This House Is Still Haunted: An Essay In Seven Gables
As we have seen some languages in use today can only render the German expression “an unheimlich house” by “a haunted house.”
– Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
To have a ghost, you must first have a past.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an author with a past. His fictions repeatedly return us to the foundations of the United States, weaving narrative from the way that his past lingered in his present, from a haunting. He prefaces The House of the Seven Gables (1851) with a simple lesson, that “this Romance might effectually convince mankind (or, indeed, any one man) of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms.” This lesson—past evils will destroy those who come to benefit from them—guides the haunted house tale, wherein the cracked foundations of the past must be repaired, lest the house, like Poe’s House of Usher, crumble into the earth, along with all it signifies: family, nation, hope. These are vast problems, bigger than any one house, but locating evil in a haunted place lets Americans concentrate the past’s wrongness. The haunted house is a place where we deal with how things have gone wrong.
The United States is a nation where ghosts are real. At least, they’re as real as the houses they haunt. The House of the Seven Gables depicts a house that is not ostensibly haunted by ghosts or demons; rather, it is demonized by the generational reproduction of wrongs and inequalities where haunting provides the syntax for Hawthorne to make sense of this repetition. The haunted house tale, as Hawthorne tells it, has governed the way that Americans reckon with their out-of-joint past. Hawthorne positions House as a “romance,” rather than a novel, and the former genre’s capacity for moralistic fables captures something of this House’s function as a floor-plan for a particularly American haunting. In Richard Brodhead’s account, Hawthorne’s widespread influence in American literature often has less to do with anything he himself said or wrote than with the way that later authors bring their own concerns to Hawthorne and rework his myths to their own ends. So, it’s not that Hawthorne haunts American literature; rather, that literary tradition has haunted him.
Across this history, the word “haunted” provides a vocabulary for the forces outside individual control, as well as the way that we, as individuals, are constrained by them, even and especially when we cannot perceive or even comprehend what they are. As Sigmund Freud points out, “haunted” is already a limited translation of “unheimlich,” and the repeated description of houses in particular as haunted illustrates some of the way that this vocabulary guides both thought and actions. Being haunted is, in a sense, the experience of being constrained, whether by another’s will or by the blunt necessity of historical circumstance. So, if I tell you a house is haunted, you might expect to encounter ghosts, dead bodies, perhaps the devil himself, but what you’ll find is, unfortunately, much worse.
Some people own their houses, some rent them, but others seem to be owned by the places they live. This latter category seems the most susceptible to haunting. Haunting thwarts the hope that brought these people to buy a house in the first place. A house becomes haunted when its promises—safety, security, wealth—become a kind of trap. The House of the Seven Gables tells the story of the Pyncheon family, residents of Salem, Massachusetts. Their ancestor, one Colonel Pyncheon, acquired the land on which he built the titular House of the Seven Gables, through an evil deed, accusing one Matthew Maule of witchcraft. At the opening of this house, “built over an unquiet grave,” the Colonel is found mysteriously dead, perhaps as the result of Maule’s curse, sitting beneath a portrait of himself.
In the present tense of Hawthorne’s fiction, the residents of the House of the Seven Gables wish to break out of the way their past has determined their life but find themselves unable to. Past circumstances “tumble down” across generations of the Pyncheon family, who find themselves curiously ill fortuned. Hepzibah Pyncheon must reopen a cent-shop that an ancestor had built in the house’s basement in similarly destitute times. Hawthorne describes them: “haughtily as they bore themselves in the noonday streets of their native town,” the Pyncheon family “were no better than bond-servants of these plebeian Maules, on entering the topsyturvy commonwealth of sleep.” The resting place of the home becomes a leveling ground, the place where the haughty Pyncheons can no longer pretend to superiority. The haunted house is a site of honesty where fakery fails and inner demons are left to roam.
