Haunted Houses

So the other night I was up late and I watched The Twilight Zone on Me-TV, the Chicago channel that boasts Svengoolie and SciFi Saturday Night and otherwise broadcasts nationwide television shows from the Fifties through the Eighties.

The episode was “The Masks,” and those of us well-read and of a certain age could ascertain immediately what was going to happen to the characters in this story. In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the useless, vain, and greedy family members of a dying old timer must each wear a special mask created by a Cajun man and keep it on until midnight. (This was 1964, mind. The Cajun man business tells us that something supernatural and no doubt unpleasant is going to occur. Voodoo, most likely. Something. Those darned Cajuns….) The masks are horrific: ugly and misshapen. Of course, at midnight, with the unmasking, the daughter and husband and grown grandkids remove the masks to find that their own faces have now been transformed into those horrendous visages, reflecting their own miserable personalities. Serves them right. The script was written by Rod Serling and naturally reflects his own moral center, so much in evidence in many of the episodes he wrote, such as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “I Am the Night—Color Me Black,” sequentially the episode broadcast the week after “The Masks” back in 1964.

What I found myself reflecting on, though, as I watched the story of the dying old man and his no-account family, was the mansion in which the man lived. What a classic of grand Queen Anne design—broad staircases with spindled railings; fireplaces that sit open like great, awaiting maws; refined, beautifully carved woodwork throughout; and enormous rooms with the highest ceilings possible and filled with bureaus, chests and chifforobes, standing mirrors, library tables—remarkable furniture from a period of elegance now long gone. The ideal house, certainly, so deep with history, for grisly occurrences to take place.

We all know that house, or at least many of us do, because it is the old mansion of an earlier generation that showed up regularly in macabre fiction of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I was kid in love with the macabre, reading Poe and the paperback short-story anthologies passed on to me by my Grandma Smith, also a lover of ghost stories and dark mysteries. It is Shirley Jackson’s Hill House. It is The House on Haunted Hill. It is the decaying mansion Bette Davis and Joan Crawford inhabit in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It is the house where Anthony Perkins keeps his mother’s corpse in Psycho.

I fell in love with that ancient, corrupt Gothic house in the early 1960s, a period that holds pleasant memories for me precisely because it was the period of The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and other series of that type. Thriller, with Boris Karloff. The one whose title I can’t remember that opened with a burning haystack in a field at night and, as the camera closes in, a human arm and hand falls out of the haystack. Jesus. That image right there all by itself might have set me up for a life of writing gruesome Gothic stories.

Those old houses with their supernatural perils have stayed with me and, I confess, if I am lying on the couch of an afternoon, I can mentally walk up their grand winding staircases and through their corridors and find it…relaxing. Without a doubt that house is the reason I wrote Coven House, first as a short story, then as a play, finally as a novel (which I hope will come out this year).

The attraction is not just the pleasant memories of my Aunt Nancy and Aunt Carol coming out on Friday evenings to share pizza with my mom and sister as we watched Vic Morrow get buried alive or wondered if those were really human body parts stuffed into “The Jar” (one of the best things Robert Bloch wrote, in my humble opinion) or to see Telly Savalas finally killed (as he deserved to be) by the Talking Tina doll. Without knowing it, these shows were a learning process for me. I wasn’t aware then of the writers of those stories, names now legendary to those of us who appreciate Gothic fiction—Serling himself, Bloch, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson—a pantheon that blossomed during that brief period in early television. They were all familiar with that house, and thinking of it takes me back to what I recall as a friendly period in my life when I was eleven, twelve, not yet an adolescent, but when imagination was everything.

The decaying old house is a place where anything can happen—ghosts return, consciences erupt with terrible results, inert things (even the house itself) can come alive when we enter it and contaminate it with our own lives. It reflects an interior landscape of guilt and crime and disease the same way that the outdoors and the frontier reflect an open landscape of vitality and possibility.

And I keep coming back to it.

I’m writing another little Gothic story right now and, of course, the setting for the awfulness that the characters bring upon themselves is an ancient house on a hill, once proud and commanding and determinate, now a shell filled with cobwebs and shadows and nearly audible memories of a wicked history.

Not at all like the pleasant memories I have of being a kid, caught somewhere between Mad magazine and science fiction paperbacks, enjoying the warm company of my own family, and taking those vicarious journeys into the doomed hearts and diseased minds of intruders caught, appropriately, within the doomed, diseased walls of an old mansion that is falling apart around them as they themselves are falling apart.

Serves them right.

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