Haunted houses inspire much reaction, especially in Britain where they love their haunted manors and castles. It is largely a British fascination, and with this an American one especially in those geographic areas where British colonization dominated, such as New England.
On the other hand, it is not so popular on the Continent. The Catholic Church frowns on such things. You don’t hear of famous castles in Italia being haunted. The idea of a fantasma is taboo. The Catholic Church believes in demon possession but not in “surviving personalities.” On the Continent, where the Church held sway, “haunted houses” are not so common. But even in the days when Catholicism held sway in Britain, the Celtic view of ghosts could not be quashed.
This is worth contemplating on its own. Does it indicate that “ghosts” and “hauntings” are largely a cultural interpretation? Who then is right? The British? If so, has Rome merely quashed that interpretation on the Continent?
In any case, the argument here is not over the bigger picture but over a smaller one– cold spots. The haunting of Borley Rectory was world news in its day. One of the things that came out of the whole affair was that there was a mysterious “cold spot” at the top of the stairs in front of the most haunted room in the manor– the Blue Room. This would indicate the resident evil.
Because it is central to the great works of fiction — The Uninvited and The Haunting of Hill House— we’ve heard of this manifestation in the realm of ghostly incarnations. But when I first began my research I could find nothing of historic reference on “cold spots.” When I put forward the question, “where does this come from?” naturally the responses came from Brits. A Scottish journalist, Andy Robertson, was first. He said he would contact the respected Society for Psychical Research in London, the same group that had had quite to do with studying Borley.
Based on what research I had already done on the popular culture references to the notion of cold spots, I wasn’t surprised by the SPR response when Andy Robertson relayed it to me. They were detailed. When it came to a feeling of cold in the presence of a spirit, the first reference is in the Book of Job in the Bible. But when it comes to the statement, in literature, of a “cold spot” associated with a “haunted house” the answer was what I suspected— “It is unquestionably Harry Price and Borley Rectory.”
There is, in fact, nothing before that. Since Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited (1942) contains the first mention of a “cold room” in fiction, I suspected that the idea of a cold spot might have originated within old Irish lore (Macardle was Irish). In truth, it doesn’t. Aware of my question on its origins, the very Irish Padraig Hoxey drew my attention to True Irish Ghost Stories. This was first published in 1914. Any reference to cold within it is to feeling cold when a spirit passes or in the case of Lady Bereford when a ghost touched her and the hand was cold as marble and caused the area it touched to wither. But as for a house possessing a resident spot or room, it is purely nonexistent.
Since fact and folklore can inspire one another, the complete absence of a cold spot in literature before Harry Price basically tells us the idea of a cold spot originates with him and his claims of Borley Rectory’s hauntings. Macardle herself was inspired by the sensation that was Borley and Price’s slant on it.
To be able to finally sort this out is rewarding, of course. Vanquishing this fake “symptom” of a haunt helps any serious investigator sift post Borley claims for hauntings far more accurately. Unfortunately, it is also a bit disheartening, for it removes that one thing haunted house research is searching for: something tangible.
If those who investigate the “preternatural” really wish to temper their investigations with “science,” they must look at the body of history. History is the collective of human experience. I’ve never heard it preached that inexperience is the way to go. No one starts reading a book at chapter 3. One starts at the beginning. Beginning at Chapter One reveals that the modern pursuit of investigating haunted houses is terribly misdirected if it accepts Harry Price’s claims on Borley Rectory.
The best standard we can use is that which is a part of our being— logic. It is the criterion for how we objectively process data— our conclusions must be supported by the reasons we give; our actions must be in response to our motive. Any intelligences, which would logically include “surviving personalities,” are inscrutably subject to this. Intelligence means volition. This in turn means actions coming from a motive. If intelligent spirits possess, reside in or “haunt” a house, then they can communicate intelligently. If they can make odd sounds, ring crystals and bells and make creaks and utter moans, they can also tap out codes and messages indicating intelligence is behind the actions. What haunted house study has really stood up to this test? None. Even “wall writing” was popularized (though not originated) with Borley Rectory, which then in turn has inspired some great fiction as well. Consider “help, Eleanor, come home” from The Haunting.
The Occult has naturally inspired much of the attitudes in the genre of haunted house research. Britain and America were disheartened by the terrible effects of World War I and both spiraled into a deep belief in spiritualism. Séances were common, planchette with its automatic writing, and Ouija board consultation. The whole thing became quite a fad. Some people believed they had “medium” qualities. To be a “sensitive” or to have “mediumship qualities”– that was the thing! It spilled over into haunted house research. How to explain people who had no bad experience in a “haunted house” but others who had? Those who had experiences were those who were “Sensitives.”
It is probably true that to see the creepier qualities in an old house and to be affected by them you must have a certain character. DOS exists in us all. Before Windows can be downloaded, there must be Disk Operating System. It is the same for us. Before life’s experiences can be processed we must have an inherent DOS operating. Make a funny face at a dog, the dog will raise its ears and cock its head. You understand the dog’s question, and he understood your face was weird, even for a human. It’s DOS. We aren’t taught it. It’s there. A dilapidated, covered bridge in a dank, wooded glen will give us a certain innate reaction. We are reading its “expression.”
But what are “sensitive” people truly sensitive to in a haunted house? Is it its creepy atmosphere, its design, its location in a wooded area? The spot where it was built? Does its design inadvertently channel energy? Has a sick mind created a sick house, designed like a painter would a painting in order to evoke from us an instinctive reaction? Or is there something there?
One thing we have is logic. We must be reasonable. If ghosts are not trying to communicate with moans and tappings, then they are still acting according to their volition. What is their motive for making creaks, moans, shattering windows, grabs, necking, touching, and ghoulish sounds?
It becomes easy to mock, of course. And some will take my words in that light, but I too know of very honest people who have reported such encounters or have seen a “dark form” invade their bedroom or they have heard their name called out repeatedly. . . and yet it never goes beyond that.
Some houses do seem sick, like Hill House of fiction. But we have to recall that Hugh Crane and Hill House have more than a touch of inspiration from the Bulls of Borley. Fiction has taken leads from facts. But those facts have really never been pursued. Was Borley a “sick house” like Hill house?
It is easier to mock those who react to spooky old manors, but we must accept we all have a concept of “spooky.” Some react seriously; others mock. But all of us acknowledge the concept of spooky. Like the expressions of a human face, we can read the expressions of architecture and design. Some houses just affect us.
The marketing of ghost hunting is Gothic. Around Halloween time, it is very fun. It’s as fun as watching good Chiller Diller movies or going to Disneyland’s haunted house. It’s tableau, cliché and meant to excite from us the desired spooked response. Fine. But marketing and reality aren’t the same thing. The truth is not so Gothic. Catering to our instincts is not the same as investigating facts. Odd and frightening things still happen, but haunting has become an explanation, not a deduction. Harry Price started with facts. But he did not use logic to interpret or even investigate them. He used “haunting” to market them.