First Person

Foreclosed homes as haunted houses.


Photo: Casey Serin

My wife and I began searching for a house in 2008, just as the market was crashing, just as those first waves of foreclosed homes and short sales were hitting the market. Priced out of Los Angeles real estate for so long, we were finally able to afford houses whose prices had been ridiculously inflated only six months earlier. Occasionally we went to those open houses with smiling realtors and bowls of candy set out, where owners had recently landscaped or repainted to enhance value, but we could never seriously consider any of these. The homes that mattered had lock boxes, were abandoned or in the process of being abandoned—the ones that reeked of disrepair and despair.

We spent the summer touring nearly every distressed property in the neighborhoods East of Hollywood: Los Feliz, Silverlake, Echo Park, and Atwater Village—every abandoned or half-abandoned monstrosity and beloved ruin, looking for a home. I still have a hard time articulating the sense of dread and fascination those houses stirred in me. The feeling of moving through these spaces—particularly as we were visiting seven or eight of them in an afternoon—was indescribable. A sense of wrongness pervaded so many of these homes. I’m not superstitious—I don’t believe in spirits or forces or haunted houses—but much of our lexicon in these cases depends on notions of the supernatural; in the end, the only word that seems useful for talking about the houses is unheimlich—a German word, literally “unhomely” or “not of the home,” “unfamiliar.” It’s more idiomatically translated as “uncanny”: a word that Freud plucked and repurposed from the realm of the supernatural.

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Freud’s 1919 essay, “The Uncanny,” is among the stranger of his well-known works. He doesn’t really know where to begin with the uncanny—when it comes to the feeling, he admits, “the present writer must plead guilt to exceptional obtuseness.” One wonders why he’s bothering with the subject at all. Mostly he wants to contradict Ernst Jentsch, another psychoanalyst, who first attempted to define the uncanny in 1906, thirteen years before Freud’s essay. Jentsch posits the sensation of the uncanny as stemming from a kind of cognitive uncertainty, where one is unclear as to whether an object or figure or a person is inanimate or somehow alive.

Freud, unconvinced by Jentsch, begins by surveying dictionaries, copying out as many different definitions of uncanny as he can. Much of Freud’s brilliance, one could say, was in naming: in strange and uncertain times, Freud defined amorphous feelings and ambiguous moments. So he begins by trying to unearth a word or a definition that might fit this feeling, discarding vague terms like eerie and creepy; what finally catches his attention is the fact that heimlich, in addition to meaning “homey” or “familiar,” can also mean “hidden, locked away.” And so he finally seizes on Friedrich Schelling’s definition for unheimlich: “Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden, and has come into the open.”

This formulation works for Freud—he is, of course, interested in repression—but it doesn’t work as well for haunted houses. What, after all, is being repressed? Jentsch’s notion, of a confusion between the living and the inanimate, works much better—think of the anthropomorphized façade of The Amityville Horror’s house. With a haunted house, the question is: To what extent is the house itself alive, and to what extent is it inanimate?

But it’s not a house’s consciousness that makes it uncanny—it’s my own consciousness. The question is not which of us is the automaton and which of us sentient, but rather what, if anything, my projections onto an inanimate object mean. Really, it’s the most basic definition of uncannyunheimlich—“unhomely,” that matters. The haunted house is precisely that which should be homey, should be welcoming, the place one lives inside—a place that has somehow become emptied out of its true function. It is terrifying because it has lost its purpose, yet stubbornly persists. Like a zombie, which is not alive or dead but undead, the haunted house is the thing in between.

* * *

My wife and I walked, zombie-like, through home after home, throughout that stifling summer, into homes that had been closed against the light but bristled with claustrophobic air. We took to nicknaming these places: the Flea House, after whatever it was that bit our realtor; the Burn House, with its charred patches of wall and blackened carpets; Tony’s House, after the name on the novelty license plate still stuck to a bedroom door, a detail particularly creepy amid the otherwise empty gloom of the house, as though Danny Torrance would big-wheel down the hall at any moment.

For the most part, these homes were on regular streets, among other unexceptional homes. It was strange to find them in Los Angeles; the haunted house is usually built outside of some small town, a nightmare in the wilderness that beckons just beyond some tiny hamlet. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, as Eleanor Vance makes her way to Hillsdale, Illinois, she’s told not to ask about Hill House: “I am making these directions so detailed,” Dr. Montague writes to her in a letter, “because it is inadvisable to stop in Hillsdale to ask your way. The people there are rude to strangers and openly hostile to anyone inquiring about Hill House.”

It’s a common trope: the unaware traveler and the wary, even hostile townspeople. Why, in all these stories, do the poor townspeople hate the haunted mansion? Well, because they’re poor. They can’t afford to move away, to uproot their families, even after some rich eccentric has unleashed an unspeakable evil just beyond the town limits. “People leave this town,” a Hillsdale resident tells Eleanor, “they don’t come here.” The archetypal haunted house story is often really about class, about the rich who don’t understand the land or the people or the history and blunder into the landscape, attempting to buy their way into a community, blithely oblivious to the locals nearby. The town grows resentful because, by the force of economics, they are imprisoned by the rich and their folly—haunted by forces beyond their own control.

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These past few years we’ve witnessed an explosion of vocabulary as we struggle to conceptualize a new and terrifying time. Terms like distressed mortgages, toxic assets, underwater, along with repurposed words like ghost and zombie. A ghost loan, for example, involves a mortgage fraud scheme, where a 100 percent financed loan is inflated at closing, the buyer and seller in collusion to defraud the lender; in 2009, an ex-Labour MP was suspended after claiming a £16,000 “ghost mortgage” that never existed.

