Haunting Houses

By: Jacqueline Doyle

Featured art: The Customs House at Varengeville by Claude Monet

In the movie I’m watching with my husband, “A Ghost Story,” a woman lies in bed with a lover and tells him a story. “When I was little and we used to move all the time, I’d write these notes and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them.” “What’d they say?” he asks. “They’re just things I wanted to remember,” she says, “so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.”


We were in elementary school when my best friend moved out of the red house on the lake. She was moving hundreds of miles away, the rooms had been emptied, and we ran all over the house leaving tiny notes about our enduring friendship. There was a door in the upstairs-hall ceiling with a ladder to the attic, where we tucked notes in hidden spaces under the eaves. There was a small door allowing access to the bathroom pipes on the second floor. A dark basement with several rooms and pipes on the ceiling. Our footsteps echoed as we ran up and down stairs.


“The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace,” Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space. “The house we were born in is physically inscribed in us . . . The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.”


The red house wasn’t an old house. My friend Lindy’s parents built it in the early Fifties. It was considerably smaller than most houses on the lake, three small bedrooms and a bath upstairs, a tiny mother-in-law room and bath downstairs, a modern picture window in the living room looking out on the lake. They sold it in the late Fifties or early Sixties when they had to move away for her father’s job. When it came on the market again, much later, I was in high school. My parents bought it. The tiny notes Lindy and I had scattered throughout the house were no longer there. Lindy’s mother came to visit once when she happened to be in town, and started to cry when she walked in the door.

A ghostly couple returns to a house in Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” seeking the joy they left behind. They open windows, tiptoeing around the sleepers in the bedroom, studying their tranquil faces. As they tour the rooms, silent and invisible, doors shut behind them, one by one, “gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.”

Growing up I lived in only two houses, both in the same New Jersey suburb. The first, a ramshackle three-story stucco house built in 1916, was my favorite. There was an outdoor porch that connected my room to my brother’s, a sleeping porch off my father’s den, claw-foot bathtubs, a walk-in mothball closet crammed with winter clothes, myriad nooks and crannies to set a child imagining. Outside, a side yard of untamed underbrush, ancient lilacs propped up by two-by-fours, an apple tree with a tree house and swing, woods and a stream to explore just two lots away. My parents preferred the second house. The red house was modern, air-conditioned, expensive. It was on what was called the Big Lake, the grandest of several lakes in the town. To my father it signaled that he’d made it.

When Spencer Brydon returns to the empty house where he grew up in Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” he’s acutely aware of the lingering traces of all who’ve passed there before him, evident in “the mere shapes of the rooms, mere sound of the floors, mere feel, in his hand, of the old silver-plated knobs of the several mahogany doors, which suggested the pressure of the palms of the dead.” He senses a phantom presence there, finding doors open that he’s sure he shut behind him, doors shut that he’s sure he left open. Night after night he haunts the dark corridors, pursuing the ghost of the wealthy contractor he might have become if he had stayed in the U.S. instead of moving abroad.


Lindy and I didn’t stay in touch, though our parents did, and I remember her visiting with them once when we were teenagers. A soundtrack accompanies my fragmentary memory of that afternoon. She was wearing a hippie Indian madras skirt and had brought a guitar. Restless for adventure, I’d covered the walls of her former bedroom with travel posters of France and Italy and Spain. Soon enough I’d escape New Jersey, go to college, and live in Europe for four years. The two of us sat perched on my bed, warbling, “The Seine, the Seine, when will I again meet her there, greet her there on the moonlit banks of the Seine?” The song seems unfinished, with only three verses about an all-night walk with a beautiful woman that the singer will always remember. The memory haunts him. The question in the refrain remains unanswered.


David Lowery’s movie “A Ghost Story” opens with an epigraph from Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” the first line of her story: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” When the wife in the film is packing to leave after her husband’s death, a book falls off a shelf, open to Woolf’s story. “‘Safe, safe, safe,’ the pulse of the house beat softly.” Woolf’s couple walks quietly through the house at night, seeking a mysterious hidden treasure that turns out to be the “light in the heart” of their love. The story asks, Is it in the garden, in the drawing room, in the bedroom?


