“And is this what you wanted/ To live in a house that is haunted/ By the ghost of you and me?” – Leonard Cohen
The emotional pain associated with an event doesn’t just disappear. It can come back in waves, unexpectedly. When bad things happen to people, and the details are too terrible to comprehend, it can take a long time for the effects of traumatic memory to go away. Grief can be manifest in a persistent ache that lingers for weeks; it can return at the same time each year like a dreaded anniversary; or it can be passed down through generations. In popular culture, literature, and cinema the persistent pain attached to the memory of a person or event—something that is both here and not here, distinct yet sitting at the edges of perception—can be described as a haunting, a presence that recalls a traumatic event which cannot be properly integrated and may never be resolved.
Ghosts are the spectral presences of victims and bystanders who linger in the hopes of absolution. The ghost is not an index. It is a sign that an event, a haunting, is occurring. And, if they are anything, ghosts are interruptions. Through their presence and scaring us to death, they insist on being acknowledged and listened to. But this interruption is often hard to understand because we don’t always know the story that the ghost attempts to tell us. What, exactly, has happened and to whom is usually mysterious, clouded in hearsay and conjecture, unverifiable testimonies based on gossip and spurious eyewitnesses.
Mapping the interruption that the ghost performs onto a popular understanding of history, a haunting implies that the past is in a constant negotiation with the present. It asks for the past to be accommodated within the present, that room be made for it. Hauntings open up new possibilities for understanding how the past is proximate, relevant, and, perhaps most importantly, should not be disregarded. A haunting is an affective kind of history that asks us to be skeptical of what we know and how we know it. “Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will […] into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.” Hauntings open up a space outside of the formal parameters of the historical record that accounts for and organizes events and their participants.
Appeals for accommodation and counter claims of land ownership are the seeds from which many ghost stories develop. Battlefields, borderlands, graveyards and colonies are fertile grounds with sedimented layers of blood and bones. Still, it is important to remember, “The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.” These violent claims of ownership, and there are many that we can think of, are also often yoked to ethnographic, ideological, theological, and, especially, entrenched sociological struggles that attempt to reify notions of familiarity against, what is perceived to be, a threatening “other.”
The land dispute at the core of The House of the Seven Gables—in which Colonel Pyncheon’s greed led to Matthew Maule being tried and convicted of witchcraft, then publicly executed—is the rotting foundation on which the mansion is built. “What greatly strengthens such a suspicion is the fact that this controversy between two ill-matched antagonists […] remained for years undecided, and came to a close only with the death of the party occupying the disputed soil.” As structures that have been built upon the land where the disputes have occurred, historical architectural spaces like the House of the Seven Gables [CJA1] have become containers for an excessive amount of traumatic history. As Hawthorne warns, “His [Colonel Pyncheon’s] home would include the home of the dead and buried wizard [Matthew Maule], and would thus afford the ghost of the latter a kind of privilege to haunt its new apartments […]” The ground and frames of these old homes have soaked up the residue of family lives and festering secrets, which, in some cases, spills over. And when it does, we can see to what degree, if at all, the living and the dead can share the same space.
In the first season of the FX Network show American Horror Story, a young couple moves into a home that is known to everyone but them as “the Murder House.” Each episode skips through generations of murders, many of which are intended to be familiar episodes in the narrative of American violent crime, that have happened in the house. The house has absorbed but not properly compartmentalized these crimes so the ghosts from each of these murders overlap and occupy the house at the same time; the house is chockablock with successive generations of unruly ghosts who have been denied their lives within the house. In this way, as Christine Wilson has pointed out, “Haunted house narratives show that possession is always troubled by what, or who, came before. This preoccupation with history and rightful possession forecloses the possibility of ever truly possessing the space in the present.” Each of the ghosts have violently competing claims of ownership on the home and the narrative is driven by the failure of these stories to be integrated into (what the producers of the show perceive to be) an American history of haunting. These ghosts are the markers for what has not been properly integrated into a national consciousness.
