I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost – do try and read it if you can.
When Hilary is six, the family moves into a haunted house. “Our daily life,” she says, “is hushed, driven into corners. We move in a rush between the house’s safe areas, and the ones less safe, where, as you enter a room, you get the impression that someone is waiting for you.”
When I read this, I was taken straight back to my own childhood and visits to my grandmother’s house. On the ground floor, a stained-glass paneled front door led into a dark passage, from which the front room, the stairs, the kitchen and the living room at the back of the house were accessed. There were also two doors which opened onto steps down into larder cupboards, one on either side of the kitchen door and at right angles to it, and you had to pass between these to get to the kitchen. I remember family Sunday lunches at grandma’s; afterwards, in winter, we would all gather in the living room in front of the fire to watch tv. But when you wanted to go to the loo, you had to leave this place of safety and run down the hallway and up the stairs and back again, as quickly as you could, because there was something behind those larder doors that was intent on catching you, and you could always feel it watching as you ran by.
As quickly as you can!
One of the scariest films I have ever seen is the 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. It’s based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and it’s the story of a paranormal investigator, Dr Markway, who persuades Mrs Sanderson, the owner of the empty Hill House, to allow him to rent it for a while to investigate its strange happenings and history of unusual phenomena. He invites several observers to accompany him, but only two actually arrive – the psychologically fragile Eleanor, who feels acute guilt at the recent loss of her mother (the death may have been due to Eleanor’s negligence), and who experienced poltergeist activity as a child; and Theodora, a self-regarding young lady who is apparently a psychic. The fourth member of the party is Luke, the nephew of the owner and at the house to keep at eye on things at her request.
Ettington Hall Hotel, the exterior of Hill House
The four settle into the house and begin to experience mysterious and disquieting events. But although the film is called The Haunting, there are no ‘ghosts’ to be seen. Instead, it works by the power of suggestion and our fear of the unknown. Continue reading
The haunted house is a motif which occurs frequently in discussions about the uncanny – indeed, Freud himself calls it “perhaps the most striking of all” examples of uncanniness. So I thought it would be useful to draw out what he says about how the two ideas are connected.
In The Uncanny, he sets out to define what it is that “allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.” He sets out two approaches: firstly, to explore “what meaning has come to be attached to the word ‘uncanny’ “; and secondly to collect examples of situations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness and “then infer the unknown nature of the uncanny from what all these examples have in common.” Continue reading
In his essay The Uncanny, Freud sets out to explore and define exactly what is is that what we identify as instances of the uncanny have in common.
He begins by exploring the origin of the word. The German for uncanny is unheimlich, which is the opposite of heimlich, which means homely, or familiar. Therefore, he argues, it is tempting to conclude “that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” However, although some new things might be frightening, not all are. So he determines that “something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.”
by Michelle de Kretser
Tom Loxley, an Anglo-Indian academic living in Melbourne, loses his dog in the bush, and then, eight days later, finds his dog, but not before de Kretser has taken us into Tom’s inter-continental history, and his mothers’ current failing health and difficult relationship with her sister; his growing obsession with Nelly Zhang, an artist with a secret past; and his developing relationships with Nelly’s circle of bohemian friends. Continue reading