Friday, October 15, 2021

Reflections: The deep need for haunted houses

In that school year in which we fulfilled our obligation of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I remember a discussion about the Radley house.  Our English teacher mentioned the omnipresent haunted house that every town and village in the history of American towns and villages had to have.  In our rural county seat, the official 'haunted house' was this little gem:


This is a picture I took some years ago when I drove through my old stomping grounds.  When I was young it was abandoned, and remained empty until long after I graduated high school.  Being abandoned, the yard was overgrown with weeds and undergrowth.  An old iron fence surrounded the yard then, with cracked stone pillars on each corner of the grounds, each with a small gargoyle on top.  The iron gate was padlocked.  

It was a common 'dare' to get kids to do what every kid in every town with a haunted house ever did, and just what Scout and Jem did: find a way through the fence, run up and touch the front door.  Since we were perhaps more sophisticated, however, we didn't stop at touching the front door, since even in the 1970s we didn't imagine some spectral hand would reach out and grab us.  Instead we looked for some clue about why the house was empty.  For ease of access, we imagined that clue might have been in the cellar.  We would crawl about the weeds along the sides of the house, trying to see through the basement windows that were caked with dust or boarded up.

Nonetheless, despite such a prime haunted location, our county had houses aplenty that could qualify for haunted houses - some of them inhabited.  I've written before that when we first moved to that area, we lived in a house my dad built on 20 acres a half dozen miles outside of town.  Beyond the cornstalks and hay bales, you would see no end of houses in the area that could fall under the category 'haunted looking.' 

The setting was Northcentral Ohio farmlands.  Not the endless stretches of grain and corn you see in Nebraska or Kansas.  They are smaller, a few hundred acres at a time, separated by brooks and lines of unkempt trees and woods.  Also, back in the day, you would see no end of broken down machinery and abandoned buildings.  You don't see those as much now, so I'll assume the tax laws changed at some point. 

Sometimes the houses that were abandoned didn't look much different than the houses that were lived in.  Especially among older denizens, the houses could be almost Gothic.  This picture here looks like any one of a dozen houses that were scattered about the area we lived in back in the day:


Fix the windows, get the door patched up, a few minor repairs, and that's the house my mom had to go to the night our car broke down coming home in a midnight thunderstorm when I was four.  An added bonus to that story was the elderly woman who answered the door, with nothing but a single table lamp lighting a room decorated in early 20th Century Victorian.  According to my mom, she actually had a shawl on and everything.  How straight out of Adams Family Halloween can you get?

That's why my parents moved, by the way.  Given that was the style of neighboring households as often as not, my mom just couldn't take being home by herself when dad worked overnight.  She had spent her whole life in cities and towns, and that was a bit much.  So in to town we moved, and began a new phase among many phases of my childhood. 

And yet, it was also fun.  There was something about that feeling of 'haunted' I got as a kid.  It's the same feeling I likely looked for running around that old abandoned house in town, trying to peer in the basement.  I think it's the feeling we still try to get when we watch horror movies, or go into haunted houses around Halloween.  There's something about a place that looks haunted that strikes a primal chord in us, a chord too many have likely lost due to an age obsessed with STEM and all things digital and technological. 

With each passing day, I'm more convinced we've lost something in our modern age.  No matter how many angels we talk about on Sundays, or how much we kick around the hereafter, the easy relationship with the Invisible side of Creation and our five physical senses remains at arm's length, blocked by endless wires, processors and digital tech.  Not that it had to drive a wedge between a secular and a spiritual grasp of the world, but somehow it did. 

An abandoned schoolhouse just around the corner of our country home - still there, and still spooky

2 comments:

  1. Given how much you hate scientists, you seem to have flunked physics or chemistry in high school. The one thing that is certain is you are getting your stereotypes of scientists from TV and movies -- not from personal acquaintance with many scientists. Don't get me wrong: I am a scientist, and it doesn't matter whether some random dude on the Internet hates me or not. (The Internet is full of random dudes hating people for random reasons.
    It's not worth worrying about.) But when this random dude starts portraying himself as some kind of spokesman for the Catholic Church -- and he has the much coveted FOEDUS invitation to prove it! -- then his bigotry reflects badly on the Church, and THAT actually DOES matter.

    And by the way, you are tilting at windmills. Even if scientists are evil and STEM is a "Communist" conspiracy, we are not in an "Age of Reason" (mixed blessing that that may be). We are in an age where ordinary people with vaguely Christian backgrounds sleep under dream-catchers and "smudge sage" around their house if it feels creepy. We are in an age where love spells are sold in the check-out line of Walmart. We are in an age where young girls try to murder a friend to please Slender Man, where the worship of "Santa Muerte" is spreading, and where witches were celebrated for putting a curse on a US president. We are in an age where people do not know the difference between energy, electromagnetic fields, and ghosts.

    STEM may have the role you assign it in China, but not here.

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    1. Whoa cowboy. Let’s slow down there. First a couple corrections. I don’t hate science. Or think it’s part of a commie pinko conspiracy. Several in my circle are within the fields of science and medicine. Two of my wife’s cousins are doctors, one a specialist. Two of my friends hold PhDs in physics and chemistry. My father-in-law is a chemist. And for the record, I avoided physics in school. I took chemistry and got an A- for the year. My wife is the math and physics person in our house, and I happen to be fond of her.

      Now, with that said, my point is that what you’re saying is correct. I’m merely suggesting the failure to see the difference between an electromagnetic field and a ghost might come from the fact that we believe there is a stark difference in the first place. Perhaps there isn’t. That’s all I’m saying.

      I think on that exorcist being interviewed by the Boston Globe a year or so ago. I remember his claim that the Church more or less assumes a scientific explanation, but if that doesn’t pan out, then we go spiritual. My contention is that the quick divide between ‘usually the visible, but if science can’t work it out, we’ll do the invisible’ might be more a product of our age than the only acceptable approach. Not that there isn’t a difference, just that perhaps we’ve allowed the physical to balloon up a little beyond its proper place.
      I know from my time with the Orthodox that isn’t their approach. Not that they count chicken bones or wait for angels to unlock the car doors. They just seem to have a little bit bigger section in that material/spiritual Venn diagram where the two overlap. Perhaps we in the West have become so immersed in a secular template, that we’ve come to act as if the overlap is small, and the invisible so minor. Which would be a pity, though it might explain things – like why so many are jettisoning not only the Faith, but the very belief in anything but the material.

      It’s enough to say something is going wrong in the corridors of the faithful right now. We can shrug our shoulders and say ‘eh, it happens’. Or, instead, we could think outside the box. I’d hate to think that is an anti-Catholic virtue. Or an anti-science one for that matter.

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