Haunted Houses Oct 6, 2013 14:38:34 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 6, 2013 14:38:34 GMT -5
The motif of the haunted house is a deep-rooted one, perhaps having its origins in the ancient belief that each place, including dwellings, had its own genius loci, which in Roman mythology indicated the protective deity/spirit of a location, but which could also be the location’s distinctive spirit. In modern times, the haunted house has become a universal phenomenon – almost every town or village in every corner of the world has a building with a reputation for unexplained, often frightening, events. In past centuries, the house, whether mansion or cottage, was the locations where people died. Consequently the fact the ghosts of the deceased were said to return to these places, or, in the opinion of some psychic researchers, the residual psychic energy or impressions of these previous occupants, is not unusual.
The haunted house need not be the former home of the deceased, it may be a particularly favorite place or even the house of someone who caused the person’s death and is thus haunted by his or her victim’s vengeful spirit. The hauntings consist of “supernatural” occurrences including apparitions of the dead, unexplained movement of household furniture or other objects (usually associated with poltergeist cases), inexplicable sounds, smells and uncanny feelings. Such phenomena occur in the same house for days, years, or even centuries. The haunting may be stopped by various methods, including exorcism, prayer, the proper burial of the deceased whose ghost appears, remodeling of the structure, or even the total destruction of the building. In a few cases, however, none of these methods appears to have been successful.
The haunted house has an extremely long history; the motif stretching at least as far back as the Roman period, when authors such as Plautus, Pliny the Younger and Lucian recorded accounts of buildings plagued by ghosts. Roman senator and author of a famous collection of letters, Pliny the Younger (c. 62-133 AD), recorded a “true story” of a haunted house in Athens, which was inhabited by a “spectre who came out at night rattling his chains” and who had scared away all the tenants. A philosopher stayed the night at the house in order to get to the bottom of the mystery and when the ghost appeared to him, it beckoned him to follow it into the garden where it promptly vanished. The next day, the philosopher and the local magistrate dig at the spot where the ghost had vanished and a skeleton in chains is discovered. The skeleton is reburied and the haunting ceases. A similar incident was recorded by Greek writer Lucian (born around 120 AD) in his Philopseudes, which concerned a house in Corinth haunted by a phantom with the ability to turn itself into a hound, bull or lion. As in Pliny’s tale, this spectre also terrified anyone who attempted to live in the house, that is until a Pythagorean philosopher-mystic visited the place and, with the aid of his collection of esoteric books, was able to withstand all attempts by the ghost to frighten him away. Finally, using an ancient Egyptian curse, the philosopher sent the phantom down into the earth. On the following day, at the spot where the apparition disappeared the night before, a rotting corpse was discovered six feet down. The body was removed and reburied and the hauntings duly stopped. As R. C. Finuncane explains in his book on the cultural history of ghosts, Appearances of the Dead (1982), these Roman-era cases of haunted houses perform the function of illustrating the superiority of one kind of supernatural philosophy over another, the philosopher with his books triumphing over the dead, and thus, death itself.
This idea of one philosophy or faith conquering another is central to the understanding of not only of haunted houses, but ghosts in general, especially during the early medieval period. The motif reappears again, this time in an early Christian context in the story of a haunted house visited by Bishop (later saint) Germanus, Bishop of Auzerre, who died in 448. The Bishop’s life was recorded by Constantius of Lyon in a work entitled de Vita Germani (“on the Life of Germanus”), which was completed some time before 494. In de Vita Germani, Constantius described an occasion wherein the Bishop and his party were traveling one night and forced by the onset of darkness to stay at a dilapidated old house said by the locals to be haunted. After the group had settled in, one of the Bishop’s clerics was reading aloud when:
Suddenly there appeared before the reader’s eyes a dreadful spectre, which rose up little by little as he gazed on it, while the walls were pelted with a shower of stones. The terrified reader implored the protection of the bishop, who started up and fixed his eyes upon the fearful apparition. Then, invoking the name of Christ, he ordered it to declare who he was and what he was doing there. At once it lost its terrifying demeanour and, speaking low as a humble suppliant, said that he and a companion after committing many crimes were lying unburied, and that was why they disturbed the living, because they could not rest quietly themselves.
The apparition led the Bishop to the location of the buried bones and the following day, the Bishop ordered his men to dig at the spot:
... the bodies were found, thrown down anyhow, the bones still fastened together with iron fetters. A grave was dug in accordance with the Church’s law, the limbs were freed from the chains and wrapped in winding sheets, earth was thrown upon them and smoothed down, and the prayers for the dead were recited.
