Evoking the Gothic: The House That Anxiety Built

I’ve always had trouble going outside. Depression, anxiety, and slight agoraphobia have crafted me into a creature content to stay at home. Trips away from my hearth are for necessities like work or errands. Vacations are rather unheard of. Sometimes I will travel farther afield, to a bigger city nearby, and I usually spend the trip nauseous with worry. Visiting dear friends is an effort in willpower, and going to concerts, my favorite thing in the world, is usually only accomplished through sacrificing a day to throwing up and panic attacks. It was worth it every time, but it always took a lot out of me. You’d think being told to stay home for quarantine would be the easiest thing in the world. At first I was even relieved that the expectation to Go Out and Do Things had been removed from my calendar through no fault of my own.

Being a homebody was my default state of being, but it slowly began to feel wrong and strange. Home may be where the heart is but lately it feels like that heart is under my floorboards and slowly driving me mad. It’s like I’ve been trapped in a gothic horror story right in my very own house. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

I spent my childhood and adolescence gobbling up gothic horror stories. Stories of beautiful women locked away in grand, crumbling mansions on rough, rainy moors. Homes with lofty, fantastical names like Wuthering Heights, Wylding Hall, and Baskerville Hall. Each chock full of ghosts and monsters as well as a dose of healthy horrific history. There was a sad, poetic beauty to each terrible place. Happy homes which became twisted through tragedy and grief, lived in by young ingenues in over their heads and the monstrous families circling them like sharks. Even modern-day stories like Crimson Peak left me riveted. Never once did I think I would be living in my own version of a gothic tale.

Friends have told me how quarantine feels to them, draped in the language of their favorite stories. One told me it felt like being trapped alone on a dead ship adrift in space. Another said it felt like driving through an empty desert at night, the feeling of being alone like a physical presence they were trying to outrun. I heard that it felt like being boxed into a cave, orcs waiting outside to smash them to pieces. Everyone focused these feelings of uncertainty, loss, and anger through the prism of their own personal tropes and genres. I landed on the language of the gothic.

Quarantine happened in the slow-fast way of all disasters. A snippet about a virus overheard on a news report played in a coworkers office, the quiet gossip of what a neighbor’s school was doing, or a cancelled trip. Then, suddenly, people stopped coming into work. My office stayed open until it was finally untenable and I was sent home, standing alone on a train usually packed to the gills with commuters, shivering with anxiety like a sick chihuahua. Being outside felt like I was being hunted by an unseen enemy. I felt like my years of worry about being away from home were being oddly rewarded. Isn’t this what my overactive imagination had been preparing me for?

There is a video game I love called Bloodborne, where you are an intrepid monster-hunter in a Victorian city befallen with blight and beasts. There are a few doors you can interact with, the people inside yelling at you to go away, to keep the sickness at bay, to find your own bolthole to hide in. I increasingly felt like one of these poor souls, hiding behind a locked door as news of sickness spread. My house, small already, began to feel even smaller as the days passed. It began to feel like an isolated island in an untouchable sea, like an Agatha Christie murder mystery starring me and my family. The rooms began to feel haunted somehow. The quiet was weighty, loud noises unbearable. Depression began to stalk like a feral hound, anxiety a banshee clawing at my window. My nerves were shot. Outside was bad but inside was now bad too.

Quarantine had become a neverending M.R. James story. It had turned me into Jimmy Stewart keeping an eye on his neighbors and passing judgements on their lack of safety precautions. My mind kept cycling around stories I knew of gothic house terror, of Jane Eyre and Eleanor Vance and Jack Torrance. As the stress of a global pandemic wore on I became unable to finish a book, work on my writing, or focus long enough to get a decent note out of my guitar. I ripped reams of thread out of embroidery projects, even my ability to count properly lost to me. I felt increasingly like the gothic horror heroines I had loved so much in my youth, staring out the window and wondering when my serotonin would return from the war.

It began to feel like I would never be able to leave the house again. If I could barely leave before this then how could I bear to do so after? The world felt like a blizzard that had never actually come and despite the growing summer heat I couldn’t shake the feeling I should be wrapped up in blankets, cradling cups of hot tea. The house felt off-kilter and wrong. I would hear voices calling my name, especially at night. More than once I woke up from a dead sleep with my heart pounding, thinking a family member was shouting for help—only to run out into a dark, completely quiet hallway. I would hear conversations happening under the music in my headphones but the room would be silent once I took them off. Things began to go missing, small things at first. My grandmother’s Tara Brooch, left on my nightstand after I wore it to work, was suddenly nowhere to be seen. There is a serving bowl in my house that no one can find. The front door creaks as if someone is knocking, but no one is ever there. It feels like the house is playing tricks on me.

