Spaces of Transition: New Light on the Haunted House
by David Taylor
What I hope to do in this article is question, as a “ghost hunter”, how we interpret ghosts and more specifically the “haunted house”. I do not profess to have any answers, but hope to open up a subject that has remained on the fringes long enough. Respected psychical researcher, A.D. Cornell, is more than aware that we need to take a new look at ghosts and hauntings. At the 1997 Fortean Times UnConvention he said: “You have got to put forward ideas, its no good taking a safe line all the time in case you get criticised” . For too long now most psychical researchers or, as the tabloid press still insists on calling us, “Ghost Busters” have concentrated on the “nuts and bolts” approach to hauntings, with the use of various pieces of recording equipment with, it must be said, very limited results. What has been overlooked in the past has been the cognitive aspects of hauntings, and that is because the haunted house still remains the domain of the amateur investigator, while the professional parapsychologists are more concerned with repeatable psychokenesis and extra-sensory perception experiments in their ivory towers, which is a shame because with their help we have a greater chance of reaching a better understanding of hauntings. The “Ghost Hunters” also do not seem to be coming up with the goods, as it were, tending instead to stick with the same old beliefs in “spirits” or “place memories”.
Every community in every corner of the world has a “haunted house”, a building that has become a strong cultural icon both within our conscious and subconscious minds. Novelist and folklorist Andrew Lang observed that haunted houses “have been familiar to man ever since he has owned a roof to cover his head” . The haunted house as a traditional folklore narrative motif has long been recognised. If we look at the haunted house from a folklore/psychological angle we can begin to see that it represents an arbitrary sign within the collective unconscious of the community. Its metonymy transforms the house, in the eyes of that community, into a modern representation, all be it in bricks and mortar, of a sin eater. It begins to take on and absorb the fears and concerns of that community. In extreme cases, where a violent murder has been committed in a house, that building may become derelict or, in the case of Cromwell Street, Gloucester, local and national feeling demands that all trace of the building should be destroyed, reinforcing, I believe, the very real and strong reactions and beliefs we have about houses. The possible act of cognitive dissonance applied to the local haunted house may also reinforce psychological theories about our feelings and views of ourselves and the world around us. But this belief, a form of internal projection, in effect brings about a communal re-creation of that internalised belief and may even externalise it.
Haunted Houses – Transferring Tensions
As a psychical researcher, I come into contact with many cases of haunted houses. The archetypal haunted house may very well be a council house, and indeed many are but, by the same token, many are not. These cases are not confined to any one social class or structure, and there are common motifs in all these cases. One case which comes to mind concerned a family who lived in an affluent suburb of Birmingham. The recurring phenomena which they reported occurred at night, and involved the mother and daughter hearing footsteps walk across the patio at the rear of the house, then enter the house (no doors were heard to open) and then walk up the stairs and stop outside the teenage daughter’s bedroom. Upon investigation no one was there. The family made discreet enquiries with the neighbours about the history of the house. They were told that no one ever stayed there long. When I visited them it was clear that the present occupants believed that a past resident, who they believed had died in the house, was responsible for the phenomena. These occurrences, they believed, had apparently also been experienced by previous occupants of the house with the result that no one ever stayed long in the property. An hour in the local records office soon showed that, despite what the neighbours had told them, a normal number of families had stayed in the house over a reasonable period of time and, even though past occupiers may have died, there was no evidence to suggest that they had died in the house. This I feel illustrates the point – faced with apparently unexplained phenomena the family believe that the only explanation can be the “spirit” of a past resident who died in the house. Their belief is reinforced by neighbours who appear to have “invented” a history of the house.
Even when faced with such contradictions the family were convinced that a death must have taken place in the house. As Peter Rogerson has pointed out: “To the new occupant, the ‘incomer’, the haunted house has a ‘history’ or a ‘reputation’ in a personal, almost sexual way. The house is not a ‘virgin’. It has been violated by the presence of other human activity…” . And, while we cannot say with any certainty that the family in question had any problems, certainly no more than “normal” families anyway, their neighbours certainly seem to have projected their concerns onto the house. The house had become a sort of psychic scapegoat. We can then get entangled in a chicken and egg situation. Rumours that a house is haunted could lead the family to turn normal “bumps” and “bangs” into a tormented “spirit”, and before you know it the entire family is convinced the house, which prior to the rumours everyone was happy to live in, is haunted.
