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.

2015-12-12 22.50.00

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.

Ghost Tour Review: Historic Ellicott City (Pt. 1)

Pauline is a part-time, amateur, and somewhat lazy ghost hunter who sometimes also publishes a webcomic about adorable ghosts called Grim Fuzzy.

* * *

There is something about historic Ellicott City, Maryland that makes its residents want to stick around after they die.

Corner Building EC

Cozy up to some ghosts

Walking past the granite buildings lining Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the city’s history because it feels like you’ve stepped into the past. Purchased by the Ellicott Brothers in 1772, the area was at one point rife with wheat- and tobacco-growing land and various successful mills. In 1830, a train station was built here as the original terminus of the B&O railroad — a route that would be guarded by President Lincoln’s troops during the Civil War. By the time prohibition rolled around in the 1920s, Ellicott City boasted several bars, bootleggers, and flophouses and developed quite a rowdy reputation. The small town has seen several massive, devastating floods and fires which have not only destroyed homes and businesses, but lives as well.

B and O railroad EC

Original Terminus, B&O Railroad

Needless to say, some serious shit has gone down in this town.

Maryland itself has an undeniably intriguing past, being situated somewhere between the Yankees and the Confederates of the eastern United States. And its historical significance piles up the more you look into it. Maryland is home to both the first site of bloodshed in the Civil War and Francis Scott Key, writer of the Star Spangled Banner. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. See: the internet for more info.

Old Bank EC

Once, a bank

From ocean to farm to mountain, Maryland is like a state with an identity crisis. I spent my childhood traversing its dense, historically-charged and somewhat unwelcoming woods and rivers, relishing the inherent creepiness of the trees. Have you seen The Blair Witch Project? Yeah, I’m talking about those trees. Those trees have witnessed all the sordid things that have happened on this land since the beginning of time. You know it because you can feel it.

I’ve lived in several other US states and there is no place that feels as creepy as Maryland. Main Street Ellicott City takes this spookiness to the next level and when night falls on the weekend, the ghost tours come out.

Envy EC

Someone or something lives on the third floor

Historic Ellicott City is often called “the most haunted town on the East Coast.” I didn’t know that until I moved back here earlier this year. The buildings that remain, old and beautiful in Georgian architecture, have housed tortured and not-so-tortured souls that just don’t seem to want to leave.

Paula EC

Tour Guide Paula

The Ellicott City Ghost Tour is hosted by several different people but luckily our tour guide was Paula. In her black hat, dress, and cape and wielding an old-timey lantern, Paula walked us through the streets of town in the dark, describing for us stories of ghost sightings and postulating whose bodies the ghosts once belonged to.

HIHo Silver EC

Ghost Tour, Oct 2013

She’s an incredible story-teller — theatrical with pointed,deliberate language accompanied by a distinct lack of melodrama — and her stories range from unexplained voices, apparitions, and objects being broken or disturbed by unseen hands, to kid-sized handprints on windows that seem impossible to reach. Many buildings are reportedly haunted by not one but several presences, often a mixture of male and female entities. While a few sounded potentially dangerous, many seemed to be fairly minor nuisances that could be compromised with to establish a peaceful co-habitation. That’s not to say many businesses and tenants haven’t moved out due to fear… because they have. It takes a strong stomach to live in Ellicott City.

Paula is a self-described history lover and has spent her life in the area. She seems to know everyone in town and her tales are sourced from the witnesses/victims themselves, creating an air of authenticity and timeliness.

Antique Store EC

There is an antique hearse inside that building

The most surprising piece of the tour was discovering what some of Main Street’s buildings used to house. A certain popular establishment near the bottom of the hill used to be an extensive and successful undertaking business. This business’s name is still inscribed in stone on the front of the building, and the horse-drawn hearse-carriage they used remains in a nearby antique store. HOLY CRAP.

Another building served as a leeching establishment. Yes, as in leeches. As in, “Oh you’re sick. Let us just drain all of your blood out using leeches; that’ll surely cure you.” It’s no wonder this place feels so weird!

Hotel EC

Once, a hotel

Still another building was once a hotel serving weary travelers that came into town by train. Now apartments, there have been plenty of reports of doorknobs being rattled in the night, for no apparent reason. The stories don’t end there, of course. I encourage you to take this tour yourself.

I can see why people who die in this town want to stay. It’s so quaint, being surrounded by trees, hills, and rivers, and it has more than enough historical memorabilia and people to keep any apparition from any era occupied for centuries. I left the tour wanting more and happily discovered there is a “Part Two” wherein you tour the town again, hearing a whole other set of ghostly tales of past and present inhabitants.

Staircase EC

Famously haunted staircase

As for the rest of Maryland, well, I’ll be back to tell you about the other ghost tours and haunted sites around the state. So hold on to your corsets and grab your smelling salts because dammit, I will see a ghost one of these days.


* * *

Many thanks to Chris Judge for the photography.