Unghosting the Secret Rooms: Reclaiming Haunted Spaces for the BIPOC Imagination

Summer is a haunted season and none more so in my lifetime than this summer. While some may deem specters as appropriate for the time surrounding Halloween, it is actually when deep summer grips us in its sweaty fever when I wrap the cloak of the unexplained and spiritual around me.

If you could take out my heartbox and look inside it, like a diorama, you would glimpse shimmers of ghostly presences amongst the tiny, flickering candelabras and miniature lush velvet settees. And inside that diorama is a dollhouse-sized fierce brown girl, transposed with dark, terrified delight. A haunted place does not exist in books, film, television, and real life I will not devour whole. We are a haunted country and this is a haunted time in a haunted world, especially for those of us who already occupy the liminal space of other, such as myself. We find comfort in strange places.

As children, the province of the ghost story lives before endless twilights and campfires. One of my most vivid memories when I was seven, in 1988, camping in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, and my older brother’s friend, who was inexplicably kind to me and my younger brother, read Judith Bauer Stamper’s 1977 children’s book, Tales For the Midnight Hour, out loud before the flickering fire and shadowed woods.

I had already read each story in the collection a dozen times over, especially my favorite, “The Black Velvet Ribbon” but hearing it out loud in such atmospheric surrounds was thrilling; a bite of forbidden for an innocent mind. Knowing that, you could imagine my sheer delight when Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body & Other Stories has a chilling, yet darkly sensual, feminist retelling of “The Black Velvet Ribbon,” called the “The Husband Stitch.” Machado delves into the secret rotten place that the original story slides over, that the husband cannot abide the idea of his wife possessing one thing that belongs wholly to herself and will take it away, no matter the cost. We know in “The Black Velvet Ribbon” that as soon as the husband unties the ribbon while she sleeps, her head rolls off—in my imagination, gently to the floor.

In Machado’s version, however, the protagonist gives away pieces of herself to her husband and son slowly through the years, in an attempt to hold onto her green ribbon. Machado then layers urban legends like a Russian doll, using the ribbon-wearer’s memories of stories about girls who died in graveyards and who gave birth to wolves and who eternally search the hotels of Paris in search of a disappeared mother. Each faceless female figure is stripped of her humanity to exist only as a cautionary tale to those who wander off the designated path. It is exactly the type of story meant to strike terror in girls who toast their marshmallows in the fire, the woods a shadowy, lethal place at their backs. You are not supposed to go into the woods after night falls, but what if you have always been there? If being in those dark woods was never a choice, how do you take control?

Machado’s girls and women become tragedies or shadows of themselves and haunt the streets and wilds. And who is it that fade into forgotten ghosts constantly but Black and brown women? In this time of plague and protest and unrest, the lives that hang most in the balance are BIPOC women, and our bodies are the most policed, against our will. Terror lurks around every corner, especially in our hospitals. This July, in my hometown of Albuquerque, in the same hospital where I gave birth last year, an investigation uncovered administrators who had ordered staff to racially profile pregnant Native Americans, to scan them for COVID-19 and then separate them from their infants. Any time Black and brown women walk into a hospital, we know we may be forced to give away our choices just as Machado’s narrator is worn down by her husband’s singular obsession until she unravels the ribbon herself.

Machado’s storytelling prowess thrives in not only her pure narrative genius but also in her brown, queer imagination. Her eye is much more expansive and she consistently reinvents genre and form, even within the confines of a single story. She is acquainted with the everyday horrors BIPOC women have thrust upon them, and she uses her writing to shine the light on them but also to subvert and wrest the narrative back from the villains—an embodiment of the patriarchy. She asks us, if we could truly own our own stories, what would we do with them? If we must be ghosts, we will shake the rafters with our furious howls. We will not go quietly into the night. When we get to watch something so intimately frightening from the outside for once, we can exist more fully inside this world. The voices of Black and brown women like Machado are needed beyond measure to unveil the real horrors that haunt us so we can finally face them head on, stand a chance of finally surviving to the end.

Her Body & Other Parties and Tales For the Midnight Hour have stitched themselves into my child and adult imaginations seamlessly, much like two other gothic books featuring two of my favorite literary tropes—large, eerie buildings and protagonists who are alienated and ostracized, who are very “other” within the spaces they have been banished/banished themselves to. As a mixed Latinx and child of an immigrant who never seemed to fit into any spaces, I’ve had a lifelong habit of seeking out those unexplainable places.

Two summers ago, I was in New Orleans for a booksellers’ conference and while on a haunted walking tour, the story of a hotel’s ballroom, which our tour group did not visit, riveted my attention as it was reputed to be one of the city’s most haunted place. Two days later, I snuck into the hotel with two girlfriends, one a fellow Latinx and the other Filipinx, who were game to find some pirate ghosts after dinner and a few excellent cocktails, our amusement was enhanced by our tipsiness. One of my friends, an effervescent whirlwind up for any adventure, took a ton of photos of the ballroom, which was either artificially or unnaturally cold, a startling contrast to the rest of the hotel and the stifling late June humid heat of New Orleans. I laughed along until she got too close to one of the far corner windows and something inside me went, nope, don’t go toward that spot, time to go! Maybe it was the Taíno curandera rumored to be in my Puerto Rican lineage, but I sensed we actually weren’t alone at that moment; that as we reveled in sheer delight that we might have a ghostly encounter, there was a line we were about to cross.

