As a Teacher of Gothic Lit, I Should Have Known Better Than to Move into a Haunted House
Emily Waples: A Fable of Modern-Day Homeownership
It started with wasps.
At the end of our first year in the house, they ate through the walls. I would find, first, the dusty piles of plaster by the baseboards, the strange detritus materializing like unlikely anthills on the ugly green carpet. Only later would I recognize these for what they were: evidence of invasion. At last, I saw the wasps themselves, clinging to the sheer white curtains and crawling along the windowpanes, or else strewn lifelessly across the floor and sills, their bodies transmuted into brittle husks.
For the living, I enacted well-meaning rituals of rehabilitation, trapping each intruder inside a plastic cup and conveying it staidly downstairs and out the back door. As they multiplied, this manual method was soon forfeited for the more practical affordances of the Dustbuster, which allowed me to suction up five or six at a time, releasing them reeling and dizzy into the ambient air outside. I attempted, with little result, to remedy the breach by the baseboards with electrical tape, then, more successfully it seemed, with wall caulk. Satisfied, I declared the matter solved.
Months later, they began appearing by the dozen in my husband’s office. We sprayed, sealed, suctioned; they kept coming. We never could discern from where.
In a famous scene from the 1979 film The Amityville Horror, Father Delaney is beset by a swarm of flies when he arrives to bless the ill-fated Lutz residence. At first, we see only a pair of them on the inside of the second-story windowpane that separates Delaney from the Lutzes, who are outside frolicking with their dog in a scene of suburban bliss. The door slams unexpectedly. Delaney looks toward it, agitated, and mops his brow. By the time he turns back around, a multitude of flies have appeared. We observe them from outside first, peering in at the priest beginning his blessing. We float beside the camera, invisible voyeurs. The crescendo of buzzing swells alongside the tremulous Lalo Schifrin score.
The flies leave the window, alighting on Delaney’s face and shoulders. He coughs and sputters, hunches over. Outside, the family blithely roars off in a motorboat, oblivious. The shot cuts to an extreme close-up of the flies: the bulbous swell of their compound eyes, the frenetic movements of their legs, the twitching of tiny tarsi. The camera alternates between Delaney and the window, both increasingly enveloped by insects, both equally immobile.
The door opens. Delaney’s eyes open. The scene cedes to silence. Then we hear it—a whisper at first, slight and inconspicuous; then again, shrill and unmistakable: Get out!
This is the problem with white people, as Eddie Murphy assesses it in his 1983 standup comedy special Delirious: we stay in haunted houses, like idiots. We don’t heed the warnings; we don’t read the signs. In pursuit of the American dream of homeownership—the middle-class domestic ideal, the manicured lawn, the 30-year mortgage and its promise of equity and upward mobility—we colonize spaces, nominally vacant and hauntingly occupied, as if we belong there. As if it is our right.
We ignore the voices that clearly tell us otherwise.
The summer we got married, we bought a house. Less than two years later, we burned it down. Standing on the sidewalk in the snow, holding our coats closed over our pajamas, we stared as five fire departments attempted to tackle the flames shooting through the roof. We watched them drag in hoses and axes and smash our upstairs windows, and suddenly, we knew what it was like to lose everything.
We’d had the chimney repaired—or so we thought—midway through our second Midwestern winter, dreaming of cozy nights hearthside while snow swirled outside the single-pane windows. Satisfied with the inspection report that certified our fireplace safe to use, we ordered half a cord of wood off Craigslist; two days later, a guy dropped by in a pickup truck and dumped it in our driveway. I was five months pregnant, so my husband insisted on hauling it all inside himself, stacking it neatly in the basement for the frigid months to come. For the inaugural fire in our home, we toasted marshmallows and sat by the burning embers with our heat-seeking beagle.
For the past six years, while I’d been in graduate school studying 19th-century Gothic literature, we’d rented apartment after shoddy apartment, ever on the run from escalating prices. But I’d never had any desire to own a home. I didn’t know how to handle things like leaking faucets, malfunctioning furnaces, rotting woodwork, or assorted infestations. I figured such responsibilities were best left to landlords—or, rather, to the gruff, haggard-looking handymen the landlords hired to replace window screens and fidget with toilet tanks while I stood back, inhabiting the helplessness of tenancy.
But after I was unexpectedly offered an academic job in rural Ohio—a place with no rental market to speak of—we found ourselves driving down I-90, in an early April snowstorm, to tour a handful of properties with a real estate agent named Frankie. Each house we looked at was what its listing encouragingly termed a project, having been left in some degree of disrepair by its previous occupants. Poking through the cabinets of fixer-upper kitchens, we were incited to seize the full faculties of our imaginations, to eschew the limitations of our immediate reality for the more liberating lens of potential. Surveying a landscape of dry rot and water damage, such acts of idealistic vision seemed all but impossible.
The only houses we could hope to afford within reasonable commuting distance of the campus were in a run-down town, which, like much of the Midwest, is characterized by a kind of post-industrial spectrality. In the mid-19th century, it had earned prominence for its hearse-manufacturing business. During the Second World War, it had been the site of an ammunitions plant—the location chosen, apocryphally at least, because the inordinate amount of cloud cover the region received rendered it a difficult target for air strikes. Now once-splendid Romanesque facades on Main Street gaped with empty storefronts. The schools were terrible, but the property was cheap. This was not a place you moved to, I gathered; it was a place where you stayed because you were unable to escape.
