How (Not) to Read the American Haunted House
by Dara Downey
[page 21] Since the latter decades of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis has become the standard mechanism employed by literary critics seeking to interpret fictional phenomena that do not fit within the framework of consensus reality. When, however, it is applied to fiction that includes elements of the supernatural, psychoanalytical literary criticism becomes little more than a debunking exercise, stripping the supernatural of any structural or signifying function. Such methods are particularly inadequate for understanding the representation of the American haunted house in fiction. The literally haunted houses of the Old World, as they feature in the works of Charles Dickens, Margaret Oliphant, J. Sheridan LeFanu, Charlotte Riddell, and M.R. James, almost invariably dramatize the persistence of memories of financial, familial, sexual, or medical wrongdoings of deceased inhabitants that blight the lives of a domicile’s present occupants. Conversely, fictional houses in the American gothic tradition appear, with a startling regularity, to have become aggressively evil all by themselves. As Teresa Goddu acknowledges, American gothic is a “historical mode operating in what appears to be a historical vacuum,” a vacuum created by the sense that America is a new nation, one free of the historical darkness associated with Europe (9). Consequently, as I demonstrate here, the haunted-house narratives produced in the United States often directly specify that the houses they depict are characterized by a dearth of any kind of definitive history, horrific or otherwise.
Conventional notions of what constitutes a haunting have led to the peculiar and apparently paradoxical nature of the American “haunted” house being obscured in literary analyses of the texts in which they feature. Faced with both an unsettling void and a rupture in the cause-and-effect relationships that govern Old World haunted houses (and which I examine in more detail below), critical commentary often falls back upon the psychopathology of individuals living within houses such as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House (1959), reducing the events and indeed the house itself to projections of the psyche of those individuals. Specifically, numerous literary critics have turned to Sigmund Freud’s “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919) to understand the events narrated in haunted-house fiction. The opening section of Freud’s essay is devoted to the proximity of meaning between the German words heimlich and unheimlich. Freud notes that, according to Sander’s German Dictionary, heimlich has two, not entirely mutually contradictory meanings. The first is “[i]ntimate, friendlily comfortable; […] arousing a sense of [page 22] agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house.” The other, however, is “[c]oncealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know about it, withheld from others.” This second meaning shades into that of unheimlich, roughly translated as “‘the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light’” (223-24, italics and ellipsis in original). Freud therefore concludes that “heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or another a sub-species of heimlich” (226, italics in original). This then allows him to assert that
this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. This reference to the factor of repression enables us, furthermore, to understand Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light. (241)
As Jacques Derrida notes, “[c]ritical problematisation continues to do battle against ghosts” because it “fears them” (165). This has certainly been the case since Freud’s ideas have gained common currency, in particular his uncompromising pronouncement in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) that “[a] large part of the mythological view of the world is nothing but psychology projected into the external world” (258-59). Seduced by the ease with which the supernatural can be transformed into the psychoanalytical, many critics now agree that during the nineteenth century, representations of the uncanny abandoned the interior spaces of the home and settled instead in those of the mind. Taking their cue from Freud, literary critics of American supernatural texts such as Irving Malin, Darryl Hattenhauer, and Allan Gardner Lloyd-Smith read through and past the American malevolent house as a house. In doing so, they obfuscate its status as an embodiment and an instrument of culturally specific domestic ideology. For example, Leslie Fiedler insists that “[s]ince the full impact of Freudianism […], ghosts have tended to seem metaphors rather than facts of experience” (496). Assertions such as this have given rise to a situation where even works of supernatural or gothic fiction written prior to the widespread promulgation and uptake of Freud’s ideas are now persistently re-read under a theoretical framework pervasively informed by psychoanalysis. To take one instance, Benjamin Franklin Fisher insists that, over the course of the nineteenth century, “[t]he literal haunted castle, cathedral, monastery was often transformed into […] a haunted mind which required no castle or frowning mansion to stimulate terrors, the corridors of the mind sufficing to engender such a frisson” (75). Anthony Vidler, writing on architecture rather than [page 23] literature, repeats these assumptions, arguing that a sense of unease or fear in a particular place “is not a property of the space itself nor can it be provoked by any particular spatial conformation; it