Hawthorne, like many other writers and artists, uses the haunted house and the narrative revision of traumatic American history to translate actual events into fictional material that can be more easily digested and understood. So that, “In translating history into ghost stories, authors of haunted narratives transform both source and target cultures, reshaping the past to answer the needs of the present and, implicitly, the future.” For example, the battle between Pyncheon and Maule at the beginning of The House of the Seven Gables is closely linked to the religious hysteria and summary executions permitted by the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. These are the same judicial weapons Colonel Pyncheon wields against Maule, “one of those martyrs to that terrible delusion,” to secure ownership of the property upon which the mansion is built. It is well know that a member of Hawthorne’s family was involved in the Salem trials so that The House of the Seven Gables can also be read as a way of atoning for the sins of previous generations. Toni Morrison uses a similar technique of translating the history of human slavery in America, which is also a struggle for ownership, and ignites the traumatic event at the beginning of her fascinating novel, Beloved. In it, slave hunters track Sethe, an escaped slave and mother of three children, to the house at 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati, OH, where she has been hiding. She reacts by beginning to methodically kill her children one by one rather than being returned to the Sweet Home plantation where she was enslaved. As grim as it was, and even though she only killed the titular daughter Beloved, Sethe was forced into this decision; in her mind, it was the last possible resort to prevent her body and her children’s lives from being (re)subjugated by slavery. It was a reply to a system of bio-power that controlled her and millions of others so completely.
As an actual house in Salem, Massachusetts with historical connections to Hawthorne’s family and the Salem Witch Trials, The House of the Seven Gables has become a similar site of translation. It has been used, rightly, as a stage for unearthing some of the twisted socio-economic and theological imbalances of colonial America. There are moments in The House of the Seven Gables when the uncanny spaces of the house and the lingering stink of greed and ambition throw into relief the tenuous connection between what we know and ‘what has happened.’ Hawthorne explains it this way, “So much of mankind’s experience had passed there – so much had been suffered, and something, too, enjoyed – that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart. It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and somber reminiscences.” While there is certainly an incorporation occurring in The House of the Seven Gables, it isn’t complete. Matthew Maule’s death is unresolved, and because of dying badly, the memory of his death refuses to be located in a grave; somehow, the House of the Seven Gables has incorporated Maule’s spirit whereby he becomes a ‘familiar stranger’ that insists on not being forgotten.
The following is one of the narrator’s first impressions of the house and it represents an interesting innovation on the narrative trope of haunted houses, “The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive […].” Compare this to the opening line of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, “124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom,” which describes Sethe’s refuge as it became a haunted house. In each story, the house transitions from being an object to a subject when the frame and structure of the houses have absorbed their viscous history. It can be imagined that the house is acting on its own behalf, heaving and sighing with the history that it contains but also making whatever noises it can to tell, in some way, ‘what happened here.’ In these examples, the haunted house is not just a container for bad things that have happened. It is both a subject and a force to be reckoned with. And more than just a structure that functions as a repository for the storage of spectral histories, the house is a building with agency that can stand either for the national consciousness or the individual mind that struggles to integrate traumatic memories. By infusing haunting within an architectural structure, Hawthorne reinforces how space, context, and history create subjectivities, and, in this case, characters who are haunted.
One of the most obvious dilemmas for writing about the visual culture of hauntings and ghosts is that they constantly slip in and out of vision. They are hard to locate. A ghostly presence captured in a photograph should be proof positive that “…it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.” When the ghost has been photographed it has, if for only the shortest of durations, been captured. The early years of photography, when chemical developing was still a mysterious process to most people, must have been a magical time. E.J. Marey and Eadweard Muybridge’s fascinating photo experiments froze motion and captured movement that was at the edges of human perception. The camera shutter speed showed people what they were seeing but also what their eyes could not discern. And almost from the moment of its invention, the photograph was closely linked to death. Early photographs, especially daguerreotypes, “typically relate[d] an unexpected discovery, a curio among other discarded mementoes and refuse of a generation past, […] ghostlike and ephemeral, yet strangely potent in [their] ability to ‘come to life again’” William Mumler’s famous spirit photographs, which are now considered and collected as fine art objects, coincided with, and preyed upon, the popular Spiritualism doctrine that denied death and believed in communication with the departed. So, as early as the late 19th century, the camera lens and photographs were technologies that oscillated between supplementing and surpassing human vision, between documents of scientific observation and creative interpretation.
