‘I’ve actually seen ghosts.’ This statement comes less than ten minutes into the first episode of Dark House, a limited-series podcast about ghosts, houses and interior decoration from House Beautiful magazine. And this is the moment, I assume, a certain number of people roll their eyes and switch over to the next podcast in their queue.
Humans are fascinated by ghosts. We tell the stories, we take the city tours of hauntings when we travel, we see all the films in the Conjuring and Insidious series. But that’s a bit different from seeing real ghosts, which is just someone taking things too far. It was a shadow, or a dream, or a trick of the light, or a flaw with the camera. There’s something very unserious about a person who can see ghosts, so when co-host Alyssa Florentino comes out and says she’s seen ghosts in her house since she was a child, I kind of admired her moxie.
There are plenty of podcasts about girls sitting around talking about ghosts, some good (Two Girls One Ghost) and others not so good (oh my god, all of the others). One thing has been true since the beginning of time: ghosts love girls, and girls love ghosts. Whether it’s a poltergeist flinging rocks at a sexually frustrated teen girl or a group of girls exchanging erotic energy by telling stories to chill and horrify, this is lady culture. As for the men? Well, I don’t know if you have seen any of those ghost-hunter television series, but there is always a middle-aged couple, the woman near frantic as she recounts stories of being terrified and hounded by some unseen force, and the man rolling his eyes and saying something like: ‘She always did let her imagination run away with her.’
So there are a lot of podcasts about ghosts and hauntings, but few of them spend as much time as I would like on the furnishings. Dark House, being part of a magazine devoted to rehabilitated kitchens and ‘the domestic arts’, does linger over architectural details and the eccentric figures who owned these houses and lived their lives badly enough that they are still stuck there and can’t move on to the next whatever.
But more than just telling these stories to freak you out, as guest professor of anthropology Tok Thompson says in the first episode: ‘Ghost stories are about ethics.’ How wealth was accumulated; who was allowed to own property and who was denied; how a person met their end and who holds responsibility for any pain and suffering along the way. As Thompson reminds us, these stories are a way to talk about misogyny, racism, poverty and the darkest moments of our history. It’s never just a story about a woman who killed her child. It’s the story of a poor woman, abandoned by her married aristocratic lover when she found herself pregnant, and driven mad by the way he tormented her.
That same careful attention to the larger context of often salacious or scandalous tales is also paid at American Hauntings. This one is hosted by men, so I have never heard them mention their own ghost experiences, but it’s a show that has been around for years so it’s possible I missed it.
Their newest season focuses on the ghosts of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Many of these stars from Old Hollywood, who now live on spectrally in contemporary Hollywood, came up hard, with backgrounds filled with poverty and violence. And many met grisly or premature ends, like the murder of closeted sex symbol Ramon Novarro, or the fatal illness of Jean Harlow, forced to continue to work when her kidney failure was misdiagnosed as the flu. We saw only their projected beauty on the screen, not the mistreatment or the lies or the suffering required to maintain that idealised image. Maybe that’s why they are still knocking around, showing up and getting in people’s faces. They still want to be seen.
The podcast continues its tradition from previous seasons of taking into consideration not only why these spirits linger among us but why the stories do as well. If there’s much to be said about why Rudy Valentino might be lurking around after all these years, there’s more to be said about why we want to see Rudy Valentino, so long after we have forgotten the names of all of his films or who he was beyond the one or two pictures we can remember seeing of him. The stories are bigger than the figures themselves and the lives they led, and they have so much more to tell us.
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