No matter how old I get I still hate venturing into my family home’s basement. It’s filled with the ghosts of discontinued toys, broken Christmas decorations, and whichever creatures made a nest out of the deteriorating cardboard boxes. Every step could land you on something you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole, and the burnt-out lightbulbs seem to mock your desire to see a yard in front of you. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve descended into the depths of that hole in the last five years. I avoid it, because although a part of my home, it is everything wrong with my home.
Conventionally, the concept of “home” is supposed to be where one feels safest, but I imagine that we all have dark corners and crawl-spaces we’d rather give no mind to. The subject of a haunted house in horror is common and successful because it plays on a shared fear — that our homes are never as invulnerable as we’d like them to be.
The image of a foreboding manor house on some dreary piece of land is often the representation of this fear in literature and film. The emotional response to this image is described well by the words of Edgar Allan Poe: “I know not how it was — but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” (43). This line, thought by the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” conveys a feeling that (excuse the pun) hits a little too close to home for us all. We naturally shy away from a house that provides none of the comforts we associate with “home.”
From that initial creeping dread, Poe’s narrator goes on to witness many a disturbing thing in the House of Usher. One by one the fundamental bricks of a comforting home are dismantled. Family, health, and safety are ripped away from the inhabitants of the house, until the house itself is consumed by “the deep and dark tarn” (60). A home crumbling in on itself is the ultimate display of anxiety in domestic-security.
There are other ways that the home can be disturbed, such as the introduction of a foreign presence. “An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was — a few more seconds assured me — as little any one else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind” (James 16). Here in the classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, we first see a ghostly intruder to the estate of Bly. The governess is understandably shocked and frightened by the appearances of these spirits, especially when we consider what these figures do to disrupt the home in this story. Shades of former inhabitants haunt Bly and eventually succeed in robbing the estate of its future master, the young Miles. This mansion is where Miles and his sister have been tucked away by their uncle, presumably for the uncle’s convenience and for the children’s well-being. The audience wants Bly to stand as a safe haven for these orphaned and neglected children, but instead the home becomes a space for horror to take place, and that is what makes it so frightful.
I’m thankful that my basement is not on the verge of dissolving into its foundation or plagued by ghosts, but it’s relatively unremarkable nature still does not mean I’ll go down there before I have to. The reason fearing one’s own home inspires such discomfort is because it turns the familiar into the strange. We want to drift into peaceful sleep in our beds, not be murdered there, promptly dismembered, and hidden beneath our own floorboards (Poe really does like keeping us up all night, doesn’t he?).
An attack on the home is personal and removes all sense of security for the resident. We all want our dream house, just not the nightmares that may darken it.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1999, pp. 1–85. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Oxford Book of Short Stories, Oxford University Press, London, 1981, pp. 43–60. Print.