In the preface to Haunted Houses, photographer Corinne May Botz writes about seeing the ghosts of gypsies as a child: “I lay in bed stiff as a board, trying to will myself invisible, praying they would not notice me looking.” When I ask her about this, she says, “I can’t really elaborate. I don’t know that they were real gypsies. That’s just what they looked like to me.”
Botz, whose other books include The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, has spent the past decade photographing haunted houses and collecting oral ghost stories across America, but is ambivalent as to the actual existence of supernatural beings. “I really was not looking for stories trying to prove or disprove anything,” she says. “I was really interested in how hauntings affected people’s views of the home.”
As a writer of horror and supernatural fiction, I am also interested in the metaphorical idea of haunting – what our deepest fears mean when they are revealed, and what stories we can make of them. Emily Dickinson wrote:
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
The idea for Haunted Houses (which is prefaced with the above Dickinson quote) germinated while Botz was living in an old house in Baltimore that was reputed to be haunted; she spent a post-graduate summer there reading stacks of Victorian ghost stories and began ruminating on the psychical qualities of certain spaces. This wasn’t new territory for her: she’d already been photographing miniature crime scenes for The Nutshell Studies, and had been fascinated by the paranormal for as long as she could remember. The artist’s obsession with recurring themes is not uncommon: “I think a lot of artists are haunted by memories,” Botz told me. “And the creative process allows one to revisit, reconstruct, and possibly lay the memories or ghosts to rest.”
Botz began photographing empty rooms. She acknowledges the paradox inherent in trying to capture what is unseen: “Photography has so much to do with the surface, and so I think that the invisible, what is not present or seemingly impossible to represent, is the most interesting and challenging territory to explore.” I see a parallel with writing here: The chronicler of ghost stories must know exactly how much detail to supply, and how much to leave to the reader. It is an art of absence. By giving us images of empty spaces, Botz allows the viewer to create their own version of the unseen. This principle also guided her decision not to include too much text in the book. “If you just write ‘There was a ghost in the hallway,’ if you just describe it in facts [then] all of a sudden it becomes less powerful… It seemed the pictures were more interesting without [too much] text. It’s nice to leave things to the imagination.”
Botz used a large format (4 x 5) camera to shoot her scenes, a method evoking 19th century spirit photography, which also inspired her. She would set up her camera without disturbing or rearranging any of the objects in the room, a method that results in pleasantly haphazard compositions. An unplugged clock radio’s power cord looks eerie as it hangs down by a bedside table, a stack of chairs evokes the terrifying breakfast nook in Poltergeist. In exposures lasting anywhere from a couple of minutes to several hours, phantom orbs and lights are likely to appear, yet Botz explains away most of these as tricks of the light (she used only available light). What’s more, she wasn’t attempting to capture ghosts on film, or even to photograph the most haunted things in the house. She merely allowed herself to capture the space from the angle that seemed most fitting, over time developing a sense of where to stand and place her camera.
Botz uses the word “uncanny” (in the Freudian sense) when describing these spaces, a concept expanded in Anthony Vidler’s The Architectural Uncanny:
The house has provided a site for endless representations of haunting, doubling, dismembering, and other terrors in literature and art… Its favorite motif [is] precisely the contrast between a secure and homely interior and the fearful invasion of an alien presence…
Ghosts have a strange relationship to their spaces: they are part of the home, yet they are frightening; they are unknown, and yet they reveal themselves to us. They are integral to the space, which may explain why so much ghostly activity comes from the house itself (moving furniture, smashing dishes, etc.). The house becomes its own agent, and yet is entwined with its inhabitants – and interlopers.
What fascinates Botz is the idea of claiming domestic space, of sharing energies with the house. This has a gendered aspect to it: “When I traveled to haunted spaces,” she said, “I thought about the legacy of women who lived in the houses and I often imagined myself as if I were them. I was paying to tribute the lost histories of individuals who lived in the spaces and reclaiming domestic space for myself.” Often, it is women who become inseparable from the idea of the house. Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, spent her life constructing a 160-room mazelike mansion to confuse the sprits she was convinced were haunting her, while Gertrude Tredwell was a spinster who lived and died in the East 4th Street townhouse that is now the Merchant’s House Museum in Manhattan, and which she is said to haunt. Botz thinks the assignation of Gertrude to the ghostly presence is a telling one:
“They just decided to call the ghost Gertrude because of the fact that she died there and didn’t ever leave the house. But it could be anything. Things are decided based on who put more of themselves into the home. It’s almost like a cultural idea that we have about the connection between the body and the house.”
Though one can think of countless tales in which women in fiction interact with domestic spaces in uncanny and macabre ways – Jane Eyre, The Yellow Wallpaper – it is rare to have to see the male equivalent (the only exception I can recall is The Shining, but even then the building is a public space, a hotel). Botz started her project with the intention of drawing some connection between gendered (interior, domestic) spaces and ghosts, but the project changed and evolved as she started photographing and eventually the gendered aspect was lessened. A project, like a haunted house, can take on a mind of its own.
The tales told in Botz’s book range from the outlandish to the mundane. A maintenance man at an old Kentucky inn claims that a dead janitor helps him shovel coal and that he can conjure specters by reciting the holy trinity. “There were three or four people I talked to,” Botz recounts, “Who saw ghosts on a regular basis [and] who seemed to be on a totally different plane of reality. They interacted with them, it was part of their everyday life. It’s harder for me to relate to… but those people have the best stories!”
But most of the stories are quotidian. The household shades do no worse than shatter a teacup now and then, and sometimes can even seem to be almost comforting presences. Witnesses use homely phrasing like, “they drop in for a visit,” or calmly characterize their phantoms as “caretakers in the house.” “Even though I think it would be interesting to focus on [the more] extreme visions,” says Botz, “I was more interested in Americana, the everyday. Anybody might have this experience.”
The houses photographed are for the most part firmly in the middle class, the homes of regular folks, underscoring the universality of the tales. Ask anyone if they have a family or personal ghost story and more often than not, they do. In his excellent novella, Ghosts, Cesar Aira writes: “The conversation moved onto ghosts. Everyone could contribute an experience, a memory, or at least something they had heard. It was the ideal subject for storytelling.”
Why do we love to make entertainment out of nightmares? Botz has a theory: “The idea of ghosts and hauntings is so fertile because it relates to obsessive memory, notions of loss, mourning, and history, and how the past resonates in the present. Ghosts provided me with the artistic license to approach ideas and spaces with a personal and embodied perspective, a perspective that embraced irrationality, surprise, and wonder.”
Perhaps this is the key to it: wonder. Life can be long, dull and prosaic, and a good thrill is monotony’s antidote. Perhaps even ghosts tire of the afterlife and yearn for fresh tales from beyond the grave: Botz told me of a famously haunted public library in Bernardsville, New Jersey where a ghost has been known to spook the townspeople by typing letters and even whole words on the library computers. One of the words that appeared on the monitor, manipulated by an unseen hand, was “story.”