Time to show the chair the door?: Haunting, wrestling and cohabiting with material and immaterial others (Reflections on SHU SPG’s ‘Haunts #2: The Haunted Home’ and a full recording of the event)

“I’m standing up for myself as I walk through the house at night…I’m not going to be pushed around. If I got nervous in the house, I’m lost to the house…I have to walk the house in a way like – the beacon, like the energy of the house. I say what goes…I have to stand up to the history.” (p94)

So speaks Ben, the resident of a haunted house, interviewed in Caron Lipman ‘s 2014 book, Co-habiting with Ghosts: Knowledge, Experience. Belief and the Domestic Uncanny (Ashgate/Routledge). In her book, Caron focuses on co-habitation. Her concern is less with the ghosts, and more with the dwelling and sense-making practices of the current residents who must learn how to live with the uncanny, out-of-sorts, domesticity of the haunted home.

We were delighted to welcome Caron as our opening speaker at our Haunts #2: The Haunted Home online-event last week. What follows is my personal reflections and connections as chair of the event – other readings of the presentations and their juxtapositions are possible. Indeed, the presenters may not agree with what I have chosen to foreground from their work (their abstracts are here). The full event recording is embedded below, so you are free to formulate your own interpretation. But here’s mine take on that we gave house-room to last week.

Caron’s presentation reflected back on the places and people who had informed her first book’s exploration of this co-habitation. Caron also gave a glimpse of the follow-on concern of her second book (published earlier this year) Heritage in the Home: Domestic Prehabitation and Inheritance (Routledge, 2020). In that book, the accommodation of present-day residents is more with the material traces of past inhabitation, than with the spectral. This was interesting for Haunts #2 as, by setting our understanding of ‘haunts’ very broadly, many of the follow-on speakers focussed on the haunting effects of material traces, and thus upon the agency of those situationally-inherited objects. And of their (and their research subjects) attempts – like Ben above – to wrestle and wrangle such objects into order, in order to achieve a successful and sustainable sense of domestic dwelling.

For example, our second presenter Jackie Leaver, gave an evocative visual account of the investigation of her recently purchased home. Here the early stages of her renovation work, and home-making, entailed a stripping back of surfaces, and attentiveness to prior installations and adaptations made by previous owners. This stripping back was both reverential and purgative – for both the investigation and the renovation works were ultimately destructive, a prelude to cleansing, re-painting, re-wiring, re-moulding of the house into a contemporary home. The traces of the past became known, pondered but ultimately (and inevitably) erased and/or bent to the will of the present. As Jackie neatly put it: what would be the alternative? To keep this tired and dilapidated place frozen in time as a museum, where what was being celebrated was prior (but not present) dwelling.

From perusing the sedimented past within the materiality of a single house, we then turned to examine the power of an under acknowledged idea: the sofa. Surely a sofa is a thing, not an idea? Mary Pearce showed us how the idea of the sofa took a powerful hold upon literary culture in the 18th century. The sofa (a new direction in furniture appearing for the first time then) was taken up in Gothic literature as a highly charged affective space – a plush zone within the home which summoned seduction and congress with ghosts.

To see how potent and destabilising of living rooms this – now mundane – item of furniture had once been was a revelation. And this effect is an intentional aspect of Mary’s on-going research work to destabilise our present-day notions of this part of the domestic landscape. We do not fret about chaotic tendencies of sofas anymore, but Mary showed us how for the Gothic generation the question – or challenge – of how to keep in check the otherwise wanton agency of the sofa was very much a matter of active, urgent discourse.

In her research Lindsey McCarthy’s research has considered how the binary of homely/unhomely needs to be broken down and problematised, when considered in the context of the experience of homeless women and those living in shelters and refuges. Lindsey showed, using images taken by her research subjects, how they attempt to create cherished zones within chaotic (and sometimes violent) refuges, often through shrine-like configurations of their few, precious mementos. Here, the act – in the present – of dwelling within these chaotic spaces, required a summoning / investing of positive impressions of past family and domestic life into available objects. This – perhaps – is a form of reverse haunting – in that the resonance of those objects is impressed upon them by the women, rather than that it exudes as an uncontrollable excess of others’ pasts spilling into the present (as was the focus within Caron’s and Jackie’s studies).

In the next presentation, Susan Anderson recounted the dramatic reinterpretation of a real-life 16th century murder of Thomas Arden, a wealthy businessman from Faversham in Kent, who was murdered in his own home by his wife and her associates. The resulting play Arden of Faversham (c1590) – as Susan explains – picks up on the Elizabethan trope of cruentation, the belief that a body will resume bleeding if the murderer subsequently re-visits the corpse. It does so with a twist, for the cruentation in Arden is that the house (the scene of the crime) itself exudes blood, which the murderous conspirators try in vain to wash away. Here it is the entwining of the victim’s blood and the kitchen floor into which it has soaked which creates the haunting effect. The house itself becomes an obstinate witness to the crime enacted there by the occupants. The frantic – and unsuccessful – attempts to scrub the floor clear reveal the limits of an occupant’s control over not just of this unsettled home, but of any home.

Finally, Jo Ray and Becky Shaw reported to us their investigation into the uncanny (out-of-place) qualities of a school – and both of its school-times and school-spaces. Examining the institutional-atmospheric circumstances of unsettled children, Jo and Becky showed how attempts to create a settling atmosphere of school-time and school-place are often constructed by material and symbolic appeals to home and the domestic realm. Here, attempts are made to form pockets and moments of home-comforts, and that these attempts are made both by the school and by pupils (and their families). Ideas, artefacts and orderings of home bleed into the school realm. Often these domestications are clumsy (i.e. institutionally inflected) or incongruent (toys, curtains and other ‘props’ that have drifted to school from homes). In the clutter of the school these attempts to forge a ‘home from home’ often leave school-place and school-time feeing uncanny: neither fully homely, nor fully not-of-home, but rather – instead – unhomely (Freud’s notion of the uncanny being – in German – derived from the sense of the unheimlich, the un-homely).

Haunts #2 grew out of the Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s investigation (June 2019) of the ‘comforts and discomforts of dwelling’, as followed by our June 2020 session looking at the ‘dwelling in confinement’ aspects of the national Spring 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. All of the six Haunts #2 presentations added to this exploration by looking at the home – and the act of dwelling – as complex pleasure/pain melds. As thoughts turn to Christmas the dream of home is to the fore – but the social distancing imperatives of fighting Covid-19 this year make that dream’s image of domestic sociable comfort, calmness and order less attainable. And yet, even in non-pandemic circumstances the almost impossible to attain and sustain desired domestic bliss of the festive season reminds us of this complexity, and of how the performance of domestic sociable comfort, calmness and order requires frantic, ongoing effort to sustain successful co-habitation with people, to create and maintain the right atmosphere and to constantly wrangle of objects into line. So, just as it was fitting to have Haunts #1: Haunted Place & Haunting Practices at Halloween, so it has been fitting to have held Haunts #2: The Haunted Home and its meditation on the active work entailed in domestic co-habitation (with people, spirits and objects), in the run up to Christmas.

Haunts #3: The Haunted Battleground will follow-on in this series in late February / early March 2021 (and hopefully will break the pattern of timely resonance in its subject matter). Haunts #4: Atmospheres of Social Haunting will end the series in May/June 2021.

Details of Haunts#3 and #4 will be announced in due course via this blog.

Picture credits: (1) Luke Bennett (2012) Purging an old sofa in the back yard; (2) Slide from Mary Peace’s presentation.