Hepzibah is helped by the arrival of her cousin Phoebe, who manages to bring Hepzibah out of her despondency. Phoebe eventually marries the mysterious daguerrotypist, Holgrave, a descendant of Maule and current boarder in the House. The novel’s conflict is driven by Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, styled as a repetition of the Colonel. Jaffrey believes that his brother Clifford has hidden valuable papers, an “indian deed,” that the Judge hopes will secure the family’s ownership of a large amount of land in Maine. The novel culminates with Judge Pyncheon’s haunting death, in the same chair where the Colonel died. While harmony is brought through the marriage of families, Hawthorne drives the book’s horror through the way that present characters come to resemble their past, in a multigenerational repetition compulsion.
The Lutz family of The Amitvyville Horror (1977) purchase the home at 112 Ocean Avenue because it’s a great deal, what with the murders that happened there. A deal on a cheap house—typically the best opportunity—becomes a lure for a desperate family. As Walter Benn Michaels quips, the real horror story is “owning the only house on Long Island whose value is declining.” The Lutz family purchases the house out of a belief that they are different, lucky, unhaunted by what took over prior families; the novel’s horror is fueled not simply by the strange and unexplained occurrences in the house but by how the Lutzes gradually come to resemble the previous family that died in the home they now own.
In Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters (1970), a yuppy couple finds their relationship torn apart amidst a gentrifying Brooklyn Heights. Both Amityville and Desperate Characters are stories of familial aspiration in seventies New York, but only the former attributes its haunting to supernatural forces. Fox’s novel offers a particular kind of haunting, what Mark Fisher calls the “eerie.” The home in Fox’s novel seems haunted precisely because of the absence (or, for Fisher, the “failure of presence”) of any identifiable ghost. “Nothing” is the watchword of Fox’s haunted house. After a break-in, the character Sophie says, “Nothing seems to be missing.” In the next chapter, her husband Otto asks her what’s wrong, and she answers, simply, “Nothing.” The eerie haunting of Desperate Characters is instructive. Nothing is wrong in the novel, and that’s the problem. Or, put another way: because nothing is wrong, everything is. Life would be better if there were one single thing on which to blame their problems. Both Fox’s novel and, for similar reasons, Hawthorne’s romance are haunted by the fact that things are exactly as they were meant to be.
Ownership, the hallmark of liberal individualism, becomes contorted when your possessions are haunted. Haunting reveals that the supposed plenitude of owned property is still missing something, no matter how much a character like Sophie might insist against it. “The ego is not the master in its own house,” Freud wrote, and the haunted house makes this unmastery literal. Or rather, it reveals that there’s something off, uncanny, eerie, missing about self-possession and mastery as ways to organize the world, a house, a life. The haunted house tale, however, describes this constitutive fault line of liberal individualism as though it is merely a local, individual, or familial problem. This is why so many haunted houses are built on “Indian burial grounds,” locating the violence of widespread, systemic dispossession in a single site, rather than, as Lou Cornum puts it, “anywhere in the mass grave of the Americas.” The Pyncheon family purports to superiority because of a missing “indian deed’ by which they possess an “as yet unexplored and unmeasured tract of eastern lands” in Maine. All property is theft, Hawthorne refuses to admit, as he equivocates as to the family’s guilt in America’s not-yet-historical genocide. But his story knows, perhaps unconsciously, that even if the Pyncheons could locate their deed and lay claim to these lands, they would hardly make themselves whole again.
Like the Lutz family in Amityville, the haunted house suggests that you might advance where others have failed. Haunted houses tell stories of characters with aspirations, that their lives might be better, or, if not that, at least different. The supernatural promises both fortune and ruin. Three years before Hawthorne published The House of the Seven Gables and the same year that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote their Communist Manifesto (1848), Molly McGarry points out, “two young girls [the Fox sisters] heard communications from a different sort of specter, giving rise to a quite different revolution.” In McGarry’s account the nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism was a resistance to the alienation of modern life, not simply an engine of gothic terror but rather an interest in the possible unseen worlds that might disrupt the ordinary lives that we are living. These aspirational believers, though, as Emily Ogden has detailed, could also be turned into manipulated masses by those who sought to wield credulity to their own ends. In her reading of House, Ogden finds Phoebe positioned between the dominions of mesmerism and marriage: “Holgrave’s empire as both author and husband ensures Phoebe’s liberty.” The supernatural limns the way we arrange our lives, giving control to someone else, whether a lover or a deceased ancestor.
