One of my favorite Instagram feeds is photographs of abandoned places. I’ve always been drawn to the ghosts of buildings, that residual image of what they once were that lingers around the edges after they fall to ruin. It’s almost as if you can feel it behind you or see it out of the corner of your eye, lurking in the shadows, but it’s gone when you turn your head. In a sense, all abandoned places are haunted. And in a ghost story, a haunted house is almost like a character itself.
My grandma was a huge fan of ghost stories. Not modern horror, mind you, just the creepy supernatural stuff. Growing up I watched pretty much all of the classic haunted house movies with her, from the campiness of William Castle films to the genuine creepiness of the screen adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House. This all goes to explain why I was so excited when this picture by MGNess popped up on Instagram with the caption “Agatha Faversham’s haunted mansion.” Does it get any more Shirley Jackson sounding than that? I’m sure my grandma would have loved that movie, whatever it might have been.
Of course it’s not really called that. It’s actually a place in Belgium called the Château Nottebohm, which has an interesting history of its own, but no ghosts as far as I can tell. It was built in the early 20th century as a country home for the Nottebohm family of Antwerp and was used as a German army outpost during the second world war, then fell into disrepair in the 1980s. The unexpected part is that in the 70s it was transformed into something called Ponyland. An urban explorer posted about it online and got a response from a woman who actually lived there. From her description it sounds like a cross between an equestrian summer camp and a giant petting zoo, with trampolines, a swimming pool, and about 100 ponies roaming around. Well, maybe they weren’t roaming around, but I imagine it that way in my head. Apparently it was also scouted for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but was passed over in favor of another mansion in the area, presumably because it’s a deathtrap.
So who, then, was Agatha Faversham? I actually remembered when I looked it up. She was an elderly woman who hired the Ghostbusters to deal with the Thing in her attic in one of the episodes of The Real Ghostbusters, which was one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons. When Agatha was a child, her father had summoned a demon of some kind in a misguided attempt to increase his fortunes and provide for her. Predictably, it did not go the way he thought it would. He trapped it in the attic and told her to never go up there, and on his deathbed made her swear she would never sell the house or visit the attic. After dealing with it for 70 years, she got fed up with the demon thumping around and moaning upstairs and hired the Ghostbusters to take care of it for her. On a side note, in the 90s the Sunday Telegraph named Faversham the most haunted town in Britain.
In short, Angela Faversham is the kind of person who usually doesn’t end up in a ghost story. She spent 70 years diligently not going into the attic and then called in professionals (arguable, perhaps, but as far as she was concerned, true) to handle it while she sat safely at their headquarters having a nice cup of tea. She did not sneak in when her father was playing billiards, or invite all of her friends over and offer them a prize for spending the night up there, or wander up in her nightie with a candle and ask it to pipe down. She didn’t even choose to buy the house in spite of it’s terrible past because it was such a great deal. If an audience was waiting around for her to do something to advance the narrative, they’d be sorely disappointed.
But those are the kinds of things that people in haunted house movies do. They discover a beautiful abandoned, but miraculously clean, mansion on the clifftops of Cornwall and decide to move in despite the fact that one of the rooms is oddly cold and repugnant (The Uninvited, 1944). You know they’ve thought to themselves, ‘I wonder why this amazing house is so cheap?’ but they’ve pushed it to the back of their mind because they don’t really want to know the answer to that question.
It seems like haunted house movies fall into categories that are a lot like stages of development:
- I’ve inherited this house and I have no idea it’s haunted
- I’ve bought this haunted house for a song and I’m in denial that there’s anything wrong with it
- I want this house even though I’ve been told it’s haunted
- I know this house is haunted but there’s a prize at the end if I stay
- I’m spending time in this haunted house on purpose because I’m hoping to see a ghost
What I remember from watching them with my grandma, though, is more that there were two types: silly or creepy, and some were both. In the silly camp were William Castle’s films from the 1960s, like 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill. I only wish I could have seen these in the theater! Original showings of 13 Ghosts included a two paned set of colored glasses called Ghost Viewers and Castle himself gave an intro on how to use them while watching the film. The red pane was for people who believed in ghosts, and the blue pane was for people who did not believe in ghosts. When the screen turned a blue tint, the audience was instructed to use the glasses and of course the blue pane made the ghosts invisible, while the red pane made them clear. Sadly the version we watched on tv was black & white.
Even better, the Ghost Viewers are tied directly into the narrative. The plot involves the Zorba family, who inherit a creepy old mansion from Dr. Plato Zorba, an eccentric recluse with a penchant for the occult. Along with the house, he leaves them a special set of goggles he designed, which are the only way to see the 12 ghosts that also live in the house. It’s a fantastically entertaining example of mirroring form and content. And since there usually has to be a reason why people from stage 1 of haunted house development decide to stay once they do know about the ghosts, there’s also a hidden treasure that they’re set on digging up. I think Castle would probably have loved the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Another of my favorite Castle films was House on Haunted Hill, which starred Vincent Price as a millionaire who throws a haunted house party for five strangers and offers a $10,000 prize to anyone who’s still there in the morning. As you might expect, it was extremely campy, including a skeleton rigged to terrorize the guests. It was also filmed in the Ennis House which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, so the house was definitely one of the main characters.
The creepy type of ghost stories were my grandma’s favorites, although in retrospect I think she had a bit of a love-hate relationship with them. The two I remember watching with her most often were The Haunting (1963), based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, and the 1970s made for tv movie The House That Would Not Die, starring Barbara Stanwyck. The House That Would Not Die bridges several categories, with a main character who inherits an old Revolutionary era house in Pennsylvania which she’s been told is haunted. She’s intrigued and begins looking into the history of the house with the help of a local professor, until they both get possessed and it all goes downhill.
The Haunting is a development stage 5 movie, where a group of paranormal investigators go poking about in an extremely creepy house looking for evidence of the supernatural. The house is really the starring role in this one. The sets were constructed with slightly angled walls that make everything look off kilter and cause the doors to move on their own, and it was intentionally shot using a type of camera that was not yet market-ready and caused distortion. The main character’s relationship to the house reads almost like a dysfunctional romance, where it treats her badly but she’d rather die there than leave it behind.
I hadn’t really thought about all these movies in years, but now I can’t help imagining what fun it would be to see Agatha Faversham’s Haunted Mansion set in a pre-Ponyland Château Nottebohm, directed by William Castle and based on a story by Shirley Jackson. Perhaps in some ill-advised future, a time-travelling cinephile will bring them together and make my dream come true!
In the case of a haunting, alex MacFadyen can be found drinking tea at the Firehouse with Agatha Faversham.