Outside was even worse, though, and every trip for necessities was a frantic, panicked event. The spectre of the pandemic loomed over me every time I went further than my mailbox. I tried to armor myself in the ways I used to, in the Before Times. I wore my pin-studded leather jacket and heavy combat boots, as if I could simply intimidate the virus away like a creeper on the train. I watched people act as if nothing was happening and try to go on with their lives and felt a sick, useless fury that this was an Edgar Allan Poe story come to life. I wanted to scream “Haven’t you read ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ you assholes?”

Ol’ Edgar was ahead of his time, really. A story about the rich cavorting without a care in the world as a plague stalks through the town, gruesomely killing any unlucky enough to cross its path? It’s almost eerie how it mirrors so much of the inequality present in our current situation. It’s an allegory of what happens when proper measures aren’t taken, when fear and ignorance are the loudest voices, and when arrogance and wealth insulate against feeling empathy for your fellow man. I can think of no better tale that represents everything we are going through right now and it’s truly demoralizing.

I tried to flip the script on the malaise setting in. I tried to imagine myself standing in the beautiful, overwrought foyer of a crumbling Victorian mansion, staring out at the rainy moors while wearing a beautiful gown and a delicate lace shawl, the chill breeze blowing my raven locks like the cover of a fifty-cent penny dreadful. The reality is way more pathetic. Raven locks, yes, with four inches of mousey gray roots tied up into a messy bun, ancient pajamas and faded band shirts instead of a gown, topped with a threadbare hoodie. Fuzzy socks instead of satin slippers. Worst gothic novel heroine ever. If my depression was casting me into the role of harried and haunted then I would use the tropes I knew so well to subvert and survive whatever my foolish brain threw at me.

I am well armed in this respect. I know how gothic horror works. I know the tricks those houses play. It was the work of an afternoon to pull some of my favorite tomes out and see what lessons I could learn from them. To lean into the horror and the fantasy and make it work for me and not against me. They are a way to confront and overcome your fear, to look those ghosts dead in the eye and learn to not be afraid. They are tales of resilience and caution, of finding untapped pools of bravery in yourself, of discovering new ways to look at a world that makes increasingly less sense day after day.

I dug into the piles of books that overflow from my shelves and pulled out every story that fit that bill I could think of, searching for something to give me clarity or hope. Anything that could be a guiding light in this weird, dark place I had found myself. I stacked the books high besides me like an altar. Everything from Interview With The Vampire to Dracula to We Have Always Lived In the Castle. Well-loved, well-worn classics. Each a gothic fantasy of people trapped in homes and situations beyond their control, how they survived, and ultimately how they made the best of things. I dug deeper still until I found one of the oldest books I own, a beautifully illustrated copy of The Secret Garden I had been given as a young girl.

I received the book as a gift, though I don’t remember who from. I do, however, remember pouring over each painting inside for hours, imagining myself as little Mary Lennox. It’s such a quintessentially Edwardian novel. Recently orphaned, Mary is sent to live with her Uncle in an isolated tomb of a mansion in Yorkshire. He’s distant and angry and Mary, headstrong and fearless, seeks to find answers to the mystery of the house and a garden that has been locked away. Through her inquisitiveness and sheer bloody-mindedness, she brings warmth and happiness back to a cold house and the people that live there. It’s a beautiful story and it’s one of the first books I can remember being obsessed with. I’m so much older now but sitting there on the floor of my room, turning through old but beloved pages, I started to think that perhaps, like the characters in The Secret Garden, the problem wasn’t the house. Perhaps the problem was me.

I came to understand that it wasn’t my house that had begun to turn on me. Instead, depression and anxiety had snared me in a ghostly, unrecognizable house in my own mind. Its walls had grown closer, not the ones in my bedroom. They had stolen the light from the windows and made the shadows seem larger and darker. My house was not haunted, I was the haunted house. But I have seen the craftsmanship of this mental house I find myself in and it is shoddy as hell. I can kick in the door and bust out the windows. I can blow this house down.

I don’t know when things will get better or what that will look like. I know I will always have my anxiety and my depression to battle against, and that leaving the house will still be hard when I can safely do so again. But I also know that, ultimately, I think I will be okay. Many protagonists before me have worn ruts into their floorboards and successfully escaped the haunted houses holding them hostage. I may still find myself sick to my stomach as I travel to a show and feel anxiety stab me like an insect on a pin in the moments between ringing a doorbell and my friend answering with a hug, but like any gothic heroine worth her diaphanous white nightgown, I also know I am going to get out of this house one day and I am going to be free.

Meghan Ball

Meghan Ball is a writer, editor, and musician. Her work has appeared in Tor.com, Tor Nightfire, the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, io9.com, and Fireside Fiction. She has also appeared on several podcasts including Caring Into The Void and Black Mass Appeal. When not writing, she listens to an unhealthy amount of music, plays guitar, and does cross stitch. You can find her on twitter @eldritchgirl and discover more of her work at her website eldritchwrites.com. She lives in a weird part of New Jersey.

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