Let’s Talk About Sex[ual Violence], Baby

Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves is known most notedly for its self-aware structure, nesting doll style of narration, satirical nature, and, of course, its sheer creepiness. The novel’s themes of mental illness, suicide, addiction, and repression have been thoroughly analyzed in publications such as The New York Times and Purdue University’s peer-reviewed academic journal Modern Fiction Studies, as well as in countless online forums. Critics and fans of the novel have failed, however, to analyze the various instances of sexual violence in the novel and the role that they play in our interpretation of the text. The inclusion of rape, incest, molestation, and sexual assault in the plot, dialogue, and character histories influences the meaning of the characters, the house on Ash Tree Lane, and even the emotions of the characters—most notedly the characters’ feelings of something uncanny. Uncanny is defined in the novel as a sense of “not-being-at-home” (page 25) so readers can—and should—connect the uncanny nature of the house to how some unexplainable thing might feel wrong for a long time after being a victim of sexual violence, especially when the event is repressed. The prominence of sexual violence in House of Leaves and its omittance from analysis only emphasizes its importance when finally reviewed, and the instances, references, and effects of sexual violence chronicled by the novel connect so heavily to the other more obvious themes that we must realign our understanding of the book as a whole and view the house as a parallel to something rather than taking it at face value.

First and foremost, the consequences of sexual violence as described in the novel parallels the effects that the Ash Tree Lane house has on its visitors. The words “sex” and “sexual” are used on 18 pages throughout the book, and “rape” is used on four (as indicated in the Index); however, there are also other descriptions of both sex and sexual violence in the novel. Karen Green and Clara English—two of the more developed characters—both either state or imply that they have been victims of rape in the past. Several other characters have sexually violent histories assigned to them by Johnny Truant after he undergoes the transition from toying with sex—going to far as to flirt with his stripper love interest by “sticking exclusively to the subject of sex”—to viewing sex as a conduit to “desire and pain” (Danielewski 105, 265). Karen and her husband Will also view sex as something positive, and a lack of as a problem indicative of deeper marital issues (Danielewski 62). These characters, like most people, understand that sexual experiences are supposed to bring happiness, entertainment, and sometimes connectedness. In a similar fashion, the characters, like most people, also believe that our homes are expected to be a place of peace, contentedness, and comfort. When either of these pleasures are manipulated into something sinister, it becomes “surprising, unsettling, disturbing but most of all uncanny” (Danieleski 24). Billy Reston furthers the connection by directly referring to the house’s unexplainable physical anomaly as a “goddamn spatial rape” (Danielewski 55). Its foreignness and impossibility are uncomfortable, stressing Karen and Will’s emotional and physical intimacy alike. Karen is anxious and extremely claustrophobic, and the house aggravates this by reminding her of her own childhood rape. She grows increasingly distant from Will as he tries to explore the “rape” of their home, and their marriage is only fixed in the end, when she overcomes both her sexually violent history and her fear of the house.

Karen Green’s adolescent sexual trauma left permanent emotional scars that, when exacerbated by the house’s strangeness, caused her to withdraw from any physical or emotional affection. Her estranged sister claims that their step-father once raped them both and trapped them in a well outside, and although Karen denies this, her sudden disengagement and aloofness around the time of the purported event is indicative of trauma. She began practicing her smile in the mirror and “hardly spoke in class,” transforming from an outspoken tomboy into the epitome of high school popularity (Danielewski 58). She later became a model—literally—of the sexually perfect female, her practiced smile “tragically […] flawless” (Danielewski 59). Her perfection was feigned, and a professional in the novel suspected that her severe panic attacks and claustrophobia “stemmed from early adolescent betrayal” and “increased proportionally with the level of intimacy [experienced]” (Danielewski 59). When the closet—the first mystifying aspect of the house—appears between her bedroom and her children’s bedroom, her sexuality changed. She and Will had been enjoying an increase in physical affection, but after the appearance of the closet, she admits “I can’t. I don’t know why. It terrifies me.” (Danielewski 62). Not only is she explaining that she “can’t” emotionally or logically process the so-called “spatial rape” of her home, she is also explaining that its appearance makes her uncomfortable with her husband’s sexual advances; thus it is no accident that the closet is attached to their bedroom. Will is equally as perplexed and disturbed as she by her abrupt change, explaining that whenever he makes so innocent of a sexual advance as trying to kiss her, “she practically starts to cry” (Danielewski 62). The disruption of Karen’s home psychologically affects her in a very similar way that her sexual trauma does, and so these two instances which seem completely separate both begin to be viewed as a “rape.”

