Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, published in 2000, is a fragmented, analytical biography of a strange, possibly haunted house delivered as a collaborative dissection of a “found footage” horror documentary. Danielewski’s novel presents the reader with a myriad of questions, one of the most prominent being “What is the house?” Incorporating the postmodernist Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacara and simulation into our reading of House of Leaves as a ghost story, we can interpret the house itself as being the “ghost” of the story and Johnny as being the one haunted by it. By examining these two theories, we can see how the application of the simulacra shifts the focus of the novel from the ontological nature of the house to the pattern of transference that the story of the house follows. The application of Baudrillard’s theory allows the house to be read as an entity that requires transference from person to person to accomplish a haunting, behaving like a virus that requires movement from host to host in order to perform its function.
Several maxims need to be established prior to the exploration of the simulacra inside of House of Leaves. First: what is meant when we consider the house a “ghost” and say that it’s “haunting” Johnny? For this analysis, we are assuming that The Navidson Record is an unaltered video; the house was capable of monstrous alterations to its interior while being captured on video. In regards to Johnny, what is meant when we say “haunted” is that there are physical and physiological manifestations of the fear and paranoia that Johnny endures while compiling the manuscript of House of Leaves. We are again making the assumption that Johnny is telling the truth about the “creature darkness” that he feels stalk him throughout the novel. The focus of the simulacra based analysis isn’t, however, about the veracity of any part of The Navidson Record or House of Leaves itself – having these assumptions established allows us to focus on Johnny’s behavior and the behavior of the house’s story removed from issues of verity concerning the house.
After these two assumptions have been established, we can begin to apply the simulacra to House of Leaves. Baudrillard’s work, Simulacra and Simulation, explains the simulacra most succinctly here: “It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” (631) What is meant here is that a simulacra is a copy without an original on which to base the copy – that is, a copy of an entity that doesn’t exist. The simulacrum in House of Leaves, under this definition, is Navidson’s house. For the editors inside of the story, all of the interpretation is based off of a video account of a house that is never present physically; so, physically, the house doesn’t exist to those who are seeing the film, and there aren’t any records indicating that the house (or the film) exists period. In the introduction, Johnny immediately establishes this point: “Zampanò’s project is about a film which doesn’t even exist.” (Danielewski, xix) The house’s existence doesn’t matter for Johnny, Zampanò, or the unnamed editors because the effects of the house exist without confirmation that the house itself (the understood origin of the haunting) does.
Referring back to the transition away from the nature of the entity in House of Leaves, the transference of the house’s effects is perhaps the largest contributor to the urban legend pastiche that can be detected from early on in the novel. To the knowledge of the reader, Johnny is only the third known set of hands that works on the manuscript; we know that before him came Zampanò, and that the old man met an unsettling and mysterious end (Danielewski, xvii). Johnny’s introduction to the book contains many of the elements that fortify the interpretation of the house as a viral entity. He delivers an ominous warning to future readers/editors of the manuscript: “Out of the blue, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all.” (Danielewski, xxii). He goes on further, describing the deepening shadows and the fear of sleep, ending with the prophetic line “And then the nightmares will begin.” (Danielewski, xxiii). This portion of the introduction explains what will happen to readers if they allow themselves to look too closely into Navidson’s house and all of Zampanò’s words, implying that knowledge of the house allows whatever it is that Johnny is referencing to infect the life of the reader. There are several lines that give this implication, but one in particular talks about the terrible magnetism he feels from the black trunk containing the manuscript:
One thing’s for sure, even without touching it, both of us slowly began to feel its heaviness, sensed something horrifying in its proportions, its silence, its stillness…I know a moment came when I felt certain its resolute blackness was capable of anything, maybe even of slashing out, tearing up the floor, murdering Zampanò, murdering us, maybe even murdering you. xvii
Johnny is reinforcing the idea of the transferable terror within the simulacra of the Navidson’s house. As was mentioned prior, the movement of the story of the simulacra (the house) from person to person is what facilitates the house’s capacity to haunt the individual – a style we see in contemporary urban legends and ghost stories that rely on obfuscation of the original story, exposure, and momentum for the fear that they inspire. When cross-examining the house with Baudrillard’s work, we stop focusing on the “what” of the house and begin looking at the “how”, which is the viral transference of the entity that grieves Johnny.
Another aspect of Baudrillard’s theory has to do with the role of psychosomatic responses in relation to simulacra. The manifestations of fear that Johnny experiences as House of Leaves progresses is a perfect example of Baudrillard’s concept of psychosomatics, and strengthens the validity of the “viral ghost” pastiche of the novel. According to Baudrillard, “simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’. Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces ‘true’ symptoms?” (633). Johnny’s exposure to the simulacra of the Navidson’s house creates psychosomatic symptoms of a haunting in him. He experiences the feelings of being stalked, the warping of space, senses a malevolence in every day darkness, and describes, in detail, deteriorations in his physical and mental wellness. The physical deterioration in particular lends itself to the application of viral characteristics to the house, while Johnny’s visions savor heavily of spectral disturbances. In one of his more violent episodes, Truant describes a creature lashing out at him after he thinks he’s been shut into a dark closet at his job. The darkness lashes out at him in “the shape of a shape of a shape of a face” and “something hisses and slashes out at the back of [his] neck” (Danielewski, 71-72). Another event happens further, on page 150: “Then the walls crack. All my windows shatter. A terrible roar. More like a howl more like a shriek. My eardrums strain and split.” (Danielewski). The significance of “the shape of a shape of a shape of a face” as a descriptor for the visage of the “monster” in the closet with Johnny is not lost. There’s a striking dynamism between his description of this creature and the definition of the simulacra.
Even though these episodes that Johnny has during the novel aren’t actually happening – his walls aren’t breaking, glass isn’t shattering, and there isn’t anything actually reaching out for him – the fact that there’s a psychosomatic response (as if these things were actually occurring) undermines the necessity for there to be a quantifiable cause. This is true for the simulacra house in general; since the responses to the house are psychosomatic (that is, believed to be actually happening, in the moment, by the person who’s enduring them), then the question of the house’s existence becomes null. Both Johnny and Zampanò developed paranoia and attempted to barricade themselves away from something. Johnny becomes hallucinogenic to the point of dysfunction; Zampanò dies. Both produce “true” symptoms of a haunting; are they still not haunted if the veracity of the thing doing the haunting is called into question? The simulacra of the house on Ashe Tree Lane still do an effective job of haunting those that focus on it, despite the fact that the house doesn’t exist.
Again referencing the introduction provided by Johnny, special attention should be given to the note, written by Zampanò, that Johnny includes in the introduction: “They say truth stands the test of time. I can think of no greater comfort than knowing this document failed such a test.” Zampanò’s use of “truth” here is troublesome, but the sentiment remains steadfast; the documentation of the horror that is the house would be false were it to fail the test of time. If it succeeds and manages to maintain itself, passing through multiple hands, then it would crystalize its “truthfulness”; or, in terms appropriate to the analysis presented in this document, the longevity of the simulacra of the house would reinforce the strength of the “ghost” in those copies. As mentioned before, House of Leaves is the pastiche of the viral ghost story embodied in a novel. When we apply the theory of the simulacra to this pastiche, we are able to examine how the viral story phenomenon functions as a method of transference for a ghost in a fiction story, and how that theory provides room to explore the implications of a viral, transferrable ghost divorced from the constraints of a verifiable origin.
- Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1929. The Procession of Simulacra.
- Danielewki, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001. Print.