I investigated a similar case some time ago. Again the occupiers were concerned that someone had died in the house, and that their “spirit” was responsible for the phenomena experienced. Despite the scientific research undertaken which strongly indicated that an electromagnetic phenomenon was responsible for the experiences in the house, the occupiers still desperately believed that a supernatural explanation was more probable. This case also illustrates a very important, and an often overlooked aspect of hauntings. The family in question have since moved house, and now live in a small rural community. Both parents have since developed a healthy attitude to ghosts and are now both actively involved in various aspects of healing. After enduring what they have described as a living nightmare, the family has emerged stronger for it. Psychologist Julie Milton has also found similar cases which show that a more positive outlook on life and any possible life after death is also shared by some witnesses to the paranormal .
An obvious motif that emerges in most cases is the apparent link between hauntings/poltergeists and children going through puberty and family problems. As Gauld and Cornell have observed: “The most common themes in the resultant diagnosis have been repressed aggression and tensions within the family….This consideration provides substantial evidence for the view that poltergeist phenomena not uncommonly express emotions and emotional conflicts denied access to the agent’s ordinary stream of consciousness” . These sentiments have been shared on the other side of the world by Brazilian researcher Andre Percia De Carvalho: “Apparent paranormal occurrences are always reported near the high points of crisis in a disturbed environment” . Although we do not as yet have enough data to make any concrete statements, I am at this point tempted to speculate, from various observations I have made that, along with these factors, we are also dealing with frustrated and suppressed creative tendencies, the frustrations from which, due to increased external and internal factors, can be projected onto the immediate environment.
The stress involved in a case, particularly a poltergeist case, may also occasionally lead the witness to become “actively” involved without being aware of it. Such an observation was made as long ago as 1938 by Dr Nandor Fodor. His most celebrated case involved a 35 year-old housewife who he called Mrs Forbes who appeared to be at the centre of a poltergeist outbreak. Fodor soon came to suspect that Mrs Forbes was responsible for the poltergeist activity. The turning point came while they were out walking one day. Quite suddenly, and without warning, Mrs Forbes opened her handbag, took out a small stone and casually threw it over her shoulder. When Fodor questioned her about it afterwards, she indignantly denied having done such a thing. Significantly, Mrs Forbes seems to have been at least half-aware of what she was doing. In the aftermath of the stone throwing incident she told Fodor: “Sometimes I feel that I am not here, that I am not really alive. It seems to me as if another person has taken control of my body….Last Monday my cat had an accident….I have a horrible feeling that I did it without knowing….” . It is difficult for those who have not lived in a haunted house to appreciate the emotions and stress involved, so is it any wonder that the witness finds it easier to believe that “spirits” are involved rather than something much more closer to home?
But we should not be surprised at these deeply rooted beliefs in the haunted house and spirits. In the ancient world, it was a common belief that every dwelling had its own spirit or genus loci that was honoured and respected. Neglecting to honour and make offerings to these guardian spirits of the home would almost certainly result in havoc breaking loose. What we would today classify as poltergeist activity was in the past often attributed to the fairies . Today we consider ourselves far too civilised to believe in fairies and goblins, but the belief in spirits is obviously far too deeply rooted. So far I have yet to come across a case where the occupiers thought that their house was haunted by an elemental spirit.
Haunted Houses – Universal Symbols
The acquisition of a house has become a symbol of power, and an important rite of passage in our culture. It shows we are ready to stand on our own two feet and face the world and its responsibilities. The acquisition of land has always been a potent image often relating to supernatural powers and feats of strength, whether it be through the traditions of carrying fire round the perimeter of the land or the well known ox-hide myths. Peter Rogerson  may be right when he says that the council house is today’s archetypal haunted house, and offers a tantalising explanation that this is due to a lack of bonding between occupier and the property simply because as a council house it belongs to someone else. Maybe our houses are haunted because we have lost touch with them, not in a physical sense, but in a deep spiritual sense? Author and researcher Nigel Pennick has suggested: “The personality of a house, expressed by its name, is denied by numbering. It is reduced to an object, defined only in terms of its relationship, spatial or otherwise, to other objects classified similarly. Its character is no longer recognised” [Pennick 1993]. This interaction between memory, emotion and home has been explored by the artist Pam Skelton: “We construct a sense of who we are, what our identity is, through our recollections of places and people – ghosts and symbols from the past which haunt us both in the present and the future” . You only have to look at reports of recent legal battles between once friendly neighbours over boundary disputes to see how entrenched these feelings are.