Like Karen, Johnny Truant also undergoes a mental transition in the novel with regards to sex, viewing it as something possibly sinister after his love interest Clara English admits to him that she was once raped. This confession haunts him for years, and he compares it to the emergence of “sharp thorns” that “spiked with hurt” and held a “poisonous bloom” (Danielewski 264). The profound effect his realization that sex can be malicious has on him and his analogy to describe it is truly interesting. Johnny refers to his mindset prior to Clara’s confession as a “blissful bower,” and afterwards it falls, “overrun by weeds and vines” (Danielewski 264). A bower can be defined as a cage, a woman’s bedroom in a castle, a leafy shelter in a garden, or as a structure made during courtship displays by the male bower bird. Thus, interpretations of his analogy include, respectively, that: The cage of ignorance in his mind has been opened to dangerous new knowledge; Women’s bedrooms literally and figuratively aren’t safe; His innocence is changed as the Garden of Eden’s innocence changed; And lastly, his willingness or ability to attract women has fallen. Defining bower as a woman’s bedroom is especially poignant since it directly connects one’s sexuality and one’s home, again playing into the idea of “spatial rape.” It’s powerful imagery with any interpretation, but Johnny’s main purpose for his analogy is to explain that his delicate, flower-like innocence has been irreversibly made more threatening by the “thorns” and “poison” of Clara’s confession. What’s more interesting still is that after this, Johnny goes on to ascribe short, fictitious stories of sexual violence to his friend Lude’s sexual partners in a list titled “Lude’s List Revisited” (Danielewski 264). Clara English’s confession is the only non-disputed instance of sexual violence in the novel, but Johnny feels justified in creating these stories because he sees Clara as proof that anyone could have a similar past that they hide or repress since sex is no longer strictly inherently good in his mind. In the order that House of Leaves is written, Johnny’s revelation coincides with his increasing fascination with the mystery of the house on Ash Tree Lane and his disengagement from reality. Johnny would only explain the Clara English situation and its effects at this point if he felt a relevant connection between it and the existence of the house’s anomaly, thereby emphasizing yet again the intimate nature of the home and the inherently sexual violation felt when the home is made unknown (when it becomes uncanny).

Danielewski claims his own childhood was traumatic, and though this does not necessarily mean that he has personal connections to rape or other forms of sexual violence, it does explain why viewing the home and sex as equally intimate, and their violations equally disturbing, is so important to consider when analyzing House of Leaves. He describes his childhood home as having held “many very painful and dangerous resonances” and shadows that are “impossible to light and very, very deep (“Haunted House” 115). He also claims that every detail of the novel was intentional and that he has expected every analysis thus far, and that women hugely impacted both his life and his novel (“Haunted House” 106, 111). Thus, given his statement that homes resonate the emotions of its inhabitants, that nothing in the novel was an accident, and that women heavily influenced the novel, it is impossible to ignore the theme of sexual violence any longer, lest readers don’t care to acknowledge and understand a glaring element to the labyrinthine novel. Like “Lude’s List Revisited,” it turns out that the Ash Tree Lane house never actually existed, nor did any such “spatial rapes” actually occur. But also like Lude’s revised list, the matter of truth is irrelevant, because “no one-is ever presented with the sacred truth, in books or in life” (“Haunted House” 121). Whether or not the violation of the home or the body actually happened, their possibility of existence and how intimately, sexually disturbing and uncanny that feels is the only thing that matters.


Works Cited

“A Conversation with Mark Z. Danielewski.” Interview by Sophie Cottrell. Random House, https://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0400/danielewski/interview.html

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

“Haunted House-An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski.” Interview by Larry McCaffrey and Sinda Gregory. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 44:2 26 Mar. 2010: 99-135.

