When I was in my senior year of high school, I had the perfect Halloween day. I say that, but it didn’t happen on the day itself; it just had the right elements. I had a day off from school for some reason or other, and I decided to drive to a small town an hour away to visit my sister at her work. It was October: the leaves were changing, the weather was cooling down, and the quality of the light had that autumnal tint that tastes, visually, of pumpkin spice. It was wonderful.
I was reading a book at the time called House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It’s a novel about a guy who finds the transcripts of another guy talking about yet another guy’s dive into a mysterious extra-dimensional space that has appeared in his home. This space, like the story itself, is labyrinthine, and all three narrators/protagonists find themselves obsessed with the mystery of what, exactly, is going on. I had brought this book with me on my drive, and kept thinking about how interesting the concept was: a house haunted not by spirits, but by the mystery of dead space.
When I had first started reading the book, I did a little research. The book had supposedly started as an online project that, similarly to War of the Worlds’ radio show version, toed the line between reality and fiction. One of the ways the book does this is in the character who owns the mysterious house, an award winning photographer named Will Navidson. Navidson had won said award by taking a picture of a dying child whom he had only tried to help after getting his shot, and he lived with a lot of guilt as a result. It turns out that this picture actually exists, and that the photographer who had taken it was so guilt-ridden that he took his own life (on top of other circumstances, I’m sure. I understand that suicide cannot often be reduced to being caused by a singular event or circumstance).
But the blurring goes further than that. Throughout the book, the theme of fatherhood appears, again mostly through the character of Will Navidson, a man so obsessed with his work and then with the mystery of his home that he often neglects his family. In my research I discovered that Danielewski started writing the book in response to the death of his own father who, like Navidson, was an award winning artist of the camera. Not a photographer like Navidson, but instead a filmmaker, Tad Danielewski was a busy man. His presence in the life of his children was sporadic, and so when he died he left a hole where he had been, and Mark tried to fill it by creating a house with a literal hole in its wall, an empty space that is completely inexplicable to all who encounter it.
Mark’s sister, Anne Danielewski, otherwise known as the singer/songwriter Poe, also responded to her father’s death by creating art. She wrote and produced her own album, Haunted, detailing what she was feeling. This album actually came out alongside House of Leaves, and when you read one and listen to the other, you find there are many references to one to the other in both works. The title track of Haunted even references the novel with the line “here in November in this House of Leaves we’ll pray”. I liked the sound of the album, and I can never pass up a good tie-in, so I bought it.
So it was, on my trip to visit my sister with Danielewski’s novel in the seat beside me, that I was listening to Poe’s album about death, regret, and control. The album shows how much the singer both loved and felt anger towards her father; in some tracks she expresses how much she misses him while in others she uses recordings of his voice to show his sternness and hypocrisy. She makes explicit what Mark had written about in his novel: the hole that their father left in their lives with his continual absence and the unresolved issues at his death created a labyrinth that neither child could escape easily. Both children were haunted by him, by their memory of him, and by the thought that his actions had made them who they were, beyond their control.
Maybe this is what being haunted really means: to be constantly confronted with the past, be it by means of a memory of someone else or even of ourselves as we used to be. In the months of October, November, and December, we build up so much off of nostalgia, off of the feeling of things being as they once were. On Halloween we get to be kids again for a night, at Thanksgiving we take time off for family or friends, and during the winter holidays we continue traditions the origins of which we ourselves may no longer believe. We relive our pasts during these months, allowing them to shape our everyday thoughts and actions beyond what’s normal for the rest of the year; Halloween may be the night that the dead may walk free, but Autumn in its entirety is the season of dead selves, of old thoughts and feelings having sway like a possessing spirit, be it a demon or a friendly ghost. How many lives have we each led, and how much influence do those lives have over us now, dying even as we live?
These thoughts swirled in my head as I drove. My GPS told me to get off the highway and to take a back road into town. I passed a field with a huge, old house in the middle of it. It had a wrap-around porch, gables, and windows straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was beautiful, and it looked more haunted than a graveyard on Walpurgisnacht. It was the final touch, the last piece needed for my perfect Halloween day. I was haunted that day by the feeling of the holiday, by the spirit of the season that permeated the media I was consuming, and by my own thoughts about who I was, where I was going, and how it was that I could get there.