Spencer Brydon returns to haunt the childhood home that haunts him, pacing through the dark rooms every night. In this place where life was jolly, his future held multiple possibilities, he could pass through more than one open door. He’s only begun to realize what doors closed behind him when he chose the life he’s lived. Woolf’s ghostly couple returns to haunt the home where they were happy, seeking their joy. “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there . . . ”


The house on the lake was flooded with light when Lindy’s family lived there. Pale wood floors extended from the foyer to the rooms beyond, a baby grand piano with cut flowers on it—peonies, tulips, daffodils—was visible straight ahead, a blue couch with well-worn flowered pillows to the right. The house was comparatively dark when my family lived there. Maybe because I was older, it seemed smaller. The previous owners had installed ugly wall-to-wall carpet, grayish-green, throughout the entire house. The curtains, beige with blowsy green roses, were often drawn for my mother’s extended naps. My parents fought during cocktail hour in the evening. Who was making dinner? Why couldn’t he read the newspaper in peace? Why didn’t he understand the severity of her illnesses and how tired she was? “I didn’t sleep a wink last night.” Often there was no dinner.

I’ve had many dreams of the first house, sometimes composite dreams where it merges with other old houses I lived in later, sometimes dreams where corridors in the house take strange turns into the unfamiliar and rooms begin to multiply. I can only remember one dream about the red house on the lake. My parents sold the house and moved away, but in the dream my husband and I inherited it. We tour the house with the real estate agent who is going to list it. We are distressed because the walls in the foyer and stairwell are covered in leafy swirls of thick, toxic mold.


“One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted,” Emily Dickinson writes. “One need not be a House;— / The Brain has Corridors—surpassing / Material place.”


My parents lived in the red house on the lake for many years before they sold it and retired to North Carolina. The new owners enlarged and completely transformed it. It’s hard to tell whether they added on to the house or razed it and built a new house on the foundation, as many newcomers in the town did. The town is now filled with ostentatious, oversized mansions. When the new owners suffered financial reverses and moved out, the house was empty for some time, the garden tangled and overgrown, the grass brown and dry.


In fact, there was no visit to a birthplace like the “Jolly Corner” house for Henry James. When he returned to the States after almost thirty years abroad, he discovered that his childhood homes in New York and Boston had both been demolished. “It was as if the bottom had fallen out of one’s own biography,” he wrote, “and one plunged backward into space without meeting anything.” I haven’t been inside either of my childhood houses for decades. Both have utterly changed.

I count the places I’ve lived since leaving New Jersey and come up with twenty, give or take. A few things I remember. Wriggling in a high window when I was locked out of my apartment on a mews in Dublin. Milling barefoot with other spectators on the leafy street while firemen put out the house fire in Providence. Following a water diviner across the cobblestone courtyard on the castle grounds in Jühnde. Lazing half-naked in the sun on the rooftop in Ithaca, vistas stretching for miles. My son playing with toads in the hidden rose garden behind our house in Fresno. My first glimpse of the two towering pines, so sheltering, in front of the house we bought in the East Bay.

My husband and I have lived in a modest home in Castro Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area for over twenty years. We’re only the third owners of the house, originally a one-bedroom clapboard farmhouse, built in 1934. The second owners turned a small garage into two bedrooms, glassed in the front porch, and added a family room with a cathedral-style ceiling and stone fireplace. The incongruous addition looks something like a ski lodge, but somehow it fits, maybe just because it’s been there for fifty years, and the house has become used to it.


After the deaths of Sarah Winchester’s infant daughter and forty-three-year-old husband, a Boston medium told the heiress that she’d been cursed, and should build a house out West to protect herself from the tormented spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. In 1884 she purchased an eight-room farmhouse in the Santa Clara Valley and began thirty-eight years of construction. The unfinished, 161-room mansion features stairways to nowhere, labyrinthine halls that twist and turn, doors that open to walls or sheer drops from the upper floors—all intended, the tour guide told us, to confuse the ghosts who pursued her. Sarah moved from bedroom to bedroom until she died at the age of eighty-three. It was a hot July day when my husband and I took the tour. Standing in Sarah’s last bedroom, five or six feet from the palatial bed where she died, I felt breathless and faint. In a room off the unused ballroom downstairs, a safe inside a safe inside a safe was opened after her death. Inside were two locks of hair and two obituaries, her husband’s and daughter’s. A safe to keep their spirits safe, at the heart of a refuge designed by a woman who never felt safe herself.