How a House Houses Humanity

Much of Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves (2000) is spent addressing the various impossibilities that the Navidson home presents, and the ways in which each character reacts to this ineffable space. Be it the actual characters of The Navidson Record, the multitude of cited sources, or Zampano himself, each voice that comes into contact with the home has a unique context that informs his understanding of the house. Because the reader is several degrees of separation away from the physical home, reading an essay about a film written by a blind man that is compiled by a schizophrenic, one’s perception of the house is dependent upon these alternate and individual interpretations. Stephen Belletto argues that because there is no absolute truth by which to judge the “correctness” of each interpretation, it is impossible to assign each a relative validity, and thus that the true value lies within the act of interpretation itself. While his fundamental argument is sound, this paper will argue that the interpretations or lack thereof within House of Leaves are only valuable in their ability to reveal the humanity of the interpreter.

By withholding and distorting absolute, quantitative information about the house, Danielewski cements the reader’s understanding that the house cannot be humanly qualified or understood. Our very first interaction with the impossible characteristics of the house is in the measurement of its physical dimensions, with the inside being 5/16 in. larger than the outside. Already our most basic assumptions about how we interact with the world, the “absolute” laws of physics, are broken by the house. Removing this trust in reality gives Danielewski the opportunity to show the contrasting mental states of the Navidson brothers. While Tom is content to exist within a figurative clean well-lighted place, Navidson is troubled by a constant need to attach and to understand: “Tom just wants to be, Navidson must become (32).” As one of Zampano’s fictional authors describes, “…there must be an answer. From there comes torment (33).” The two brother’s contrasting interpretations of the house’s impossible nature provide a crack in their facades through which we are given a better understanding of their individuality, and how each brother chooses to confront the world around him. Navidson’s nagging uncertainty continues to haunt him through most of the book, and grows most heated after Exploration 4, when he uses his samples and tapes in an attempt to rationalize his experiences within the house. The very samples that were Navidson’s lifeline to reason fail to provide any comfort, as they continue to defy any semblance of order or intelligibility. To take it one step further, we are told that 17 pages of seemingly quantifiable data regarding the samples taken from the house mysteriously disappears, as if the house itself is destroying any evidence that might seek to contain or quantify it. The house refuses to be understood by anyone, be it Navidson himself or the reader.

The cognitive dissonance Navidson experiences between his reality and the house isn’t resolved until he has almost died during Exploration 5, when he finally abandons any attempt to make sense of the house in favor of contemplating his past. When trapped on the ledge, Navidson’s lighting of flares and watching the direction in which they fly is an attempt to understand and to interpret the space, and how he exists relative to it. The nonsensical manner in which the flares go both up and down and nowhere confirms the impossibility of the house. Even after he has no light source, and thus no way to judge direction, the question of his orientation within the house continues to haunt him, “I’ve been falling down so long it feels like floating up to me—(473)”. Only as he nears death does this internal struggle slip away, and is replaced with more intimate and human concerns: “Soon though he grows less concerned about where he is and becomes more consumed by who he once was.” Paradoxically, it is only by abandoning any attempt of interpretation that Navidson’s fears and failures are brought to light.

Where Navidson’s relationship with the house develops over the course of the book, Karen’s interviews with various persons of interest give us a glimpse into more immediate, reflexive responses to the house. Upon seeing footage of the house, Hunter S. Thompson experiences a visceral rejection. The irrationality of the space strikes him deeply, as opposed to the relatively superficial reactions of many of the other interviewees. Rather than attempting to attach any sort of truth or interpretation to what he sees, he shuts down and is unable to process his thoughts on the house: “I’ve never seen anything so goddamn fuck up, so fucking fucked up (363).” Though in context such a response may not seem totally uncharacteristic of Thompson, nonetheless the volatility the house incites within him suggests a commentary on the human inability to process the impossible: “…something humanity has always been able to believe in is that the universe adds up (32).” In contrast to this, Camille Paglia constructs a complex metaphor for the house as a form of womb envy. In the exclusively male exploration of the house, she sees the masculinity of invasion and penetration. Though her interpretation might seem more artificial and composed than Thompson’s rejection, the total emptiness of the house refuses preference or opinion. With no metric to judge validity, all opinions are equally true and equally false. In this way all interpretation becomes a form of closed-eye hallucination, or finding patterns and structure in pitch blackness. As Belletto writes, “absence becomes presence through interpretive acts (102).”

