Why do we haunt a house?

It’s not ghosts and demons who do it. Life would be considerably more exciting if it were. We are the ones who haunt houses, with our memories, or — if we have never set foot inside — with our projections, with the stories we were built to live our lives with. I thought about this when I saw IT, and again when I went home from the theater, and saw the Stoneholm on the way to my new place.

The Stoneholm is a stunning Beaux-Arts apartment building, full of what used to be called French flats — that is, luxury apartments the size of a whole floor — which are now condominiums worth a high six or seven figures. It was built by John P. Webber, owner of a vast tract of timberland in Maine. The Webber Timberlands in Maine remained a going concern one full century after the Stockholm was built.

Photo by self, 9/2017


In IT, the eponymous IT dwells in the sewers of Derry, Maine, and before that dwelled in Derry’s woods and hills, eternal and malevolent. While in town, IT makes its home at 29 Neibolt Street. Absolutely every key on the haunted-house keyboard, black and white, has been mashed down and held to create the house at Neibolt Street. No one, in the movie or the audience, fails to understand its visual message right away: Haunted with a capital H, for Hot Topic. The building is unpainted, untended, overgrown, and boarded up. Still, the most haunted-house of its many haunted-house details might have done the visual job all by itself. The house at 29 Neibolt Street, you see, is Second Empire.

The Second Empire style of architecture, developed in France in the 1850s, enjoyed a brief popularity in America from the 1860s through the early 1870s. The popularity it chiefly enjoys in America, however, is as the face of the haunted house. In America, the later nineteenth century was full of now-forgotten financial crises — the Panic of 1857, of 1866, and the Long Depression of the 1870s, to say nothing of the self-inflicted wounds of the seceding states. The social safety net was not yet thought of. It was also not yet thought of, among those with pretensions to gentility, for ladies to take any notice of the business affairs of their husbands or fathers. So it might happen that a man came home to tell his wife and family, in the midst of a great, plush, carpeted home, that they were penniless. His sons could at least manifest some destiny by heading out to work, but his daughters, if they had no family wealth or genteel accomplishments to trade on, might be left entirely behind in their attempts to marry or assume one of the few ladylike professions. The sight of a great old French-influenced Second Empire mansion, unkempt, abandoned, or half-occupied by ghostly women and invalids from a vanished world, became common enough to engender the peculiarly American variant of the haunted house.

When I first laid eyes on the Stoneholm, with its lush curves and French windows, I thought, with a deep thrill: I have got to tour that place. Something terrible has happened there. Immediately, I thought of all the terrors of the moneyed world, of an Edith Wharton-like chill madness descending on some brittle Brahmin family behind the Juliet balconies. I am, of course, entirely making that up. For all I know, everyone in that building has lived amiably with their chosen partners and family until a peaceable death of old age. But everything in my cultural experience has primed me to associate such great beauty with great tragedy. And I adore it.