: I would wake up and see the door, and I’d investigate it immediately and without fear. Once, there was just a small, empty space on the other side; once there was a huge dusk-dark room studded with spiderwebbed bookshelves. Once I brought my friends; usually I went alone. Always, I was ecstatic. More space, just for me. Space enough that I could finally fill up my lungs, as though my bedroom were my lungs.

After I actually woke up, I would go looking for the door. I really should have been too old to believe that I’d find it, but I looked anyway, smushing my glasses-less face against the wall to see behind the heavy desk, the dark dresser, crawling under the bed with a flashlight, pushing aside a huge tub of stuffed animals in the closet to see if there was something that I—that my parents—had missed for years. I thought there had to be something about the house that I wasn’t seeing. 

And, in a way, I was right. 

I spent all my childhood—all of it that I can remember, anyway—in that same house, an idyllic yellow two-story where I had my own room, my own walk-in closet, my own bathroom with bath and shower. Semicircular faux-stained glass crowned my bedroom window. We had a big backyard, woods, a creek, a treehouse my mother designed and built with her own hands. I loved my mom and dad. I had the fears that all kids had about the dark and what lived(?) inside it, but during my early adolescence, I stopped being afraid. Myself and my steady heart were the only things prowling the lightless rooms. I was alone, and safe. 

When you live for a while in the same place, it starts feeling like a part of you. Mentally, I can map the number of strides it takes to cross the living room (three and a half widthwise, six lengthwise), and I can place the spot in the upstairs hall where I accidentally smeared black nail polish on the eggshell wall (about eight inches beneath the light switch and six inches over). I know what old shirts are in the guest room closet.

Houses are bodies–though they aren’t necessarily our own, however familiar we might be with them. 

In Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, four people spend a summer at a deeply unnerving and reportedly (definitely) haunted house to search for evidence of paranormal phenomena. Here is how Dr. Montague, the leader of the expedition, explains the house to his guests during their first night: 

 “I need not remind you, I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden—perhaps sacred—is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer. Naturally I hope that we will all know a good deal more about Hill House before we leave. No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted.”

The house has a presence, physical and emotional and spiritual, and that presence is malevolent. This is key to the horror of Jackson’s book. Each guest is, as Eleanor Vance realizes early on, “like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster” which feels their “tiny little movements inside.” The house is a body, and a monstrous one. 

“Living” spaces are especially important to Eleanor; on her drive out to Hill House, she fantasizes about three alternate lives for herself, first when she passes a “vast house” with two stone lions at its gate, then when she notices blooming oleanders and envisions breaking a magic spell, and finally when she sees a “tiny cottage buried in a garden.” Later, she cobbles together elements from each of these imagined lives into an equally imaginary apartment and presents it to Theodora, a fellow guest, as her real-life home. Eleanor, who has been neglected during her mother’s long illness and is still neglected by her sister’s family, spends the start of the novel striving to discover herself, and she does this through embodying herself in different homes. 

Hill House, though, has been neglected as well, and maybe this is why it attaches itself to Eleanor. Over the course of the novel, it possesses her in both the supernatural and literal sense until Eleanor responds:

I am home, she thought, and stopped in wonder at the thought. I am home, I am home.

Of course, you could also argue this in reverse: Eleanor, recognizes herself in Hill House and refuses to be extricated from it. Either way, the house’s body and Eleanor’s body are inextricably and tragically connected. But is the tragedy that–spoilers–the house kills Eleanor or that Eleanor kills herself? 

And what was Theodora’s perspective on this, or Luke Sanderson’s, or Dr. Montague’s? What happens when the house isn’t your body?

In my last post, I included a quote from Carmen Maria Machado’s 2019 memoir In the Dream House. I’ve been thinking a lot about her memoir lately, partly because Machado is such a genius writer, but also because of this post, because Machado writes about exactly what can happen when the house isn’t your body. 

In the Dream House is a lot of things. It’s a series of insightful, jewel-like, gutpunch vignettes; it’s a memoir of surviving an abusive relationship; it’s an archive of personal and collective memories of abuse in queer relationships. 

The dream house of the title, as Machado informs us directly after the prologue, is a real house once occupied by her abusive ex. Not just occupied–lived in. Lived through, in many ways, since aspects of the house reflect her dysfunction and abuse. The Woman in the Dream House overstuffs the fridge with produce, which rots. She never unpacks from her move, and uses “cardboard boxes stuffed with bric a brac” as furniture. The cardboard is soft and sweet-smelling from age; the floors are uneven; dozens of spiders (a clutter of spiders) populate the basement. 

Machado makes this connection between the dream house and the woman in it even more explicit. While analyzing the expression “safe as houses,” she writes:

“Safe as houses” is something closer to “the house always wins.” Instead of a shared structure providing shelter, it means that the person in charge is secure; everyone else should be afraid.

