Sunday, 30 October 2016

Haunted Houses

The haunted house is one of the most widespread tropes in horror literature, films, and television. It has been the theme of such novels as Stephen King's The Shining, such movies as House on Haunted Hill (1959), and episodes of TV shows from Thriller to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not only is it one of the most prevalent tropes in horror, but it is also one of the oldest. Just as tales of ghosts go back in time immemorial, so too do tales of haunted houses.

Indeed, one of the earliest tales about a haunted house appears in a letter by Pliny the Younger written to his  patron Lucias Sura. Pliny told the story of a house in Athens that had a bad reputation because no one could live there. In the dead of night there could be heard the clashing of iron and, if one listened closely, the rattling of chains. These noises would be followed by an apparition in the form of an old man with a long beard and messy hair, with chains on his feet and hands. Because of the ghost the house eventually became unoccupied, as people thought it was uninhabitable. When the philosopher Athenodorus  came to Athens, he was drawn to this house by its exceedingly low rent. Athenodorus saw the ghost on his first night in the house, and followed the ghost to the courtyard where the spectre vanished. Athenodorus marked the spot where the ghost disappeared. He had the spot dug up where a skeleton in chains was discovered. The dead body of the old man was given a proper burial and the old man's ghost never bothered anyone again.

Another early tale of a haunted house is "Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad" from One Thousand and One Nights. "Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad" tells the story of a trader named Ali who visited Baghdad. In need of a place to stay, he asks about a particular house only to be told that the house is haunted by jinn and all who stay there die before the night's end. Despite the various warnings about the house, Ali decides to stay there anyway. He is indeed confronted by jinn that night, but instead of killing him the jinn give him copious amounts of gold.

The Icelandic saga Eyrbyggja saga, published in the 13th or 14th Century, contains several ghost stories, among which is one about haunted houses. The first concerned a rich, but not particularly healthy woman named Thorgunna. Upon her deathbed Thorgunna asked to be buried in Skálholt, for her sheets and bedding to be burned, and for all of her riches to be donated to the church. Unfortunately her friend Thorodd went against her wishes by giving her sheets to his wife as a gift. It was in the middle of the night that the men who had arrived to bear Thorgunna's corpse to Skálholt were awakened by a great clatter in the buttery. When they went to investigate they found Thorgunna there. They decided it was best to leave her to own devices, and Thorgunna set about bringing food to the hall and setting the table. It was after Thoroddd had wished the men good chear that Thorgunna left the hall and was never seen again. The men ate the food she had set out, with no hard to any of them. Thorgunna was buried in Skálholt.

Unfortunately Thorgunna would not be the last ghost to come haunting in  Eyrbyggja saga. A shepherd who was an acquaintance of Thorgunna fell sick and died. It was not long afterwards that Thorir Wooden-leg  encountered the shepherd's ghost. The shepherd's ghost assaulted him and Thorir fell sick and died. The shepherd and Thorir then began haunting the folk around the homestead of Frodis-water. Worse yet, six more people fell sick and died. The six dead men were often seen on a ten-oared boat not far from the shore. The ghosts grew even worse in their haunting during the Yule-feast. Finally Kiartan consulted Snorri the Priest as to what could be done about the ghosts. Snorri sent for another priest to accompany Kiartan to Frodis-water. The priest advised that Thorgunna's sheets be burned. Christian rituals were conducted afterwards among all the folk, and later the ghosts were put on trial for their wrongdoing. Once the ghosts were charged and sentenced they disappeared. Afterwards the priest spread holy water throughout the house. The folk at Frodis-water had no more problems with ghosts.

Haunted houses would later play a central role in Gothic literature. The first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Wapole, featured many of the trappings of haunted house stories, including trapdoors, secret passages, doors that open and close by themselves, and so on. Indeed, The Castle of Otranto would not only have an impact on further Gothic novels, but on literature regarding haunted houses in general. The 19th Century would see some of the classics of the haunted house genre written. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne drew heavily upon the mythos of haunted houses in a tale of an accursed house. Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost took a more humorous look at haunted houses. Arguably The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the archetypal haunted house tales. It centres upon a governess who may or may not have had an actual encounter with ghosts.

While one would think that stories of haunted houses would be old fashioned by the 20th Century, there would be several more classic novels on the subject, and haunted houses would provide fodder for many films during the Century. Indeed, among the earliest such films was a silent comedy-drama simply titled The Haunted House (1912). Among the most influential haunted house movies was the black comedy The Cat and the Canary (1927), based on the 1922 comedy of the same name. It would be remade in 1939 starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, although that version would be played even more for laughs. In the mid 20th Century haunted houses would nearly as often be grist for comedy as they would horror. There were such comedies as The Ghost Breakers (1940), Hold That Ghost (1941), and Scared Stiff (1953). Nearly every movie series, from the Mexican Sptifire to The Bowery Boys, had at least one entry set in a haunted house. That's not to say haunted houses weren't still ripe for horror movies. Such films as The Uninivited (1944), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Haunting (1963), and The Legend of Hell House (1973) all utilised haunted houses as a source of terror.

Even given how ancient stories about haunted houses are, there were still many great haunted house tales published in the 20th Century. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson became a classic in the genre and provided the basis for two movies titled The Haunting. Hell House by Robert Bloch would also prove to be one of the genre's classics. Stephen King's novel The Shining arguably established him as one of the top horror writers of the late 20th Century, and has been adapted both as a film and a mini-series.

Haunted houses would prove to be popular subjects for episodes of television shows. The classic horror anthology Thriller featured at least two episodes centred on haunted houses ("The Purple Room" and "What Beckoning Ghost?"). Sitcoms, including The Andy Griffith Show ("The Haunted House") and The Monkees ("Monkee See, Monkee Die"), touched upon the haunted house theme. Not surprisingly, horror series delved into haunted houses, including Dark Shadows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel.

Given the popularity of haunted houses in literature, film, and television. It should perhaps not be surprising that there would develop the phenomenon of haunted attractions, whether actual houses reputed to be haunted or simulations thereof. One of the earliest haunted attractions was built as part of the Hollycombe Steam Collection  near Liphook in Hampshire. Orton & Spooner Company built the Haunted House there in 1915. In the late Sixties and early Seventies haunted attractions proved popular with such organisations as the Jaycees. The original Haunted Mansion ride was opened in Disneyland on August 9 1969. Since then there have evolved several variations on haunted attractions, from haunted trails to haunted hayrides.

Tales of haunted houses go back centuries. It is a theme that has been repeated through many novels an movies for years. Despite this, there does not seem to be any indication that the haunted house will decline in popularity as a trope. Years from now there will probably still be books and movies coming out in which unsuspecting individuals find themselves face to face with ghosts (or simulations thereof) in some old, decrepit house.

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