This interaction is not only confined to our perception of the house but to how we perceive ghosts. As Bob Trubshaw has outlined , Our attitudes to ghosts, from classical Greece to Victorian England means that, to each generation, ghosts appear for a variety of reasons and purposes. An audience in classical Greece, familiar with vengeful spirits would scarcely comprehend the “Grey Lady” as she flits through Victorian graveyards . Our own sensibilities and constraints of the Victorians have not only silenced us but our ghosts as well. Death within popular Western culture is seen as a contamination. Our denial of death reached a peak with the Victorian era. But within Indo-European creation mythologies the act of death inevitably leads to life. The sacrifice of the primordial god leads to the formation of the world . Even today, anthropologists have documented tribal cultures that believe that the ancestors have power over the living and can endow it with fertility . In traditional cultures, the cosmos, temple, house and human body are all linked . This means that we are intrinsically linked in a supernatural relationship with the land that the house is built on.
From the annals of folklore, an intriguing aspect of this symbiotic relationship between death and houses can be glimpsed in the customs and superstitions still centred around screaming skulls. These are either actual human skulls or carved stone heads which have been kept in a property or passed down through the family, and which occupy a specific place in the house. Removal of these “skulls” often leads to screaming and other poltergeist type activity until the “skull” is returned . The location of these “skulls” and other ritual artifacts, in geomantic weak spots, such as windows, over doors and chimneys is said to keep away unwanted ghosts . So here we glimpse archaic vestiges between house, spirits and death, traditions which, even though greatly diluted, are still an important and deep-rooted aspect of modern culture in the form of those who believe their house is haunted. How many people do you know whose attitude would change if you told them that a person had died in the chair which they were sitting in, or the bed in which they slept? That chair or bed suddenly takes on a new meaning. It is viewed differently. It is still a chair or a bed, but it has now taken on a liminal quality, it has a symbiotic link between the living and the dead. And, as we have seen, in extreme cases such as Cromwell Street, that relationship cannot be tolerated.
As we can see from any good ghost story, ghosts are always perceived to occupy liminal areas, such as crossroads, graveyards, moorland, and, as we have already seen, liminal objects are associated with death . I am also intrigued by the many reports I have come across, and the observations I have made, where ghostly apparitions/presences have been encountered on every-day liminal thresholds such as doorways. Some of these experiences may be deeply rooted in Neolithic superstitions about doorways and death . Once again, as Peter Rogerson has perceptively pointed out: “Ghosts, haunts and polts then are the signs of the Liminal zones between being and not being” .
Haunted Houses – Dreaming the Sacred
The developments between consciousness research and “earth mysteries” has led to “Project Interface”, the latest phase of the Dragon Project Trust, which was established in the 1970s to research so-called “earth energies” at ancient sites. This new phase has centred around volunteers sleeping and dreaming at selected ancient sites to see if any transpersonal, site-specific motifs will emerge which can shed new light on these sites . Now this raises an interesting point – by the simple act of defining some areas as “sacred sites”, what we are in fact doing is saying that some sites are not “sacred”. We are taking the sacredness away from the land and our lives . What makes some locations any more sacred than others is not the primary concern here. However, it is an interesting possibility that the research by Paul Devereux suggests strong correlations between stone circles and geological faulting  may be applicable to cases of hauntings. Dr Michael Persinger has also done a great deal of work linking geomagnetism, altered states of consciousness and anomalous phenomena , and we must not overlook the influence of man made electromagnetic fields on the human mind .
If the work of Project Interface tells us anything about sacred sites, could this research be applied to the study of haunted houses? One of the underdeveloped areas of parapsychological research is the interaction of human consciousness at haunted locations. Writing in the 1920s, Jung made a pertinent observation: “One of the most important sources of the primitive belief in spirits is dreams” .
I ask this question simply because a few months ago I came across the following case of a haunting, in which one of the witnesses was having vivid dreams, dreams which only occurred in the house, never while she was away. In the dream, the dreamer is woken by a knock at the front door. She opens it, and is greeted by her recently dead brother who was killed in a car crash. He tells her that he was “hoovered up” after the accident, taken to the top of a tall tree, put back together again, and has come to give her a message. A strange aspect of this already strange dream is the fact that the dead brother has no skeletal structure. The dream ends when he opens his eyes, revealing nothing but blackness, at which point the dreamer screams and wakes up.
