Old Haunts


What joy to leave a bright yellow street on a hot summer day, walk into a cool theater, and get lost in an old dark house with thin white curtains that move in a mysterious wind.

People like to be taken over by haunted houses because we ourselves are haunted. Watching the ghost of a mean robber baron leap out of a Jacobean cabinet is a way of getting unrepressed. Then, after the movie is over, you feel tip-top.

It is like waking up from a dream Freud interpreted: “Smooth walls . . . correspond to erect human bodies” and “staircases . . . represent the sexual act.” (The whole thing sounds like a conversation at a ’50s cocktail party.) Or it’s like being in a Little Nemo dream from the Winsor McCay cartoons, where staircases grow longer and houses chase him down the street.

In film today, a house can actually go bananas, out of its mind— the fireplace turns into a lion; later the ceiling develops pointed teeth. In the case of the just released The Haunting, what’s bananas is a movie where the people are haunted by ridiculous computer effects. So one must turn to watching houses on cold, dark videotapes.

The house first became the star of stories in Gothic tales— around the time the middle class was being created— and the crumbling mansion was seen as the threat of an old, decaying aristocracy, as with Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. In Roger Corman’s 1960 film, we see Vincent Price sitting in his big house, wearing a ruffled shirt and strumming a mandolin— not too loud, because his family suffers “from a morbid acuteness of the senses,” he says. “If this house dies, I shall die with it.” And then he says that the shrubs are “shriveled.”

Literary and cinematic houses can be seen as doubles of the minds of the characters who built them and visit them. Psychologist Otto Rank wrote about doubling as the splitting off of personality, what a character does to insure against destruction of the self and, in romantic works, how the past becomes the character’s fate. In horror movies, people are always staring at mirrors and portraits. Then they scream.

In ’20s and ’30s old-house chillers, houses were friendly doubles with creaking doors and mad butlers. In James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), travelers in a car (“Oh, I shall be glad when we get to Shrewsbury”) become trapped in a moody house with the ghosts of women who were “brazen lollying creatures.” The rain pours down, and a man and a chorus girl fall in love.

But then came the ’40s and ’50s and there were few haunted houses on film. Likely because the characters in the noirs could not afford to own real estate. They were too transient. Also probably a lot of the people who made the noirs were in psychoanalysis. The decaying mansion became the decaying city. People’s monsters, the architectural other of the crimes the characters would soon commit, were hidden behind the drape of sad, gray rented rooms. Only when the noirs went west, as in Double Indemnity, did the house appear— “one of those California Spanish houses,” Walter says, with “a bowl of those little red goldfish.” Phyllis Dietrichson’s house, rather than being a star of the film, is her sidekick, where she takes her sunbath, plays Chinese checkers, shoots a gun.

Not every ’40s movie was a noir. Not every haunted house was haunted for the worse. In 1947, Gene Tierney, with a floating black widow’s veil, runs away from her terrible oppressive relatives, not unlike Nell in The Haunting, and becomes possessed by a seaside cottage with a monkey puzzle tree, a telescope, and a clock that chimes like a ship’s bell and by the cottage’s double, the ghost of a sea captain. After that neither the ghost nor Mrs. Muir ever has another life, and we see the sweeter side of possession and how in love a person can be.