As in the previously quoted cases, following the performance of these rites, the haunting stopped.
Moving on to the modern era accounts of haunted houses, we discover the phantoms encountered have changed only in the detail. One of the best known haunted addresses in England is No. 50 Berkeley Square (pictured above) in the West End of London, in the City of Westminster. The house was completed in 1740, but it is with the occupancy of an eccentric recluse called Mr. Myers in the 1850s that the sinister reputation of the house seems to he arisen. Mr. Myers had been engaged to be married, but was jilted by his bride-to-be at the last moment and it was this, according to J. A. Brooks writing in Ghosts of London, which drove him mad. He became a recluse, living in only one room of the property, wandering about the upper floors with a candle at night and allowing the house to fall into decay around him. Such eccentric behavior led to a great deal of speculation among the neighbors and, subsequently, various strange tales arose about 50 Berkeley Square.
According to an article in Mayfair magazine in 1879, the ominous looking property was then known as “the haunted house in Berkeley Square” and during this period, its sinister reputation elevated it to a tourist attraction. Through a number of issues, Mayfair related various tales of unexplained deaths, black magic and secret locked rooms, one of which concerned a new maidservant who was given one of the top-floor rooms. Shortly after the household had retired for bed one night, terrible screams were heard coming from the servant’s room, where the girl was found motionless in the middle of the floor “with hideously glaring eyes.” Apparently, the woman never regained her sanity, nor was she able to relate what she had seen that terrified her into madness. A series of correspondences in the journal Notes and Queries in the early 1870s on the subject of the house in Berkeley Square added more second- and third-hand tragedies to the ghost lore of the house. However, there were also letters from various maids who had worked there in the 1850s, during the tenure of Mr. Myers, all of whom refuted claims of supernatural occurrences in the house. Additional stories regarding 50 Berkeley Square emerged through the years, including claims the property was used by a gang of forgers who started the rumors of hauntings to conceal their nefarious activities. Another tale, related by Elliott O’Donnell in his book Phantoms of the Night (1956), concerned two sailors who broke into the house looking for a place to sleep off a night of drinking and carousing. During the night, the men were awakened by the sounds of heavy footsteps and other strange noises and became terrified when the door of their room burst open and a horrible shapeless form confronted them. One of the sailors managed to escape the terror, but the other was pushed (or jumped) out the window to die a horrible death impaled on the railings below.
Since 1938, 50 Berkeley Square has been the home of antique booksellers, the Maggs Brothers, and, predictably enough, there have been no paranormal encounters reported during their tenancy.
Another famous property that seems to be haunted more by rumor than ghosts is the Winchester Mystery House, a Victorian structure located in San Jose, California. The huge sprawling mansion was constructed over a 38-year period, beginning in 1884, by Sarah Winchester, the window of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester (1837-1881), second president of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The couple originally settled in New Haven, Connecticut, but in 1866, their baby daughter died when only a few weeks old, and in March 1881, William himself, who was only in his 40s, succumbed to tuberculosis. Sarah was distraught over these tragedies and sought the advice of spiritualists. According to tradition, one medium told her the Winchester family was under a curse by the spirits of those who had been killed by the Winchester rifle. Sarah was instructed to sell her property in New Haven and head toward the setting sun, where she would start a new life by building a home for herself and the Winchester rifle victims. The medium is also alleged to have warned Mrs. Winchester that if she ever ceased construction on the house, she would die.
Although the 1906 San Francisco earthquake damaged the house significantly, when Sarah Winchester died in 1922, the labyrinthine structure contained 106 rooms, including staircases that led nowhere, doors that opened on nothing and other anomalies. This huge, eccentric structure with its bizarre history is home to a number of phantoms. Most of these follow the pattern of the stock haunted house tales of mysterious footsteps, banging doors, cold spots and strange voices. Various psychics have visited the Mystery House, now a tourist attraction, and most have felt the presence of disturbed spirits and one or two have even confirmed the Winchester Mansion is, indeed, cursed. Apart from such anecdotal evidence, there are no documents relating to the stories of paranormal activity surrounding the mansion and its reputation as a haunted house seems to rest entirely on its strange appearance and the curious life and outlandish convictions of Sarah Winchester.
