Weird #36: “The Hungry House” by Robert Bloch (1951)

The editors of The Weird call Robert Bloch “iconic,” an accolade which the editors also use to describe Kafka. This praise is well earned, due to Bloch’s position in American literature. If you’ve ever seen a slasher film, it’s because of him: he was the original author of Psycho, which was later adapted into a fairly famous film. Mentored by Lovecraft, adapted by Hitchcock, Bloch holds an important place in American culture.

“The Hungry House” is no slasher. It’s subtly written, showcasing all of Bloch’s talents. However, in some ways, it is just as iconic as Psycho.

Well, maybe a little less iconic. But it’s still probably the best haunted house story about the alienating effect of mirrors that you will ever read.

The story examines what we find so uncanny about mirrors psychologically. To quickly review, the uncanny occurs whenever we encounter something familiar in a strange context, or vice versa. Mirrors are thus part of the uncanny par excellence: they reproduce our own appearance where it has no right to be: in an object exterior to us.

Nothing is more intimately connected to our personality than our physical appearance and, yet, so rarely do we actually see ourselves. Even those who use mirrors often do not really see themselves: they see an ideal of beauty that they do not match up with. When you look in the mirror, someone (yourself) looks back. The effect can be alienating.

According to Bloch, “A mirror distorts. That’s why men hum and sing and whistle while they shave. To keep their minds off their reflections. Otherwise they go crazy” (325). However, “Women could do it[.] Because women never saw themselves, actually. They saw an idealization, a vision. Powder, rouge, lipstick, mascara, eye-shadow, brilliantine, or merely an emptiness to which these elements must be applied” (325). The human mind naturally tries to repress one’s reflected image, because on some level we find gazing at our own image intolerable.

The mirror is commonly thought to tell the truth: it simply reflects what is there. However, it may be psychologically easier to believe that a mirror distorts. The reality of our own appearance can be intolerable because it contradicts the truth we’ve already accept about ourselves.

This talk of mirrors and reality reminds me of the famous opening to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality” (1). It is necessary to believe, for the sake of sanity, that a mirror distorts rather than tells the truth in order to remain sane.

But when a mirror cannot be trusted to tell the truth, what might it show instead?

In “The Hungry House,” Laura Bellman, daughter of one of the house’s previous owners, lives an isolated life in her house, the most beautiful woman in the state. She believes that her mirrors never lie about her beauty, even as her body ages and she begins to wear wigs and false teeth: “the mirrors told her she was unchanged” (329).

The mirrors return the image she’s had of herself since her youth. It’s like the opposite of The Picture of Dorian Gray: she ages, but her image does not. However, she believes her image is an accurate reflection, that her youth is eternal. Since she chooses to remain with her mirrors rather than “waste her beauty on the world” (329), she becomes a hermit surrounded by false images of herself.

An intervention by a doctor results in the confiscation of all her mirrors. As a result, she finally realizes she is old. When she happens upon her gaze in a window and sees “her wrinkled forehead” (329), she believes “this–this obscenity–was not her face” (329). She thus denies the reality of her own appearance: a moment in which the familiar becomes strange. In the end, she loses her senses and dances through the window-pane. Razor-sharp shards of glass tear out her throat (330).

Laura continues to haunt the mirrors after death because, even when she was alive, “she looked into mirrors until there was more of her alive in her reflection than there was in her own body” (331). It is the result of this alienation that is responsible for the supernatural haunting. In a sense, Laura continues to live as she always did.

This rationale for the ghost story is stating something profound, not only about ghosts, but about humanity’s attachment to objects in general. The mirrors hold a part of her personality. You only have to walk into the private room of a recently deceased person to gain a sense of their personality based on what they’ve left behind–we all leave an image of ourselves for the world that outlives us once we’re gone. In Laura’s case, those objects were mirrors, objects that, according to some superstitions, can entrap the soul.

Laura’s alienation also mirrors concepts of alienation more generally. It particularly reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s conception of “the precession of simulacra”: with the death of the original and the reality principle, the image becomes a “second nature” and replaces the original. The image becomes more “alive” than the material object. Laura finds reality–the Real, if you will–intolerable, and thus chooses to live a fragmented, alienating existence, in which her “true” self only exists in mirrors, to the extent that she her image in the mirror outlives her physical death.

Robert Bloch (Wikipedia)

Next week, I will be writing about Amos Tutuola’s “The Complete Gentleman” (1952).

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