is, in its aesthetic dimension, a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming” (11). He goes on to assert that “there is no such thing as uncanny architecture, but simply architecture that, from time to time and for different purposes, is invested with uncanny qualities” (12). Such assertions are coterminous with the critical commonplace that, at some point either in the nineteenth or the mid-twentieth century, the horror and gothic genres moved away from the conventional trappings of haunted castle and perilous forest, and focused instead on the horrors of the disordered psyche. For Clive Bloom, by the time Sheridan LeFanu was writing in the nineteenth century, “[h]orrors lay now not in mouldering castles but in the mind itself symbolised by the ambience of the ‘dark house’” (143). Similarly, Andrew Tudor argues that post-1960s horror moves from the external world to the psyche (57). This kind of account of the genres’ development essentially relies on a post-Enlightenment narrative of progress, one which imagines that such texts are continually casting off the benighted fears of the past, and settling instead in more rational loci of terror – the mind – the very process which the gothic as a genre itself dramatizes in the work of Ann Radcliffe and her inheritors.
Such a stance also permits critics to construe any otherwise inexplicable events that take place in a fictional house, or any apparent acts of supernatural evil on the part of the house itself, as the products of a troubled individual’s psychology and nothing more, situating the owner or occupant as the primary agent and the house as a mere backdrop onto or through which his or her fears and desires are projected. This approach is particularly inadequate as a tool for understanding the American malevolent house. In interpreting supernatural manifestations as nothing more than the projections of a disturbed individual psyche, they draw attention away from the central narrative concern of works such as Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) – the malign agency of the house itself as an oppressive force, both material and ideological. As I argue in the rest of this essay, while the myth of American exceptionalism is one that has rightfully been dismantled in recent commentary, a notable number of haunted-house narratives from the United States can be read as engaging with the notion of America as a country without a past, and, therefore, devoid of ghosts as such. A recourse to Freudian psychoanalysis fails to acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of the American situation, substituting a more comforting aesthetic of presence (in the shape of a troubled [page 24] consciousness haunting the text) for one of absence. As outlined below, even recent criticism that strives to disentangle itself from strictly Freudian interpretations of such texts inevitably falls into the trap set by the language of repression and projection. More worryingly, as I suggest in my conclusion, doing so serves to naturalize the middle-class home as a site of safety and an extension of the self, a naturalization that distracts from the potentially troubling aspects of domestic spaces and the ideologies they encode and enact.
The Critical Paradigm
Twenty-first-century criticism of American haunted-house narratives has, undeniably, sought to move away from psychoanalytical readings of the motifs and content of American gothic texts, a development made evident by the differences in approach between Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy’s strongly psychoanalytical American Gothic (1998) and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet’s more socio-historical The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic (2010). Nonetheless, even those commentators who state directly that they are rejecting the Freudian model somehow end up repeating many related assumptions. For example, John H. Timmerman discusses at length the sentience of objects and houses in the imaginative universe conjured up in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), yet goes on to assert that in much of Poe’s writing, “landscape is nothing more than an objectification of the narrator’s own mind,” and therefore has little external or no physical reality (234). Interpretations of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) also struggle to avoid such critical frameworks. Some, of course, succeed admirably. Aleksandra Bida offers a revealing Derridean reading of House of Leaves, one which serves to illuminate the complex relationships between houses and occupants, focusing on the narrator Johnny Truant (who is in many ways peripheral to the novel’s central narrative) and the ambiguous figure of the Minotaur, and thereby avoids reducing the house to a function and extension of the mind of a single central inhabitant. However, a remarkable number of critics seem to find it difficult to avoid sliding back into psychoanalytical readings, even as they assert that they eschew such methods. Despite working hard to surpass “subject-oriented interpretations of the House [sic] as merely part of the occupant’s […] constructions” in Danielewski’s novel, Sebastian Huber takes at face value the assertions by the book’s various fictitious film critics that the house is a straightforward projection of its inhabitants’ inner states (128). Indeed, this is central to Huber’s contention that the book rejects postmodernism’s radical ontological instability in favor of modernism’s [page 25] insistence that the individual is undergoing an epistemological crisis, while the world at large remains ultimately knowable and coherent.