Photography and its relationship to truth telling have changed considerably since The House of the Seven Gables was written. In an age of irony and half-truths, of shifting perspectives and “sexed up” evidence, culture has been infused with a persistent sense of skepticism that borders on cynicism. Some artists are responding to a general unsettledness with strategic “[…] exchanges devoted to breaking the forms of enclosure, isolation, limits, and retreat that have recently become the dominant mechanism of political power.” Today we “live in an age of ‘truthiness,’ a time when our understanding of truth may not be bound to empirical evidence – that is, to anything real, provable, or factual.”
Holgrave, who shares the House of the Seven Gables with Phoebe, Hepzibah, and Clifford, is a writer, philosopher and daguerreotype artist. He also represents an iconoclastic modern sensibility that eschews the dead weight of the past for the promise of the future. Holgrave’s dramatized indignations, such as “Just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times […]” are characterized as naïve and inexperienced, “as a tender stripling.” Yet they represent the genealogical hypothesis that Hawthorne posits in his introduction, that “Still, there will be a connection with the long past […] which, if adequately translated to the reader, would serve to illustrate how much of the old material goes to make up the freshest novelty of human life.”
When Holgrave first introduces Phoebe to his daguerreotypes he argues that they are more than images; they provide a view deep into the sitter’s character and a look through their postured qualities of leadership and status. “While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it.” Holgrave is making an argument for the democratizing potential of daguerreotypes, a power that can slice through the impasto of commissioned painted portraits. Susan Sontag makes a similar argument, stating “A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real, it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask […] a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be.” Holgrave’s comments presage the flattening of representation as photographs and photojournalism would grow to increasing prominence in the 20th century. And as Phoebe discovers, Holgrave’s hyper detailed daguerreotype reveals, in spite of his appeals to break with the past, a genealogical link between the Colonel and Judge Pyncheon, “It implied that the weaknesses and defects, the bad passions, the mean tendencies, and the more diseases which lead to crime are handed down from one generation to another […]” This presents an interesting paradox for Phoebe: Holgrave’s refutation of the past begins to wither with this realization at the same time that she has to acknowledge how the daguerreotype’s hyper realistic image can capture genealogical traces that link relatives across generations.
The published highlights from the Stanley B. Burns archive of post-mortem photography, including the famous Sleeping Beauty books, have shown how photographs, in ways that may appear macabre to contemporary viewers, were very intimate memorial objects for families of the mid- to late-19th century. Children and parents were often photographed after they died. These photographs were a confrontation with human mortality as well as an affirmation of a person’s life and the bonds they shared, a visual embalming, with their dead body surrounded by mourning family members. Post-mortem photographs represent the deepest affirmation of love one can have for another person; it’s the kind of love that can only be understood by and through loss.
When Holgrave shows Phoebe his post-mortem daguerreotype of Judge Pyncheon, she knows, immediately, what she is looking at, “This is death! Judge Pyncheon is dead!” In trying to assimilate this moment, Phoebe’s frightened response, “derives from the fact that both share a similar structural relation with the person from whom they originate…” The image is a hyper real likeness of the Judge but it is only the shell, a mere remnant of the person. “The daguerreotype as a technology of perception creates a new form of surveillance and documentation that would heal the world of the fathers who have abused their power through its private enclaves.” For Holgrave, there is validation in capturing the Judge’s dead body so that he can reveal the deceased’s misdeeds and manipulations of the political process.
The practice of post-mortem photography has evolved over the years. Because of changing social attitudes towards death, not to mention medical innovations, we are no longer so close to the dead bodies of friends or relatives. After the World Trade Center disaster of 2001 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are more likely to see temporary yet public forms of photographic memorial than post-mortem photographs. Then as now, the photograph is a remnant, barely a ruin, which captures a moment or a life that has passed. But violence persists and images from the battlefield have become weaponized for promoting revolutionary agendas, swaying public opinion, and marking the end of a regime. All of this has lead to debates about distributing wartime images, including how photographs of soldier coffins should be published in the news media.
