Once upon a time, I graduated college with a degree in sociology. But they weren’t hiring at the sociology factory, so I decided to write about Haunted Houses instead. But this is okay, because a haunted house writer earns about as a much a manufacturer of social thought – zilch! But hey – at least I found a similarity between the two “fields” – gotta give me credit for that! And I have more of that “credit” coming, because I have discovered ways that I can draw on my knowledge of sociology to help me in my study of haunted house films and literature. It would be selfish to keep this enlightening information to myself, so I am going to share it with you. Get ready while I reconstruct social theory so that it applies to the organization of the haunted house!
When it comes to haunted house lore, I have always been interested in the houses that serve a higher purpose than to act as a meeting place for a collection of ghosts. I like it when the house itself has a conscious. This occurs when somewhere within the walls there exists a force with a will of its own. The source of this “will” is often vague and mysterious, which leaves readers and viewers to attribute this will to the house itself. I also like it when, for one reason or another, the house is imbued with the ability to act as conductor of supernatural energy. Under these circumstances, a house can create the ghosts, or at least hold the ghosts at bay due to its magnetic properties. Or how about a house with a personality? A house that’s mean; vindictive – a house that wants to kill you!
There are other haunted house stories that focus mostly on the ghosts that haunt the house. The house is but their stage; a platform that enables these specters to show off their ghostly antics. This “stage” can provide the prefect atmosphere for their performance if the lighting is gloomy enough, if the props and furnishings give the surroundings the right touch of “haunt”. But in the end, all this is background for the ghostly performers. If the house is to be a character, it is a supporting character at best; supporting the shining stars of ethereal light.
Now, doesn’t this comparison remind you the various theories regarding the structure of society? You are saying “no.” Oh. Well then, maybe I should explain this matter a little bit better.
Emile Durkheim is considered to be the “father of sociology”. His contributions to this field are huge. He developed the concept of “social facts”. Simplistically speaking, these are forces within a society with a scope that is beyond that of the individual. These social facts, according to Durkheim, are the best predictors and/or facilitators of other social facts, or social phenomena. The rituals of a family (i.e. prayers/no prayers at the dinner table) influence the children’s religiosity or lack thereof. Poverty might be an indicator of crime. You get the idea.
What’s relevant here is that the role of the individual is downplayed. This is not to say that Durkheim thought of people as mindless automatons enslaved to tradition. He acknowledged that people influence culture and society with their beliefs and behaviors, but when this happens, something else is happening as well. Here’s a quote from The Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy that better illustrates these ideas:
Chief among his claims is that society is a sui generis reality, or a reality unique to itself and irreducible to its composing parts. It is created when individual consciences interact and fuse together to create a synthetic reality that is completely new and greater than the sum of its parts. This reality can only be understood in sociological terms, and cannot be reduced to biological or psychological explanations
Thus, according to Durkheim, society is an entity in and of itself.
Not all social philosophers thought like Durkheim. There are those that believed that society only comes into being on account of the competing interests of the multitudes of individuals. Society arises as a result of the need for people to get along, to establish rules and laws that allow people to maximize their self-interest without trampling on the rights of others. From this point of view, society comes second and does not exist independently of the individuals. This perspective is associated with Utilitarianism
Here is what Social Theorist John Stuart Mill has to say about this:
The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of human beings united together in the social state. Men, however, in a state of society are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance. (System of Logic – Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1)
For Mill, Individual consciences do not, as Durkheim postulates, fuse together. By nature, individuals are individuals and nothing more.
Now, back to haunted houses, applying the theories of Durkheim. Sort of. Any professional sociologists reading this are probably laughing their asses off at me for this sophomoric comparison. Ah but what the hell – here I go. I like haunted houses that exist as an entity, that are greater than the sum of its ghosts. Or maybe, the ghosts “fuse together to a create a (haunting) reality that is completely new.” A house of this kind is not haunted because it has ghosts. Rather, this type of house is haunted because it harbors memories that can produce ghosts. It is haunted because it creates energy that leads to supernatural phenomena. It his haunted because of its very nature. It’s not a house haunted by ghosts – it’s a haunted house! See the difference?
