Essays · Movies

Ghosts, Gaslighting, and Haunted Heroines: The Horror of “You’re Imagining Things”

Because the only thing worse than being plagued by ghosts is being told that the ghosts are all in your head.
The Haunting
By  · Published on January 31st, 2018

The Helen Mirren-helmed ghost story Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built hits theaters this week, promising a spooky cocktail of a bereaved heiress, a monstrous mansion, and testy spirits with a score to settle. The film is inspired by the very real and very creepy Winchester Mystery House, which Sarah Winchester (played by Mirren in the film) built continuously for decades into an architectural grotesque with her husband’s “gun that won the West” blood money. Why? To ward off the vengeful ghosts of the rifle’s victims, duh.

If you haven’t seen the trailer for Winchester, fear not, for I shall summarize:

Male V.O.: Architecturally speaking, this house is NUTS. And you know who’s also nuts? HELEN MIRREN.

Helen Mirren: Listen up Doc there are ghosts in this house.

Doctor: Nah.

Helen Mirren: I’m pretty sure we’ve got ghosts.

Doctor: NAH.

Helen Mirren: Okay, well *I’m* going to keep protecting my family from all these angry ghosts.

Doctor: As a Man of Science, I’ll believe it when I see it!

[The doctor sees ghosts for the duration of the trailer]

There’s this recurring theme in ghost-centric horror movies where women with good reason to believe that supernatural shit is afoot are told that they’re imagining things. They report experiencing ghostly shit, only to be told that they saw something that wasn’t there, that they need to get some sleep, or that they need to calm down.

Ghosts are very good at making their targets feel like they’re losing their grip on reality. They move things around when you’re not looking, alter rooms and clothing, cause noises that have no source, and stage unbelievable events to disorient and delegitimize any claims that GHOST SHIT HAPPENED.

Having your sanity called into question is a hallmark of being a haunted heroine.

Sure, Dahlia from Dark Water (2005) is pretty sure she saw a dead girl in that washing machine but maybe, as her lovely ex-husband puts it, someone or something “pressed her wacko button today.” Or, more pointedly in his divorce disposition: that she’s mentally unstable and unfit to take care of their daughter who is also “having trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is not.” THANKS, GHOST. But hey, maybe Dhalia just needs to take Pete Postlethwaite’s advice and “relax” even though black angry ghost water is ruining her life and her daughter’s lives.

Dark Water

A moment of silence for the lifetime of therapy this sweet angel is going to have to go through thanks to this asshole ghost.

The motif of husbands telling their wives that they need to chill about the ghosts crops up in The Orphanage (2007), too. Even though Carlos has witnessed his fair share of spooky nonsense (least of all a treasure hunt culminating in the cremated remains of poisoned orphans), he finally reaches his breaking point. And subsequently hitches his spousal wagon to the “calling my wife crazy” method of dealing with paranormal bullshit. Women. Always imagining that the ghosts of murdered children are trying to tell them something, amirite?

The Orphanage

Meanwhile, The Others (2001) is like the Russian nesting doll of women being driven insane by ghost shenanigans. Grace (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t believe her daughter Anne that there’s an unseen family living in their house. That is until Grace does start to believe her and begins to question her own sanity. Doesn’t help none that Anne keeps talking vaguely about how “Mommy went mad” at some point in the past.

Now (SPOILER ALERT) even though the “who is fucking with who” waters get muddied in the third act, I want to underline that even though Grace and company are, in fact, themselves ghosts 1) they don’t know that, 2) the pre-existing ghosts of the mansion still fuck with them by withholding vital information that could contextualize all those “wow I feel like I’m losing my mind” feelings. It’s like all of the mansion’s resident ghosts met over tea and coordinated their efforts to make the whole “surprise, you’re dead” revelation as maddening and traumatic as possible. How was the ghost of that old woman provoking Grace into strangling her own daughter supposed to help? It’s almost like there was no plan at all and these bored jerk-off ghosts get a kick out of mind games.

The Others

YOU should stop being manipulative and tell her what’s going on BERTHA.

I’d also be remiss to not mention The Haunting (1963), where the ghosts of Hill House do a bang-up job of messing with Eleanor, whose mental state is called into question well before she even sets foot in the mansion. Even Theodora, who you’ll remember is a goddamn psychic, calls Eleanor’s experiences with the ghosts “crazy hallucinations.” Hell, the group’s consummate Ghost Expert even says things like: “are you sure, Eleanor?” and “I don’t know who or what you really saw Eleanor.” When he sends her away at the end of the film, apologizing profusely for inviting her to this spooky mansion, one gets the sense it’s less of a “this house is trying to kill you” thing so much as a “your mental fragility is going to throw off the validity of my research” thing.

The Haunting

“God I hope these womanly hysterics don’t cost me my tenure track.”

A lot of folks have pointed out that horror is the only genre where women appear and speak as often as men. Women take up space in horror, and haunted house stories, in particular, tend to be centered more on female characters than on male ones. Whether its Essie Davis in The Babadook, Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Julie Harris in The Haunting, or Helen Mirren in Winchester — women are consistently at the mercy of dark old houses and their maddening ghostly residents.

Horror is, at its best, a way to brush up against the things that scare us. And there is something terrifying, particularly for women, about being made anxious, confused, and less able to confidently get a grip in the world. Being told by a loved one that you imagined something horrible that you know happened is a terrible feeling. Not being believed is a terrible feeling. It’s horrible, and it makes for compelling horror.

More often than not I am relieved when the ghosts finally show up because it means that our heroine gets to breathe a sigh of relief and mutter a self-assured “I told you so.” Such redemptive moments are, of course, always undone by the hard work that comes with head-on collisions with ghosts. Namely: the uncovering of the cruelty, pain, and violence at the heart of residual hauntings. There is something deeply resonant about this: that believing haunted women means staring some horrible trauma square in the face and speaking its name.

And for this: Hooray for ghosts.

Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built will hit theatres on February 2nd, 2018.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.