Upon abandoning the idea of validity, individual interpretations become valuable only in their expression of the interpreter. In Thompson’s panicked attempt to escape the house’s implications, we see his need for fundamental truths that ground him to reality. Paglia’s interpretation exposes if not her gender ideology, then at the very least an assertive and self-assured personality.

The unique context of every individual brings about an infinite number of unique perceptions of a single stimulus. Because of the limitations of human perception, truth is not a confirmation of something’s absolute nature, but an agreement between the observers of one mutually experienced observation. As Belletto writes, “true, what counts as acceptable in such a setting is defined by an unwritten set of rules that is not inherently more or less legitimate than others, but is rather dependent on a ‘core of agreement.’” But because the house evades singular, unified observation, each individual understanding of the space is equally irrefutable. Consensus is impossible, therefore truth is impossible. In such a nihilistic frame of reference, the validity of each interpretation is meaningless, and the value of the interpretations lie within what they reveal about the interpreter. Be it Navidson’s attempts to rationalize the house to Camille Paglia’s womb envy metaphor, each interpretation found within House of Leaves exposes the reader to a glimpse of human behavior, and how we attach personal meaning even to empty space.



Work Cited

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

Belletto, S. “Rescuing Interpretation with Mark Danielewski: The Genre of Scholarship in House    of Leaves.” Genre 42.3-4 (2009): 99-117. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves as a Metaphor for American Colonialism

The eponymous house of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, published in 2000, is different things to different people. For some, such as Karen and Tom it is a threat, while for others, like Navidson, it is a dark fascination. The only quality of the house that appears immutable is that the house is something unknown to those who encounter it. This treatment of the house as an unknown, previously unexplored space takes a new meaning when the story’s context is taken into account: that is, the story’s deliberately American context. Throughout the novel, Danielewski makes a point of centering the story within an America-centric viewpoint through use of explicit references to American culture and the “American mindset”, as well as more covert references. This newly understood context combined with the fact that the story of The Navidson Record is essentially one about exploring uncharted territory suggests that the house functions as a metaphor for American Colonialism. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is a useful text for framing this topic, as he discusses how Western scholarship has historically characterized unknown, “unclaimed” territory as inhabited by primitive “others”, justifying its colonization; just as how the “monstrous” nature of the creature in the labyrinth vindicates its destruction.

The book wastes little time establishing itself within an American cultural context. The very first pages of Johnny Truant’s introduction place him within the United States by mentioning the California cities he had been staying in (pg. 11) as well as including distinctly American references in a seemingly unimportant, yet bizarrely violent and ultimately crucial, exchange between Johnny and his previous landlord. Through this exchange, which results in Johnny’s eviction, Danielewski not only establishes Johnny’s cynical, dark sense of humor by having him tell his landlord, who believes he is Charles de Gaulle, that “the thought of a 757 landing on him was not at all disagreeable” (pg. 11), but is also referencing an American made aircraft familiar to most anyone who has taken a commercial flight in the United States[1],  the identifying number of which just so happens to also be the telephone area code for southeast Virginia, which is not only the very place where the Navidson family encounters the infamous house, but also the site of the Jamestown colonial settlement. Jamestown is notable for its status as the first permanent English colonial settlement to be established in the Americas[2], therefore a quintessentially American setting, but is particularly important in the context of the book. Later in the novel, a journal by an occupant of the Jamestown colony is discovered and it is revealed that a set of stairs were found in the woods nearby, by a group of men. Two of these men turned up dead, and one was never heard from again, suggesting the existence of the house as an all-consuming entity even as far back as the 17th century. This reference is the most explicit connection in the novel between the house and American colonialism. Its inclusion, along with the other, more quickly digested reference points easily introduce the novel as contained within an American context.