Another well-known haunted property in the United States is 1340 Pennsylvania Street in Denver, Colorado, the former home of Titanic survivor Molly Brown. The three-story house, built in 1889, is now a museum and said to be visited by the spirits of both Molly and her husband James Joseph “JJ” Brown. Staff members have reported the smell of pipe and cigar smoke, cold spots throughout the property and moving window blinds in the room that once belonged to the couple’s daughter, Catherine Ellen.
Rosalie Hankey’s article on California Ghosts in the California Folklore Quarterly includes a short account of an interesting and somewhat bizarre haunting at an abandoned house between Santa Cruz and Monterey. While out driving, an acquaintance of the narrator and a friend stopped one day to explore the old dwelling:
It was surrounded by a wall. They found a way through the wall and saw that the house consisted of a large central porch surrounded by small connecting rooms ... The woman said that she felt uneasy and did not want to go through the house. Her friend, saying, “Nonsense! Don’t be foolish,” went into the house alone. The woman, remaining on the central porch, saw her friend passing from room to room and, deciding that she was being silly, started to follow. As she entered, she saw a woman's head floating in midair. She screamed and ran out. Her friend came out and asked “What’s the matter?” But the woman was afraid to tell what she had seen. Later, the lady discovered the house had been abandoned because of a murder committed by the wife of the owner.
There is very little to add to the story of Britain’s most famous haunted house, Borley Rectory (illustration above), a Victorian structure which was located in the village of Borley, Essex, in the southeastern England. The paranormal phenomena reported about the house are a fine selection form the canon of British ghost lore, including a spectral num, phantom coach and black horses, whispering voices, a mysteriously creaking staircase, ringing bells, an unexplained light, “spirit writing” on the walls and various poltergeist activity, including showers of stones raining down upon the house. Today, the validity of the hauntings at Borley are impossible to separate from their connections to psychic investigator Harry Price, who, with a team of researchers, took up residence in the old rectory beginning in May 1937. However, the results of Price’s investigations at Borely were inconclusive, though he published in his book The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory (1940). In 1939, the occupant of the house, Captain William Gregston, accidentally tipped over an oil lamp near a book stand and the building was gutted by fire.* The ruined property was finally demolished in 1944. Price died in 1948 and since then, there have been various publications supporting or refuting his theories and findings. What is clear is that but for the publicity-conscious Price, Borley’s hauntings would likely be forgotten.
A particularly relevant and informative haunted house story is included in David Taylor’s article “Spaces of Transition: New Light on the Haunted House,” originally published in the journal at The Edge (1998). The story came from a family living in a suburb of Birmingham (England) where, at night, the mother and daughter would hear footsteps walk across the patio at the rear of the home, enter the building (without the sound of a door opening), climb the stairs and stop outside the teenage daughter’s bedroom. Upon investigation, nothing was ever discovered to account for the strange sounds. The family enquired locally about the house and learned that no one ever lived in the property for very long. When David Taylor visited the family, they told him they believed a former resident who had died in the house was responsible for the haunting. The family also revealed that previous occupants of the house had reported the same unexplained footsteps, hence, the reason why there was such a turnover in occupants. However, Taylor’s research at the local record office revealed that an average number of families had lived in the property for reasonably long periods of time and there was no evidence that anyone had ever died in the house. As Taylor notes, this case illustrates an important point concerning “haunted” properties. When apparently unexplained phenomena occurred, the family believed – reinforced by rumors passed along to them by neighbors – that the only possible explanation was that it was the work of a restless spirit of a former resident who died in the house. We can see here that very little has changed in the makeup of the haunted house story from Pliny the Younger’s tale 2,000 years earlier. When the idea that a house is, or might be, haunted becomes established, then any inexplicable noise or flitting shadow is likely to be interpreted in terms of the supernatural rather than simply the unexplained, which is, of course, something entirely different.
Empty or derelict houses are particularly likely to attract stories of ghosts, as Owen Davies succinctly puts it, the haunt of such buildings tells us:
... what abandonment of a social space meant to the community outside. If people failed to occupy a human environment then external forces would move in; perhaps a mysterious gang of criminals, but maybe also supernatural visitants such as witches, boggarts and ghosts.
It is in such bleiefs that we should look for the origins of the majority of haunted house stories, before entering into speculation concerning theories of residual “psychic” energy left behind by the strong emotions of those who have died.
Source: Lore of the Ghost: The Origins of the Most Famous Ghost Stories Throughout the World by Brian Haughton.
*Many believe Captain Gregston purchased Borley Rectory with the intention of operating it as a tourist attraction, but when he did not encounter the paranormal activity expected, he deliberately torched the structure for the insurance proceeds.