Haunted Houses Don't Care If You Believe In Ghosts


“When I was between the ages of five and eight, my sister and I slept in a large attic bedroom. At nightfall the room was filled with gypsies who glided around in clusters.” Welcome to a world of haunted houses:

I love ghost stories. When I was younger I’d pester my mother to tell me about the mansion where she briefly worked as a housekeeper while she was a student at Berkeley — about the elderly, wheelchair-bound owner and the perfectly preserved 1920s nursery where her children had died of diptheria. My mother, a sensible and down-to-Earth person, swears the house was alive with something uncanny: heavy furniture that moved in the night, phantom footsteps and ghostly singing. She quit after two weeks. Since moving into my current apartment, prone to footsteps, lights that turn off and on and unpredictable behavior of TVs and radios, any skepticism I might have had has dwindled considerably.

According to photographer Corinne May Botz, women are especially prone to ghost stories. As she writes in the introduction to her stunning new book, Haunted Houses,

[in many ghost stories] ghosts functioned as a way to explore topics such as abuse, property rights, mothering, unfulfilled desire, and the porous boundary between inner and outer worlds. Many of the authors were Victorian and they were considered ghostlike themselves, alienated and marginalized by society. Their ghost stories have been interpreted as a means of voicing what they could not otherwise say.

Botz also addresses the fact that ghosts are so frequently female:

A common motif is that of a beautiful female specter who appears in white, virginal attire. These female ghosts are often seen searching for lost loves or their wedding rings. Many are said to have died traumatically. These stories and visions underscore the pervasive imagery of erotic and frightening dead women in our culture.

There is scope, then, for even the most committed skeptic to enjoy Betz’s book — if for no other reason than the eerily beautiful images, which seek to capture a sense of “haunted” spaces rather than images of spirits. However, there are plenty of chills, too: the book is a series of images, accompanied by oral histories of people who inhabit these haunted spaces — both famous and unknown. Some, even recounting the uncanny, remain skeptics. Others live matter-of-factly with what they feel are friendly spirits. Plenty of the stories — like the toy car that drives itself without batteries, or the flying silverware, or the presence who crawls into one woman’s bed — are straight-up Halloween creepy. But you’re allowed to draw your own conclusions. (You can hear a selection of the oral histories on Botz’s website.)

I read the book in a single sitting the night my grandfather died. Not in any hopes of conjuring him or bridging the divide; a more rational and skeptical man never lived. Not to mention stubborn: even if he woke up to find himself a ghost, he’d never admit it. But I found it strangely comforting — especially the words of one minister, talking about the mysterious activities in an old church not far from where I grew up. “Time is a human construct anyway,” he says — and that, more than all the ghost stories and abandoned houses, gave me chills.

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