This Haunted House

I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside. 

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House 

 

I do not feel safe in my own home.

Not for any really valid or sensible reason. I mean, it’s suburban perfection – cookie-cutter houses in a safe and beautiful neighborhood that’s one long main road down from the town. The neighbors are nice in that smile and nod at you while walking their dog and holding their preschooler’s hand type of way, and the elderly couple that lives to the right are a picture-perfect cutout of Ellie and Carl from UP (thankfully without the tear-jerking beginning montage). 

I do not feel safe in my own house because when the lights go out and it’s late at night, the shadows seem to stretch out from every sharp corner, gleefully reaching to meet you where you are, no matter where you are, and—once it has found you—the darkness opens its wide mouth to swallow you whole. 

In my own room, which is where I feel least safe, there is a hallway with no door that connects my bedroom to bathroom. A corridor that gets longer the more the sun leaves the sky, a corridor that I stare into every night—mouth dry, heart beating ten beats too fast, eyes hazy but wide, watching the darkness that watches me back, that threatens to spill over the space from inside the hallway to me. I have to face it directly, almost always directly, because, in my mind, if I turn away from it for a second, just for the quickest of moments, that is when they’ll get me.

Who are they?

Simply ghosts of my own making.

I sit staring paralyzed at this simple hallway that leads from my bedroom to my bathroom and I fear

It doesn’t make any sense- I am well aware of that. I am more than a little embarrassed to say that I am a 21-year-old who still needs her nightlight to get any semblance of a good night’s sleep. 

So, it would be more sensible to say that I do not feel safe in my own home because my own mind makes it so. 

I suppose I should not feel so bad about this. Afterall, most of us tend to experience this primal fear of darkness. 

We are taught from a young age to be afraid of the dark, we are conditioned by evolution to be wary of what lurks in shadows. We associate light with comfort and peace. We tie light and white together. White means purity. White means good. The inky black that surrounds darkness is cause of anxiety. Black the absence of color. Black the absence of humanity. 

But when morning comes and the sun inevitably rises to cast long shadows out, and I step outside to its brilliant light, surrounded on all sides by a sea of white…

Am I really any safer?

I feel most black when I am surrounded on all sides by a sea of white.1

I feel most black when I am most afraid.

 

House exists as first witness.

Just as our bodies keep the score of trauma and injustice and every little bad thing inherited 2, our homes watch and listen and are weathered down by every echoed scream, every door slammed. The damage done to our bodies and our homes are reflective of each other and made more apparent by how much one tries to disguise it and cover it up with pretty things. Often these are the worst ghosts, our past selves as memories that linger underneath floorboards.

Built by slaves, the Carnton mansion stands tall to this day. The plantation was used as a 

field hospital for the Confederate army and the house’s parlor was fashioned into an operating room. When you walk in, the walls are lined with vintage wallpaper and white faces in every room, as the portraits of the McGavock family stare down at you. The wooden floors that creak even when you are standing still are stained with blood from long gone soldiers. Northwest off the home lies row after row of Confederate bodies laid to rest in the McGavock Confederate Cemetery. 

These were not the details that made an impression on my young memory. Instead, I became engrossed with the story of one of the McGavock children who had been playing by the stairs on the second floor. From what I remember, the child had not looked, taken a step too wide and fell from the railing, hitting the first floor. Like the soldiers that came after him, his blood had seeped on carpet and into hardwood floor underneath, staining the wood permanently. 

Imagine: little black girl surrounded in a sea of white by Confederate memorabilia and ghosts and standing over a reflection of her own possible mortality. The child’s death was more impactful than the soldiers because he had been even younger than she. I remember thinking at the time if I would stain like that when I’d go on. I remember, and I say this because memories are malleable and changed by time and state of mind, being comforted at the fact that the house wouldn’t let him go even when everything else did.

I remember in another two story house, in which my own family lived, my sister in all her anger made worse by teenage years would, after any small inconvenience, slam her door so hard that the doorknob would always crash and dance off her room’s wall. When she wasn’t satisfied with that, she would slam her fist into that same part of wall where doorknob had just bruised. Eventually, wall gave way to big gaping hole that matched the size of her anger. 

When we had to move and sell the home, the hole was, of course, the first thing repaired, but it still took several years to sell the actual house. Maybe it is because potential buyers could feel the anger that lingered and remained. Even when covered up, there are a thousand ways that a space can warp from the simple fact of your existence. 3

In my own home these are the ghosts that are chained to me and mine. These are the bodies that drag after me from the collective experience of being a black woman and I remember 4:

Medgar Evers, 37

Assassinated by Klansman. Shot in the back exiting his car. He made it to his front door before collapsing.

Ahmaud Arbery, 25

Murdered by ex-cop and his son. Hunted down while jogging in his own neighborhood.

Breonna Taylor, 26

Murdered by police. Shot eight times in her own apartment.

Atatiana Jefferson, 28

Murdered by police. Shot through the window of her own home.

Marcella Threatt French, 18

Murdered by her own husband in her own home. My great-grandmother.

Every house has a graveyard. Every house has a ghost. This is where we bury our dead—inside our homes, inside ourselves.

 

  1.  After Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.”

  2.  The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

    * “The Carnton House – Franklin” by Ron Zanoni is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  3. “What else does it mean? It means that metaphors abound; that space exists in four dimensions; that if you return somewhere often enough it becomes infused with your energy; that the past never leaves us; that there’s always atmosphere to consider; that you can wound air as cleanly as you can wound flesh.”

    Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
  4.  Incredibly grateful to Evelina Barzdaite, this segment and the information given was retrieved from and heavily inspired by a graphic she created: https://www.instagram.com/p/CBRA5qfF_7S/?igshid=1wx0g8odmisla

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