Nor is Huber alone. A full elucidation of Danielewski’s novel is beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say that it focuses on a suburban home, owned by photographer Will Navidson, the interior of which transforms into an apparently infinite and constantly changing, pitch-black, utterly empty labyrinth. The house kills many main characters, systematically removes all trace of anything left in it, and inspires a film and a critical commentary that drives the narrator insane as he attempts to edit and annotate it, despite having never entered the house itself. In the face of the book’s endless voids, various commentators (both those “quoted” in House of Leaves and those who have written about it since its publication) suggest that what is happening in the house is merely the product of the characters’ unsettled imaginations. However, statements such as Nele Bemong’s, that “[t]he anomaly of the house, the terrifying dark hallways, are [...] a projection of one’s own fears,” simply repeat the efforts of the characters themselves to render the place more human and knowable by asserting the presence within it of a monster of some kind (n.pag.). A similar logic is followed by Nick Lord, who argues that “the house’s labyrinth is a representation of the difficulties faced by the novel’s characters in navigating the institutions of the Symbolic order” (465). He continues, “Will’s uncertainty as to whether he can abandon his adventurous, world-traveling ways to settle down and raise his family in a traditional domestic environment, and Karen’s insecurities about her relationship with Will, are projected onto physical space as a network of dark, twisting corridors and vast chasmic spaces” (471). In the book itself, however, Zampanò, the author of the critical commentary, suggests that “in many ways, Navidson’s house functions like an immense isolation tank. Deprived of light, change in temperature and any sense of time, the individual begins to create his own sensory [ ], [ ]d depen[ ]ng on the duration of his stay begins to project more and more of [ ] personality on those bare walls and vacant [ ]allways” (330, omissions in original). More specifically, he notes that even when Navidson focuses his camera upon the ordinary sections of his house, the images produced encourage our imaginations “to fill the adjacent darkness with questions and demons” (98). In other words, critics who see the house as changing to match the fears and desires of those who enter it are in fact merely replicating the effect that the house has on those who see it. It is so resoundingly blank that it makes us desperate for those fears and desires to be projected onto its walls, to reduce the void and hence the terror that it inspires. However, as with Jackson’s Hill House, discussed below, what is most dangerous about Navidson’s house is that all assertions of human will and [page 26] consciousness within it are fruitless. There is nothing there, and this is what kills those who enter it – not their inner demons, but the total lack of them, as the house’s relentless emptiness forces them to imagine monsters but ultimately denies them the comfort of anything so concrete.
While such readings are problematic because they ignore the very thing that the text is trying to say, even more troubling is a critical tendency to use Freudian readings as a way of undermining the experiences of female characters in such fictional houses. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Edmund Wilson’s famous and highly influential reading of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) in “The Ambiguity of Henry James” (1938), in which he states uncompromisingly that James’ Governess believes that she sees ghosts only because the repression of her sexual attraction towards her employer has made her neurotic. As the Norton Critical Edition (1999) of the novella makes clear, Wilson’s reading has divided generations of critics into those who believe the ghosts to be real, and those who insist that the Governess in insane. Identical interpretations are levelled against Eleanor Vance, the heroine of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (see Rubenstein; Lootens; Newman; and Hattenhauer). As with Danielewski’s book, critical responses to Hill House have become more nuanced in recent years. In particular, Richard Pascal’s article “Walking Alone Together: Family Monsters in The Haunting of Hill House” (2014) provides a useful socio-historically embedded reading that avoids blaming the novel’s eerie manifestations entirely on Eleanor, the lonely and oppressed protagonist who is lured by the house into killing herself, in the belief that she will somehow become part of the house in doing so.
