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Emotional Trauma and Haunted Houses

"One need not be a chamber to be haunted, one need not be a house; the brain has corridors surpassing material place" - Emily Dickinson

In numerous cultures since antiquity, ghosts have captivated our attention. At present, from scaring children and adults on Halloween to televised paranormal investigations, the concept of such spirits blur the line between what is and what is no longer, creating a cautious curiosity at what lies just outside the bounds of our existence. And while there are numerous attempts at explaining what a ghost actually may be, a common thread that runs through most mythology is that that they appear as something leftover, a ripple that expresses the impact of a prior event that has not been completely "put to rest." Stated differently, when a ghost appears, the place in which that occurs is said to be haunted.

Similarly, given what is known about how memory works, it could be said that we are all haunted houses, echoing the old Norse heimta, which means “to bring home.” While remembered events are clearly no longer occurring, some sensory or emotional experience may remain in the narrative form of a memory, which may then present itself to us in present circumstances. Certainly, not all experiences are remembered; however, there is some evidence to suggest that those experiences which hold greater meaning, especially emotionally traumatic ones, are more likely to be elicited into present circumstances. And while some of those memories may be wonderful to re-experience (i.e. the smell/taste of a favorite childhood food, the softness of your first kiss, the sight of your spouse on your wedding day, etc.), less pleasant ones can be quite torturous.

When they do appear, many ghosts present themselves in subtle, often unobtrusive ways - a passing nighttime whisper or a felt coolness on one's face - hardly something to feel concerned about. However, at other times, our ghosts can become loud and potentially destructive - jolting us from sleep, transforming into horrifying images, or causing us to relive something upsetting - all things that demand our attention. Depending on how scary or disruptive we perceive the ghostly presence to be, we often try to assuage the emotional terror of such experiences, either by pretending that they didn't occur or modulating the experiences into something less frightening in order to maintain our sense of security in how the world works (i.e. we might say, "That was the tree branch that scratched the window and definitely NOT a killer clown").

These are common responses to traumatic experiences, as well. For example, if I've walked home safely from work each day for years, believing that the world is a good place, but am mugged one day, the structures that maintain this belief structure may be shaken. To lessen the disruptive impact that may arise from this new experience I’ve had, I may either dissociate actual remembered elements of the event (i.e. the look on the perpetrator’s face, the time of day, etc.) or disconnect from the more frightening emotional aspects of it (i.e. felt fear, nausea, etc.) through numbing. All of these psychological measures can serve an important adaptive function in protecting us from the impact of traumatizing events that may occur in our lives.

What happens, however, when these traumatic experiences are not “put to rest” adequately through dissociative processes – when our ghosts demand attention? The next walk home from work, referencing the example above, may be littered with unpleasant reminders of not only the traumatic event itself but a novel sense of danger regarding the uncertain nature of the world (i.e. it is no longer a good/safe place). Two options seem to exist, in response: 1) one may avoid reminders, or “triggers,” of the event or 2) lean into the new and uncertain possibilities resulting from this new experience of the world. If one takes the former option, anxiety is likely to be reduced; however, the cost of a shrinking experiential world is incurred. Certain rooms in the haunted house must begin to be sealed off to avoid seeing the ghosts, but the house becomes less accessible and isolating. If one takes the latter option, though, anxiety is likely to increase because of the risk and vulnerability inherent in stepping forth into a scary new world (i.e. I’ve never lived where I am in danger). Stated differently, one may turn towards the ghosts and acknowledge them, regardless of the horror that may be seen, potentially usurping their power.

Importantly, none of these choices are inherently more valuable than any others. Some ghosts’ disruptions are tolerable and may not make much of a difference in one’s life. If my mugging occurred in a foreign country, for example, and I do not plan to return to that place again, this may not disrupt my life in any significant way beyond it having happened. On the other hand, facing up to a new world that may not be as safe as I once believed may have numerous unpredictable experiential consequences, both positive and negative. Regardless, we exist as humans who are haunted houses – we internalize and bring experiences “home” with us, some of which are uninvited – and continually creating meaningful connections (i.e. a support system, psychotherapist, significant other) can help us integrate these experiences, keeping us amongst the living.


Dr. Trey Cole

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