It seemed especially ironic, then, that the last house we viewed—a four-bedroom Victorian with gingerbread trim and a stately corner turret, down the block from an abandoned GE plant and adjacent to a funeral home—was located on a thoroughfare called Freedom Street. Like the others we’d seen, it was riddled with a daunting list of deficiencies: peeling lead paint on the unfortunately whitewashed woodwork, water-stained wallpaper holding crumbling plaster in place, carpeting that had been ripped away to expose cracked asbestos tile, hastily patched swaths of ceiling betraying the places where the roof had caved in before it was eventually replaced.
Yet, suddenly, I understood the transformative power of potential. What I saw were the vaulted windows, inviting light and air, and the fireplace promising comfort even as the April snow choked the emergent magnolia.
The house was too big for us, my husband argued—but I saw our dining room crowded with Thanksgiving dinners; I saw our children descending the staircase to open gifts on Christmas. An inveterate pessimist, I was taken aback by my own sudden sense of selective perception, but there it was. The breakthrough vision of hypothetical children was especially surprising. I’d undergone treatment for an aggressive cancer in my mid-twenties, and I knew the contamination of chemotherapy may have rendered my ovaries exanimate. For the most part, I tried not to think about speculative offspring.
So to buy this house, I thought—to make both imaginative and material space for children—would be to engage in an audacious, uncharacteristic act of optimism.
The bird was an omen; I ought to have known. I’ve always been phobic about birds. Superstition dictates that a bird flying into a window augurs bad luck and even portends death. And yet, among the things I chose not to see in my rose-colored viewing of the house on Freedom Street was a dead sparrow, which had apparently entered the house through the open attic hatch and shat all over the second-story carpet before breaking its neck on the master bedroom window. When we came back a month later to close on the sale, the bird was still there, its twisted body crumpled beneath the curtains in the corner.
In a 19th-century Gothic novel, it would have been sure enough foreshadowing. A hallmark of the Gothic genre is the transparency of its plot, inducting its readership into a knowing coterie skilled in predicting its utterly anticipatable machinations. In Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for instance, a story I routinely taught, readers are alerted early to the possibility of “a barely perceptible fissure” in the Usher structure, one that might be detected by “the eye of a scrutinizing observer.” Eventually, of course, the ill-fated estate succumbs to the force of our expectations and is sucked into the unforgiving earth. We are supposed to understand the fissure for what it is: a wink, a nod, a not-so-subtle signpost. Confirmation of the inevitable course, dispatched from the point of no return.
But life wasn’t like that, I thought.
We began trying for a child in the middle of the wasp debacle. As it happened, my first eligible ovulation cycle coincided with the 2017 total solar eclipse. Although Northeast Ohio was nowhere near the “path of totality,” it was tempting to seek meaning in astronomical atmospherics: the two o’clock chorus of crickets, the wellspring of moon-shaped shadows. I assigned a name to our potentiality: Eclipse Baby.
Two weeks later, Eclipse Baby materialized in the form of a faint line on an early detection home pregnancy test—and then, a few days after that, dissipated in an unspectacular but unmistakable rush of blood. A “chemical pregnancy,” apparently: a loss in the earliest stages, when an egg has been fertilized but has not successfully implanted. I felt I had briefly entered, and quickly been pulled back from, a path of totality. Too briefly to legitimate grief, surely.
Most of these losses, I read on whattoexpect.com, occur before women realize they’re pregnant. Interpreted as late periods, they persist below the threshold of perception—except, of course, for some especially scrutinizing observers, their imaginary futures spooling forth from a stripe of pink dye.
A barely perceptible fissure.
What to expect.
On Halloween, newly pregnant for the second time in two months, I stood on the front porch, wrangling the dog in his crocodile costume while a parade of Disney princesses and Power Rangers held out pillowcases and plastic pumpkins like Catholics awaiting Communion wafers. A six-year-old witch gazed up admiringly at the turret while I fumbled for a fun-size Snickers. “I like your house,” she said. “It reminds me of one of those fairy tale castles.”I waited for our house to reveal its obscured horrors—panicking, for instance, when I discovered a tuft of brown hair poking from a crack in a closet wall . . .
“Me, too,” I agreed. I decided that when—or if, as I would continue to say for months to come—this baby arrived, the turret room would eventually become theirs, because what child would not love a fantasy of fortification, even if the kingdom was a shabby corner lot?
Of course, fairy tale castles nearly always conceal some species of darkness, often relating to the imprisonment and abuse of women. As I cleaned and painted in preparation for the possibility of not-Eclipse Baby, I waited for our house to reveal its obscured horrors—panicking, for instance, when I discovered a tuft of brown hair poking from a crack in a closet wall, convinced that the people who had rented the house before it was abandoned to vacancy (Russian drug dealers, we learned from a neighbor) had buried a body there. This was before I learned that Victorians often insulated their homes with horsehair. So it wasn’t haunted, then—at least, not in the way I might have imagined.
Still, hauntings happened—not those of the paranormal variety, but those that were, to the contrary, entirely ordinary: the kind sociologist Avery Gordon defines as “those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar.” Haunting, Gordon writes, “alters the experience of being in time” as we come to realize that “what’s been concealed is very much alive and present.” In other words, we live amid palimpsests, the past only overwritten but never erased.
And the past indeed appeared in unlikely places, creeping out of corners and closet walls. We received mail for long-gone occupants. The doorframe of the nursery charted the heights of other people’s children.
“All houses wherein men have lived and died,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “are haunted houses.”
The above is excerpted from Emily Waples’ piece in Creative Nonfiction #70, Home (Spring 2019), originally titled “Freedom: An Ohio Gothic”. Used with the permission of Creative Nonfiction. Copyright © 2019 by Emily Waples.