While Eleanor’s relationship with her recently deceased mother and her half-formed sexual longings are undeniably exploited by the house, the multifarious phenomenon (experienced both by her and by the rest of a team of individuals helping Dr. Montague, an academic, to investigate the house’s spectral reputation) could only be reduced to the products of an individual consciousness with considerable interpretative violence. Indeed, we are assured repeatedly that that house was dangerous and evil before anything bad happened there. It seems to have killed most of the women who have ever lived in it, but one would be hard pressed to identify those women, or indeed the original owner, Hugh Crane, as recognizable ghosts within its walls. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine that Eleanor, having driven her car into a tree rather than leave the place, happily joins a community of ghosts at the end. Instead, her fears and desires have been played upon by the house, which has seduced and then ultimately betrayed her.
As with House of Leaves, then, this is a fictional house that encourages the projection of thoughts and feelings onto it, but also one that resists [page 27] such projections, a rejection which recent critics have begun to acknowledge. Michael T. Wilson’s analysis is noteworthy for the subtlety of its engagement with the novel’s particular form of supernatural malevolence. He makes clear that the text actively engages with the human need to impose meaning and order on chaotic events, to transform the external and the alien into the internal and the familiar, quoting Dr. Montague as saying, “I can see where the mind might fight wildly to preserve its own familiar stable patterns against all evidence” (Jackson 78). Nonetheless, Wilson then simply “follow[s] Hattenhauer’s argument that the House allegorizes ‘Eleanor’s psychological foundation’” (M. Wilson 120). Wilson admits that such figurative schemas in fact serve to reduce and place a buffer around the house’s frightening effects, and cautions against “categorizing unhappy women as mentally disturbed rather than simply oppressed” (121). Nonetheless, the attraction of the psychological reading, in which a woman’s inner turmoil is privileged over wider socio-cultural agents of oppression (represented here by a dangerous house), is seemingly as strong as that of Hill House itself. Wilson even goes on to speculate about a possible link between Eleanor and Jackson herself, united as they seem to be in psychological pain. While Wilson’s article is admirably focused on external aggressors, his tendency to slide back into conventional readings of Eleanor and Jackson’s interrelated psychic discord (see Hattenhauer) ultimately blunts his argument, and perpetuates critical commonplaces that directly obfuscate what the text is trying to convey. Similarly, Wyatt Bonikowski asserts that
In Jackson’s novels and short stories, anxiety is made Gothic: the psychological experience of insecurity finds its objective correlatives in haunted houses, spectral presences, and demonic visitation, all of which suggest the violent irruption of the unknown into the known, the unconscious into consciousness. At the same time, Jackson’s narrative technique keeps closely to the subjective experiences of her mostly female protagonists, making the line between the imaginary and the real ambiguous. It is often difficult to tell whether the events in her texts are manifestations of supernatural forces, projections of her characters’ unconscious drives, or evidence of madness. (66-67)
Once again, then, Bonikowski’s otherwise sensitive reading is marked, even marred, by a slippage from acknowledging ambiguity to shutting that ambiguity down, and an internalization of post-Freudian psychology is the means by which this slippage is effected. [page 28]
The Empty House
As I’ve been arguing, the Freudian psychodrama of personal psychic development and repression ignores the way in which American malevolent-house fiction’s repeated assertions of lack are concerned primarily with an imaginative realm in which nothing has been repressed or forgotten, because there was nothing to forget in the first place. Before I interrogate the implications of such readings, a brief examination of how this repeated assertion of absence rather than haunting presence manifests in American gothic fiction is therefore necessary. While the examples I have been discussing are perhaps the most prominent in this regard, they are by no means isolated or exceptional instances. In Gertrude Atherton’s short story “A Monarch of Small Survey” (1905), for example, the house that crushes the lives of its inhabitants is described in the following manner:
Webster Hall was twenty years older than the tributary mansions. The trees about it were large and densely planted. When storms tossed the lake they whipped the roof viciously or held the wind in longer wails. There was an air of mystery about the great rambling sombre house; and yet no murder had been done there, no traveller had disappeared behind the sighing trees to be seen no more, no tale of horror claimed it as birthplace. The atmosphere was created by the footprints of time on a dwelling old in a new land. The lawns were unkempt, the bare windows stared at the trees like unlidded eyes. Children ran past it at night. The unwelcomed of the spreading city maintained that if nothing ever had happened there something would; that the place spoke its manifest destiny to the least creative mind. (69, italics added)
While, over the course of the narrative, the house does become the scene of death, madness, and suicide, as this passage insists, the sinister and oppressive nature of the house itself precedes these events and, indeed, could be seen as bringing them about. The house is therefore the direct descendent of Bly in James’s The Turn of the Screw, of which we are told “that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within anyone’s memory, attached itself to the kind old place. It had neither bad name nor ill fame” (177). Herman Raucher’s novel Maynard’s House (1980) goes one step further, all but stating that the haunted house at its center is not merely bereft of a dark past, but somehow manages to be haunted and dangerous while containing no ghosts whatsoever. Jack Meeker, the stationmaster in an isolated part of Maine, spends a considerable amount of time recounting stories of local witch burnings and mysterious occurrences to Austin Fletcher, the protagonist who has just inherited a house there. When Austin complains that he has not come [page 29] so far just to hear tall tales about ghosts, Meeker replies, “‘I didn’t say anythin’ about ghosts,’” and the rest of the plot is devoted to dramatizing the effect that the house has on the protagonist, precisely because he is unable to determine whether it is haunted or not (62). The exact nature of the experience of the American landscape can therefore be seen as partaking of Derrida’s definition of the spectral. As he puts it,
To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration. (161)
In other words, to posit such a thing as a haunting presence is in fact to reduce and even to dispel the effect of haunting. That said, there is one notable exception that might appear to undermine my thesis that the American haunted house is defined by absence rather than presence – King’s The Shining, in which a whole host of identifiable ghosts of troubled souls crowd the halls of the Overlook Hotel after years of murder, suicide, and corruption. Even here, however, we are told that the place seems to have been “born bad,” as Dr. Montague says Hill House is (Jackson 50). Halloran, the psychic cook who befriends young Danny Torrance, whose father is working there over the winter, suggests as much when he says that
I don’t know why, but it seems that all the bad things that ever happened here, there’s little pieces of those things still layin’ around like fingernail clippin’s or the boogers that somebody nasty just wiped under a chair. I don’t know why it should just be here, there’s bad goings-on in just about every hotel in the world, I guess, and I’ve worked in a lot of them and had no trouble. Only here. (King 86)
Just like Hill House, then, it would seem that the Overlook is an exploitative edifice, one that collects ghosts and traps them there, pressing them into its service forever. Nonetheless, what is important to bear in mind is that acknowledging the hotel’s tendency to entrap the dead keeps intact the idea that it is itself the source of supernatural danger – the ghosts are therefore the symptom of unease rather than its source, the source being the building itself. Indeed, like Eleanor, Jack Torrance, Danny’s father and the main focus of the Overlook’s nefarious plans, seems to be abandoned by the building at the end – it is only Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version that shows Jack joining the rest of the hotel’s staff and guests in an eternal but infernal New Year’s Eve party. The film versions of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw also push against much of [page 30] what I’ve been saying here. The cinematic Eleanor does indeed seem to join whatever ghosts can be found in Hill House in Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation, while Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is far less ambiguous than The Turn of the Screw in terms of blaming the Governess for what happens to the children under her care, and largely follows Edmund Wilson’s assertions that she is neurotic and the ghosts are not real. These differences, however, far from undermining my argument, in fact illustrate just how powerful the drive is towards psychoanalytical interpretations, or at least readings that insert either psychic projections or identifiable ghosts in the place of ambiguity and lack. If anything, these adaptations draw attention to just how frightening such absence is, prompting critics and filmmakers alike to fill these voids with the comforting certainty of human presences.
