Curiosities Every House Is a Haunted House
Everything present is made of the past—the cities we inhabit and the language we use and the clothes we wear and what they make us feel.
A human being is a haunted animal.
We live in the knowledge that we will die, and we interpret everything that happens to us through the lens of something past. Ghosts walk our halls and materialize in the dusty sunlight of a lonely midday; they speak to us from the dark at night. We leave memories in everything we touch. If I pick up a pebble, I put it down haunted.
Here’s a simple example. On the bookshelf in my living room I have a friendship bracelet someone gave me, a bracelet I never wore, and then the person died. It can never be thrown in the trash. There it sits. To a tiny but measurable degree, I killed that friend, because my care for him fell short, was limited by selfish reluctance and distraction, and that idea is crystallized in this bracelet. And of course my friend, and the trauma of his last days, are in there too.
On that same bookshelf is a copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities in German. I got it from the bookshelf of my first husband the day I helped his mother clean out his apartment after his suicide. He had leapt to his death from the balcony behind us. He and I had lived in Germany together, and what little German I spoke was colored by his temperament and his intellect. I will never be able to give the book away, although I’ll never be able to read it. Inevitably, when I die, someone else will clean it from my bookshelf.
But an object doesn’t need an association with death to foster a ghost. I have a scented candle I ordered because a friend recommended it. Our friendship had soured by the time the candle came, and when I lit it, the candle had a sweet, ingratiating stench, very typical of cheap candles. Still I couldn’t throw it away. I put it in the bathroom and it’s still there. I can’t stop hoping I’ll come to like the smell, as I still want to love that friend. Every time I go to the bathroom now, it’s about her and that wish, and this isn’t much different from having her haunt my bathroom as a restless ghost.
Any gift is susceptible to haunting, as a thing representing a person—a person who may at any time betray you, move to Australia, or be lost at sea. Souvenirs are likewise hazardous, since they embody a time that will never come again. My husband has an enigmatic chunk of rubble which is complicatedly haunted: He remembers the ex who gave it to him, and even the occasion of the gift, but can’t remember if it comes from the World Trade Center or the Berlin Wall. E ven abstract things—ideas, words, activities—can be homes for ghosts. For me, the act of slicing onions is haunted by the person who taught me a trick for slicing them more efficiently, a man who died from a heroin overdose twenty years ago. Gloomy words are totally infested; for most of us, cancer will sooner or later be terrible with personal history. Then there are the towns where our lost people lived, and the bars where we once drank with them, and the makes of cars they drove. Scents are notorious repositories of ghosts, as is music. Every time a popular song plays in a crowded place, it plays a hundred memories. Proust could declutter his apartment all he liked, but he couldn’t stop people from serving him madeleines.
Still, it sometimes seems as if contemporary people are determined to eradicate ghosts. We see the past as a source of trauma, not significance. We talk about getting rid of our baggage. We’re advised to throw away anything, whatever its significance, if it does not “spark joy.” We are also increasingly encouraged to treat our homes as financial assets, an attitude fatal to the proper development of a haunted house. Many people decorate and renovate with the next buyer in mind, a buyer who’s assumed to favor the generic, the meaningless, and the off-white. When I first stayed in Airbnbs ten years ago, they were idiosyncratic spaces, with family snapshots on the refrigerator, shelves of battered children’s books, the paraphernalia of hobbies everywhere. There always seemed to be at least one seashell and one plastic dinosaur. The club kid didn’t bother to hide his “I Heart Gay Porn” stickers; the Satanist left on the walls his photorealist drawings of horned beasts grappling with naked maidens. All this has been sanitized out of existence. An Airbnb is now a desacralized set of bare rooms and empty closets with a single shelf of guide books and a minimum of cheap, durable furniture.
It sometimes seems as if contemporary people are determined to eradicate ghosts.
Of course, hostility to ghosts is not all new. We need look no further for evidence of this than ghost stories, which have always tended to treat the ghost as terrifying and dangerous; when they have a happy ending, it involves the ghost’s banishment. Typically this is achieved by the avenging of a forgotten crime, of which the ghost is a lingering manifestation. Often, too, the crime has a historical dimension. In Candyman , the spirit is the son of an enslaved person killed by a lynch mob for his relationship with a white woman; in The Fog , a town is terrorized by the ghosts of a leper colony robbed and killed by its founders. Vengeful spirits from Native American burial grounds are everywhere, appearing in The Amityville Horror , Poltergeist II , Pet Sematary , and the film version of The Shining . No matter how legitimate the grievance of a ghost, the desired outcome is to make it go away. Even in a film like Ghost , where the haunting is unequivocally good and unthreatening, the story is about exacting vengeance and, in the happy ending, the ghost disappears.
I’ve always disliked this narrative. It turns the victim into an embodiment of the violence committed against them: In Candyman , racist murder is personified not by the lynch mob, but the person lynched. It is the victim and their insistence on remembering that is the threat to the community, or at best a kind of litter that needs to be responsibly tidied away. This narrative also promotes one of the most persistent delusions of modernity: that we can be free of history, that we only have to pay our ancestors’ debts, and the damage will all be gone.
I understand the appeal of erasure. I too can find it exhausting to live with the detritus of my life, and I have dealt with traumatic events through denial, compartmentalization, or simply thinking about something else. I understand why people are drawn to anodyne things when life gets complicated and why it can be tempting to dump all your possessions in a Goodwill and move to a town where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you. I have, once or twice, walked away from a bad situation with no more than what I could carry on my back. I would happily watch all the Confederate statues in the world being blasted into the sun. I am not saying throwing things away can never work.
But in reality, history can’t go away. Everything present is made of the past—the cities we inhabit and the language we use and the clothes we wear and what they make us feel. Every word in this sentence was first given significance by people now long dead. The stories we tell were given form by stories we’ve heard before, which were given form by stories heard before, and so on back to the campfire tales of Homo erectus . We ourselves are mostly made of ghosts and can’t exist without them, much as our bodies are made by DNA, which is the living persistence of the deep past. There is no real decluttering that does not move us closer to our own extinction, just as there is no real antisepsis that is not universal death.