Conspiracy Theoryology

Hosted ByRyan Nelson

A biweekly discussion about why conspiracy theories and alternative beliefs capture our imagination and gain popularity.

Haunted Houses and Prospect-Refuge Theory

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Episode 39

Haunted houses have a long and storied history. One of the earliest stories which we have originates in Ancient Rome. Pliny the Younger writing in the first century, recounts in a letter the story of the philosopher Athenodorus and his brush with a haunted house. Per the story, Athenodorus arrives in Athens and picks up a villa with a very reasonable rent, largely due to it’s haunted reputation. On his first night in the home, the philosopher is confronted by the ghost of an old man bound with chains. The apparition leads Athenodorus to the courtyard, at which point, he vanishes. The following day Athenodorus has that location excavated, resulting in the discovery of a skeleton. These remains are then given a proper burial and the ghost never appeared again. 

Tales of this nature have permeated throughout centuries of media and entertainment, filling our literature, cinemas, theater stages and televisions with ghostly tales of haunted residences. I could spend the entire episode simply listing all the epic poetry, tombs of short stories, prose and novels, and the catalog of movies, radio shows, television series and now even social media content, that encompasses the topic. We won’t, simply out of practicality, and I would assume that you already have your never-fail-go-to haunted house story favorites of books and movies. 

More than any other haunted location the haunted house resonates. Today ghost stories and paranormal investigations are replete with tales of haunted houses and residing spirits that run the gamut from past residents, and lingering family members, to frightening entities and residual haunting that act as living memories of the home, or the land on which it sits. 

The haunted house is now such a part of our culture that we have turned them into attractions, even going so far as to build them and recreate the spooky experience with special effects and actors. And in truth, we can’t bring up the concept of the haunted house, without exploring this most visible manifestation of our infatuation with the spirit laden domicile.

Skeptics are quick to claim reasonable explanations for the phenomenon, crediting the power of suggestion and confirmation bias. The physical effects of toxic exposure to carbon monoxide, pesticides and formaldehyde are also used to justify the haunting experiences as hallucinations.

These perfectly rational and mundane explanations are so common that any respectable paranormal investigation team called into a home by the concerned owners will first exhaust these influential possibilities as an explanation before even considering the paranormal option. If you’ve ever wondered why so many investigators use devices that seem best suited for use by electricians, plumbers and home inspectors, now you know. 

This skeptical view certainly does provide evidence for why we might find a location haunted, and why the label of “haunted” can come to be attributed to otherwise average homes of any given time period. I think it appropriate to emphasize this, as I had made it clear earlier that I come to this topic with a definite bias. It is true that haunting can be explained, and I do make sure when approaching a story of experience with a checklist of physical world possibilities. Yet, these explanations don’t answer every situation, and they certainly do not explain why we find the haunted house so fascinating and why they have pervaded our imaginations for so long.

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