These enchanted existences in everyday life betray the forces that constrain individuals, forces like class and gender and race. Haunting, though, seems to promise some sort of redemptive violence, a plight that particularly affects the wealthy. The most famous haunted houses are large, many-gabled monstrosities in their own right, and the haunting of those houses provides a compelling narrative irony: the very possessions that protect the rich become their vulnerability. Who needs to eat the rich when they might be driven to eat themselves? (It’s perhaps a limit of our collective imagination that I can’t find an instance of a haunted house, real or fictional, where rich people were driven to cannibalism.) When Poe’s narrator last sees the House of Usher, the titular house is destroyed seemingly by its own fixtures, ripped along an inexplicable and “barely discernible fissure” that extends “from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. The most these stories will hope for is that the houses of the wealthy will rip themselves apart.
In similar ways, the Pyncheon’s House becomes a kind of curse on their lives. If, in Ogden’s account, Hawthorne takes up mesmerism to explore “tolerable forms of disempowerment,” his parallel interest in haunting explores the return of repressed guilt and anxiety that manifests as a result of unjust empowerment. Even as the Pyncheon family steals from the Maules, their fate does not advance steadily upwards. The cent-shop in the house’s basement is a mark of this failure of economic advancement. In the novel’s opening actions, as she prepares to reopen the cent-shop, Hepzibah feels almost possessed, unable to move, as even Hawthorne’s narrator is taken over by “an invisible reluctance to disclose what Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon was about to do.” Whereas inherited property is supposed to protect Hepzibah from the world of work, the story begins with her debasement to live like everybody else. Aspirational hopes fail when it’s revealed that your life is just like all the other individuals.
For Freud, the uncanny is the experience of something familiar where you expect it to be unfamiliar. Suddenly, you’re living someone else’s life; or maybe, they’re living yours. There are only so many architectural styles, so many kinds of places to inhabit. As a child in suburban Kansas, I went over to one friend’s house, only to realize that it looked exactly like another’s, the architect having reused floor-plans all across the neighborhood. Fisher describes the uncanny as “the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself.” The houses of suburbia may not be haunted—these buildings haven’t stood long enough to acquire ghosts—but in many ways, they come pre-haunted, if only by the other cookie-cutter lives evenly spread around a cul de sac.
The haunted house tale feels good, especially when the things it depicts are bad. Horror as a genre has always mingled delight with terror. This is what haunted house scholar (haunted housestorian?) Dale Bailey identifies in the genre’s “unique emotional frisson of horror.” Horror teaches us to love that which hurts us, threatens us, could kill us, and haunted houses teach us to live with that strange, contradictory love. Anything not to live another cookie-cutter life like the rest of the novel’s characters. By our living in them, houses teach us how to act. Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space: “the word habit is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies…with an unforgettable house.” The haunted house, though, feels good because it unteaches us all the things our other houses have forced on us. Letting demons out is just as necessary as having a house. Near the beginning of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), the character Theodora muses, “All I could think of when I got a look at the place from outside was what fun it would be to stand out there and watch it burn down.”
The haunted house tale ends happily when the characters leave the house, though. This is the fate of most of the Pyncheon family members in Hawthorne’s House. Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, consumed by his desire for property, dies beneath the portrait of the family’s patriarch, and shortly thereafter, his son dies, leading to his property’s dispersal among the House’s inhabitants. Shortly after this death, the lost “indian deed” is found, hidden long ago behind the portrait, and in this same moment, the land claim is revealed to be worthless, having already been settled by other, unhaunted residents. “Thus, they bartered their eastern-territory for Maule’s garden-ground,” Holgrave puts the moral. The irony neatly resolves itself, dissolving the contradictions of ownership in the simple decision to move somewhere else. In the haunted house film, the camera can convey this freedom through the tracking shot that recedes the house into the distance.