The Domestic Scene
It remains, then, to examine what exactly is obscured by such readings – that is, middle-class domesticity itself. Significantly, the origins of the occlusion of the historico-cultural nature of the gothic, and indeed its striking resemblance to the Freudian psychic drama, can be traced back to the rise of domestic fiction, of which the gothic and the ghost story are close if occasionally disinherited cousins. Domestic fiction of the kind written from the eighteenth century onwards effectively translates socio-political issues into those relating to the private, the personal, and the individual. As Nancy Armstrong argues, as domestic ideology and its focus upon the regulation of sexuality began to be codified over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “novels themselves generated our modern conviction that social conventions systematically suppressed forms of sexuality which existed prior to those conventions and made them necessary.” Although “these extrasocial depths in the self were themselves products of Victorian culture,” “in translating this material into psychosexual terms, Victorian novels effectively concealed the political power they exercised in so transforming cultural information” (165).
This movement was compounded by the fact that, over the course of the twentieth century, as Freud’s ideas began to be more widely disseminated and understood, psychoanalysis gained considerable ground as a tool for understanding the world. In the 1950s in particular, American culture became increasingly saturated by Freud’s ideas, which offered, in the wake of the upheavals of war, the comfort of stable meanings, readily available interpretations for almost anything, along with what Betty Friedan refers to as “timeless sexual truths.” She contends that “[t]he uncritical acceptance of Freudian doctrine in America was caused, at least [page 31] in part, by the very relief it provided from uncomfortable questions about objective realities.” Thus, it rapidly became “an all-embracing American ideology, a new religion,” which helped to reconfigure gender boundaries after the confusions caused by the Second World War (110). As such, therefore, the criticism I’ve been discussing is itself an instrument of the symbolic order’s efforts to delineate the limits of the real, while all the time turning its back on the unpleasant implications of “objective realities” and the pressures placed upon the individual psyche by societal norms. Despite its claims to provide “realistic” readings of non-realist texts, therefore, psychoanalysis itself tells a kind of fairy tale, refusing to confront the darker aspects of mid-century American society’s status as a network and instrument of control.
This is made fairly explicit in Richard Yates’ realist novel Revolutionary Road (1961), which depicts suburbia in the United States at mid-century as an environment where unpleasant realities struggle to make themselves heard against the insidious, soothing voice of the suburban myth, which stifles the expression of anything that might suggest that placid exteriors can conceal turbulent interiors. Any hint that it might not be the idyll it sets itself up as finds itself rigorously suppressed, as is suggested when, after the suicide of his wife, the main character runs wildly through the estate where he lives. Even this minor defiance of suburban convention is to little avail, since
the Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toy-land of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows blinked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. (237)
It is the nature of suburbia to stifle the expression of anything that might suggest that cheerfully painted walls can enclose discord and violence. Indeed, these walls are the agency by which this silencing is effected. Similarly, in Anne Rivers Siddons’ 1979 supernatural gothic novel The House Next Door, the characters say again and again that it seems fundamentally wrong to talk about the dreadful things that happen to the people in the apparently supernaturally evil house next door while sipping cocktails in sunny, well-tended back yards or lounging with canapés in immaculate sitting rooms. Walter, the protagonist’s husband, bursts out,
“[…] that there is a malignant intelligence working in a house that’s less than a year old, on this street, in this neighbourhood. Colquitt, if I believed that, then I could not function in this world anymore. Nothing would mean anything anymore, nothing would make any sense. There just wouldn’t be any core [page 32] to my life or the world. I’d just have to go to bed and stay there the rest of my life, because I couldn’t trust the world anymore. I won’t buy it. I will not buy that.” (213, italics in original)
As Darko Suvin points out, this is precisely the same mechanism as that operating within psychoanalytical readings of supernatural texts. He writes, “[t]he great enlightening act of the ascending bourgeoisie was to have reduced the world to people, that is, to relations among human groups and institutions, which among other matters meant the identification of obstacles with reachable and possibly removable people or human classes” (235). In other words, an interpretative move that reduces systems, institutions, and the material culture that supports them to the operations of an individual (un)consciousness is what shores up and buttresses the ostensibly organic, universal, self-evident structures of middle-class consensus reality. The only agency, in this schema, is individual agency, and wider forces are invariably reduced metonymically to the level of the individual human agent, just as psychoanalytical readings ignore intimations that houses can be malevolent instruments of oppression, focusing repeatedly on characters’ supposed psychosis and hallucinations.