Some experiences, and books, carve out who you are. I count my New Orleans jaunt as one of them, just as finding Behind the Attic Wall, is another. I stumbled across this book when I was nine or ten and read it no fewer than a dozen times. It’s rare to find a real gothic children’s novel, but Sylvia Cassedy’s book had everything needed to tantalize me, as a young girl who fit nowhere, and whose home was full of the alternating loneliness from my mother’s depression and bouts of extreme violence by my father and older brother. I identified very much with the protagonist, Maggie, a twelve-year-old orphan who, after being expelled from a number of boarding schools, lands with her last relatives who will take her in. The two great-aunts live alone in what is either a former mansion turned boarding school or vice versa and Maggie, lonely and numb from a lifetime of rejection, wanders the halls until she finds the attic and discovers a secret door. Behind it is a perfectly laid out tiny parlor, complete with a set of dolls: man and woman who can speak to Maggie. They invite her in for tea as the first of a series of visits that lead to Maggie gaining a healthier sense of self.

It’s unclear whether everything that happens in the novel is entirely in Maggie’s mind, whether the ghosts of two of her relatives inhabited the dolls, or whether the dolls were animated by something utterly inexplicable.The surprise ending purposefully obscures that. Cassedy’s literary genius is that means, in the readers’ minds, the dolls can also be anything we need them to be.

I was utterly obsessed with that tiny parlor, so much so that I remember it vividly even nearly thirty years later. Like Maggie, each time she went inside the room in the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and safety. The dolls, which absolutely should have been creepy as hell, were so soothing when they spoke to her. It awoke a yearning I didn’t realize I had, existing in my own world where no adult spoke gently to me and violence inside our walls, all full of holes from my brother’s rages born from my white father’s brutalization of him, the darkest of his unwanted brown children. When you spend afternoons locked into your room, furniture piled against the wall to keep out the one who means you harm, the only safe places exist in books. Children’s and teen horror books gave me not only a sense of relief but comfort that I was not alone in the chaos, and I could create a secret place that was safe from all of it. I could exist outside myself and fall with Maggie, as if in a trance, into these doll-ghosts and the tea set, the wooden toast clacking against doll teeth. I see the pieces of that parlor in my heartbox, just as I see one the house in one of my favorite books this year.

Though no literal ghosts exist within the pages, the house itself is an uncanny character. Elisabeth Thomas is one of far too-few Black authors represented in the gothic/horror genre, and her presence is both splendid and much needed. In her gothic novel debut, Catherine House, a young woman running from a mysterious incident that terrifies her, is accepted into Catherine—a private college housed in a decaying mansion where its students are required to leave behind all their worldly possessions and cut off contact with their friends and families for three years. Ines, like Maggie, is also numbed emotionally from whatever trauma she has attempted to escape by giving her life over to Catherine. Though initially she rebels against the strict confines of both the college’s strict regimes and study courses, Ines accepts Catherine’s constrictive embrace when she is almost kicked out and forced to face her past. We go deeper into Catherine’s study specialty, the mysterious “plasma,” whose majors and professors seem to hold the entire campus in a strange thrall. However, it is Ines’ nighttime rambles through the endless hallways of the house itself that draw me in. Thomas’ depictions of hidden rooms full of surprising furniture and abandoned junk from past students and the original owners become eerie relics, shadows on the wall. Her descriptions of the meals and teas served, decadent yet unfilling, and rituals of each year’s students are cult-like and creepy. Ines falls into the comfort of the college scheduling her days mercilessly to the minute, wrapping her in endless studies, and her roommate, who chooses to sacrifice her body to Catherine’s eerie “science.” In the end, Ines, who realizes she was a ghost before she landed on Catherine’s doorstep, must make a choice about whether she would follow in her roommate’s footsteps or break free and exist in the real world, just as Maggie in Behind the Attic Wall must confront the real world after the ghosts deem her “healthy” and disappear from the dolls. What exists behind those doors, of both Catherine and Maggie’s parlors, are often the most frightening than the actual haunted places, just as the hotel in New Orleans and the possibility of real ghosts was a rollercoaster thrill to take three brown women away from the relentless horror of our experiences within a brutally white, racist society where we will always be otherized; where we get no say over our bodies, and our minds are our only weapons.

I originally read Catherine House in January, which, as for most people, seems like another age altogether. However, for Black and brown people in this country, we were already like Ines, alienated in a country whose institutions holding it up are decrepit and decayed, much like Catherine. Thomas is able to capture the sense of disassociation from self that many of us deal with on a daily basis. Reading books like Catherine House and Behind the Attic Wall give us a place to comfortably, even pleasurably, dwell in a space where something, or someone else, can take our place of otherness. We, for once, get to be the spectators of horror, not its unwitting participants.

As this summer wears on with its ever worsening blistering heat, the ghosts of our bloody, evil past and present haunting our streets as the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement still burns, we also haunt our own houses to escape a plague that has already taken thousands of lives, a majority of them Black and brown. Ghosts upon ghosts upon ghosts. Horror is a genre that mines the depths of our deepest fears and gives us an outlet to confront, and possibly conquer, those fears. So these stories—whether reinvented or wholly original—by Black and brown storytellers, must be told if we are to begin to imagine how to save ourselves.

Angela Maria Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, was a 2018 Kirkus Fiction Prize judge, and has work forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Pilgrimage, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Third Wednesday. You can find her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua or at duendedistrict.com.

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