But the fact remains that, just as the haunted house depicts those with a house big enough to harbor ghosts; it also often depicts those who are wealthy enough to flee such houses and start again somewhere else. This is perhaps why the mainstream haunted house tale must locate its hauntings in specific and manageable places. Its limited vocabulary can only grapple with wrongs of a certain magnitude. Perhaps it is for this reason, for all his persistent interests in property ownership, personal subjugations, and foundational violence, Hawthorne’s romance does not directly depict the reproduction of slavery across American life. It’s perhaps that Hawthorne refused to let slavery become a haunting—wishing in his campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, that, slavery might “in its own time…vanish like a dream”—disavowed as nightmare and made into a mere dream. When House does deal with the presence of racism, it is when Hepzibah sells “Jim Crow” cookies in the form of a racist caricature, a brittle attempt to incorporate racism’s violence into the pleasurable idiom of the haunted house tale.
The haunted house is the main character in its tale. This is what scholar Maurice Beebe recognized about Hawthorne’s romance in the 1950s. Hawthorne gives the House of the Seven Gables a “human countenance” with more personality than most of its residents. This technique would echo through the history of the haunted house tale. Shirley Jackson introduces her Hill House as having a face that “seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.” Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film adaptation of The Amityville Horror opens to demonic red windows that figure the house’s bloodshot eyes. Gleeful or horrific, human or demonic, the haunted house has a kind of agency that most houses do not possess. For Fisher, the eerie poses the enigma of the “problem of agency”: “It should be especially clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected capitalist world that those forces are not fully available to our sensory apprehension.” Hawthorne’s House is set amidst the backdrop of an earlier, yet equally unprecedented connectivity, as he depicts a world newly crossed by railroad and telegraph lines. Imbued with character, the haunted house mystifies the nature of agency in capitalist modernity. But it’s not that the house merely stands in for agency that we can otherwise locate in the hands of individual humans. If the haunted house’s agency isn’t quite supernatural, it is at least extra-human.
If we believe that the haunted house possesses an agency all its own, that house compels individual actions. This was the case with the House of the Seven Gables outside the covers of Hawthorne’s book. Around the start of the twentieth century, a woman named Caroline Emmerton found herself under the sway of the House’s “human countenance” and purchased a building known as the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion. Using it partly as a settlement house, she also sought to restore it as The House of the Seven Gables. The Ingersolls were relatives of Hawthorne’s, and the house provided inspiration for his novel. It then passed through several hands before reaching Emmerton’s. The problem was, as of 1909, the house she now owned only had three gables. She devotes a chapter in her short memoir of the House to “Our Search for Traces of the Vanished Gables.” These gables, although vanished, leave their “shadowy outline” on the home’s edifice, as Emmerton details her location of the mortise holes that once held the pegs to lock in the beams that supported the gables. After studying the house’s architectural remnants, though, Emmerton eventually turned away from architectural fact, using Hawthorne’s fiction to cross-reference her restoration with the novel’s details and providing page numbers for readers who want to check her work.
The architectural restoration, then, became a literary one. Hawthorne’s writing of the House motivated its renovation more than any architect. Emmerton, realizing Hawthorne’s fiction, populated the House not just with the cent-shop that terrifie Hepzibah but also “Maule’s Well,” in the romance a mystical remnant of the witches who once owned the land. The features that Hawthorne added to his fictional House overwrote its lived reality, an uncanny fixture on an already overdetermined home. Emmerton’s motives for this simultaneously meticulous and fantastical restoration are as inscrutable as they are obsessive, but they were certainly of the moment in which she lived. Fiction, even haunted fictions, prove to be more habitable than the all too real architectures that structure our lives.
The last decades of the nineteenth century were fraught with the architectures of the past. The Civil War caused unprecedented destruction, as the nation fought over foundational contradictions. As Americans surveyed the postbellum wreckage of the American South, the edifices of that world were, in historian David Blight’s phrase, “brand new, but instantaneously historic.” Paradoxically devoid of past but imbued with national significance, the South’s uncanny structures figured a new kind of haunting. The all too literal name “Reconstruction” indexed the tension of whether the project was to return the nation to the way it had been or to build it entirely differently. Was the South haunted by its past? Or its future? Slavery was the original wound that set time out of joint. To describe something as haunted names this attempt to navigate the impossibility of redress in the face of such a wrong. Haunting occurs in the present, but it always refers back to that original moment, when things were made wrong. This moment, necessarily, is unreachable.
