Ghosts Like Me

Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson wrote that “One need not be a chamber to be haunted,/ One need not be a house.” Dickinson’s narrator considers an “assassin hid in our apartment” far less frightening than “an interior confronting” of “ourself, behind ourself concealed.” The horrors of the material world, the poem whispers, are nothing compared to the “superior spectres” created by the mind.

Dickinson’s reliance on architectural metaphors to describe a haunted human brain situates her within a long line of white American authors – Hawthorne, Melville, Wharton, James – who depict ghosts as the nexus of architectural and psychic disturbances. In these works, the corridors of the white psyche are metonymically inextricable from the privacy and integrity of the white house, making the ghost story the offspring of racial and economic advantage. The ghosts evoked by writers of color, however – Chesnutt, Petry, Morrison, Ward – are often products of the friction between individuals and the publicly-sanctioned structures such as slavery and Jim Crow in which they are trapped. Even today, a century and a half after Dickinson, for Black Americans “that whiter host” is much more than a metaphor, and the “assassin hid in our apartment” is hardly “horror’s least.” Botham Shem Jean’s assassin, Amber Guyger, didn’t even bother to hide; she opened his front door, walked in, and shot him dead. With nightmares like this all over the news, who needs ghosts?

The best description of the privilege on which white ghost stories are built came, oddly, from Eddie Murphy, during a 1983 standup performance in which he responded to films like The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1981). “Why don’t white people just leave when there’s a ghost in the house?” he demands, then quickly runs through all the ways a Black haunting might differ from a White one. Unable to hire a psychic when his daughter gets sucked into the television set like Poltergeist’s spectrally pale Carole Ann, Murphy’s victim abandons his rental apartment and reports his problem to the police:  “I just came down so when she’s not at the school you don’t think I killed the bitch or nothing like that.” Murphy, like Freud, reminds us that the uncanny only works in an otherwise-safe world. If you don’t have a home, everything is unhomelike; if you’re structurally oppressed, you’ll need much more than a visit from a psychic in order to heal.

Shirley Jackson’s fictional Hill House was built, or rather, “born bad,” within a decade of Dickinson’s poem. (The novel was published in 1959, so “eighty-odd years ago” would set its construction sometime in the 1870s.) Even though Jackson doesn’t specify a location, both Robert Wise’s 1963 film and the 2018 Netflix series place the house in northwestern Massachusetts; the series finale even references Amherst, where Dickinson lived and died, and where Luke Crain buys the gas he hopes will burn Hill House to the ground. “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) shares Jackson’s title and Dickinson’s conviction that the white mind has nothing to fear but itself. If that theory seemed solipsistic in the 19thcentury, it reads as batshit insane today.

In place of Dr. Montague, his guests, and his “psy-kooky” experiment, the series presents the Crain family, two parents and five children, who move into Hill House with plans to renovate it, flip it, and use the proceeds to build what they call “The Forever House.” Hill House, however, like the American ghost story, is resistant to renovation: in a matter of weeks, the Crains are haunted by everything from glidy ghouls in bowler hats to infanticidal flappers. (Oh, and black mold.) Through a sort of spectral concierge service, each Crain is allotted a bespoke ghost specifically designed to scare them. Still, they stay longer than they should, just as Murphy predicted; by the time they flee, someone is dead, and the rest are traumatized for life.

The focus on white psychology and family history is troubling in part because people of color appear throughout the series everywhere except Hill House; in fact, all but one of the adult Crain children’s partners appear to be non-white. But these concessions to contemporary demographics are undeveloped and tangential to the “real” story, one that is, yet again, about WASPs, their history, and their houses. Intentionally or not, the Netflix series exposes what really haunts American culture: a white privilege so entrenched that it’s immune to the very horrors it has created. The Crains, like Trump voters, can’t see structural problems; they’re too busy staring at themselves.

Consider the series’ “superior spectre,” the Bent Neck Lady, who, after haunting Nell Crain for most of her life, is ultimately revealed to be the literal embodiment of Dickinson’s metaphor: Nell herself, behind herself concealed. Nell is driven to suicide by a vision of her own body, hung from the same spiral staircase from which her mother jumped – or fell – to her death; she learns the secret only after it is too late to stop. In a sort of terrifying tribute to L’Engle’s tesseract, time folds in on itself, making Nell both a victim of what has always already happened, and an agent of her own seemingly inevitable destruction.