Whether we see death as a result of war or natural disasters, “the photograph tells us we will die, one day we will no longer be here, or rather, we will only be here the way we have always been here, as images.” For families of victims, these memorials are a way to articulate their personal grief and loss through an attachment to historical events. But for all of us, they are a prompt to remember that “Photography, like ghosts, can sometimes, though it does not always, insist that you remember history and consider, however briefly, and even if only affectively, your own relation to history and those who proceed you or exist in other places.”
Shortly after a massive clothing factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 24, 2013, rescue workers rushed to the scene to begin removing the hundreds of bodies that were buried under the rubble. The number of dead grew steadily as the recovery mission proceeded and it has now become the worst manufacturing disaster in history. On April 25, photojournalist Taslima Akhter captured the image that would come to represent this disaster. “Around 2am, I found a couple embracing each other in the rubble. The lower parts of their bodies were buried under the concrete. […] it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying…We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too.” The photo is a remnant of an event, but through its affective power, it creates a haunting connection that is hard to let go. Akhter’s photo is a document of these people who have been killed by a specific event; what makes it so uncanny is that their embrace is the same in death as it would be in life. But it’s also so much more than a documentary photo. This dead couple so succinctly encapsulates a moment that it has become another traumatic instance in the history of an exploited labor force; it ensures that when people see this photo they will never lose contact with what happened in Dhaka. If we don’t allow ourselves to be interrupted by ghosts, and aren’t open to being haunted by the memory of something, we are likely to forget them.
Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997: 8.
 Gordon, 8.
 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables. New York: Bantam Classics, 2007: 7-8. iBooks edition.
 Hawthorne, 8.
 “The point is neither for the living to exorcize the dead nor for the dead to frighten away the living, but to find a means of coexistence.” From Colin Davis, “The Skeptical Ghost: Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others and the Return of the Dead,” in Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture, eds. María del Pilar and Esther Peeren. London: Continuum, 2010: 67.
 Christine Wilson, “Haunted Habitability: Wilderness and American Haunted House Narratives,” in Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture, 209.
 Kathleen Brogan, Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998: 11
 Hawthorne, 19.
 Hawthorne, 6.
 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Verso, 2000 : 77.
 Susan Bruce, “Sympathy For the Dead: (G)hosts, Hostilities and Mediums in Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” and Postmortem Photography.” Discourse, Vol. 27, No. 2/3, Hostly and Unhostly Mediums (Spring and Summer 2005): 30.
 See Louis Kaplan, “The Strange Case of William Mumler: Spirit Photographer.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
 Okuwe Enwezor, ed., The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society,” in The Unhomely: 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville. Exhibition catalog. Fundación BIACS: Seville, 2006: 14.
 Armstrong, Elizabeth, “On the Border of the Real,” in More Real?: Art in the Age of Truthiness. Exhibition catalog. New York: Prestel, 2013: 34.
 Hawthorne, 113.
 Hawthorne, 111.
 Hawthorne, 7.
 Hawthorne, 60.
 Susan Sontag, On Photography. New York: Penguin, 1979: 154.
 Hawthorne, 77.
 Stanley B. Burns, M.D. with Elizabeth A. Burns, Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement, and the Family in Memorial Photography. American and European Traditions. New York: Burns Archive Press, 2002: Preface.
 Hawthorne, 189.
 Bruce, 26.
 Joan Burbick, Healing the Republic: The Language of Health and the Culture of Nationalism. London: Cambridge University Press: 299.
 “Libya's most gruesome tourist attraction: Our man comes face-to-face with Gaddafi's battered and bloodied corpse” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2052777/Gaddafi-dead-body-picture-Libyas-gruesome-tourist-attraction.html#ixzz2UVytrn7I
 Elisabeth Bumiller, “Pentagon to Allow Photos of Soldiers’ Coffins” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/us/26web-coffins.html?_r=0
 Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997 quoted in Bruce, 27.
 Bruce, 36.
 “A Final Embrace: The Most Haunting Photograph from Bangladesh” http://lightbox.time.com/2013/05/08/a-final-embrace-the-most-haunting-photograph-from-bangladesh/#1.