Unable to return to the moment and fix its originary wrongs, architecture, restored or left to crumble, became the grounds on which slavery’s ghosts demanded exorcism. The lawyer Albion Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand (1879) depicts an anti-racist’s attempt to purchase a home in the South, from which he will intervene in its enduring racism, only to meet opposition from the nascent Ku Klux Klan, a group characterized by its own spiritualism, superstition, and ritual. Charles Chesnutt would rework Tourgee’s narrative in The Colonel’s Dream (1905), which concludes with a free Black man’s body being dug up—because it was buried alongside white people—and placed on the porch of a man who sought to disrupt the hierarchies of that society. The past’s architectures terrify the characters in William Faulkner’s novels, populated by men like the “demon” Thomas Sutpen who violently carves plantations and mansions out of slave labor. These reflections on Reconstruction meld fact and fantasy in the figure of the home, as evidenced in 1936 by Scarlett O’Hara’s defiant cry—in which she intertwines Southern heritage, familial pride, and white supremacy—“for Tara!,” the name of her family’s plantation home that had once enslaved a multitude of human beings. Faulkner’s oft-quoted line—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—could be mistaken for something out of Hawthorne, as these authors did not only interrogate the past’s relationship to the present but did so through haunted narrative modes that they had themselves inherited.
Is there some law—whether physical or spiritual—that says that as time progresses there will be more haunted houses? The history of the United States would suggest, yes. Since the mid-nineteenth century, America has contained ever more haunted houses. Emmerton was hardly the first or the last to meld fact and fiction in a house that one could visit. In the 1880s, Sarah Winchester sought to exorcise the ghosts of those killed by her family’s rifle company through the supposedly unceasing construction of the sprawling and disorganized Winchester Mystery House. Around the Great Depression, haunted houses became a Halloween attraction in the United States, initially as an attempt to dissuade young adults from pranks and other forms of property damage. Haunting became a rote tool for managing behavior and directing individual actions. The domain of hauntings was gradually incorporated into the Church, as evidenced by the predominance of priests as the guards against the supernatural. In Jay Anson’s telling of The Amityville Horror, Father Ray Mancuso suffers nearly as much as the Lutz family.
Despite its seemingly best efforts, the United States has done little to exorcise its myriad hauntings; if anything, those hauntings have multiplied and spread far beyond Hawthorne’s Salem. Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved departs from the haunted house tale’s conventions, closing with its refrain that such a tale is “not a story to pass on.” The historian Jennifer Morgan captures the multiple contradictory meanings of Morrison’s line, “a story not to be told, a story not property of one’s heirs, and a story one must not fail to tell”: “We are faced here with a problem of meaning and history that strikes deeply and powerfully at the heart of what it means to be human.” Morrison’s Beloved, even as it inhabits a house that is haunted by the past, is in many ways an anti-haunted house tale, so much as the haunted house tale is welded to the logics of liberalism, which teach us what it means to be an individual at the expense of being human. It is a novel that is haunted by the generations of haunted house tales that have been told in the United States but have failed, if not outright refused, to heal the wounds they simultaneously abhor and celebrate. In the wake of such failed redress, Morrison was right to depart from the tale’s dominant conventions, searching not just for new kinds of hauntings but new ways to evoke and exorcise them. Perhaps for these reasons, in 1999, Bailey declared that the mainstream haunted house formula in fiction was “not dead but merely moribund,” replaying the same problems on repeat at the end of history.
Haunting is ambient. Hawthorne, even as he writes an archetypal American haunted house tale, never specified exactly what haunted the House of the Seven Gables. (The 1940 film adaptation, starring Vincent Price, is not so subtle.) The spectres of American capitalism, the Salem witch trials, chattel slavery, settler colonial genocide all loom, but none of these ghosts appear directly in Hawthorne’s romance. Horror has since demanded specific monsters to verify the haunting. This change might be understood as a result of the nature of homeownership after the 2008 financial crisis. The failure of subprime mortgages revealed the illusory nature of ownership to Americans in a way that, in nineteenth-century America, Hawthorne himself had recognized, though the phantasmic quality of ownership had, for him, remained seemingly covert. In the face of the abstraction, falsity, and vacuity of property after 2008, horror offered compensation in the form of increasingly specific, nameable, and, most importantly, visible monsters that haunted our houses. These were, against all odds, better than the increasingly insidious mortgages that haunted them—“mortgage” itself a vaguely supernatural term from the Old French mort gage, a dead pledge.