Stephen King’s “The Shining” is a prime example of such a house. Okay, it’s a hotel not a house, but the example is still a good one. The Overlook Hotel is haunted because is “shines.” In the movie by Stanley Kubrick, Dick Hallorann explains to little Danny about “the shining; ” – an extra sensory perception that allows one to read minds, witness residual spirits, etc. Houses too, he tells him, can have “the shining.” According to the book, The Overlook Hotel has a goal: to utilize the psychic energy of Danny so that it may trap him and his family inside its conscious forever. Throughout the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, there are hints that “Hill House” is sentient. It attempts to possess one Eleanor Vance. There are loud pounding noises and other haunting disturbances, but these occurrences are not really attributed to ghosts. They are only attributed to the house itself. Then there’s the house in Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco. The huge but old and decrepit house in this story rejuvenates when it steals the life force of its occupants.
Okay, now what of the haunted houses of John Stuart Mill? Maybe the house in William Castle’s film Thirteen Ghosts qualifies. The ghosts have been captured and stored in this house. They didn’t even originate there. Sure they materialize now and then to scare the family that lives with them, but it isn’t the house that is causing the haunting. It’s the spirits. Then there’s the film Paranormal Activity. Their apartment is haunted by a demon. This demon latches on to others and travels to their homes, at least according to the sequels. It is not housebound. In the film Evil Dead 2, demons haunt a cabin. They are there on account of a spell read from a book. They sure have a fun time with the cabin. Besides possessing the occupants, they inhabit the furniture as well. They cause a mounted deer head to laugh. The house (or cabin) is a giant toy box for the demons. In all these cases, the primary units of the haunting are the ghosts and demons. The house is an afterthought.
Don’t get me wrong. These are good films. Just because I like the “house as an entity” concept doesn’t mean that the “house as a background” theme lacks quality. This is just a style preference.
Then there is the book Hell House by Richard Matheson and its corresponding film The Legend of Hell House. They way I see it the house in this story utilizes both themes. Hell House is said to store supernatural energy, acting as “a battery” if you will that can charge up some ghostly phenomena. At the same time, “surviving personalities” haunt the house and communicate extensively with some the house’s visitors.
There are other haunted houses that I’m not sure how to categorize. For example, there’s the Amityville House. In the film Amityville Horror, there’s the line in the beginning of the film uttered by George Lutz about how “houses don’t have memories.” Of course this is foreshadowing because horrific things had happened at the house and they will again. However, even though the house is personified, it’s mostly demons that cause the terror. Then again, the house is said to have been built on cursed land. Hmm…which is it?
Perhaps there are hybrid stories out there. If so, maybe there can be some kind of scale to measure how much a particular story is “haunted house” tale and how much of it is a tale of “ghosts/demons inside a house.”
- Hell House – 50% house, 50% ghosts
- Amityville House = 70 % house, 30% ghosts/demons
- Poltergeist = 80% ghosts, 20% house.
- The Fall of the House of Usher = 100% house
- Evil Dead = 100% demons.
Of course, these percentages are just made up math from my mind. But maybe, just maybe, I have developed a quantitative way to analyze haunted house fiction. Maybe my method will be developed further and be in literary textbooks! Maybe this sociology major and haunted house connoisseur has finally found a way to use his training for betterment of humanity.
Maybe….I should come out of my cloud. Yeah I should do that. Sorry! And a special sorry to two guys, my old pals Durkheim and Mill. I have summonsed your ghosts and thrown them into my haunted house analysis. (I think they are pissed about this.) By haunting the essay with their ghosts, was I invoking the ideas of Durkheim or Mill? Maybe Mill, because the essay didn’t produce the ghosts; I went and stole them. Or maybe it’s Durkheim; because the subject of this essay is haunted houses. As such, the essay in and of itself is bound to conjure up some ghosts. I’ll let the readers decide.