From Magonia 27, September 1987
The other day a young man came into my office, seeking the history of his house: who had lived in it and especially who might have died. Was it just curiosity? No, There was ‘something wrong’ with the house, where the baby would not sleep and the dog had begun to howl. Maybe, he thought, it was haunted.
The same day a woman came in trying to discover what occupied the land where her house now stood before it was built. She gave no reason, but on previous occasions this type of query has been stimulated by fears of hauntings. At least once a month someone comes to me with this type of enquiry.
These incidents are from my experience as a local history librarian in a northern town. It is apparent to me that there exist many unreported ‘haunted houses’, and that a powerful factor in this is a fear of the unofficial ‘off-campus’ history of the house. A history of the organic round of birth, procreation and, especially, death, which is perceived by the house’s current occupier as being oppressive, palpable and threatening. In some senses the house, ‘the home’, is an extension of the individual’s body or personality; hence the trauma induced by burglaries. Similarly the house is seen as having been imprinted, one might almost say contaminated, by the previous occupants. The house has borne witness to their most intimate moments.To the new occupant – the ‘incomer’ – the haunted house has a ‘history’ or a ‘reputation’ in a personal, almost sexual, way. The house is not a ‘virgin’. It has been violated by the presence of other human activity, which may afflict and infect the incomer. The sorts of questions which are asked about the haunted house’s previous owners or tenants are the sorts of questions one might ask about one’s partner’s previous sexual partners.
The main terror inspired by these previous occupants is that they are dead, gone, finished; that they are not continuing the organic round elsewhere. They have become part of history, their lives cannot be experienced, only inferred.
One of the cornerstones of sceptical historical philosophy is that historical events cannot be directly known about; all we have access to are the written and structural documents left by past generations, from which history may be ‘reconstructed’.  This history vbecomes the formal history, the ‘campus history’, the history taught in schools, the network of kings and dates. Perhaps also a rather mare intimate history reconstructed from diaries, wills, reports, enquiries and the press.
But there is another history, the oral history of folk memory, ballads, songs, stories learned at mothers knee, passed on across generations – ‘off-campus’ history. Unlike the documents of campus history, this still has a power over the living, it can still be experienced. It is a kind of folklore, often at dramatic odds with the documentary history. It is a history which is a present reality, shaping the lives and experiences of its hearers. The ‘history’ of haunted houses, is very much an ‘off-campus, peoples’ history, a folklore of what should be true rather than documentary truth.
At the heart and core of much ghostlore is a belief that certain events taking place in a space or territory forever render that space an inappropriate location for the mundane activities of life. The events remove it from the realm of secular to sacred space.
It now belongs to history, and to its victims all else are intruders.
To take an example: most people (this writer among them) would consider it highly inappropriate for the salvaged Channel Ferry The Herald of Free Enterprise ever to be used to carry passengers again. Its only morally coherent fate would be for it to be taken into deep. deep waters and scuttled. An analysis of the reasons for this feeling is difficult because a-rational, but would clearly centre on the sense of the Herald’s place as a catastrophic scar on the memories of the living. It now, like Abraham Lincoln, belongs to history, and to its victims all else are intruders.
Here then is another step towards the social history of the haunted house. In popular imagination it is a place where an event has happened which closes the life of the house and consecrates it to a particularmoment of history. This is principally because the community now sees that place as a monument to that event. Even if no documentary ‘campus’ history attaches itself to the building, the sense of moral coherence demands that such history be supplied. Having been consecrated to history, the price to be paid for its violation is for the violator to directly experience history.
Hence the sign of the haunted house is its invisible parallel life wherein history is recapitulated.  Furthermore this history is experienced often as wilderness/chaos. This equation between history and wilderness operates because of the pervasive power that history has on us – the lives of all readers of Magonia are conditioned by the fact that, e.g., the Allies won World War II and not the Axis. History is an irreducible fait accompli: a brute, unchanging fact of nature. It has immense power over us, but we have no power at all over it.That is not all, as Gould and Cornell point out.  In ‘real’ cases it is difficult to separate out poltergeists and hauntings. Note that in parapsychological folklore poltergeists are associated with the ‘awakening’ of the sexual energies of adolescents, hauntings with events taking place after death. Poltergeist disturbances are thus connected with the emergence of potentialities to create life (before the beginning), hauntings are connected with the fading away of what was once a life (after the end).
Polts and haunts thus mark the alpha and omega of the organic round; together they form a symbol for the creation and destruction of life. Sexuality, procreation, birth and death belong to the wilderness and they are barely contained within the structures of society. The shattering of the family home and property represents the incapacity of the family to tame the raw energies of creation and destruction.
Ghosts, haunts and polts then are the signs of the liminal zones between being and not being: the history of the haunted house is the history of repetitions of this organic round, or its dramatic severance. Amongst the commonest motifs is that of the friendly or, hostile house. The house appears to accept or reject the incomer, and the incomers sense of ease or unease is projected onto the house, aided and abetted by subtle clues from neighbours.
