By Kay Whitlock
Editor’s Note: Fear—one of humankind’s primal emotions. Nothing rouses fear like perceived darkness and the unknown. From the shadowy recesses of the imagination to the deep of the woods, fear can distort our thinking and our reality, beguiling us to see phantasms and monsters that aren’t there. It can send us running in the direction of safety or entice us with the call to danger and adventure. But once you engage your fears head-on, without aggression or arrogance, you learn more about yourself than you could ever expect and begin to experience perceived darkness on new terms.
Writer and activist Kay Whitlock has spent much of her life inquiring into and writing about the roots of fear and the systems/structures of oppression, violence, and injustice that stem from it. In the final installment in her four-part series, Kay explores what’s really there inside that haunted house.
In 1963, Robert Aldrich’s now-classic horror film, The Haunting (1963), with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, based on Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed novel, played to rapt audiences. The story concerns four people who convene at Hill House, a foreboding, isolated, and possibly haunted mansion. Their purpose is to invite the appearance, document, and perhaps discern the origins of purportedly malevolent psychic phenomena within it. Eleanor Lance, the central character, is a colorless and timid middle-aged woman, a self-denying and resentful Good Girl who has spent a dutiful lifetime caring for her invalid (now deceased) mother. The story’s focus is the influence of the mansion’s derangement upon Eleanor’s already vulnerable psyche.
Hill House is not deranged because it harbors darkness. It’s tempting to think so because, as novelist Toni Morrison says in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination, darkness is “terror’s most significant, overweening ingredient.” It is commonly conflated with the unknown, evil, danger, and death; with peoples who are not White, “black magic,” female power, and more fluid expressions of gender and sexuality said to be “primitive” or “uncivilized.” While ancient mythologies and creation stories in many cultures are varied and nuanced in their treatment of darkness and the underworld, the dominant American imagination relies on a popular white supremacist vision that typically places “blackness” and the dark in hostile and inferior opposition to “whiteness” and light.
Yet darkness, like illumination, is an inherent aspect of everyone and everything. There is nothing intrinsically disordered, dangerous, or evil about it; its existence is central to individual and societal health and wholeness. But our society doesn’t believe that, and so, for better or worse, currents of imagination—yours, mine, and ours—construct the darkness. There are many ways, Morrison reminds us, in which internal conflicts, alarms, and collective needs to allay internal fears are transferred to that “blank darkness.”
Hill House is deranged because it holds its own conceptualization of darkness—centered in fear, death, and destruction—too close. Decade after decade, it nurses and consolidates fearful, isolating darkness to the exclusion of everything else. Hill House refuses self-examination; it recoils from the possibility of connection with a larger world. There is nothing to discover within its walls beyond an ever-increasing distillation of terror and, ultimately, psychic, spiritual, and physical death. The edifice produces its own dangers; it haunts itself.
This in turn permits the darkness only disorienting expression in the imaginations of others who, crossing the threshold into Hill House, encounter the structure’s insatiable desire for control. What happens to the four people is predicated upon individual and collective abilities to meet the structure on its own terms, refuse to project their desires and needs into the frightening energies amassed within, and remain centered in a more complex and irreducible reality.
Danger does not come at Eleanor Lance from the outside. She is finally destroyed by her own response to the house’s distortions and manipulations. Like Hill House, this woman has always held her own fear tightly confined. Unexamined, it will consume her and place others in danger. The palpable darkness provides her with purpose, significance, and the only real stirrings of physical and emotional desire that she permits herself: an erotica of fear. However funereal such attraction may be, it is fleshy and sensate. By surrendering to this repressive atmosphere, Eleanor Lance hopes for a different future in which she matters. She finally feels something. She possesses agency and power. At last she is wanted; she belongs. She doesn’t want to leave. And Hill House doesn’t want her to go.
This is only one of many possible readings of The Haunting. But I have come to think of Hill House as a skillful representation of a psyche dominated by fear and obsessed by strategies of manipulation, containment, and control that are said to be necessary for securing safety and realizing freedom. Its urgent and overriding need is to suffuse the darkness with dread and make others who come within its influence experience the world in the same way. Though its effects are isolating, it taps into legitimate hopes and longings for “the good life” and a sense of community, familiarity, and belonging as well as confirmation of one’s own virtue.
But if clinging only to the distorting thought of a brutal darkness for self-definition is problematic—so, too, is an obsessive and unquestioning embrace of “the light” to vanquish the demon darkness. However attractively packaged, conquest is always the wrong paradigm, with its simplistic, self-serving storyline of inevitable victory of “the light”—goodness and enlightenment—over barbaric, savage, evil, and death-dealing darkness.