The American references continue with the introduction of Zampano, and move into the realm of historical commentary. The very first sentence describing Zampano states that from what Johnny could gather “he was an American” (pg. 12). Even before Zampano’s name is given in the following paragraph, his supposed nationality is given. This positioning gives it emphasis, although Johnny does not mention why he feels the need to emphasize this. This statement is combined with a mention of those who knew Zampano having detected some hint of a foreign accent, “even if they could never say for certain where it came from” (pg. 12), and yet Johnny still insists upon Zampano’s American-ness. He even goes on to doubt Zampano’s real name. He states “Who knows where the name really came from. Maybe it’s authentic, maybe made up, maybe borrowed…” (pg.12). Johnny’s reasoning is further confused by the fact that, as we later discover, there are no personal records of Zampano in his apartment to confirm or deny his name or nationality. Even though the only personal information Johnny can gather from other people about this man is his foreign-sounding name and purported accent, it is all irrelevant; to Johnny, Zampano is American. There is no reason given for this assertion within the novel, but it adds to the list of components that lend the novel an objective Americentrism. Johnny exemplifies this when he rejects the notion of Zampano’s “foreign-ness” in favor of branding him with a generic American identity with no evidence to spur him on, and through this is participating in a type of cultural erasure similar to that imposed upon the “foreign” native peoples of a colonized space. Any foreign cultural identity Zampano might have had is wiped out by Johnny in an instance of inner-textual revisionist history. As Zampano’s narrative is framed by two other narrators, Johnny and the editors of the “found” texts comprising House of Leaves, information about him is susceptible to “hidden revisions” such as the one made by Johnny on page 12, where he only adds one word – “water” – but makes no editor’s note of it until after the reader has accepted it as canon. This highlights the uncertain nature of Zampano’s personal history by calling all of it into question, since none of it is communicated (to our knowledge) by Zampano himself, while much of Johnny’s background is written by his hand, according to the font. This “reclaiming” of a supposedly foreign individual’s history is a significant detail when considered in parallel to the “reclaiming” of the foreign space of the house by Navidson and his crew.

The novel’s parallels with American colonialism only become more apparent with the explorations of the house. Despite the danger it presents, the group’s devoted explorers still commit to the act of “conquering” the house through mapping it out and in doing so attempt to strip it of its identity as an “unknown” space. The framing of the “unexplored territory” as a house Navidson has just moved into gives a sense of entitlement to the explorations. When the first hallway within the house finally opens up into a wide expanse of darkness that surpasses the limits of Navidson’s understanding of the previous corridors, Zampano makes the statement, “Only now do we begin to see how big Navidson’s house really is” (pg.64). The house is still referred to as “Navidson’s” house, despite him being unable to lay any viable claim to this new space. Navidson didn’t even know that this place existed until this moment, but as soon as he peers into the vast “undisturbed blackness” (pg.64) looming in front of him, in an imperialistic move, Navidson’s narrative claims it as a part of “Navidson’s” house, in spite of not fully comprehending what he can only understand to be a preexisting presence within the house in the form of the “beast”. Navidson sees no other “people” within the unexplored region of the house, and so he assumes the role of pioneer; the first to see the land and thus its rightful “owner”. The other presence felt within the house, that of the “beast”, manifests as a disembodied utterance described as “a faint growl, rolling through the darkness like thunder” (pg. 68). The noise is almost always described specifically as a growling noise, and the animalistic connotations of this lead the reader to believe that it must belong to some beast stalking our explorers. This, along with the characterization of the noise as being naturalistic “like thunder”, gives a distinctly “wild”, or at least “uncivilized” persona to the growl. Whomever, or whatever, is with them in the depths of the house is thus defined as a being of primitive nature. The image of the rugged, male explorer team venturing into an unknown, threatening landscape inhabited only by feral, primitive beings strongly evokes the mythology of the American pioneers. Said, in his work, discusses how Western scholarship of places inhabited by “othered” populations rendered them as inherently inferior beings. This logic is also present in the justifications for colonialism, creating a formula in which the “superior intruder” is meant to dominate and the “irrational native” is to be assimilated or eliminated. This rhetoric plays a crucial role in the novel in establishing a clear historical link between the Navidson explorations and acts of a colonialist or imperialist nature.