If we look beyond the obvious personal and emotional aspects of this dream we can begin to possibly glimpse some transpersonal details with strong shamanistic elements. The being taken up to a [world] tree, the putting back together, the supernormal powers (no skeletal structure), and a message for the living, are all apparent in shamanic practices . But this is just a dream, and so tends to get overlooked by most psychical researchers, which is a shame, because I have a hunch that here is the key to unlock a Pandora box of answers. Jung had similar thoughts: “….the primitive speaks of spirits, the European speaks of dreams….I am convinced that if a European had to go through the same exercises and ceremonies which the medicine man performs in order to make the spirits visible, he would have the same experiences. He would interpret them differently, of course, and devalue them….” . Maybe in cases of haunted houses we can glimpse the emergence of a much-neglected strand of shamanistic experience. After all, if we placed these experiences within any other context than a modern Western one, dreams and visions of “spirits” was the domain of the shaman. If this dream had occurred at a stone circle, burial chamber or holy well, we would all be jumping up and down, excited and expectant at what it would tell us about our relationship with sacred sites. But this dream occurred in a council house in a suburb of Birmingham, and as we all know, these are not sacred sites….are they?
Haunted Houses – Healing the Haunted
Haunted houses certainly have a lot to tell us. H.H. Price, Professor of Logic at Oxford University and past President of the Society for Psychical Research, seems to have been aware that when investigating ghosts and hauntings we are faced with a dual problem: “….neither mental or physical, but betwixt and between” . Very few cases show any evidence of direct, conscious hoaxing. The majority of cases are reported by genuine people who are struggling to come to terms with what they have experienced. They are more often than not scared by these experiences, and are confused and a little embarrassed at talking about them. It is up to psychical researchers, psychologists and folklorists to help people in this situation to come to terms with their experiences. It is certainly tempting to engage in what Jung would have called the “Transcendent Function” in cases of hauntings in an attempt to bridge the conscious and the unconscious minds with the “spirit of place” of the house through its mythopoetic projections in an act of self healing. Whether we realise it or not, myth has a key role to play in unravelling the enigma of the haunted house. “Myths recount the actual workings of the supernatural, and because they do so, whenever they are retold or re-enacted, they are deemed to release or set in operation that supernatural activity….Myth preserves a sense of the sacred. If a society has no use for the sacred it will probably have no use for myth either, except perhaps as a euphemistic term for indicating what it takes to be a lie” .
As I stated at the start of this article, this is in no way intended as a cohesive argument for a well-packaged theory, but rather the musings of one ghost hunter who ?after countless long cold nights in haunted castles, pubs, factories, manor houses, council and private houses ?feels that it is about time we made a move and followed the suggestion of A.D. Cornell quoted at the beginning of this article, and put forward new ideas. Most paranormal investigators will resist this, but that is no surprise for new ideas are seldom liked or encouraged. When investigating ghost/haunting experiences we have to remember that we are dealing with human experiences. We have in the past I feel, overlooked the human element in all this in favour of the apparent non-human. There is certainly a lot to be said for physical readings and measurements with scientific equipment in cases of hauntings, and I would be the first to champion that line of research, but also we have to be careful that we do not neglect the other, more cognitive aspects of these cases and what they may tell us about the world around us and more importantly, about ourselves.
Arbitrary Sign: We know the meaning of a sign without considering other possibilities.
Cognitive dissonance: Theory that, when faced with contradictory information or viewpoints, the mind seeks out messages that confirm choices or verdicts previously reached.
Communal recreation: Urban legends that are changed in the re-telling.
Icon: A sign that, through frequent repetition, gains a central position in the communication systems of the culture and thereby acquires rich and relatively stable connotations.
Liminal: Derives from Latin, and means “boundary” or “threshold”.
Metonymy: The use of an object to represent the person or organisation which uses it.
Motif: A traditional narrative unit, such as character, object or action that serves as a building block of folk stories of all kinds.
Mythopoetic: Myth-making imagination.
Transcendent Function: Archetypal process that mediates opposites and enables a transition from one attitude or condition to another. It arises in an attempt to understand the elusive meaning of images. It has a healing effect by bridging consciousness and the unconsciousness.
Transference: Projecting emotions onto the environment or other people.
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This article first appeared in At The Edge magazine No.10, 1998