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A Haunting Safe as Houses: a Halloween Reflection on Fear Itself

One cozy autumn evening I sat down with several friends, a heaping plate of turkey, and full wine glasses to commune in front of the Netflicks. A scary movie was called for. The Conjuring was recommended and chosen.

I’m no connoisseur of such films, but I rather enjoyed it. It used that effective tactic of showing little or nothing of the danger to let the viewer’s mind create something much worse than any CG monster. It’s also an interesting period piece; I enjoyed the 1970s fashion and vehicles. More interestingly, The Conjuring has that money-making flourish: “Based on a true story”. That last bit struck me to my core, but not for the reasons you might think.

I love a good story, true or not, so after the movie was  over I delved into the internet. This site takes a fascinating look at the history of the farm house and its past inhabitants. Any history nerd will enjoy learning about the generations of people who lived on the farm and the way that their historical moment shaped their lives.

A history buff will also balk at the detail of the chief spirit/demon/adversary in the movie being a witch. “Witch” was shorthand for any woman who was considered suspect or deviant particularly in colonial America. A local woman whose child dies in an unusual way might very well have been considered a witch – not that children dying young was at all unusual for the period that the real Bathsheba Sherman lived in. Any woman who was unlucky enough to be unusual was fair game for title of Local Witch, First to Burn if Things Get Bad or Weird in the Village.

The neighbours gave Bathsheba Sherman the side eye, so now she gets to be the unholy child-murdering villain in a movie that she will never see. It makes me shudder to think how one’s life story can be distorted so long after one is gone. It seems terribly unjust that the real people whose lives are being retold for Hollywood fright flicks have no say in the matter. Here’s hoping that no one I know becomes a ghost story.

However, it is worth noting that the family and the paranormal investigators  who are portrayed in The Conjuring did support the movie being made. The latter, Ed and Lorraine Warren, opened their home up to be an occult museum. Their paranormal experiences are well-documented and their files were researched for the film.

Speaking of houses, I feel the need to mention the fact that I have lived in apartment buildings my entire life. House-noises scare me greatly and I could not live in even the most beautiful historic house. Houses, especially old houses, make sounds that are very different from the vague sounds of someone next-door turning on the shower or closing a door. I am used to the creak of steel beams expanding as they warm in winter but houses sound alive. I sympathize with the pain of anyone who finds themselves creeped-out by the breezy attic, old plumbing, and creaky floors that come with old houses.

And that is what I thought about when we had finished watching the movie: pain. Pain and fear.

Regardless what you think about the experiences of the Perons – whether or not you believe in the paranormal – The Conjuring shows you what it must be like to live in constant fear. Imagine being perpetually afraid in your own home. Knowing that the whole family felt that way is heart-breaking.

I know that feeling. It was a long time ago and I was very small. For reasons I didn’t then understand I started feeling afraid all the time. I was afraid to close my eyes at night. I constantly sought reassurance from my folks that there are nothing to worry about – I was home and safe with them. What was there to worry about? Nothing at all – but that made no difference.

I listened for unfamiliar sounds as soon as the lights went out. I stared into the shadows of my room and was appalled when the stacked boxes seemed to create a (very unrealistic) profile of a person. My heart would be racing as if I were running a race. I slept little and badly. No sleep leads to poor health and my folks were worried.

I my memories of this time are vague; going without proper sleep will muddy the mind. But I do know that the fear started after a bout of ghost stories and possibly a séance with my then-friends. Young girls playing at mediums seems to have been a thing in the nineties. Or was that just in the teen movies I was watching?

Regardless, what I can now call an Anxiety disorder latched onto the idea of invisible assailants being all around. Nightmares would have been better; at least then I would have gotten some sleep. A mild, non-prescription sedative (the herb St. John’s wort, used in sleepy tea) was my doctor’s recommendation. The herb helped me drop off properly for a week or two. Somehow the terror subsided, though I was wary of horror movies. Why open Pandora’s box right after you’ve closed it?

Am I credulous? Do I believe in ghosts in this day and age, as an grown adult?

Well, I do still love a good ghost story, such as those told by The Haunted Walk. However, given that most ghost stories centre around deeply unfortunate events, I certainly hope none of the characters are still around.

The best example is the Ask a Mortician Deathstination: Savannah Georgia episode. The long-deceased “trusted servant” (by servant the story-teller means slave) gains nothing by haunting a historic house in the afterlife to thrill and terrify tourists. If anything, that would just be another kind of servitude. I hope she’s free to rest.

But even a normal, ghost story-less house is of little comfort to those who constantly suffer from Anxiety or other mental health troubles. Every house is haunted, to those who live fear.

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