What Denial Reveals in House of Leaves

House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski is made up of various narratives which are intertwined in such a way that disorients readers and obscures facts. Zampanò’s analyses of the documentary The Navidson Record are compiled together with an appendix by Johnny Truant, who also adds his own footnotes to the mix— altogether published by an unspecified group or individual only referred to as “The Editors.”[1] In her analysis of House of Leaves, Nicoline Timmer states how “the different possible meanings of certain references” that all the characters make in their respective narratives prevent readers from figuring out “the ultimate and conclusive true story.” This often proves to be accurate, however, I disagree with Timmer’s other argument that the characters, specifically Johnny, are not in “full narrative control” of what they want to hide or open up about. Instead, Navidson, Zampanò and Johnny make a clear distinction between what they choose to believe as true and what they deny. In consequence, whether deliberately or not, the testimonies they deny turn out more reliable and also insightful of their darkest misgivings.

Within his academic criticism of The Navidson Record, Zampanò decisively crosses out any mention of the Greek Minotaur myth. His narrative control falters only when Johnny, an audience member Zampanò never knows about, takes the liberty of keeping the censored parts in House of Leaves. Through these recovered sections, readers learn foremost about an alternate rendition of the myth depicting the “Minotaur” as the innocent son of King Minos, locked away from the public in a Labyrinth because of his “deformed face” (110). This information alone would have merely contributed to the display of excessive analysis Zampanò becomes known for, but Zampanò’s attempt at removing this material brings up questions about his personal affiliation to the story. Johnny even takes interest in Zampanò’s history and looks into the matter. He finds a “particularly disturbing coincidence” and does not immediately elaborate except with a few comments suggestive of Zampanò suffering from a “secret anguish” and “a fire that burned him” (337). It is not until Johnny discovers another topic which Zampanò chose to expunge from his work— the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau— that Johnny reveals his theory of Zampanò having either a brother, a son or even two sons (249). One hint toward the possibility of Zampanò having a child is the deliberate alignment of a section regarding the Minotaur myth which molded the text into a human-like shape (336). The shape may only be a portrayal of the Minotaur, but its modest size and resemblance to an infant one-piece speaks otherwise. Zampanò lingers on the father-son relationship aspect of the myth despite it having little correlation to the House’s labyrinth explorers in The Navidson Record. This implies that Zampanò chose to reflect on that particular theme because he made a personal connection with it. Regardless of whether or not Johnny’s theory is correct, Zampanò’s choice to get rid of these subjects inadvertently revealed how he was haunted by a certain episode in his past.

In addition to managing Zampanò’s work according to his whim, Johnny Truant chooses to blur his own history by inserting fictitious stories into his narrative. These stories “help [Johnny] to look away” and “protect [himself]” from the truth of his deteriorating mental state and also of his disturbing past. As an example of the former, Johnny’s false anecdote of meeting up with two doctor friends in Seattle who provide him with a “miracle drug” that could “cure [his] nightmares” (509) acts as a sort of wish fulfillment. Johnny wanted to “trick [himself]” into believing he “really was lucky enough” to undergo such a revival. Afterwards, just like with his other fabrications, Johnny exposes its falsehood. This pattern of deception followed by an abrupt confession represents how Johnny is willing to openly admit that his present life is not at all stable nor healthy.

However, Johnny is more on guard over his troublesome past. Despite being locked away in the back of his mind, Johnny’s progression through Zampanò’s writings triggers the re-formation of a traumatic memory involving him and his mother. The reemergence takes a long while to complete, so the memory starts out in the guise of a “Minotaur” stalking Johnny and at one point warps into a human being with “extremely long fingers” (71) who inflicted a “long, bloody scratch on the back of [his] neck” (72). Near the end of Johnny’s journey in House of Leaves, he realizes that his mother was the ‘creature’ following him. Johnny soon denies the truth of the memory by stating, “She hadn’t tried to strangle me and my father had never made a sound” (517). He then follows up with a story that acts as truth in place of his actual memory— a mother-son tale, apparently first told by the “Doc” from Seattle who was previously established as nonexistent. This is a reversal of the sequence for truth revealing Johnny regularly uses. By purposefully placing the contrived story at the very end of his narrative, Johnny ‘tricks’ himself one final time without a subsequent contradiction. However, like he mentioned before, Johnny does not intend to ‘trick’ readers as well (509). The last part of House of Leaves is the Appendix, which includes of a series of letters sent to Johnny by his mother, Pelafina. In one of these letters, Pelafina describes the fateful incident when she made “some half-moon cuts on the back of [Johnny’s] neck” with her “long, ridiculous purple nails” (630) as she tried to choke him to death. Johnny does not blatantly tell readers what they should believe, but he provides enough evidence, such as the “Whalestoe Letters,” to conclude that a certain moment from Johnny’s history, whether it be a near-death experience committed by his own mother or not, impacted his present life significantly. It is just Johnny himself who desires to be excluded from accepting the truth.

Even within The Navidson Record documentary, there are denials of truths later accepted by the audience because of overarching evidence. For instance, Will Navidson purposefully conceals the identity of “Delial” for much of TNR; Once he enters an inebriated state, he writes a repentant letter to his wife and exposes the hidden insecurities and secrets of his life. Navidson’s long-lasting silence on the topic is a form of denial because it is a rejection of Delial’s presence in his life ’. Navidson’s reserve leads Navidson’s wife, Karen, and many others to assume that Delial is a former lover. Instead, Navidson is hiding a truth he considers worthy of even greater shame. Being the subject of a photograph that should be considered Navidson’s finest achievement but is actually his biggest regret. Delial becomes, as Zampanò referred to her, Navidson’s “albatross” (17). Based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the albatross represents a severe burden one carries in consequence of a wicked deed. In Navidson’s case, he can’t forgive himself for spending precious minutes on taking a photo of Delial instead of trying to save her (393). This is the only instance out of the three narratives where the truth is ultimately accepted by both the audience and the narrator. Therefore, general agreement compared to one-sided denial is, admittedly, more effective in solidifying truths, yet also less discerning of someone’s inner workings.

Throughout the three core narratives of House of Leaves, denial proves to be a psychological mechanism for each one to get rid of the culpability for a transgression or a grievance toward another person. Thus, the denied truths tend to disclose more of the enigmatic histories of Zampanò, Johnny and Navidson than facts that are given without contradiction and dispute.

[1] Since all these sources come together as one final, real product, I will consider each narrative as ‘real’ and existent.


Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Timmer, Nicoline. “Johnny T.” Do You Feel It Too? The Post-Postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010. 243-297. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 360. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web.

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