Emily Ruth Verona
Finding Comfort in the Haunted House
There's something about a grand, eerie estate on a hill—an apartment in a creaky, old building—an idyllic little cape cod on a quiet street—a dilapidated cabin in the woods that's seen better days—I love a good haunted house. The history. The mystery. The microcosm of fright as residents or visitors try to reconcile what they think they know with what is happening around them. Tell me a book or a movie has a haunted house, or even a potentially haunted house, and I am in. No questions asked.
It doesn't have to be a house in the traditional sense, either. I'll take an hotel. A castle. A museum. There is just something so cozy, chilling, thrilling about the idea of standing in the beating heart of a haunted place—trying to figure out what is happening and how to stop it before it consumes you. Fearing perhaps that it has already consumed you. Wondering if it's too late to save yourself and those you love.
It sounds a lot like struggling with your mental health.
I was diagnosed with OCD at a very young age. I have spent my entire life navigating it. There is nothing quite like standing in the middle of a crowded room, completely panic-stricken about something that doesn't make sense, that no one else can even comprehend, and feeling your grip on your own person begin to slip. The haunted house narrative manifests these feelings of fear and doubt and solitude into a compelling, identifiable controlled narrative arc that has remained a classic for centuries. From Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764 to Johnny Compton's The Spite House in 2023, haunted house stories have always resonated.
Recently, I read a Psychology Today article that said there are three types of horror fans. You are either an "adrenaline junkie" (you love the thrill), a "white knuckler" (you're scared, but you do it anyway), or a "dark coper" (you use horror to work through your own anxieties). I'm sure there can be overlap, but when I saw this I immediately recognized myself. I am a dark coper. Absolutely. No question. I read and watch and think about horror because something in the macabre helps me deal with the anxieties of of my own existence as a human being.
The haunted house story is a controlled experience. We follow along as the main character explores these properties, cut off and isolated emotionally and sometimes physically. Honestly, their isolation makes my own loneliness feel less lonely. Their anxiety makes my anxiety feel like less of a shameful deficiency. My brain goes "see, that woman who just found hidden death portraits in the attic is going through some shit too!"
These stories, fictional though they may be, remind me that we are all haunted by history, experience, trauma in one way or another. What I feel in my anxiety might be unique to me, but the feeling of being alone in it is a universal experience.
There is an Emily Dickinson poem which begins:
One need not be a chamber—to be haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain—has Corridors surpassing
The haunted house narrative translates into a gothic metaphor for the human condition. Alongside the story's characters, you get to explore the corridors of humanity together. Perhaps that is why, every time I read a haunted house novel or watch a haunted house movie, I pile on blankets, curl up, and let the sense of place wash over me. I feel safe and I feel seen.
To be human is to be haunted. So, give me a grand, eerie estate on a hill—an apartment in a creaky, old building—an idyllic little cape cod on a quiet street—a dilapidated cabin in the woods that's seen better days—let me escape my own haunting for a little while. Let it remind me that I'm not alone in the struggle to survive my own existence. Lonely, sometimes, but never alone.