If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you might have seen me talking about a dream which actually unsettled me. I rarely remember my dreams, and when I do, they’ve often just been weird as opposed to actually creepy or even scary – in fact, I don’t even remember ever having had a nightmare. However in this case, not only did I remember my dream, I also dreamed about the same thing twice. In this case, that ‘thing’ was a house.
Naturally the details of dreams fade, but I remember it was a large house set in some kind of parkland, with a cemetery nearby. In the first dream, I simply visited it, and can only remember the large square entrance hall with the marble floor and balustrade running around the upper gallery. In the second dream, it transpired that my parents had bought it – for some reason their room was downstairs at the back of the house, and constantly in shadow due to the trees outside. My brother and I had rooms on the upper floor, but at opposite ends of the house. Mine was reached via an absolute maze of corridors that all looked alike, and I hated the fact that we were so spread out throughout the house. I got the distinct impression that the house enjoyed the isolation.
There was nothing really wrong with the house, apart from its peculiar decor, a mixture of wood-panelling and 1970s kitsch, but the whole time I was there, I felt continually as though I was being watched, and a general air of discomfort hung over the place. For the nights following, I found myself unwilling to go to sleep for fear of returning to a house that, as far as I know, was created by my imagination.
So what is it about houses? It’s hardly surprising I’d be dreaming about them, considering the focus of my PhD upon haunted spaces in cinema, and my fascination with the Gothic as a literary device. Houses are supposed to provide warmth and shelter, not harbour threats or danger. Yet houses reflect the living – they’re transformed into homes by the activity of their inhabitants, inanimate shells gaining animation by proxy. How often do we return from periods away from the home to find they have become cold and almost unfamiliar? We don’t feel comfortable in our own home until our presence has returned the semblance of warmth and life.
It is the privileged position of the house as primary provider of shelter, the place in which we are at our most vulnerable during sleep, which grants the abandoned house, or simply a house which has stood empty for some time, that special air of creepiness. An abandoned house no longer fulfils its function of providing shelter – with no inhabitants, it ceases to exist according to its purpose, and becomes instead an arrangement of bricks and mortar.
Consider, too, the vast array of literary and cinematic examples of the haunted house. Yes, we have examples of ghosts haunting spaces other than that of the house (I’m thinking here of Ghost and its subway spectre, or the cab driving phantom of Ghostbusters) but the ghost’s primary location is that of a domestic space. Naturally we are therefore conditioned to view old or rundown houses as being potentially haunted, and it is entirely possible that we project our own beliefs into the space, generating the signs and signifiers of a haunting ourselves. In many cases, abandoned houses are met with the words “Oh it’s so sad”, as though we feel a sense of sympathy for the house itself. Imbued with life by its inhabitants, a residue remains following their departure.
I can only assume that a combination of these factors, along with my own interest in the paranormal, the history of the Gothic and my experience with ‘haunted’ houses, has conspired to create an imaginary space in which to explore these feelings of dread and discomfort. I’m choosing that reading of the dream – I don’t even want to consider it as some kind of metaphor…