Nell’s full name, Eleanor, aligns her with Jackson’s protagonist, who, after a decade of sickroom service to her querulous mother, escapes to Hill House at the invitation of a psychic researcher named Dr. Montague, and never leaves. (Montague pops up in the series as Nell’s wildly ineffective shrink.) If the novel turned the Jamesian ghost story into a comedy of romantic and architectural errors with a tragic ending, Wise’s 1963 film suggested that middle-aged single women in search of love are the real monsters. The clearly queer Theodora – “just Theodora” – with her domestic partner and her fabulous Mary Quant wardrobe, is portrayed as safer and far more sane than the needy spinster Eleanor. (Theo returns in the remake as the most aware and capable of the Crain siblings, still blessedly queer but now so psychic she has to wear gloves to prevent the feelings of others from overwhelming her.) In the series, Nell falls in love and marries Arthur Vance, who helps her cope with the sleep paralysis brought on by visions of the Bent Neck Lady, who ultimately kills him. Arthur is the sole person of color to appear within the walls of Hill House, and he’s not even a “real” ghost. He appears only in Nell’s hallucinatory memory of her wedding in the moments before her death.

Arthur’s brief appearance is just one way that the segregated history of white horror is made visible at Hill House, from the proliferation of pale, dark haired doubles (my husband couldn’t tell any of the women apart), to the unnerving caretaker couple, the Dudleys, to the upwardly-mobile parents who prioritize their real estate investment over their family’s safety. The uncanny is about recognition, but we can only recognize what we already know – hence the series’ near-constant stream of allusions to the novel and the film. (Cup of stars, anyone?) There’s no prize for finding all the ghosts in the background; it’s recognition for the sake of recognition, the uncanny as comfort food.

I loved watching “The Haunting of Hill House,” but it took me a while to figure out why. I miss being scared in a way that feels familiar, and in a way, I miss being afraid of myself. I live with depression and bipolar disorder, and, until 2016, I found comfort in the outside world, its light and unhaunted people. Then Donald Trump came to power, and suddenly my outsides scared me more than my insides. America has always been dangerous, deceptive, unfair; I marched and wrote and voted to make it better. But I didn’t feel the full extent of that wrongness until recently: the sickening tilt of the stable world, the nightmare from which you can’t wake. I know I’m safe, in comparison to many others, because I’m white; I’m cis; I’m straight. In an essay published last week in the New Yorker, Hilton Als deemed my discomfort “the tedium of having to give a shit,” and he’s not wrong. What else happened last week? Trump’s minions have shot two Black people in a supermarket and eleven mostly elderly Jewish people in a synagogue. The horrors have emerged from the edges of the frame, and they are ours. We brought them into being, and they aren’t going away until we face and fix them.

This may be why, after scaring the shit out of viewers for 10 and a half episodes, the writers of “Hill House” decided to give the series an implausibly happy ending. The family convenes at the mansion, and each sibling sees one final frightening hallucination. Then Nell, still dead, appears to her siblings as herself, not the Bent Neck Lady, and the whole tone changes. The dad overdoses to stay with his lonely ghost wife, and the Dudleys depart holding both the body of their real, dead child and the hand of her ghost replacement. As Steven, the last of the Crains to leave, walks across the foyer for the final time, all the unnamed ghosts who lurked in doorways and mirrors gather behind him. They look less like the living dead, and more like they’re about to perform the finale of “A Chorus Line.” They are also entirely, without exception, white.

“Journeys end in lovers meeting.” As a friend pointed out to me recently, the horror genre has always struggled with endings. The final words of both the novel and the film are “and those who walk there, walk alone;” the series changes “alone” to “together.” Flash forward to the Crain siblings, healthy and happy, celebrating two years of Luke’s sobriety, framed by their others of color. If we are in fact haunted by what we love most, the series suggests a future full of several shades of ghosts; still, it leaves us in a present with an entirely white past. For people with privilege, Hill House stands for everything we refused to see, everything we missed while being frightened of our own minds. And despite the happy ending, we should be very afraid.

–Long, long ago, Beth Boyle Machlan wrote a dissertation about New York City’s haunted houses. She teaches at NYU.