I lie on the couch in our glassed-in porch, drowsing under an afghan, and look up with half-closed eyes into the boughs of trees over a century old. Rain blows in sheets across the yard, patters on the windows, drips from the pine needles.

“Safe, safe, safe,” the house repeats over and over in Woolf’s “A Haunted House.” “The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass.”

The second owners of our Castro Valley house told us that the original owner, an elderly widow when she sold the house to them, refused to move out after the closing. So they rented an apartment and waited until she was ready. In “A Ghost Story,” there are two ghosts who won’t leave their houses. They stand in facing windows to exchange sad greetings. Their brief, silent dialogue is subtitled. “I’m waiting for someone,” one of them says. “Who?” asks the other. “I don’t remember,” the first ghost answers.


“You can see anything you want in Sarah Winchester,” Joni Tevis writes in “What Looks Like a Mad Disorder.” “Craft a story from what bits and scraps you know. Her house is the primary document left to show us who she was, and it’s so easy to read it wrong. What was she trying to say? Was the house a letter to herself, or a cryptic message to the outside world?”


I imagined the first owner of our house as I peeled away the oilpaper lining the cabinets and open shelves in the kitchen—much older than I expected. The second owner would surely have used contact paper in the Sixties, so the oilpaper must have been from the first owner. Did she stand on a stepladder as I did? Was she young and eager, starting a new life in this new place? When I pulled out the cabinet drawers to paint them, I discovered that the wood came from old packing crates, with addresses penciled in spidery, elegant handwriting by unknown senders. I think of them often. They feel like whispered messages from the past.


There’s a note that becomes a motif in the movie. The young husband has died in a car crash, the young woman is moving out of the house they shared, and she slips a torn piece of paper into a crack in the wood frame between the living room and dining room. The ghost of the husband spends years trying to pry the note out of the crack. When he finally manages to dislodge and read the note, he dematerializes.

“What do you think the note said?” I ask my husband as we exit. It’s Saturday night at the local outdoor mall. Eighteen movies are playing simultaneously at the Hacienda Crossings mega-theater, neon lights snaking around the lobby. Long lines for the late shows have formed at the ticket booths out front. We thought “A Ghost Story” might be crowded since it just opened, but there were maybe ten people in the audience. It’s a strange movie, slow, largely silent. My husband suggests, “The note told him she was leaving, forever. He didn’t have to wait for her in the house.” “Really?” I say. “I thought it said that she loved him.”


My husband’s claustrophobic childhood home witnessed his father’s slow, agonizing death. His mother died there as well, years later. The previous owner died in the same bedroom. No one died in either of my childhood houses that I know of, but I was glad to leave the house on the lake behind. I don’t know who lives in it now. Sometimes I can’t help feeling that the unhappiness of my parents must linger there. The couple in the film was fighting before he died. She wanted to leave the house. He didn’t. We never see her again.


The wife in the movie writes “things I wanted to remember” on scraps of paper “so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.” Shards of memory, pieces of ourselves, wait for us in the houses we’ve left behind. Our houses haunt us during our lives. After our deaths, we haunt our houses.


I write in fragments—my tiny notes—trying to retrieve and remember what I’ve lost before it disappears. Before I disappear. My computer monitor blinks off, and then on again. Doors close. Doors open. Books fall off shelves. Dishes fly out of cabinets and break on the floor. In dreams I hurry down familiar corridors and find myself in rooms I’ve never seen before, a spacious basement that doesn’t exist. I leave messages behind for my husband and son to find when I’m gone. A crumpled grocery list with items crossed out. Blurred fingerprints on the crystal doorknobs, worn spots by the handles on the kitchen cabinets, an earring lost in the heating grate, a note penciled on a shelf and painted over. When will we meet again? And where?

Jacqueline Doyle has published creative nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Southern Humanities Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Fourth Genre, among others. Her work has earned numerous Pushcart nominations and six Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. Her flash fiction collection The Missing Girl is available from Black Lawrence Press. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and can be found online at http://www.jacquelinedoyle.com. and on twitter at @doylejacq.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s