It is commonly accepted that as humans we fear the unknown. I happen to be terrified of the prospect of falling down a hole that I can’t see the bottom of, like a well or sewer grate (thanks It). It’s quite simple to fear that which we are unfamiliar with. I have always considered that kind of dread as a blanket fear — something that is to be expected and that we can wrap our heads around. The far more disturbing thing to consider is something familiar that has been perverted and twisted into a horror. That is a major element of why haunts in the home make us so uncomfortable. They warp our havens into hellscapes.
The home is the epitome of the familiar, and can often take on traits of a character by itself. This week I’d like to explore how the idea of domesticity manifests itself in a character for the purpose of horror. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved there are many characters that operate within the domestic sphere, but namely one that acts as a source of haunting. The woman Beloved comes from nowhere and disappears by the end of the novel, but her presence causes much grief for the inhabitants of 124.
When a female character is used as a representation of the home it may be as a daughter, wife, or mother — Beloved contorts herself to pass as all three. Very obviously, Beloved may be the ghost of Sethe’s daughter from eighteen years prior. Killed with Sethe’s own two hands, Beloved returns to reclaim a relationship with her mother, but with disturbing implications. Upon her entrance it is clear that something is not right about Beloved. Her skin is unmarked by wrinkles, not even on her knuckles, and as smooth as a baby’s. This representation takes the familiar idea of mother-daughter skin contact and uses it to unsettle the reader.
Although unmarried, Sethe and Paul D are the best representation of a committed relationship the novel can offer. This connection is ripped away by the presence of Beloved, however. Paul D gets the creeping feeling that he is being moved out of the house, to the point where he finds himself sleeping in the backyard shed. To emphasize the wedge that is being driven between Sethe and Paul D, Beloved takes it upon herself to seduce him in the shed one night. In one stroke Beloved corrupts the only stable romantic relationship at 124 and dissolves the familiar position of these characters in the home.
As a result of her sexual encounter with Paul D, Beloved finds herself to be with child. The last realm of the domestic woman — motherhood — is hers for the taking. While likely very different from our own experiences, Sethe’s presence as a mother feels familiar. Her relationship with Denver and her community plays on the various trying roles a mother must fill. The prospect of Beloved as a mother feels nowhere near as natural. The last image any of the other characters get of Beloved is her standing naked and pregnant on the porch of 124 while Sethe battles against the neighborhood. This powerful image of an expecting mother is fragmented by the emotions that Beloved inserts into the moment. She feels alone, and then disappears without a trace. Motherhood is often associated with unconditional love and a sense of stability, but the reader discovers how Beloved will never really experience either of those things in the final chapter. Perhaps what should be the most comfortable of relationships, that of a mother and her child, is cast in darkness and despair by the novel’s end.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, Vintage Books, 2004.