Emily Dickinson, in Poem 670, writes the following:
One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted–
One need not be a House–
The Brain has Corridors–surpassing
Dickinson, of course, knew only too well what it was to be a lonely occupant of two homes: The body and the building. The Brain is the place most susceptible to hauntings, a petri dish for monsters, whether they be supernatural, imagined, or self-fulfilling. Brains can make monsters up, out of creaking boards and branches, and they can make the body a monster in turn.
What is a haunted house? I am asking you to suspend disbelief, here, to desolidify – just a touch – and step into a ghost story. Do we measure by the number of eerie incidents, the population of ghoulish figures, in presences or absences? Actually, let’s take Emily’s advice and forget the house. What is a haunting?
One time I didn’t go outside for two weeks. There have in fact been several periods of this sort, but for the sake of anecdote let’s focus on this one instance. I would wake at four in the afternoon and creep downstairs to use the toilet, pour a bowl of cereal in the small hours, and sit up with my circuitous thinking until well after sunrise. Sometimes I wouldn’t sleep for days at a time. One night I cut my hair off with craft scissors to pass the time, right down to the scalp.
I like, when reminiscing, to put myself in the shoes of the estate agent who would show prospective tenants around my house about three times a week towards the end of my contract. Receiving no response from me, the agency assumed that it was fine to enter my room unbid, and there they found me. Naked under the duvet, blackout curtains doing their job, this was the most anybody saw of me for weeks on end: A pouring of strangers into that eerie space, a grunt, a hurrying withdrawal.
In a sense, I was haunting that house, and I could feel they were scared of me.
When I moved out, suddenly and without notice, I retained that sense of creeping, carrying my haunted house with me. I haven’t spoken to my housemates since, and often wonder whether they too felt as though they lived, for a time, with a ghost. The shame of that half-inhabitation lingered, and still does. The house had been exorcised of me, but I remained a phantom in my own skin.
I don’t mean to make light of my mental illness, nor to increase the stigma surrounding it, but I see myself in the stories of women-who-haunt, flickering and distant as I see shadows on the wall, or a dressing gown hung on the back of the door. We metamorphose ourselves. We shift uneasily, from foot to foot on tube platforms late at night, from form to form in our heads and homes.
Park Chan-Wook’s 2013 film Stoker features a protagonist who embodies first isolation then monstrosity, until both coalesce. India Stoker at times seems like a character out of a Shirley Jackson novel, travelling downstairs into the basement for the outwardly charming act of fetching ice-cream, aesthetically pleasing in pastel tubs. I am reminded of my own sneaking downstairs at three in the morning, to eat for the first time that day, performing domestic tasks under a shroud.
This is a women’s film, it is descended from a tradition of literary and filmic women, of mothers and daughters isolated from the family unit and from each other. They emerge in literature when expectations fail, when a woman is a dissonant, clashing chord at odds with her own structural life. When Nicole Kidman’s character near-hisses at her daughter ‘Personally speaking, I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,’ it seems a hollow, smirking parody of Daisy Buchanan’s ‘I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’ Those hopes and dreams of and for daughters grow sour, sitting in isolation.
Without the steering hand of community living there to curb a woman’s enthusiasm, blunt her edges like sea-tossed glass, she becomes mysterious, a cryptid of rare sightings, crouched in the edges and shadows.
India Stoker asks ‘Have you ever seen a photograph of yourself, taken when you didn’t know you’re being photographed? From an angle you don’t get to see in the mirror. And you think, “That’s me. That’s also me.” That’s how I feel tonight.’ Here I am reminded of an earlier admission of self-separation, once again from Emily Dickinson, that ‘I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.’ The doppelganger is old hat, the physical representation of a split self. Words like India’s and Dickinson’s shrink the scope of searching, reeling in the physically manifested body horror of a second self back to the vastness of the internal space. The definitive nature of being, the moment of recognition in ‘That’s me,’ is what constitutes horror here, as is the search for that recognition. What is chilling is recognising as a viewer that loneliness which leads you to have to search for yourself, the awareness of an outer space that means when see a picture of yourself you must quantify your existence, declaring ‘That’s me’ to yourself. This is a consolidation of identity, of the girl alone with the haunting or evil which occupies that space too: Her body. Thomasin has such a moment in Robert Eggers’ 2016 film The Witch, owning her monstrosity in claiming ‘I am that very witch.’ She may not have initially been a part of the haunting but she enters into it as a result of the ostracisation she suffers from her family and her isolated environment both.
