Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Author's Department


First Advisor

M. Lee Steinmetz


This thesis traces the development of the haunted house in British and American literature and covers a time span of roughly two hundred years. Its approach is chronological: beginning with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, it examines the use of the Bad Place as a literary motif, emphasizing the consistencies in its development while noting the inconsistencies as well. From Walpole to Stephen King, we see that the haunted house has continuously represented two things. On one hand, it may serve as a repository for unexpiated sin. The traditional haunted house, in fact, is nothing more than the prison of an earth-bound, essentially good spirit who has in some way been wronged and is bent, therefore, on alleviating its own suffering. The ghost may, as a sideline, demand proper burial or serve to warn of an impending catastrophe, but once he has wreaked revenge by exposing the person responsible for his death, he disappears, presumably freed from Purgatory and allowed to enter Heaven Proper. Such is the case in Walpole's Castle and in Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron, as well as in a number of late nineteenth century works; in a slightly different way, it is also the case in works like The House of the Seven Gables and "The Jolly Corner," for the sin "housed" need not be a tangible sin of the flesh-- it may be a sin of character instead. In The House of the Seven Gables, for instance, the "ghost" that haunts the Pyncheon house is elitism: Hawthorne's gloomy, ramshackle mansion is a symbol of dead aristocratic ideals. "The Jolly Corner's" ghost, on the other hand, is narcissism: Spencer Brydon's house is empty, we learn, because its owner is devoid of any sense of compassion for others.

Besides acting as a repository for unexpiated sin, the haunted house also serves as a kind of psychological mirror capable of reflecting-- and often preying upon-- the obsessions of the characters who reside within. The governess in The Turn of the Screw, for example, is a strait-laced Victorian prude; in and around James' haunted house, therefore, materialize two characters with notorious sexual histories. Most often it is guilt that the haunted house reflects, but it may also be authoritarianism, sexual desire, or jealousy. Often, too, the haunted house as mirror may merge with one of the other interpretations. The house of Usher, for example, at once mirrors and magnifies the guilt and instability that form the core of Roderick Usher's anguish, and at the same time represents the incestuous family whose sin requires expiation. Thus, haunting's two basic sources are often as inseparable as subterranean passages from gothic castles.

Of course, like the chameleon, the haunted house was not content with a single color: it demanded several, fortunately, and in the years subsequent to Walpole's efforts, donned many different hues. In Robert Marasco's Burnt Offerings (1973), the house represents a ghastly microcosmic death/rebirth cycle in which human sacrifice is prerequisite to the house's own rejuvenation. In Charles Beale's The Ghost of Guir House (1897), the house, a tangle of ivy and worm-eaten wood, is a symbol for man's less-than-ideal existence on earth. The house represents the womb, a haven, in both James' The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Oliver Onions' "The Beckoning Fair One" (c.1935), while in Algernon Blackwood's "The Other Wing" and James' "The Jolly Corner," it is synonymous with the human mind. Such redecorative trends reflective of the times have not, however, precluded the haunted house from consistently acting as a repository for unexpiated sin and as a psychological mirror. These consistencies-- along with the inconsistencies-- will be traced in greater detail in the thesis following.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.