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17 Mar 2017

The needy haunted house – The other night I had a rather weird dream. I don’t often write about my dreams here at Liminality (I can remember only one instance off the top of my head, and that was over a decade ago), but this one was sufficiently out of the ordinary—and sufficiently vivid upon waking up—that I thought it might be interesting to share. I already shared one version of it with a few friends online, so this is take two. What follows has been embellished somewhat to make for a more interesting narrative (and to smooth over some of the cracks in dream logic), but it is pretty much how I dreamed it. Without further ado, I present to you...

“It’s always a fun exercise to try to tease meaning out of a dream, but that’s all it really is: just fun.”

The Tale of the Needy Haunted House

I am standing in an unfamiliar wood. It is not one of those pleasant, green woods, with tall trees reaching up into the canopy, soft leaves and moss in the dappled sunlight underfoot, and the twittering of birds and buzzing of insects filling the air. No, this wood is the scary kind, with gnarled trees huddled together like bitter old men, no sound but the occasional hoot of an owl, and everything gray and dark, as if the world has been drained of color.

I push my way through the wood, trying to find a path through the grasping branches, until I finally reach a clearing. Again, it is not a pleasant clearing—there is no green grass to speak of, just a bare patch in the wood—but when I look up I can see a great house standing on a hill in the distance. It is perched on the hill like a broken tooth sticking up out of rotting gums, windows shuttered and boarded, pale grass and brush overgrown all around. Yet I head toward it, because it is the only sign of civilization in this thoroughly unpleasant environment. It seems quite natural to go up to the door and knock, and then, when there is no answer and I discover the door unlocked, to turn the handle and walk into the house.

I find myself in a large, empty foyer, distinguished only by the cobwebbed chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. Doors open in every direction, and a curving staircase leads up to the second floor. As I wander around the house, I am dogged by a growing sense of unease. Everywhere I go, it looks as if the former inhabitants suddenly vanished into thin air one day, and no one had set foot in the house since. In the kitchen, pots and pans are still on the range, and dishes still litter the table. In the parlor, a book sits open on an armchair. But over everything is a thick layer of dust, with cobwebs spanning the spaces in between. I find myself wishing that I had a mask, because I'm really allergic to house dust. I try not to breathe too deeply.

The more I wander, the stranger things become. I hear a door close in the distance. A curtain sways when there is no wind. Floorboards creak above me. Yet there is no sign of a single living soul anywhere in the house. I don’t know if I feel threatened, but I can feel... a presence. Or a will, at least—a will that desires to keep me there. When I have made a thorough search of the house and find no one there, I decide to leave, and in that moment I can feel the will harden, set against me now. I turn around and take a step back toward the door of the room I am in, but it slams shut. I hurry forward, open the door, and rush through into the next room. Doors continue to close in front of me, but I don’t stop. As I near the foyer, yet another door slams shut, but this time I can hear the sinister snick of the lock sliding into place. Instead of slowing down, I begin to run, and as I reach the door I lower my shoulder and charge into it. The door gives way with a splintering crash. It’s an old house, and these old doors are no match for me.

I finally reach the foyer, and for a moment I hesitate, fearing that the front door will be locked against me, but the handle turns easily, and the door opens with a groan of resignation. I am back outside on the hilltop. The house looms over me, a shadow that blots out the light of the stars. But it can do nothing to me now.

Somehow, I make it back to civilization, and life goes on as normal. As time passes, I begin to wonder about my experience. It doesn’t make any sense; where would I have been that I would have encountered such a wood, with the only sign of civilization around being that one lonely house? I come to the conclusion that it had all been a dream, albeit a vivid one. And I am fine with this conclusion until one day I get a text from a number I don’t recognize.

“Please come back.”

I’m tempted to ignore it, but something about it oozes pathetic desperation, even beyond the flatly pleading tone. Against my better judgment, I reply: “Who is this?”

“Come on, you know who this is. Come back, please.”

But I truly have no idea who it is, and I start to think that maybe someone is playing a joke on me. Then a thought hits me. I swipe out a few words: “Wait a minute... this isn’t that house, is it?”

“I knew you’d remember.”

I stare at the phone, dumbfounded, until another text pops up.

“Look, I’m sorry about last time. It’s just been so long since I’ve had people over that I didn’t know what to do. I guess I overreacted.”

This has got to be a practical joke. I don’t reply.

The next day, though, I get another text.

“I fixed that door you broke. Well, it was my fault, really. I don’t blame you for it, you know.”

Somehow it feels like I should say something. It’s probably a mistake, but I text back a single word: “Thanks?”

A few seconds later, my phone buzzes again: a smiley emoji.

I hear nothing from the house for a few more days, until my phone buzzes when I'm out with HJ, walking up Mass Ave toward Davis Square.

"I redid the kitchen. It was kind of a mess the last time you were here. Sorry about that."

Below the text is a photo of the new kitchen, and I have to admit that it looks nice. The oven has been replaced with a modern model, all of the appliances are now top-of-the-line, and every surface in sight has been polished to a mirror shine.

"Come on, tell me you don't want to come over and cook a meal in this kitchen."

To be honest, that is exactly what I want to do, but I'm afraid to admit that, and I'm sure not going to tell the house that. I resist replying.

