The first haunted house story that truly unsettled me was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s also the story I keep coming back to, again and again, to better understand haunted house stories as a peculiarly feminine type of horror.
I’m sure you know the story: a young mother being treated for hysteria is confined to a hideous old nursery with hypnotic yellow wallpaper, and as her mind unravels she begins to see a woman lurking behind that wallpaper. The duality between freedom and confinement, between monstrousness and the expectation of passivity, between madness and trauma—there’s so much to unravel in this story which makes it the perfect example of how writers have used the haunted house tale to explore what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society.
Because of the time it was written, Gilman’s portrayal of how society traumatized women through the imprisonment of the domestic realm is contextualized by the strict gender roles of the Victorian Era. Yet it feels neither outdated nor irrelevant. In fact, Gilman’s brand of domestic horror can be traced through to the present day, where it continues to haunt us.
Take Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: though we’re introduced to a lively cast of sardonic characters, it’s Eleanor who is the star of the show, and it may be Eleanor who is creating or manifesting the haunting herself. She is a woman confronting her own demons, which are externalized in the haunting of the house. The sense that Eleanor is the one haunting the house reminds me of how the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” sees herself in the wallpaper. A mirror is held up to these characters, creating a ghostly double that manifests the rage and violence that society prohibits them from expressing. These women are both haunted, and haunting.
So it’s no surprise that the horror of the domestic is a distinctly feminine type of horror. For so long women have been forced into this particular form of confinement, a sphere that is meant to be a safe haven but becomes hostile when used as a prison, and horror seems like a perfectly reasonable response.
Today, the haunted house genre is flourishing, with women writers at the helm. Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is a beautiful exploration of gendered and racial power by means of a haunted house. It follows lively young Noemí to High Place, a gloomy mansion rotting from the inside out. The house is infected with the fungal growth of toxic masculinity, and of course it’s up to the women to break the spell.
Another fascinating example is The Invited by Jennifer McMahon, which is actually about the creation of a haunted house. Helen builds her home from the ground up using materials with traumatic histories, and as she builds she constructs not just a home, but a haunting, as if one is conceived through the other. It is an even more overt rendering of the woman-haunting-the-house theme from “The Yellow Wallpaper” and The Haunting of Hill House, for we see the protagonist actively and intentionally create the haunting, and in doing so, taking ownership over the horror of the domestic realm.
Even though these stories confine women to the home, they also offer women a kind of agency, for often they overcome the terror of the haunting, or realize that they are part of the haunting, and find power in it.
My own book, It Will Just Be Us, focuses on three woman living in a haunted house, and the different ways they confront this haunting. Sam, the protagonist, tries to understand the haunting, following its whispers and echoes to solve the mystery of the house’s past. Her mother, Agnes, gets lost in the pleasant memories the house shows her, succumbing to nostalgia. Sam’s sister, Elizabeth, refuses to acknowledge the house is haunted at all, as if to not acknowledge it means that the world can remain a rational place. But they are all confined in its labyrinthine halls, for a haunted house is not likely to let its tenants go—and they, too, have a mirror shined onto their lives, and in some ways they also haunt the house through its echoes of their past selves.
This is such a rich genre, and I’ve only touched the surface here. I think it’s safe to say that we will continue to see brilliant new explorations of haunted houses from women writers in the years to come. I look forward to reading them.
Photo by Nikki Bacon Photography
Jo Kaplan writes and teaches in the Los Angeles area with much encouragement from her husband and two cats. Her fiction (sometimes as Joanna Parypinski) has appeared in Fireside Quarterly, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Vastarien, Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, Don’t Turn Out the Lights: A Tribute to Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark edited by Jonathan Maberry, and the Nightscript series. Her forthcoming novel, It Will Just Be Us, comes out September 8, 2020. She teaches English and creative writing at Glendale Community College.