The theme of hostile houses suggests a confusion between people and places: the disturbed house is a metaphor for disturbed family dynamics. For example, one of Mackenzie’s female correspondents reported that her childhood had been made unhappy by a ‘hostile presence’ in her house, centred on a bedroom which made her “pale and thin unlike all the other children”, and which made her reluctant to return home from school.  These are typical symptoms of a victim of child abuse. This lady’s mother refused to discuss the incidents, saying her own childhood had been made unhappy by the psychic delvings of her mother.
In another case a woman claimed that a hostile presence nearly caused the breakup of her marriage: her husband laughing at her fears caused her to panic and fall down stairs on more than one occasion – giving hints of suppressed violence.
In a case from Birmingham in 1955, a poltergeist was blamed for the death of a month-old baby. Raps and whisperings were heard in the house, and a four-year-old child saw a ‘dog’ sitting on the baby’s face. [7,8]
At present no detailed studies exist which look at the haunted house from the ‘new parapsychological’ perspective. Osborne’s study of The Woman in Brown’ , or Fodor on ‘Ash Manor’  being exceptions. Each such incident may be pregnant with meaning, for the experient, even the story may be selected because it deals with the incomer’s problems.
In the case of ‘The Woman in Brown’, the appearance of ‘the woman’ to the central percipient when a telephone rang, was traced through a network of past traumatic experiences, both real and fantisised, involving sudden death and blankets. In the Ash Manor case, the incidents revolved round a couple’s sexual conflicts.
In such cases ‘dead things which will not lie down’ from the percipient’s personal history, become connected with or projected onto the dynamic of the off-campus history of the territory where the events take place. The ‘objectivity’ and collective nature of such incidents derives from a collective fantasy producing traumas with much drama, the ‘ghost story’ of a property, may, on closer reflection, show some correspondence to the personal concerns of the living. Such stories often involve violation of profound taboos, domestic murder, suicide, infanticide and forbidden passions.
It is difficult to say of course, how many alleged poltergeists are covers for domestic violence. This break-down of traditional family mores leads to a reversal of the home and family as a bastion against the forces of outer chaos. The haunted house is transformed into a wild anti-home, a place to flee from in fear, instead of run to for security. The majority of haunted houses are not the property of the occupiers. The traditional Victorian haunted house was the short-lease house, where the servants come with the property. The archetypal modern haunted house is the council house. Such houses literally ‘belong to someone else’. They are perhaps more ‘used’, have more off-campus history than other, more settled, houses. There is a greater likelihood of a failure of bonding between the occupant and the house.
I have previously argued that the idea of the changeling arose as a mechanism to rationalise child abuse and the failure of parental bonding. The parents’ feelings of hatred, aggression and alienation are projected onto the child itself, turning it into a hostile alien presence. May not a similar mechanism exist for houses: the incomer’s sense of alienation from the house or community, and their failure to experience the house as ‘home sweet home’ are projected onto the house, now regarded. like the changeling child, as a hostile, threatening presence.It is also possible that a sizeable proportion of haunted houses are ‘first time’ homes, wherein young couples are experiencing the strains of marriage and adult responsibilities, and where the home is a source of worry rather than idealised domestic bliss. The problems of the ‘home’, in the sense of family life, becomes projected on the physical structure of the house. Alienation from the home becomes experience of the house as alien.
The mediums and exorcists who visit such houses know what their clients want and need: a good costume melodrama, full of fire and passion and suffering, which like a TV soap, tells the audience “You think you’ve cot problems…!” Such stories contain stock situations which inform the community of expected norms.
There is a school of sociologists which argues that society needs criminals and deviants to denounce, in order to demonstrate its rules and solidify the community in upholding them. The haunted house is a marking-stone of the violation of community taboos, a scapegoat in brick and stone for all the dark and unworthy secrets of the community. Do the incomers then take upon themselves the traumas of the whole commuity? Do they become involuntary sin eaters?
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- MEILAND, Jack W. Scepticism and historical knowledge (Random House studies in philosophy) Random House, 1965.
- The noises groans and bangings reported in haunted houses are remarkably reminiscent of those of a charivari or rough riding, In this traditional ritual the members of the community whose norms had been violated would parade outside the offender’s house banging pots, making groans and other noises, throwing pebbles at the windows, indeed generally behaving just like poltergeists, to make life unpleasane. The incomer had violated the taboo against entering space reserved for hauntings, Indeed, traditional lore connects hauntings with the violation of specific taboos, such as building houses over graveyards, playing with Ouija boards or dancing on graves, all of which violate the sanctity and separateness of history and the ancestors.
- GAULD, Alan and CORNELL, A. D. Poltergeists Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- MACKENZIE, Andrew. Seen and Unseen: Study of Presences, Apparitions and Other Paranormal Phenomena. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1987.
- OSBORNE, Edward, ‘The ‘Woman in Brown; an investigation of an apparition’, Journal of the SPR vol. xxxv, no, 655 (Nov-Dec, 1949), pp, 123-53.
- FODOR, Nandor. The Haunted Mind: A Psychoanalyst Looks at the Supernatural, Helix Press, 1959.
- MOSS, Peter. Ghosts Over Britain. Sphere 1979.
- BRADDOCK, Joseph. Haunted Houses 1956