“The fellow made no answer, but continued pointing towards the courtyard; and at last, after repeated questions put to him, cried out, ‘Oh! the helmet! the helmet!'”: An illustration from Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”
English literature is full of haunted houses. The spectres who float through our corridors aren’t always ghosts, however: uninvited guests take many forms. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde features the prurient Pandarus, lurking and plotting. Renaissance drama abounds with household employees turned spies: think of Vasques in ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, or, indeed, Iago.
In the 19th century the living haunters are often women: Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre (both of which came out in 1847, the same decade that Thackeray had his wife committed for insanity), or Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw. This sub-genre reaches its peak in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. All these novels capture a sense familiar to anybody in love: the ghosts of girlfriends past can sometimes feel all too tangible.
Actual haunted houses — first mentioned two millennia ago in Pliny the Younger’s account of a villa in Athens — are a trope of gothic literature, beginning in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. This genre continues to the present day with the writing of Stephen King (The Shining, Rose Red) and Susan Hill (The Woman in Black). Even E.L. James (no doubt unconsciously) owes a debt to this tradition. Christian Grey’s “red room” has more than an echo of — to take just one example — Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.
Freud and Jung would agree that a spectral presence represents something repressed that comes unbidden to the surface. Indeed, the word that Freud uses for the psychological sensation of the uncanny is unheimlich — literally, “unhomely”. Homes symbolise a safe haven, and having them invaded by an unknown, malignant force — supernatural or not — is the very definition of eery.
It is this sense of the uncanny which, of course, makes the haunted house such a recurrent theme in film, too. Horror has been a cinematic staple since the 1912 silent classic The Haunted House. The latest take on the theme is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the film adaptation of which was released last month, in which the regency country-house novel is reimagined with the Bennett sisters having to add to their traditional accomplishments of piano, needlework and dancing the task of fighting off the living dead. Zombies are just the latest iteration of the revenant. But every generation creates its own myths of hauntings. We need to acknowledge the spirits without to find the safety within.