Over many years, I have learned how easy it is to imagine that any problems with darkness and all of its connotative, fearful associations belong to someone else. For a long time, I pushed aside concerns that some of those problems might also be mine by romanticizing the issue and focusing on the splendor in the darkness that revives an ancient sense of reverence and in some way reflects and amplifies one’s deepest hopes and dreams. While opening the self to such beauty and wonder is essential, it is also the simpler task. It’s much harder to admit to playing in one’s own dark gardens of fear.
It has taken me most of a lifetime to realize that, all along, the mysterious and elusive source of unease, that unnerving sense of something else wandering about in the darkness was me.
It was never Bad Guys, thugs, psychopaths, morally vacant people with even less money than my family, child molesters, ghosts, monsters, or sharks. The unlit terror I experienced in childhood and carried with me since was never just at the bottom of the stairs, located in some terrifying and inherently menacing, oppressive Other.
All along, it was just me creeping around in the vast stuff of my own fears with which I often populated the darkness and that shaped so much of my life. This is not to say that there are not real things to fear. Violence, abuse, and exploitation are real; they are not phantasms of overwrought minds. But they also have nothing to do with darkness. To manage our fear—in the worst ways possible—many of us simply refuse to see that the most massive forms of these ills are routine occurrences in respectable, daylight society. They are found in families, corporations and businesses, politics, religious and spiritual communities, schools, and institutions charged with the creation of public and national safety. Together, we bear responsibility for them.
How is it possible to take responsibility for something whose existence we don’t want to even acknowledge? That requires rounding the corner, looking into the shadows, and coming face to face with ourselves. During those trickster hours, I did more than learn to love the night. I also unwittingly transformed into something of a mirror image reflection of my personal terrors. I became the unseen person creeping through the night, hiding among shadows, and crouching beneath open windows. The person capable of deceiving someone else, and even myself. It was my footstep that now creaked surreptitiously on the stair while someone else slept, unaware of the presence and movement of other people.
I didn’t actually become a Peeping Tom, but close enough. My intentions were never malicious. I did nothing to harm or knowingly frighten anyone else. Yet it turns out that what I fear in others in some way turns out to be a part of me—or at least a nascent ability I possess, a dormant capacity that I may or may not act on over time, as conditions change. This is one step toward coming to terms with the aspect of self that amasses my own psychic stores of avoidance, denial, and dread; that seeks to find only righteousness in myself and fault in others; that seeks to displace all of the world’s indifference, injustice, violence, and cruelty onto that all-purpose, elastic, demonic Them.
It’s important not to overstate the case. I did not bring the abuse I once experienced upon myself. I’m not an ax murderer, state-sanctioned torturer, corporate destroyer of ecologies and the environment, or fascist dictator in the making. But even when I was young, I couldn’t help feeling the thrill of breaking the rules and being one up on unsuspecting others. I loved the heady sense of power—or at least the potential for it—that emerged as I charted my course through the ambiguous darkness. Imagine what politicians and religious leaders can do by fueling the fears of their followers while simultaneously appealing to their desires to feel more powerful than and superior to those who are feared. Imagine the blurring of fear and power for those already inclined to be bullyboys. Imagine what this might mean for fearful people who have always been conditioned to be meek and subservient. Imagine how susceptible many of us are to the confidence men who bang violently on public doors at midnight, demanding that we buy their dread-and-rage-soaked wares.
Now in the seventh decade of my life, I have never outgrown the siren call of nighttime rambles. The world has changed in some respects, and I have changed as well, though not, I hope, in cramped and sour ways. My fears have not dissolved, but we are cranky old friends now, no longer enemies—in some ways, each other’s teacher. This new relationship becomes possible when fear is, at last, experienced as a transformative pathway into psyche and soul—individually, societally, spiritually—and no longer a prison.
I still love to go out and about in the indigo hours, although I now travel less by shanks’ mare and more by way of contemplation and meditation. Sometimes I awaken from a vivid, often mythic, dream around 3:00 a.m. and feel the same shiver of excitement and apprehension that I first felt so long ago. I raise the window blind just enough to see the moonlight spilling over trees. Sometimes there is slight movement in the interplay of light and darkness among the shadows. I settle into the comfortable reading chair by my bedside, look out into the night, and set my imagination free.
And oh, we roam.
Stay tuned for a complete PDF of “The Haunting: On Fear and Seeing Differently in the Dark,” as the four-part series is presented in its original narrative form.
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.