Corner ghosts

There’s something about corners that lends itself to haunting. I find the idea of a dark, unnatural shape standing stock-still in the corner of an otherwise unremarkable room especially unnerving.

Corners are not liminal spaces. The classic anthropological formulation of liminality (proposed by Arnold van Gennep and championed by Victor Turner) focuses on the transition from youth to adulthood, with liminality itself being the dangerous time in which the young person is neither child nor adult and thus not fully a member of human society. This idea has since been expanded to other areas, with people speaking of liminal spaces as those somehow not quite one thing or another.

Places like that might indeed be frightening, but corners don’t fit the bill where liminality is concerned. On the contrary, corners are wholly a part of the majority of extant human structures. They are so fully a part of lived-in space, in fact, that their potential occupation by an unexpected visitor seems that much more frightening. Conversely, they are not really used in the way other parts of a room are. A piece of furniture may abut a corner, or a houseplant may bravely stand sentry at the edge of occupiable space, but it’s unusual to see warm bodies in corners. So while they aren’t liminal in the proper sense, corners do perhaps share in that quality of strangeness evoked by places and times that are neither this nor that.

Unexpected occupancy of a room may itself be startling or even disturbing. Imagine walking into a room you thought was empty and bumping into someone using it for some mundane task. The frightfulness increases further, at least for me, if the hypothetical person is doing something that seems uncanny–normal but somehow rendered strange–like reading or sewing in a darkened room. These are tasks that, for most people, require light. So if you walk into a dark room on a rainy afternoon and some dude is sitting on the couch reading a book–or worse yet, just sitting there silently–that’s a definite “what the hell” moment.

But imagine a similar scenario, only this time you walk into the room and turn on the light, which brightens the room, and go about your business. You’re there for some time, seconds or minutes, before you notice the dark shape in the corner–which, of course, has been there all along.

Something about this quiet discovery is deeply unsettling to me, particularly in the inevitable moment when the dark thing you’ve just noticed notices you back (or notices that you’ve noticed it). I think it has partly to do with the invasion of presumably safe space: my kitchen or living room or whatever is part of my home, where I should be safest but am also most vulnerable. (Not that I’ve ever experienced this in real life; it’s just a scenario I find fascinating and frightening.)

In the third game in the Fatal Frame series, the ghosts start to invade your character’s home in a way that evinces the feeilng I’m trying to describe here. The game follows Rei, a photographer who in her dreams is sucked into a frightening haunted house where she has to fight murderours ghosts. Each day she wakes up, and her home forms the game’s “safe space,” where ghosts can’t hurt you. But as the story progresses the ghosts begin to creep out of Rei’s nightmares and into the real world, and they occupy the supposedly safe domestic space of her home in terrifying ways: a grotesque stain that appears on a wall and slowly spreads; a foot that disappears into the tiny closet beneath a staircase; a ghostly woman sitting beside Rei’s bed when she awakens from the nightmare.

In one scene Rei walks down a narrow corridor in her home, past the tatami room, a common feature of modern Japanese houses. The camera shows the interior of the tatami room, which is hidden from Rei’s view by a thin wall but is visible to the player. As Rei passes, a translucent ghostly figure appears on the other side of the wall, facing the corner. It hovers there a moment before vanishing again.

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The photo above shows the genkan, or entrance, and hallway in our apartment. On the right you can see part of the tatami room, separated from the hallway by a thin wall with a sliding door. When the tatami room door is open, it creates a kind of “hanging corner” effect, a normal corner in a room created by the intersection of walls but which somehow gives the sense that there’s a corner dangling in space, intruding into the hallway through the slender drywall barrier. You could be standing in the middle of the hallway, far from any visible corners, but just on the other side of that thin wall is another corner, looming out of the darkness and possibly containing an uninvited guest. And since the door is open, there’s actually nothing separating you from it.

Something about this configuration is deliciously creepy to me, undoubtedly because I’ve watched and played so much Japanese horror. The vignette from Fatal Frame III I described above is one example. The closet in the tatami room, not visible here, reminds me of another: there’s a similar closet in the first Grudge movie, where a character meets her untimely and improbable end at the hands of the ghost Kayako. (Speaking of which, Sadako vs. Kayako is a thing. More on that soon.)

Basically, Japanese houses seem to me to be ripe for haunting. Maybe because of all the corners. Obviously rectangular buildings all have corners, but somehow they seem more prominent here, possibly because of the generally spartan, sharply geometric quality of Japanese architecture. Lovecraft’s famous obsession with weird geometry is easier to understand when your world consists of right angles, corners, sliding doors and long hallways.

Whatever the reason, it’s interesting to imagine what might be standing in one of those corners waiting to be noticed.

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