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Nature's Haunted House

On hauntings.

Steven Knepper is Bruce C. Gottwald, Jr. ’81 Chair for Academic Excellence at Virginia Military Institute. He is the co-author with Ethan Stoneman and Robert Wyllie of a critical introduction to Byung-Chul Han forthcoming from Polity.

For several years, I taught a course on American Gothic literature. It took students on a strange journey from Washington Irving and Charles Brockden Brown to Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison. One of my favorite readings was an Emily Dickinson poem. Though rarely anthologized, it is probably one of the better haunted house poems ever written. Dickinson is that kind of poet. Her genius overspills even the amplest of anthology selections. The first stanza introduces the poem’s main conceit:

One need not be a chamber—to be haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain—has Corridors surpassing
Material Place—

The mind not only matches but surpasses a haunted house in its darkened, disorienting “corridors.” Subsequent stanzas introduce variations on this theme. It is “safer” to encounter an “External Ghost” at the witching hour than it is to reckon with “an Interior” demon. It is better to be chased by marauders than to be in a “lonesome place” where you must face off with your own shadow self. (She was there before you, Jung.) “Ourself—behind Ourself—Concealed—” is a more formidable threat than any “Assassin.” After all, you can arm yourself and turn the lock against exterior threats. It is harder to contain the threats coming from within your own mind.

It is an unsettling poem about the unsettling depths of the mind, but it is also a pretty darn good interpretation of Gothic hauntings. Each stanza evokes a familiar trope of Gothic literature: creepy corridors, ghosts, desperate chases, lurking murderers. The poem implicitly suggests that, at least some of the time, these Gothic terrors are best understood as externalizations of inner fears, torments, or mental struggles. One might think of “The Raven,” where the grieving, exhausted narrator, spooked even before the bird’s midnight arrival by reading books “of forgotten lore,” asks the raven a string of self-destructive questions. The bird replies to each question with the “Nevermore” that the narrator had earlier determined was the raven’s “only stock and store,” the only word it has been trained to say. Yet when he asks the raven if he will see his lost love Lenore in heaven, the narrator takes the bird’s “Nevermore” not as a trained trick but as a demonic condemnation. Some ambiguity remains—you can make a case for a spirit bird—but the poem gives plenty of evidence that this is a self-inflicted spiral.

We often project our fears onto the world in this manner. Gothic and horror tropes sometimes play out as a psychodrama: the haunted house can be the haunted mind, and vice versa. But that still does not completely satisfy. The world can be genuinely weird and unsettling. With no offense intended to Emily Dickinson, I would say that an actual axe murderer with a torture fetish—or perhaps a demonic sewer-dwelling clown—is scarier than most things your mind can inflict upon you. Taken to an extreme, the psychologizing approach results in a kind of solipsistic idealism in which our minds do all the haunting.

Of course Dickinson is too subtle to err in this way. This becomes clear when we look at her work more broadly. In a great aphoristic line from one of her letters, she claims, “Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.” How is nature haunted? At its most basic level, it is haunted by an uncanny contingency. That anything exists at all is weird. Nature is also haunting in its sensorial excess and shiftiness, in its proliferation of critters and plants and things. Poetry tries to incarnate such excess and shiftiness and ontological strangeness. One reason the “realist” mainline of modern literature always has a Gothic shadow is precisely because reality is haunted in these ways.

I suspect that it is easier for most Americans to ignore nature’s weirdness. Many of us live in homes that are airtight to the point of being unhealthy. And when something from outside gets in, we immediately call an exterminator. Within our sealed-up homes, we seal ourselves up in digital devices. We also often live in houses that are fairly new and thus do not bear the marks of generations of earlier inhabitants. (The ways in which Gothic literature grapples with the haunting past is a crucial, massive topic that I must save for another day.) If you have lived in an old house, though, one that groans and belches and cracks its knuckles, one that breathes and coughs so that you feel like you are inside the bowels of a living organism—and in some sense, you are—it is easy to imagine a house haunted in more dramatic ways.

When my wife and I first married we moved into the bottom level of an imposing, semi-dilapidated brick Victorian on the campus of the boarding school where she taught. It was tucked back into the woods and hadn’t been lived in for more than a year. The ornate furniture—including a massive marble-topped mirrored piece too heavy to move we called “The Thing”—was covered in dust and full of odd old-timey smells. The house creaked and croaked continually. Any strong breeze slithered through its “closed” windows, and any number of critters had come to inhabit it during those months of human vacancy. We once came home to a bat flitting through the darkened rooms. We encountered two snakes in the house. I caught and released one into the woods. The other darted behind the refrigerator, never to be seen again. A roach occasionally showed up in the bathtub. Once, when I walked into the guest room and closed its door, a bloated spider dropped onto the back of my neck. I am tough with snakes. Not so with spiders. That unsettled me. But in general, I grew affectionate toward the weirdness of the old house. It had personality, character, presence—indeed presences.

My wife and I slept in a huge room with a high ceiling and three doors exiting out of it. In our first winter there I woke up in the middle of the night. “Woke up” may not be exactly the right phrase. I was in a liminal state of semi-awareness, not uncommon when one stirs in the night, with some lucidity of mind and much heaviness of body. A disturbing thought struck me: “There is a boy standing just outside the closed bedroom door,” in the narrow hallway room with the marble-and-mirrored “Thing.” I did not like this impression. It made my body prickle in gooseflesh under the thick red comforter. But then a second thought struck me: “Go back to sleep. He’ll stay out there.” And so I did. When my wife stirred in bed the next morning, I said to her, “I had the weirdest experience last night.” “Me too,” she replied from her pillow, “I woke up and thought there was a child outside our room.” One of the boarding school’s senior administrators lived in the house years ago. My wife asked her if it was haunted. She laughed: “Oh, you heard the little boy playing in the attic?”

Now, I am sure there are many who, confident in their airtight philosophies or strict theologies, would want to explain away, or scoff away, this strange experience of ours. And there are plenty of others who would want the house’s address so they could show up with their paranormal recording equipment. But I am comfortable with letting the mystery be a mystery. I am with Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” We are weird creatures living in a weird world. I’ll leave the windows open in my haunted house.