Moreover, as Robert Mighall argues, “[p]sychological, symbolic, and essentialist models encourage the suppression of history.” He continues, “[t]his suppression enables the striking rhetorical affinities between the Gothic and psychoanalysis to actually endorse their application,” as it comes to seem natural and obvious that gothic should be read in this manner (261). Mighall’s central contention is that the gothic novel in its original form arose from the Anglo-European eighteenth century’s self-conceptualization as enlightened and progressive, and upon a concomitant relegation of all that is unacceptable in society to the murky regions of the distant, and generally foreign, past. He argues that “by relocating the scene of history in childhood, by retaining an emphasis on disorders originating in the past, and by establishing that this past resides in the memory of the individual, Freud applied a version of […] ‘Gothic’ historiography” to the human psyche (251). In repeating this process, critics inevitably map larger social forms of malaise onto the individual, reducing the struggles and tensions of history or culture to a psychic drama that is represented as timeless and eternal. These interpretations situate a fictional house’s evil, its provenance as well as its manifestations, firmly within the confines of the individual, the private, the corporeal, the apolitical, the internal, the familial, and the personal, since, as Suvin puts it, “psychoanalytic explanations are in most cases insufficient or totally unapplicable. I mean by this the orthodox Freudian limitation to ahistorical individual psychology […]. Neither the subconscious nor archetypes can deal with institutions, social contracts or proper uses of [page 33] artifacts” (219). Consequently, in the case of supernatural fiction in particular, as it lends itself so easily to such forms of interpretation, critics “have participated in attempts to contain political significance by emphasizing psychological or imaginary categories” (Samuels 45). As Mighall acknowledges, a critical strategy that emphasizes the individual, psychic aspects of gothic writing serves only to perpetuate rather than to elucidate, excavate, or demystify this process. He notes, “[t]his emphasis has in turn sanctioned critical models which mirror the very things they purport to describe” (251). In other words, by shifting the ground of the “terrible past” from the narrative world to the psyche of the characters, critics do not analyze, but merely repeat the gothic’s own distancing techniques.
Indeed, the manner in which the fictional malevolent American house is constituted means that retroactive attempts on the part of critics to insert a human consciousness in fact merely draw attention to the success of these texts in unsettling even their most attentive and informed readers. As Freud suggests in “The ‘Uncanny,’” “an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolises” (244). In the case of malevolent houses, critics attempt to reverse and thereby defuse this unnerving literalization – that is, the representation of a house as frightening because it is a house, and not because someone has projected something onto it, or because it is an immaterial symbol or allegory for human psychic turmoil. They do so by turning the symbol back into a symbol again, insinuating that it can only connote whatever is not immediately evident on the surface of the text. As Ralph J. Poole contends, “[g]host stories […] breathe the air of the forbidden and intimate the unspeakable” (241). Here, the “unspeakable” is the notion that we do not ultimately control the spaces we inhabit – the idea that the very opposite may in fact be the case.
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MLA citation (print):
Downey, Dara. "How (Not) to Read the American Haunted House." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017, pp. 21-35.