Stuck in a house you can never be sure you really own, the grotesque specificity of shocking horror becomes something of a comfort. So, you get the “jump scare.” Something of an anti-uncanny device—the uncanny being the familiar where it should be unfamiliar—the jump scare shocks the unfamiliar into viewers’ faces. It is hardly a new facet of horror films, but the horror scholar David Church notes that there has been a “a sharp upward trend in such scare tactics since 2009.” The jump scare became almost annoyingly present in 2010s horror, as each film became less a narrative experience and more an anticipation of the unavoidable shock that we all knew was coming. Its inevitability seemed to be the point, less an exploration of the haunted house than an insistence on its eventual message: we’ve all been fucked by capitalism.
Whereas the hit horror film Paranormal Activity was initially released in 2007 as an independent feature, it did not see wide release until 2009 after it was picked up by Paramount. Progenitor to a long list of sequels, the original film is something of a parable for the increasingly visual and specific nature of horror after 2008. Inspired by the success of the found-footage Blair Witch Project (1999), the film is largely shot from the perspective of a home video camera, itself a feature of the US’s post-Cold War obsession with home security. The film performs the transformation of the haunted house tale, from the ambient and ambiguous hauntings to the specific terror of the jump scare, as it builds suspense through the gradual traces and clues—strange markings on the floor, mysterious bite marks, slamming doors, and eerily moving bed sheets—that build to its final, jump-scare driven scene. That scene restarts the mounting tension, from ominous footsteps emanating from the shadows in the frame’s background, until the jump scare comes, and a characters’ body is thrown directly at the camera, which then falls from its heretofore stationary position, landing at an angle. From there, we see the haunted character Katie, blood-drenched after just killing her husband, proceed toward the camera. In the last frames before the film’s title-card epilogue, Katie smiles subtly before she transforms into the demon that is haunting the house. We are treated to one last jump scare, as she attacks the camera, which immediately cuts to black.
The jump scare is an intensely pleasurable facet of horror as a genre, if a different kind of pleasure than that afforded by an earlier iteration of the haunted house tale. It’s the height of what Linda Williams identified in 1991 as the “fear jerker,” but rather than witness unspeakable violence wrought on the female body, in Paranormal Activity that terror comes from that body’s sudden and shocking enactment of violence. The point of Williams’s “body genres” is that they allow the speaker to experience something—pleasure, fear, pain—that they could not experience by themselves. In this way, the jerk of the jump scare necessarily places viewers “beside themselves,” revealing the necessary falsity of possession, whether of self, other, or, for that matter, house.
After 2008, Americans learned that they didn’t really own their houses. But really, they never had. This is the lesson of Ari Aster’s film Hereditary (2018). Whereas it, on the one hand, captures the essence of what Church calls “post-horror” or “slow horror,” it also relishes in the same shock that motivates the jump scare, a remnant of fast, popular horror that Aster’s high-art style supposedly supersedes. Aster’s horror explores the psychosis of the contemporary American family, relishing in the drama of characters losing control of themselves, as we watch the slow disintegration of bodies, subjectivities, and relationships. But the real essence of the film is captured in its opening shot, which jumbles the interior and exterior of the haunted house. The film follows the family of one Annie Graham, an artist who makes intricate, miniature dioramas of her life. If for Fisher, the uncanny is, again, “the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself,” Annie’s artistic practice is to persistently force this noncoincidence of house with itself. The film’s opening introduces us to Aster’s favorite kind of shot, a slow, methodical pan—he will return to this technique frequently throughout the film—that then gradually zooms in on one of Annie’s miniature homes. The shot relishes in recursivity, as it conveys that this is a model of the home in which the film will take place: in fact, the very home where this model now sits! As the zoom becomes increasingly, excruciatingly close, suddenly the model moves, and we realize that the miniature it has been focusing on has become the lived action of the film: the characters themselves are unwittingly living in a model, housed by forces outside their control or comprehension.
