Every Halloween I like to ponder how we’re all haunted houses, attended always by the ghosts of future and past, misunderstood monsters, mad women in our own attics. As a child I wasn’t afraid of monsters. I wanted to figure out how to get them to come over to my house, to leave trails of breadcrumbs so that Dracula or Frankenstein could follow me home. I tried to figure out how to get my house to be haunted.
I fancied monsters would understand me and that we could protect each other. I felt that the people who looked so kind were capable of such cruelty and I never saw it coming. I didn’t want a baby doll; I wanted a monster baby to take care of as a kid. This brings me to my next point: the mother always seems to hover so close to the haunted house, to the monster, something I only noticed after I became one—a mother, not a monster.
The mother appears again and again in monster and haunted house stories. One of the characters in Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House calls the spooky home a “mother house,” and this is just the tip of the maternal iceberg in that book. In The Gothic Mirror, Claire Kahane presents two recipes for the haunted novel, and both are mother-heavy. Either, “a young woman whose mother has died, is compelled to seek out the center of a mystery,” or, in the Female Gothic version, she’s hounded by “the spectral presence of a dead-undead mother, archaic and all-encompassing, a ghost signifying the problematics of femininity which the heroine must confront.”
All this brings me to my own fierce mother, a force that lives inside me as I once lived inside her—a concept I’m unable to get over. Her body was my first home, my first haunted house. Then I think of the feeling of her when she hugs me, skin and bones yet so much force to those hugs, like a tiny determined bird has gotten hold of you, and this bird loves you, but it hurts a bit, and you wonder how on earth this bird ever got to be so strong, if it will ever let go, if you even want it to.
My mom lives inside me, in a nice Victorian apartment, her own little haunted flat in my inner city. I would say house, but that’s not really her style. She’s in there right now, padding around, making coffee. She always is. It’s something I can’t do anything about, but I would often choose not to evict her because I stand a little straighter this way, a little stronger, knowing we can handle whatever comes up together. I’m willingly haunted by my mother.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a text that’s also haunted by the maternal. In her 1831 introduction to the text, Shelley refers to the book as her “hideous progeny,” and Victor Frankenstein, speaks of creating his creature as a mother might speak of giving birth to a child: “It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being…No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success…No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”
As I got older, I marveled that Shelley and John Polidori (who wrote The Vampyre, which would influence Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula) birthed with their pens our two most famous monsters in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron challenged them to write a ghost story. Shelley (then Mary Godwin) had lost her own mother, the women’s rights activist Mary Wollstonecraft, ten days after birth.
A year before Byron’s ghost story challenge, Shelley had lost a daughter soon after birth, and at the time of Byron’s challenge, she was caring for her five-month-old baby William. Shelley had been both the child who lost the mother and the mother who lost the child, so in Frankenstein we see both perspectives: that of the abandoned creation and that of the abandoning creator, who only pursues the creation in the end to destroy it.
When I was a child, my mother told me something that was morbid but also incredibly comforting: she said whenever I was away from her, even after she died, I could look at the moon, and she’d be in there, looking back at me. I thought about this on night car rides as that rock-ribbed, indefatigable moon, its own kind of monster, stalked us always. I thought, too, of the Frankenstein creature pursued by his male mother to the ends of the earth.
As I teach and take care of my kids each day, I carry my mom inside me, and I have to use all my adult knowhow not to try to crawl back inside her on the days we hang out. But what am I looking for? What am I trying to travel back in time and space towards, exactly? Why do I sometimes feel lonely when I’m surrounded by people? Am I secretly sad nobody can climb inside me? Except my children of course. And you know what? The only time in my life I didn’t feel that loneliness was while pregnant because I literally had someone inside me, haunting me.
At night, when my son’s afraid, or when he needs to leave me and doesn’t feel able, I tell him I’m always in his heart. He takes me at my word, as though I’ve actually taken up residence in this organ of his. Before he disappears into preschool, he pinches his chest with alarming vigor and tells me, “You live right here, mama, all the time,” and this seems to give him the courage to trot on inside. But how does this not scare the heck out of him?
I want to be able to tie myself to him like a talisman, have him never feel alone and unguarded out there in that battlefield that is our life some days, but of course this is impossible in any real dimension. I want to be a teddy bear that he can hold inside of him. I find this particularly poignant since he picked out my outfit the other day and included a teddy bear for me to wear. I think perhaps he was trying to hitch a ride on my body, to be always in my heart, to haunt me right back. I loved it. I only didn’t wear the teddy bear because I couldn’t figure out the logistics.
Then it hits me. The monstrous is largely a question of degree. This is at least part of why I always identify with monsters. When I love someone, I want to burrow into their heart, live in that blood moon, and this is too much. I have always been too much. It’s like my calling card. It’s practically a profession since people like me also tend to be largely unemployable at least in any traditional sense. Nobody wants to pay me to write odes to gory lunar landscapes, or at least not enough to live on.
At night, my son asks for a special, extra long-lasting hug, and we hold onto each other for what feels like forever. He often says it then, “you’re in my heart,” and I say, “yes, yes,” picturing actually voyaging into my son’s life-giving organ, making a home there.
Then one night he asks to hear my heart. I don’t even know where he learned about the whole procedure of this. I don’t ask because I don’t want to break the magic spell that has fallen over us. I maneuver him so he can put his head to my chest. He lies there for a little, then asks if I want to hear his heart. I see no other answer but yes, and I do, so much.
I put my head to his little chest. He’s warm and smells like fruit juice. His body feels so much smaller than I think it will, just like my mother’s always does. This sound. This feeling. How to even speak of it? I expect to hear something like a “bang bang bang,” but it has layers, just like him. It’s more like a little gurgling metronome, and I see that he’s my little gurgling metronome, the creature that defines my time here on earth. As I rest my head there, I hear the story of everything.
I realize in this moment that I’ve continued this tradition of maternal haunting. With all this business of living in the heart, am I insisting on haunting my own child as my mother has always haunted me? Can there be a good form of haunting? Is it called love?