After a few minutes of silence, another buzz, and another emoji: a frowny face with a tear. This is getting ridiculous.

HJ looks over at my phone. "Who keeps texting you like that?"

"Ah, it's just this house I was at a while back," I say nonchalantly. "It keeps wanting me to come back, but I know if I do it will just trap me there and not let me go."

"Then don't go," she shrugs. "Can't you block the number so you don't get any more texts from it?"

I probably can, but I'm still relatively new to this smartphone business. And somehow... I'm not sure if I want to block the number after all.

I woke up at this point and sat straight up in bed. For a moment I didn’t know where I was, and I had to wait for recognition to wash over me. Then I remembered the dream and was terribly confused. I had no idea what to make of it. Despite being about a haunted house, it wasn’t a nightmare—not once in the dream did I feel frightened or terrified. I did feel a little uneasy or uncomfortable at times, but never scared. Thinking back on it, what strikes me most about the dream was how matter-of-fact I was about it all. But I guess that’s dream logic for you.

I could just leave today’s entry at that, but I can’t resist the temptation to try to pick this apart a bit and figure out where it came from. That’s why I didn’t post this directly after I dreamed it; I wanted a little more time to think about it. The first thing I can say is that I was a little disappointed with my brain for falling back on so many tropes and cliches associated with haunted houses. The creepy forest, the house on the hill, the foyer with the cobwebbed chandelier? Trite, hackneyed, overused. But symbols are the currency of dreams, and symbols pretty much have to be universal in order to be effective. So although the writer in me is a wee bit disappointed that my subconscious couldn’t be a little more creative in setting the scene, I understand the need for efficiency.

As far as the elements of the dream go, I can identify three major themes. The first, of course, is the haunted house. I should probably confess at this point that I love haunted house stories. I think part of that has to do with their liminal nature: As domiciles, they represent civilization, but they are very often located in liminal spaces at the edge of civilization, between civilization and non-civilization. They are also liminal in that they are haunted, as ghosts exist in a liminal space between life and death: spirits that are stuck in the transition between this world and the next.

Of course, there are two different types of haunted houses: those that are more literally haunted by spirits, and those that are possessed by a malevolent presence. The house in my dream was more of the latter kind than the former, and that kind are far more complex than actual haunted houses. Rather than simply serving as stages for spirit actors, these houses themselves are the actors. An intelligence—or at least a will—is attributed to a thing that normally has neither. But why personify a house?

In the general sense, at least, that question isn’t too hard to answer; houses do, in reality, take on the character of their owners, so it is not too great a leap to breathe a little pneuma into these structures. (There’s a lot more that goes into it than that, of course.) However, in my case, the answer may be more pedestrian: HJ and I are currently looking for a place to stay during the fall semester, and I think my obsession with/worries over housing might have bled into my dreams. And the place we are staying now does in fact have plenty of character, what with its uneven floors and the bedroom closet that likes to pop open in the middle of the night if you don’t shut it tightly. (No, our house is not haunted; almost all of the doors want to either swing open or stay shut, and the closet door is one that wants to swing open. It also does not latch shut, as there is no actual latch, just a knob, so if you don’t push it shut really tight it sometimes pops open. This scared the crap out of us a couple of times when we first moved in.)

The neediness of the house is the second major theme; not only does the house have a personality, but it’s not the sort of personality that you normally associate with a haunted or possessed house. To be honest, I have no idea what to make of this. One of my friends, when I shared the dream, said that the house reminded him of “girls in high school that looked like they would be fun to date, but I knew better.” These weird connotations did not escape my conscious brain after the fact, of course, but during the dream I don’t think I made this connection. I think if I had I would have been flustered when HJ asked me who was texting me—and had I been writing this as fiction, I definitely would have had the protagonist be flustered. But I wasn’t flustered, just slightly annoyed and unsure of what to do. I’m sure there is a perfectly acceptable Freudian interpretation, but I think I’d just rather leave this theme as is.

The final theme might not be as obvious to some, but it is fairly obvious to me: the smartphone as medium. I’ve had my smartphone for maybe two months now, so I’m still rather new to the whole thing. Swiping, for example, is a relatively new technique for me (in retrospect, the complete absence of weird “corrections” from autocorrect should have tipped me off that it was a dream). Text messages in general are not new, but texting at the speed I can text now is. So, three months ago, having an actual conversation through text messages wouldn’t have felt nearly as natural. I don’t think this theme is actually all that important to the interpretation of the dream, but it is interesting for me to see how perfectly my smartphone has insinuated itself into my life, to the extent that it plays important roles in my dreams.

Well, I think I’ll leave things at that. There are other minor things that probably influenced the dream, like a story I read once that was written from the point-of-view of a house and impressed me deeply, or the fact that my parents are now in the process of giving their house a makeover—but a catalog of all the little pieces of my life drawn upon by my subconscious does not interest me. I could also write more about haunted houses and liminality, but then this would probably start feeling like work, and that’s something I’d like to avoid. It’s always a fun exercise to try to tease meaning out of a dream, but that’s all it really is: just fun. At least it was fun for me. Hopefully you were amused as well, if only a little. (Oh, and have a happy St. Patrick’s Day!)

Send me your thoughts.

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