The Shining. The Haunting of Hill House. Wuthering Heights. In all of these novels, nearly the most important part of the story is the house itself. When you consider literature in which the physical setting of the house is of monumental importance, there is usually a symbolic and a psychological component as well.
In the horror genre, setting, symbolism, and psychology is easily conveyed through a haunted house or in one in which the haunted live. Creaks, ghostly sounds, disembodied forms or perhaps shadowy figures set the scene for fear in the reader and terror in the characters that live there. In many cases the house has a life of its own.
The house in Shirley Jackson’s ghost story is as much a character as John, Eleanor, Theodora, or Luke. Hill House is an enormous mansion in which even the caretakers won’t stay at night, but it’s a draw for supernatural investigators and those who want to experience spiritual activity. It’s a physical setting for the story, but it’s also a psychological device, allowing the reader to experience spikes in heart rate and those proverbial spine-tingling chills at the suggestion of ghostly sounds and spirits in the halls. All of the tried and true Gothic tropes, like writing on the walls and strange and unexplainable occurrences, really are sparks for imaginative horror. The same is true in The Shining, where the house seems to be striking out at the family, and their trapped and isolated condition is an additional agent of fear. Ultimately, the physical setting can produce terror all by itself.
But the psychological comes into play as well. In Hill House and The Shining, we’re dealing with unreliable narrators, so in many points in both stories we don’t know what’s really goin on. Is Jack losing his mind or are the plant animals really coming for him. I think the addition of psychological terror is especially effective in haunted houses. Most people have heard noises while sitting in a dark room and wondered if the sound was real or imagined. Many people will recognize the vulnerability of the human mind. That makes stories like these somewhat relatable.
Finally, the symbolic. For this I reference Wuthering Heights, although I think it applies equally to The Shining. In Wuthering Heights there is a small ghost story at the beginning, regarding the return of Catherine Earnshaw Linton’s spirit, but mainly the setting coincides with the dissolution of happiness and family. Once a happy home, after Heathcliff’s vengeance, the house becomes a withered shell, offering nothing but hardship and brutality to those who enter. For The Shining, it’s representative of Jack’s darker, intermittently hidden persona. On the outside, he’s projecting the image of having pulled it together, but once he’s trapped in the house…game over.
Houses are complex. We live in them. Our lives mark the walls, stain the floors, or leave constructive or destructive evidence of our existence inside and outside their structures. It’s what makes houses such great literary fodder. It’s why I love to write about them. They’re more than a setting for me. In many ways they are a silent narrator.
What’s your favorite “haunted house” story?