8 May 2014


Caron Lipman. Co-habiting With Ghosts: Knowledge, Experience, Belief and the Domestic Uncanny. Ashgate, 2014.

During my working career as a local history librarian I found that second only to tracing family history, finding out “who lived in my house” was the most common form of enquiry that I had to deal with. A sizable tranche of those enquiries were really about “who is haunting my house”.
It is perhaps significant that this book is one of a wider set of an academic study run by Queen Mary College, University of London on house history and the presence of the past in homes.

Caron Lipman here examines how people come to terms with living in a 'haunted house', a place where they feel that the presence of the past is something palpable and perhaps alienating. The book presents a study of thirteen haunted people or haunted families, whose dwellings range from as unromantic locations as a 1930s semi-detached in Ipswich, a thirteen year old mock Tudor house in Blackpool and a modern council house in Liverpool, in which the experiencer has been the only tenant; through to such traditional venues such as the a caretaker in a mansion used as conference centre and an elderly lady who supplements her income by hosting ghost tours of her castle tower.

Other locations form a kind of middle earth of the haunted; an old detached house in rural North Wales; a flat in a London Victorian terrace, two old knocked-together cottages in a Wiltshire village, the old haunted house in a Wirral village with a traditional Pink Lady; the haunted room in a North London mansion; a Victorian end terrace in the outskirts of Bristol; an old weaver’s cottage near Oldham, and a top floor flat in London. The book is based around interviews with these families.

Dr Lipman discusses the detailed geography of the uncanny in these houses and notes that ghosts may be associated with such liminal locations as doorways, corridors, or places that are not quite part of the inner habitat such as dark corners and cupboards. Some people envisage the ghosts as having their own space in the house, or a liminal space that is both within and without, very near and very far away.

These are by and large ghosts that people have learnt to live with and assimilate into their families. They may represent the “real” inhabitants of the house, the people who lived there for years and be seen as the protectors of habitat, order and gender roles, taking on from the fairies before them the task of ensuring that the women folk keep the house tidy. They may be the memories of extended families, the deceased relatives who want to ensure that all is order, perhaps the domestic lares who keep the dark forces of the wilderness at bay. As presences of the past they seek to preserve the social values of (a largely imagined) past.

A minority represent the encroaching wilderness, a house in which mysterious snail trails appear and in which words in Welsh appear on the walls (and which paranormal investigators apparently found to be fraudulent). The caretaker in something which isn’t really a domestic space at all encounters something too disturbing to really discuss, and the Romanian cleaner who is employed by an elderly lady to sleep in the (presumably) haunted room, finds disturbing things happening.

People’s attitudes towards these ghosts ranges from full scale spiritualist belief to a sort of semi-scepticism, and the general tenor seems to be to think of them as neither being there or not, in a sort of liminal zone between reality and imagination. Though there are exceptions, stereotypical gender roles seem to be at play, men acting the role as rational hard headed sceptic, women as intuitive believers. Gender roles apply to the ghosts as well, female ghosts are regarded as having a nurturing or caretaking role. When one teenage boy thinks he is being slapped by the ghost he domesticates this to assume that it his grandmother still showing her care for him. Masculine ghosts are seen as more problematic, potentially dangerous intruders.

Navigating around these others is in some ways like navigating around a multigenerational household, or shared accommodation. For some this sense of loss of privacy is eased by assuming that the ghosts are doing their own thing and are thus heedless of the living.

Among these ghosts, at least, the traditional haunting generated by tragedy and trauma is gone. In the past ghost stories have often acted as a form of collective post-traumatic stress disorder, as though the building or the locale was suffering from PTSD and was “damaged”. Perhaps as the great round of birth and death is abstracted from the living space into hospitals, nursing homes and similar institutions, the home is envisaged as purely a domestic living space, peopled by domestic ghosts. The blood and thunder bodice ripping ghost stories centred around 'olde-worlde' locations give way to imagery which seems to come from TV, or more likely inspire a TV series. The account of the family of ghosts - a triad of mum, dad and stroppy teenager daughter - who inhabit the landing of the upper floor maisonette shared by three thirty-something women seems perfectly made for a BBC3 series!

There are perhaps areas which could have been explored more, for example the geography of haunted houses: are there particular locations which get the reputation of being haunted? It might also be interesting to view the house as an extension of the self and body, and to think of haunting as a kind of dysmorphia of this extended body.

There is a perhaps a general sense of the un-homely, the sense of intrusion into someone else’s territory, either because you are a newcomer to a place which has been someone else’s home for decades, because you are a newcomer to the area (even if you have lived there for 20 years), or you are a tenant, a caretaker, living in rented accommodation.

Large portions of this book, especially the interviews with the experients, will be of great interest to
students of folklore, and should be of interest to psychical researchers and one often the sense that there important insights here. However there is a problem with this book, it was written as a PhD thesis and at times does descend into sociology-speak, and there are the de rigour references to the sort of French postmodernists satirised in the Sokal Hoax.

These are of course haunted times, and the news is full of hauntings and dead things coming back; from the fate of the disappeared in Northern Ireland, to the real or alleged sexual misdeeds of celebrities decades ago; the commemorations of the First World War, the rise of various forms of nationalisms and worse, the sense of past as dead things which won’t lie down, a history that can neither be assimilated nor exorcised. And that the great ghost, the roughest of rough beasts, rising from its grave, tearing the stake out of its heart, with a banshee scream of pain, rage and terror that could shake the earth to its foundations, is the twentieth century itself, most definitely not resting in peace. – Peter Rogerson.

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