The Horror of Moving
From moving home to gothic horror.
Horror often invokes moving. Indeed, and for obvious reasons, moving house is a core trope of the haunted house genre. It is also one of the main narrative difficulties besetting this type of tale; not because of the act of moving to the supernaturally cursed location, but the lingering question, when someone is being plagued (sometimes with threats to life) by specters and ghouls, why won’t these characters simply (and even at great cost) move again?
Moving house has been on my mind a lot lately. That is, having just moved myself. There are few activities I so intensely dislike, and being a London renter, I therefore find myself in a somewhat unenviable position. Renting is precarious, and renting in such a city especially so. This recent move also represented an acute example of the predicament, since it was the first time I and my partner have been moved by duress, whereas on other occasions it was because of a choice due to the (often quite abysmal) limitations of the previous home.
I hate moving, as I gather do many others with ASD, but I do not hate new places in themselves. I am incredibly fortunate and every time we have moved it has been to a better, more reliable, more spacious home. I love the new place. Because I am unable to tolerate chaos in my daily life for even short durations, I have very quickly adapted it to our needs and set up all of our stuff. (Particularly my books, which are never especially fun to pack, transport and unpack, but are now wonderfully placed here.)
Moving is something with which I am long acquainted, not only as a London renter but as the child of a priest of the Church of England, it was not a too irregular part of growing up. Of my friends I am certainly not the most familiar with moving about in my formative years, but neither am I the least. Moving, especially in adolescence, was prone to make me incredibly depressed, and although I have adapted a lot better to it since those days, it is also harder now that I must take increasing responsibility for the process.
Although conversely there are people, including people I know well, who actively love moving, it is justified to say that my feelings on moving are not unique to me. It is therefore not too surprising that moving is something invoked by horror, a genre that often concerns itself with the uncomfortable, magnifying such concerns through the guise of eerie catastrophe.
In some survival horror games moving becomes not only a source of the horror, but is itself a dynamic of the gameplay. Darkwood for example, extolls the player to move from safehouse to safehouse, protected from the titular forest by a pipe system connected to a stew of mushrooms that unreliably keeps at bay the terrors of the night. Moving is necessary to uncover the game’s secrets and escape the forest, and the narrative difficulty of ‘why not move away from the horror?’ is answered by the fact that this is indeed what you are attempting, albeit without success.
The game is a powerful example of the horror of moving, precisely because it accounts for the intimate logistical difficulties involved. The items you accumulate in each safehouse are key to your survival, and so to do well you quickly must hire the services of Bike Man. In exchange for alcohol he will transport your items from one place to another. Unfortunately, such transportations are not the totality of your moving challenge, as every night your house can come under attack, and as the game progresses newer places come under more and more dangerous assaults. You therefore need to fortify each ramshackle location and, clearly, lose said fortifications on each move.
Interestingly, the horror of moving is quite often expressed most powerfully precisely by answers to the narrative difficulty identified at the start of this essay; that is, why not move again? The answer often exposes the thematic vulnerability of the victims of a haunting, itself the pivot of the story. The Japanese author Koji Suzuki is a master of this type of story, and therefore adapt at providing good answers to its central quandary. He is great at understanding the horror of place, as well as dislocation, being trapped somewhere and the unfamiliarity and fears that all of this evokes, in turn giving rise to the weird and the eerie.
In his short story ‘Dark Water’ (and the two film adaptations based on it) a single-parent mother of a young daughter flees a difficult divorce to a dilapidated apartment building that quickly shows signs of a serious damp problem. Slowly this problem worsens and worsens, and is eventually revealed to be caused by a supernatural presence. She cannot leave because she does not have the means.
A financial inability to move is a common enough solution to the problem; it is true of another work I recently reviewed, the film His House. But in the watery form of the haunting, and the eventually revealed resonance between the ghost and the haunted, Suzuki produces a quite singular story that perfectly captures the feelings of claustrophobia when unable to move from somewhere that is woefully inadequate; of being anxious about a new place and its hidden inadequacies; and of the social generalizability of these issues.
In his horror novella The Turn of the Screw, Henry James plays with the tropes of the classic gothic haunted house story to provide yet another, quite original answer. James looks to the person moving herself, and makes the source of the horror (the place, the person, or both) a topic of profound ambiguity. In this story it is not clear whether the governess is a reliable witness to events, or is causing a great deal of the harms the story depicts and merely projecting deeply rooted anxieties onto the place and her young charges. But within this, relationships of power and domination (or powerlessness) come to the fore. Most acute readers of this fiction perceive that the ambiguity is itself the point.
The horror of moving, reflected both in my own experiences and those of fiction, is entrenched not in moving per se but the conditions that contextualize it. Moving is horrifying, to be very reductive and plain, because existing property relations are horrifying. Often that horror is socially banal; in London I have walked into kitchens suddenly occupied by a host of mice; had water drip on me while sitting down in an evening, lived in places where taps do not work and mould erupts from bathroom walls.
Less banal, more horrifying than my various (always overcome) difficulties, single-parent mothers throughout the world have been forced to raise children in conditions far worse than mine, often while demonized as abstractly responsible for their condition by an unfeeling culture. Refugees, such as those in His House, are frequently abandoned to terrible ‘homes’, and again blamed for their predicament or seen as figures to envy because they are housed at all. In some places global warming and war, decidedly political afflictions, attack peoples’ homes in truly horrifying and unpredictable ways. Etc. etc.
The horror of moving is almost certain to remain a common fictional subject so long as the conditions sketched above prevail. The conditions of class society, where the places in which we reside and seek safety and comfort, even for those of us relatively lucky, are precarious. Even ghosts and hauntings, it seems, have material conditions.
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