Dean Maki, managing director and chief economist at Barclay’s Capital, refers to underwater mortgages as zombie mortgages: home loans worth more than the underlying value of the house. Zombie foreclosures, meanwhile, are foreclosures originally done by careless foreclosure mills and dismissed, in places where a court is involved, without prejudice. That last part is key: it means that the banks can have a second shot at the foreclosure if they get their act together, and the foreclosure threat rises once again, as it were, from the dead. Zombie debt, on the other hand, involves losses that homeowners assume they’ve already written off. When a bank forecloses on a house and sells it as a loss, it can decide to pursue the homeowner for the difference. And then there are zombie homes, repossessed but unsold properties that bring down the value of the neighborhood, infecting them with the disease of future foreclosures.

We live among the undead. The things that used to have meaning and purpose—not just houses but banks and governments—have been emptied of what they once meant, and yet they remain, haunting us. We are, like the residents of Hillsdale, Illinois, haunted by forces larger than ourselves, imprisoned by the folly of the rich, who have unleashed some unspeakable dread from which we cannot escape.

* * *

That summer, the two of us toured all manner of strange abodes, including those that seemed all but uninhabitable. There were, of course, the hoarding houses: homes we couldn’t enter because of the high stacks of magazines or newspapers, deemed safety hazards. We could only peer in from the windows.

Far more common, though, were the malformed do-it-yourself homes. Los Angeles is a zoning no-man’s land, home to thousands of unpermitted additions and modifications, so that each house on a block of once-identical residences will be different. East Hollywood, particularly in Echo Park and Silver Lake, is home to dozens of bungalows, seven-hundred-square-foot cottages that line the hills, built originally for actors. Over time, extra bedrooms were added, garages converted, crawl spaces enlarged into dens—often without rhyme or reason or any real sense of purpose. So we looked at house after house where the space felt unnervingly wrong—not because of ghosts or murders, but simply because the house had become strange. Living rooms had been built behind existing bedrooms, so an exterior window looked from one room to the next; thousand-square-foot homes somehow contained four or five bedrooms, each one barely more than a closet cut from some once-sane layout; bathrooms sat in the middle of kitchens; bedrooms without windows were built into the side of hills; doors on the second floor opened into empty air. The effect was vertiginous; you walked into a room and felt a sense of unease before you could say why.

It seemed impossible that anyone had lived in these places. I thought again of Shirley Jackson’s description of Hill House:

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a place fit for people or for love or for hope.

These homes, too, seemed without concession to humanity, but in a sense they were just the opposite: these were not the caprices of rich men whose hubris unleashed a holy terror. Instead, they were the products of dozens of lower-class families trying to make their homes a little bigger, a little more livable—creating unworkable labyrinths out of necessity.

Probably three-fourths of the houses we looked at had been altered in some way, but none of them came close to the Happy Murder Castle. Driving up to it, we could see the faux flagstone that had been painted on some, but not all, of its walls. It was just up the street from an elementary school and may have once doubled as an unlicensed daycare; perhaps the castle aesthetic had looked inviting at one point. The citrus trees on its edges were untended and filled with ripe and rotting fruit, and from those trees rose the back bedroom, complete with plywood crenellations to complete the medieval tower aesthetic. Meanwhile, the front of the house still bore the evidence of its former life as a 1920s bungalow. This was an architectural version of The Fly where two incompatible species had been gratuitously grafted together.

As we walked in, we found another couple on their way out. They looked grimly at us and said, “Hope you brought your mask.” The owners, we learned, had left the taps dripping, so that pools of black mold festered beneath the sinks, but that was hardly the most noticeable thing about the house. It, too, had once been half its current size, and its additions boggled the mind: the only door to the backyard was through a bathroom, and off the kitchen was a room too wide to be a hallway, too small to be a room. This “room,” in turn, led to that back bedroom tower, which amazingly had a painted ceiling with a marginal trompe l’oeil of scarf-draped cherubs blowing trumpets amid wispy clouds. It was hard to imagine how anyone could have made a home here, but we walked through it anyway, drinking in its distorted weirdness, its history measured out in garish juxtapositions. We were about to leave when our realtor noted something we’d overlooked: scrawled in pencil on the living room wall were the words, a murderer lived here.

* * *

The feeling the house gave me stayed for weeks, even after we’d ended our search. The Happy Murder Castle was disquieting, uncanny, possessed of an uneasy sense I’ve rarely felt in any structure; I’ll admit there are times I’m tempted to call it “haunted.” We tell ourselves ghost stories perhaps because we truly believe in the paranormal—or perhaps because we just need a word, a term, a story for that vague feeling that would be too silly to admit otherwise.

After our trip to the Happy Murder Castle, I googled the address along with “murderer,” “killer,” “child molester,” etc., every combination I could think of. I came up with nothing. A realtor has to notify you if a murder has been committed in the house, but not necessarily if a murderer has lived there.

It’s possible, I suppose, that a murderer really did live there. But the truth is likely far more obvious, more quotidian, more biting. These were homeowners who bought at an inflated price before the market crashed and found themselves underwater with a zombie mortgage; they finally lost their home like so many thousands of others. Those penciled words were, like the black mold, their attempt to make their home as unappealing as they could, an albatross around the neck of the bank that had taken it from them. Wherever they are now, their memory lingers in that house—a bitter and spiteful spirit, a sense of melancholy and regret.

In the end, I find myself agreeing more with Freud than with Jentsch after all. The uncanny sense in the haunted houses we walked through—the short sales and foreclosures and distressed properties, the toxic assets and zombie houses—was not borne of a confusion between the living and the inanimate. It was the thing long hidden that had come to light: the thousands of homeowners who’d been promised a future and wagered too much for it.

Colin Dickey is the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius.