Dispossessed: Haunted Houses of the Great Recession

Landscape

In The Paris Review Daily, Colin Dickey searches for a house among foreclosed properties, and finds uncanny forces at work:

My wife and I walked, zombie-like, through home after home, throughout that stifling summer, into homes that had been closed against the light but bristled with claustrophobic air. We took to nicknaming these places: the Flea House, after whatever it was that bit our realtor; the Burn House, with its charred patches of wall and blackened carpets; Tony’s House, after the name on the novelty license plate still stuck to a bedroom door, a detail particularly creepy amid the otherwise empty gloom of the house, as though Danny Torrance would big-wheel down the hall at any moment.

For the most part, these homes were on regular streets, among other unexceptional homes. It was strange to find them in Los Angeles; the haunted house is usually built outside of some small town, a nightmare in the wilderness that beckons just beyond some tiny hamlet. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, as Eleanor Vance makes her way to Hillsdale, Illinois, she’s told not to ask about Hill House: “I am making these directions so detailed,” Dr. Montague writes to her in a letter, “because it is inadvisable to stop in Hillsdale to ask your way. The people there are rude to strangers and openly hostile to anyone inquiring about Hill House.”

It’s a common trope: the unaware traveler and the wary, even hostile townspeople. Why, in all these stories, do the poor townspeople hate the haunted mansion? Well, because they’re poor. They can’t afford to move away, to uproot their families, even after some rich eccentric has unleashed an unspeakable evil just beyond the town limits. “People leave this town,” a Hillsdale resident tells Eleanor, “they don’t come here.” The archetypal haunted house story is often really about class, about the rich who don’t understand the land or the people or the history and blunder into the landscape, attempting to buy their way into a community, blithely oblivious to the locals nearby. The town grows resentful because, by the force of economics, they are imprisoned by the rich and their folly—haunted by forces beyond their own control.

Photo: US National Archives, Flickr

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