2016’s Lady Macbeth (dir. William Oldroyd) is adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s nineteenth century short story Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not a retelling of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play nor an offshoot in the same canon, it instead borrows the blueprints of the original Lady Macbeth. Threads of female monstrosity and escalating violence run in direct and traceable lines, from the 1623 Folio publication to this 21st century derivative. Leskov’s story feels at once specifically tied to Shakespeare’s, while illuminating far more universal concerns in storytelling and female villainy. For me, the film was a riff on one specific line of Lady Macbeth’s, in Act 5, Scene 3, when she declares in her obsessive, traumatized state that ‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’
These villains, these antiheroes, they are not the harlots or witches of archetypal womanhood-in-fiction. We find them in psychological horror. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth has always been the subject of intense scrutiny and discussion, the author of the manifesto ‘Look the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.’ The most interesting question is not, despite our school tests, whether Macbeth would have committed so much violence without her voice in his ear. There are several hundred more worthwhile questions to ask, all of them regarding Lady Macbeth’s own mind: What does she truly stand to gain? Why be the serpent at all? How can her obsessive tendencies, her guilt, her womanhood be understood today?
There are in these stories always visceral, sometimes erotic links between the woman and her environment. This is shown quite literally in The Witch, when Tomasin sheds her clothes and enters into the woods to join her coven. Susan Stewart says that ‘the monster’s sexuality takes on a different life.’ I would argue that the woman and her sexuality are so separated by traditional narrative that to represent the latter at all, even in its monstrous form, is to consolidate the two, is to be more truthful. This is the archetypical harlot reborn for herself, monstrous in the very possession of her own sexuality.
This new wave of woman-led psychological horror is perhaps part of a broader trend towards what one might tentatively term ‘social horror,’ where power dynamics in an environment are the focus, whether they be a subversion of the ‘norm’, or a chilling rendering of tendencies already apparent offscreen, as in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The sunken place to which Chris is sent, in which he is trapped, is one form of isolation and monstrosity in the film, but the real evil lies in the isolated white community, with nothing to keep it in check from a radical conclusion to the outwardly liberal racism they epitomise. Isolation in this case solidifies in a monstrous fashion already existing institutional power dynamics and distributions, it does not need to create, but illuminate. Get Out is in some ways a more traditional horror setup than Stoker, for example. There are evil characters, good characters, and there is a solid, definitive final act. The isolated evil exists not in the protagonist but in that familiar white suburb. Similarly, It Follows is concerned with more than a single evil individual as represented best by classic slasher films. The ‘villain’ in this instance is a malleable representational force, changing form dependent on the circumstances and the individuals involved in a chain of unfolding horror.
Social or situational horror varies in its specific themes, but timelessly and with that same central wisdom, that monsters are often manmade. The Witch, set in New England in 1630, is a film very concerned with the potential for evil in each environmental and communal situation. The film’s patriarch states in the opening act that ‘We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us.’ When the Satanic Black Phillip asks of Tomasin ‘Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?’ it is an invitation to that very submission, to be consumed by the environment in which she is isolated. Though Tomasin lives within a nuclear family structure, she is – in the psychological sense which informs this genre – alone. Lady Macbeth’s Katherine at first exemplifies the same: married, wealthy, and solitary.
All this contributes to forming and reforming that same question we are asked in school, that of culpability and influence. Who is more at fault in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the eponymous anti-hero? Or his wife? India Stoker, holding a gun as the camera focuses on droplets of blood staining the flowers at her feet, claims that ‘Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be.’
Let’s turn to Dickinson, a connoisseur of isolation, once again:
The Body–borrows a Revolver–
He bolts the Door–
O’erlooking a superior spectre–
The Body ignores the home, ignores what is in the home, and ignores itself. Locking the Body inside, imposing that isolation in fiction or elsewhere, forces a confrontation with those inner spectres.
When you disappear, when you self-quarantine, you do it to protect yourself and to protect others from you. For a time I felt volatile, dangerous, incapable of assuaging that dissonance between my body and the space it took up. I was intensely agoraphobic, and the longer you spend scared of that outside space, the more you become convinced of your monstrosity over all else, over occupying a body. You think the world has, in turn, become afraid of you. When I messaged my oldest friend, about a year after ignoring her concerned messages, it was an act of reaching back into that world far deeper than my many midnights spent emerging as the Madwoman In The Attic, descending the stairs to perform menial tasks. It was like coming back from the dead. •