The House Remembers
Women, ghosts, and housesOne need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
When I was between the ages of five and eight, my sister and I slept in a large attic bedroom. At nightfall the room was filled with gypsies, who glided around in clusters. They wore colorful, thin flowing dresses and rummaged greedily through my drawers and books as if they were seeking to reclaim their possessions. I lay in bed as stiff as a board, trying to will myself invisible, praying they would not notice me looking. Terrified and mesmerized, my eyes were fixed on these cold strangers, studying every detail and silent movement. My sister was only inches away from me in bed, but I was too afraid to turn my head and get her attention. Daylight obliterated the gypsies, rendering them as thoroughly insubstantial as they had been real in the dark. I had a vague understanding that my vision was private, so I never told my family what I saw. When I was nine, my family converted the attic into proper bedrooms, and I stopped seeing ghosts. But this experience has always influenced my belief that the numinous is a part of daily life and that it is possible to see what is usually considered invisible.
A long time ago, I enlisted the camera to explore invisible territories. Some might argue that the camera is not the most appropriate tool for this endeavor, and yet it is the medium through which I can connect with and make sense of this elusive world. I have faith in the camera’s ability to teach us about reality and a sense of wonder at photography’s capacity to transform the ordinary and reflect the mystery and strangeness beneath the surface. Through the medium of the visible, photography makes the invisible apparent. By collecting extensive evidence of the surface, one becomes aware of what is missing, and a space is provided for the viewer to imagine the invisible.
My venture into haunted houses began the summer following my college graduation. I was living in an old Baltimore apartment, where I passed the long hot days reading ghost stories by the female authors Edith Wharton, Charlotte Bronte, Ellen Glasgow, and Toni Morrison. In the stories I read that summer, the ghost functioned as a way to explore topics such as abuse, property rights, mothering, unfulfilled desire, and the porous boundary between inner and outer worlds. Many of the authors were Victorian and they were considered ghostlike themselves, alienated and marginalized by society. Their ghost stories have been interpreted as a means of voicing what they could not otherwise say. I wanted to further understand the relationship among women, ghosts, and houses, but I didn’t want to escape into books like far too many women before me. Instead, I decided to use ghost stories as a means to voyage into the world, and embarked on a journey to photograph the interiors of America’s haunted houses.
I departed with restlessness, feeling both the freedom and uncertainty of being on the road. I felt most empowered and liberated when moving through the country’s interior landscape. I traveled from a remote log cabin in Appalachia to an abandoned gold-mining town in the desert to a palatial Southern mansion to a New England farmhouse to a cookie-cutter suburban residence. In this way I built up various intimations of domestic space. The notion of hauntedness activates and highlights the home, revealing the hidden narratives and possibilities of everyday life.
Ghosts are commonly thought of as trapped in or attached to a particular house because they died there or because they love the house so much they do not want to leave. Some ghosts are believed to have consciousness and interact with the living. These ghosts sometimes aid humans, or seek justice. Other ghosts are more akin to trapped energy; they are “stuck” in time and repeat movements without purpose. And then there are the spirits that people see after the death of a loved one; these spirits provide comfort to bereaved individuals and help them cope with their grief.
Ghost stories often reflect the history of a region: female ghosts in Nantucket are said to be searching for their husbands who never returned home from whaling voyages, and ghosts from Gettysburg commemorate casualties of the Civil War. Ghost stories that have been passed down from generation to generation often encompass archetypal themes: unrequited love, devastated dreams, violent death. A common motif is that of a beautiful female specter who appears in white virginal attire. These female ghosts are often seen searching for their lost lovers or their wedding rings. Many are said to have died traumatically. These stories and visions underscore the pervasive imagery of erotic and frightening dead women in our culture.
I photographed legendary haunted houses, but I was most interested in photographing private residences and meeting the otherwise ordinary people who “live” with ghosts. When I visited private homes, I wanted to know how invisible presences are sensed, how ghosts affect people’s sense of security, and what life is like in a haunted house. I would arrive at a stranger’s house and politely request permission to photograph inside. As if they expected my arrival and understood their houses contained something essential to me, I was invited in and given free rein to photograph. People recounted their experiences within their haunted domains, and I collected these first-hand accounts using an audio recorder.
Stepping into a private space and listening to ghost stories opens the door to additional stories about families and personal histories. People confided about divorce, how they came to live where they did, and about daily life: people were bored, content, and lonely. A hospitable woman who lived with her grown daughter on the grounds of Rotherwood Mansion, which overlooks the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee, played classical music on the piano while I wandered through the mansion taking photographs. Before, after, and during her ghost story, a woman with silvery gray hair recounted how her husband died unexpectedly. She claimed that she didn’t believe in ghosts, yet she was forced to because she saw them with her own eyes. A wonderful old Pennsylvania clock ticked loudly as I stayed photographing far past any decent hour. Another ghost story became a harbinger of tragedy. In Richmond, Virginia, I met a young woman who lived with her husband in a historic house. She had seen the ghost of the man who built the house looking at blueprints by the light of the window. She observed every detail down to his pinstriped gray flannel pants with cuffs, black shoes, shiny black curly hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. The following year she committed suicide.
The mid-nineteenth century saw the birth of both photography and the Spiritualist movement in America. The cultural climate was particularly fertile for Spiritualism, because religious beliefs had been thrown into question by science. Spiritualism began in 1848, when three young sisters turned odd rapping noises in their home into a game of spirit communication by asking questions and receiving answers with knocks for “yes” and “no.” Adherents of Spiritualism wanted to use science to prove their religious conviction that communication with the dead was possible; thus, they enlisted modern technologies, such as the telegraph and the camera, to provide “evidence” of the afterlife. In early “spirit photographs,” small faces surround the subject. One of the faces would be identified as a dead relative of the subject, and the others were said to be spirit guides. (The use of technology in response to the supernatural continues today, as ghost hunters measure activity with electronic voice phenomena and electromagnetic field detectors.) The majority of Spiritualist mediums (those with the ability to communicate with spirits) were female, and the characteristics associated with successful channeling were the stereotypical feminine attributes of sensitivity and receptivity.
When I photographed in haunted houses, I continued the Victorian tradition of female receptivity to the otherworldly: I tried to open myself to the invisible nuances of a space. I listened and attempted to be at its mercy. The particularities of the houses moved me; each demanded an individual response. As the project progressed, my intuitive understanding of where to stand and photograph sharpened. I sometimes took as few as three images. Studying the interior through the ground glass was an alchemical process that allowed me a heightened experience of my surroundings. The large-format camera transformed my perception and slowed me down. The exposures were usually long, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours. After opening the shutter I would slip out of the room to wander. I thought of the room as a stage, and I felt there was a greater chance for something to happen in my absence. It was like leaving behind a magic box. As a consequence, when I developed my negatives, I was surprised by images that I had not observed.
Like a souvenir, my photographs are both mute and partial. They are connected to the sites through a story as well as through the indexical nature of photography: the film and the referent were in the same space and time when the image was captured. The philosopher Roland Barthes describes photographic relationships of this sort as an “umbilical cord.” In the moment of viewing, the photograph refers simultaneously to This will be and that has been. This is why photographic representation is linked to death, mortality, and mourning. If they had not been captured, the images and stories in this book would have floated away and vanished into the ether. Yet their concrete permeations are structurally haunted and suspended between reality and fiction: disembodied voices, silent words, the inherent ambiguousness of photographs, and the failure for either words or images to properly elucidate the world.
Excerpted from Haunted Houses by Corinne May Botz. Copyright © 2010 by Corinne May Botz. Excerpted by permission of The Monacelli Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.