architecture 101

a syllabus for haunted house studies

i've been asked a bunch of times what i'd recommend reading/watching/etc for people who want to get into haunted houses, so here's a little syllabus of sorts. this is by no means a comprehensive list, just some of my favorites that i think work well as an introduction to haunted houses as a subject!

in my interpretation, haunted houses are less about houses with ghosts and jumpscares and the like, and more about houses that are alive, or that hold on to the bad things that happen within their walls; houses that hate or love too much; houses that become animate rather than inanimate.

got more haunted house recommendations you think i'd enjoy? leave a comment! i'm always eager for new haunted house media to check out!

haunted house 101

  • the haunting of hill house, shirley jackson — the epitome of haunted house novels, in my humble opinion, and the namesake of this website.
    No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
  • house of leaves, mark z danielewski - a book that is both about a haunted house and is, itself, a haunted house, built from its labyrinthine experimentations with form.
    God's a house. Which is not to say that our house is God's house or even a house of God. What I mean to say is that our house is God.

house as family

haunted house stories are, at their core, often about the horror of the family. when a child grows up in a bad situation, we say they're living in an 'abusive home'; the sins of the parents get extrapolated onto the structure in which they occur. the house is often a site of violence, its walls hiding the horrors within from the outside world.

  • in the dream house, carmen maria machado - a memoir about an abusive relationship, viewed through the lens of different tropes.
    from the chapter Dream House as Haunted Mansion: What does it mean for something to be haunted, exactly? You know the formula instinctually: a place is steeped in tragedy. Death, at the very least, but so many terrible things can precede death, and it stands to reason that some of them might accomplish something similar.
  • just like home, sarah gailey - a gothic horror in which the daughter of a serial killer comes home to help her dying mother, a true-crime-obsessed artist is living in the guest house, and the house is haunted by more than just the bodies buried there.
  • crimson peak, dir. guillermo del toro - a classic story of late-19th century gothic horror with gorgeous visuals.

house as living thing

  • she is a haunting, trang thanh tran - a bisexual vietnamese-american girl visits her estranged father in vietnam for the summer, helping him fix up the colonial-era house he's turning into a hotel in exchange for tuition money, unprepared for the house to be nightmarishly parasitic and alive. told partially from the perspective of the house, with a sweet coming-of-age sapphic narrative woven amidst the horrors.
  • anatomy, kitty horrorshow - explore a suburban house, collect cassette tapes, study the physiology of domestic architecture.
    In the psychology of the modern, civilized human being, it is difficult to overstate the significance of the house. Since as early as the Neolithic era, humankind has defined itself by its buildings. Buildings for worship, buildings for socializing, buildings for protection, even buildings for the commemoration of the dead. But of all the structures that mankind has invented for itself, there is little doubt the the house is that which it relies on most completely for its continued survival.

house as folklore

i love ghost stories for what they can tell us about the people weaving them. haunted houses are painfully regional things - the trope of the one house on the street no one goes in because it's haunted endures for a reason, y'know?

  • ghostland, colin dickey - an exploration of the united states through the lens of its regional ghost stories. the #1 nonfiction ghost book for me!
  • plain bad heroines, emily m danforth - less of a classic haunted house story than others on this list, but i'm including it anyways because i love the way it explores the same location's haunting over a gap of 100 years. in the early 1900s, a girls' boarding school is home to a series of mysterious deaths, and in the 2000s, a film crew is adapting those deaths for hollywood and experiencing mysteries of their own. (also, the amount of dyke drama in this book is insane. the most unapologetically for-lesbians book i've ever read.)
  • interview with the writer of i am in eskew, mike chapman
    I think there’s a rich ream of horror, from The Haunting of Hill House to Ghostwatch, that delves into the idea that certain places can simply go wrong - and once these bad environments have been established and ostracised by society, they can’t be exorcised. They simply keep accruing power through the individual stories that play tragically out in their shadow.

    I mention a real-life example of that kind of bad architecture in one episode; the Pope Lick Bridge in Kentucky, a place that looks and feels so sinister that it developed its own local folklore about a goat-man who attacks people who stray too close to the edge - and which has ended up resulting in deaths as visitors peer over the side trying to get a peek at the monster.

  • mabel, mabel martin & becca de la rosa - a podcast that combines haunted houses, fae horror, reality-bending surreal horror, poetry, and voicemail-based lesbian romance.
    from episode 39: reverie: Houses are good at narrative cohesion. Intersection, I mean, they are - they are landmarks. The gingerbread house. The princess’s castle. The quintessential, immediately recognizable “haunted house”. They’re a good crossroads.

house as society

  • white is for witching, helen oyeyemi - a haunted house story and an exploration of racism, xenophobia, and family legacy, told in shifting points-of-view that include the pov of the house itself. miranda silver's mother dies and miranda gets sicker and sicker, and the silver family house's malevolence towards outsiders grows.
  • tell me i'm worthless, alison rumfitt - a haunted house in which the ghost is fascism. (major content warnings for fascism, transphobia, and sexual assault.)
    There are some who immediately feel safer, knowing that the House is there, and there are some who do not. For someone to feel safe, another has to be unsafe. And the one who is safe may not even be safe, they may just feel safe, up until the moment they don’t.
  • his house, dir. remi weekes - a refugee couple from south sudan flee to england and are granted temporary asylum and a run-down house to live in - a house that has something very wrong with it, in addition to the racist neighbors and government inspections.
  • architects of fear: how haunted houses build nightmares out of trauma and evolving societal fears, marisa mirabal - an examination of haunted houses in film & the societal and architectural sources of their hauntings.
    The symbolic representation of a house has taken on multiple meanings over time, but it always maintains the facade of being a home-- a place of solace, safety, and status. Its primal purpose is to shield and protect. When the home is compromised, when a house is haunted, an invasion of mental, physical, and emotional anguish follows, and one’s strength and sanity slowly wilt like a dying flower.

horror as architecture

this section deals with the construction of the haunted house: why do some combinations of walls, windows, and doors make our skin crawl? why are so many haunted houses victorian-era architecture? what makes a house look evil?
  • the psychology, geography, and architecture of horror: how places creep us out, francis mcandrew - an examination of haunted houses from a psychological perspective.
    Although other scholars have reflected on this question by examining the role played by the settings and ambient sensation in horror fiction and film, especially when the story grows out of the Gothic tradition, they have typically not taken advantage of recent research on evolved psychology to make sense of their findings. These literary analyses focus on fictional spaces, but I contend that fictional spaces are effective precisely because they accurately, albeit in a somewhat exaggerated fashion, reflect the components of real physical spaces that cause people to feel uneasy.

    It is the goal of this paper to apply what psychologists and other scientists have learned about human emotional responses to physical surroundings to understanding why some settings and some combinations of sensory information can induce a sense of horror in humans.

  • horror in architecture, joshua comaroff & ong ker-shing - haunted houses from an architect's perspective.

further reading

  • internet as house: what lies beneath, laura maw - the internet is decaying all around us. an application of haunted house theory to the structures of the internet, through the analytic lens of horror in architecture.
    Online, we regularly encounter websites that display signs of decay, ruin, and dereliction. The 404 error — “page not found” — is maybe the most common example of the “partially dead,” being the “dead” part of a live site. This is horrible architecture: evidence of faulty construction, a rupture in our expectation of smooth navigation; the URL does not behave as it should. The 404 error is a fundamental part of our online experience, yet it never fails to surprise, bewilder or frustrate.
  • house as time machine: and yet, a.t. greenblatt
    You were hoping, god you were hoping you could take the same path as before. Have the same escape routes. But the haunted house of your childhood has become an unfamiliar landscape. Instead of the front door opening to a wide landing and a staircase, you are standing in a foyer, at the mouth of a narrow hall with rooms on either side. There’s no staircase in sight.

    The walls are slanted inward. They’re covered in dark, dizzyingly patterned wallpaper and you aren’t claustrophobic until you are. Vertigo and your pulse skips so badly you don’t even notice the frames on the walls at first. But when you do, you bite back a scream.

    They’re full of pictures of you.


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