Houses are sites of power, extensions of a ruler’s authority, and therefore they also have the potential to become sites of disparity and abuse. As the Woman in the Dream House continues to hack away at Machado-the-trapped’s sense of self and replaces it with trembling hyperawareness, Machado-the-author answers the statement posed by Dr. Montague at the end of his introduction to Hill House: “No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted.”

It’s really unlikely Machado was thinking about Hill House, and it’s not like she needed to in order to make her point. But she gets it, obviously, in a way that Dr. Montague didn’t (can’t?). Here’s what she said about what it means for a house to be called haunted:

It means that metaphors abound; that space exists in four dimensions; 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…it occurs to you one day, standing in the living room, that you are this house’s ghost: you are the one wandering from room to room with no purpose, gaping at the moving boxes that are never unpacked, never certain what you’re supposed to do. After all, you don’t need to die to leave a mark of psychic pain. If anyone is living in the Dream House now, he or she might be seeing the echo of you.

“There is something desperate about the house,” Machado writes in part two, “Like a ghost is trying to make itself known but can’t, and so it just flops facedown into the carpet, wheezing and smelling of mold.” 

A desperate house, with ghosts as the product of architecture and emotions. Small creatures swallowed whole by monsters. We inscribe meaning on the places we live; we activate setting with our point of view. 

But this is individual and interior, and therefore not empirical. Paranormal investigations attempt to make quantifiable data out of ephemeral (Machado uses this definition of ephemera from scholar José Esteban Muñoz: “a trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor”) and elusive states. In these (and other, more mundane) investigations, feelings don’t satisfy. When Machado records a list of her own ephemera from memories of abuse, she concludes the list with, “None of these things exist. You have no reason to believe me.”

But the tragedy–one of the many tragedies–of The Haunting of Hill House is that no one really paid attention to Eleanor until her emotional experiences became too apparent to be ignored.

I said earlier that, as a teenager, I wasn’t afraid of the dark. Our house felt friendly and safe when I walked alone. 

When I got older, though, the fears came roaring back. I had to sleep with my face to the wall; I sprinted up the stairs when I turned the lights off. I stopped spending time in my bedroom during the day because I felt simultaneously melancholy and anxious whenever I was inside. During the height of The Walking Dead craze, I woke frozen with certainty that corpses were dragging themselves towards the front door. I feel embarrassed about this. I want to say that I was too old to feel this way, but…I don’t know. I’ve never lived in a haunted house. It’s just that my parents and our pets and me shared the space with the past. 

Things weren’t really easy with my parents, but as a child, I didn’t know that. Only once I got older did an awareness start growing, pushing up around the house like a strange garden. 

Like, when I was home from college during summer and winter vacations, this involuntary inventory began popping into my mind as I wandered the house: I was standing at the kitchen door when I saw my dad start raging; I was crouching beside this end table filled with National Geographics when I was terrified; I was sitting beside this bookshelf reading about horses when I got yelled at; I was eavesdropping beside this banister when I heard what my dad called my mom; I was eating at this glass dining table when I was told that my mental illness was because I “just liked being sad;” I was curled on this futon when I got yelled at; I was trying to leave this doorway when my mom pulled the door closed in my face; I was opening this magnet-covered fridge when my dad stormed out of the house during a snowstorm; I was hunching my shoulders beside this TV when my mom told me she didn’t know what I was talking about; I was sitting beneath this spotted brass chandelier when I got called a doormat; I was relaxing on this green beanbag chair when I got yelled at; I was etc. etc. etc. 

I was a kid.

And this was what I hadn’t seen in the house. It was never hidden doors or secret rooms. It was just fucked-up humans, our emotions as thick and suffocating as mold. The most ordinary thing in the world. 

What’s the point of this list? As Machado points out, there’s no traceable proof in those places that any of this happened. I don’t have any physical scars, and the house does not reveal injuries done to its occupants unless those injuries are also done to the house. From a Forensic Files standpoint, my childhood home is all innocence—there’s no battered plaster, no blood spatter, no cut-apart carpets. Furthermore, the house is not my body. The house belongs to my parents, and my mom keeps my elementary school Mother’s and Father’s Day crafts on the fridge. Sometimes–and I still feel too dramatic, too sensitive when I write this–I feel like a small creature.

And yet. 

And yet I have to believe that there is something left over, that the incidents layer over each other like a spirit photographer’s pictures, that this is why I felt something waiting for me in the midnight rooms, that this is why a nervous lethargy (I have to run; I am tired of running) filled me when I stood on the front porch with my suitcases or when I thought (when I still think), on pleasant sunny days, that it can’t have actually been That Bad. 

I haven’t lived in my parents’ house for over a year, and I haven’t dreamed of the little door in at least a decade. But I do still dream of the house, and I am still acutely aware of exits, running to the screened porch or the front door, scrabbling at the doorknobs. Once, I sprinted through the front hall, the one with the deep, richly colored wood flooring, and the whole house darkened and constricted around me until I was forced to crawl. 

My body remembers. The house, though it admits nothing, must remember too.

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