In a way, this shot is more terrifying than anything that follows it in the film. Whereas Hereditary treats viewers to shocking decapitations, grotesque bodily destruction, and sudden self-combustion (not to mention freaky ritual sacrifice), its opening shot insists on that violence’s senselessness even as it sets its scene. The hallowed family home becomes, to take a phrase from Poe, “but a dream within a dream.” When such a home becomes haunted, Aster suggests, the family can become as much a trap as the demons from which we’re supposed to protect it. The house in Hereditary is terrifying because it reveals that the problem is not the house’s haunting—even as we have been taught, since Hawthorne, that haunting is the problem for such houses. The problems that haunting at once evokes and disavows, bourgeois domesticity, settler colonial and racial violence, and American capitalism, are not a past that needs to be put to rest; they are constantly (re)constructed in the present structures we inhabit. The call is coming, as it were, from inside the house.
Though they may not recognize it, this essay is itself haunted by conversations with and ideas from many friends and colleagues, including but not limited to Lauren Berlant, Adrienne Brown, Frances Ferguson, Jake Fournier, Dana Glaser, Noah Hansen, Heather Keenleyside, Kevin King, Anna Kornbluh, Samantha Norman, Joel Rhone, Eric Slauter, Lily Scherlis, C. Riley Snorton, Michael Stablein Jr., Jordan Alexander Stein, and Chris Taylor as well as those who attended my presentation at University of Chicago’s US History and Culture Workshop and the students in the Fall 2021 course Girlhood. All that’s good in here is thanks to them, and all mistakes and distortions are my own fault.
Jay Anson, The Amityville Horror (New York: Gallery Books, 2005).
Ari Aster, dir. Hereditary. 2018; New York: A24. Streaming on Showtime. https://www.sho.com/titles/3473616/hereditary
Dale Bailey, American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction (Madison, WI: Popular Press, 1999).
Nina Baym, The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976).
Lauren Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
Maurice Beebe, “The Fall of the House of Pyncheon,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 11, no. 1 (1956): 1-17
Richard H. Brodhead, The School of Hawthorne (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
Charles Chesnutt, The Colonel’s Dream (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1905).
David Church, Post-Horror: Art, Genre and Cultural Elevation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021).
Lou Cornum, “Burial Ground Acknowledgements,” The New Inquiry (October 14, 2019) https://thenewinquiry.com/burial-ground-acknowledgements/
Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Caroline Emmerton, The Chronicles of Three Old Houses (Boston: Thomas Todd Co., 1935).
Paula Fox, Desperate Characters (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015).
Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, Vol. 1: 217–256.
Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater Books, 2016).
William Gleason, “The Missing Window: Caroline Emmerton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The House of the Seven Gables,” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review 45, no. 1 (2019): 1–25.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (New York: Penguin Books, 1981).
———, Life of Franklin Pierce (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1852).
HorrorVanguard, “Subprime Mortgage Me To Hell.” On soundcloud. https://soundcloud.com/user-317910500/subprime-mortgage-me-to-hell
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, (New York: International Publishers, 1926).
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 2014).
Elaine Tyler May, Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2017).
Molly McGarry, Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
Walter Benn Michaels, “Romance and Real Estate,” in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (New York: Scribner, 1996).
Jennifer Morgan, “Partus sequitur ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery,” Small Axe 22 (2018): 1–17.
Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage, 1987).
Lisa Morton, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).
Emily Ogden, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
Oren Peli, dir. Paranormal Activity. 2007; Hollywood: Paramount Pictures. Streaming on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9IVhntPuwQ
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1996).
John David Rhodes, The Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
Jordy Rosenberg, “Becoming Hole (The Hiddener Abode)” World Picture Journal 11 (Summer 2016), n.p. <http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_11/Rosenberg_11.html>.
Stuart Rosenberg, dir. The Amityville Horror. 1979; New York: American International Pictures. Streaming on HBO. https://play.hbomax.com/page/urn:hbo:page:GX9qfEQ8yX5N3GwEAAAED:type:feature
Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).
Albion Tourgée, A Fool’s Errand: By, One of the Fools (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1879).
Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1991): 2–13.