The deliberate positioning of the novel and its characters within a distinctly American mindset as well as the parallel between the explorations of the house and those of the American pioneers create a clear parallel with the American Frontier experience, the characters’ fascination with exploring the house mirroring (or perhaps echoing?) the Manifest Destined desires of the American pioneers. If the metaphor wasn’t obvious enough, the novel also throws in offhand information like Johnny’s birthday being July 4th (pg.181) and the recurrence of the colors red (the color of the passages referencing the minotaur myth), white (the color often associated with Johnny’s mental breaks and various characters’ dreams) and blue (the color of the word “house” throughout the novel). In this way, House of Leaves seems to propose the idea that the desire to conquer the unfamiliar does not always lead to glory as the American mythos would have you believe, but can also lead to trauma and loss, as experienced by the characters in the novel. However, it also suggests that the outcome can never be known upon entering unknown territory, just as no light can pierce the darkness in the depths of the house. By having the pioneer figures as our protagonists, we can see a kind of heroism in their actions. Perhaps it is as the great Charles de Gaulle himself once said, and “Greatness is a road leading towards the unknown”.

[1] The Boeing 757 aircraft was a popular passenger aircraft in America during the years of its production from 1981-2004 (Linares, Luis. “Flashback Friday: The Boeing 757.” Airchive. Airways International, 22 May 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.)

[2] “Jamestown Colony.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

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.

In The Place of Houses

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.

Continue reading

Inside the Labyrinth

In his novel House of Leaves (2000), Mark Z. Danielewski alludes to the myth of the Cretan Minotaur as a tactic to emphasize Johnny Truant’s entrapment by his past. Through the process of compiling Zampano’s fragmented manuscript of The Navidson Record, a documentary film that discloses the Navidson family’s encounter of a horrifying maze, repressed memories of Johnny’s past begin to surface. While the Minotaur, a deformed child, is sentenced to walk a physical maze, Johnny is forced to navigate the hidden secrets residing within the labyrinth of his own mind. While Katharine Cox’s article, “What Has Made Me? Locating Mother in the Textual Labyrinth of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves,’” argues that Johnny’s character parallels the Minotaur through his psychological imprisonment by the concealed memory of his mother’s abandonment, Cox’s analysis can be extended to include additional circumstances of abandonment, parental neglect, physical deformity, and isolation conveyed through Johnny’s assessment of his life by memories, his present condition, and a dream that further exemplify Johnny as the Minotaur and emphasize his inability to escape.

In the process of transcribing The Navidson Record, Johnny recollects repressed memories of his past that indicate experiences of abandonment analogous to that of the Cretan Minotaur. Triggered by the film, Johnny embarks on a “journey of remembrance” and reveals that, like the Minotaur, he was left alone in his adolescence (Cox 4). However, his encounter with familial dissonance and the uncertainty of what lurks within the Navidson’s house prompts the emergence of violent hallucinations of asphyxiation as well as apparitions of an unidentifiable being, often referred to as a “her” and depicted as “disturbingly familiar” (Danielewski 28). These episodes of stifled breathing from sensations of piercing “[finger]nails” indicate that Johnny’s life of desertion stems from more than simply the incarceration of his mother and the early death of his father (Danielewski 27). Through a reflection of his mother’s written confession, sent from The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute, Johnny slowly uncovers that, like the Minotaur, he was abandoned through “the destructive bond between [parent]…and child;” ultimately fated to suffer the consequences precipitated by a mother’s “monstrous desire[s]” (Cox 12). The Minotaur, bearing the hideous appearance of a beast, exhibits the head of a bull and the body of a man as a product of its mother’s sinful act of infidelity. Afraid to taint his reputation, King Minos, the Minotaur’s father, proves unwilling to “accept” that the “heir to…[his] throne” will be of illegitimate birth and that the future face of Crete will be one of terrifying deformity (Danielewski 110). As a result, King Minos forcibly hides the Minotaur from society inside a labyrinth, exemplifying an act of rejection that leaves the Minotaur to grow up without a parental figure. Similarly, to safeguard Johnny from the hardships and misery of everyday life, Johnny’s mother attempts to strangle him. Although Johnny’s mother perceives death as a “gift,” a freedom from the “pain of living,” and considers her deed an act of love, her murderous desires and violence warrant incarceration by Johnny’s father (Danieleswki 629, 630). Consequently, with an absent mother living in an asylum, Johnny is completely alone when a car accident suddenly takes his father. While the underlying cause resides with the mother, in each story it is the reactive decision of the father that proves the catalyst for abandonment. As a result, Johnny’s childhood is marked by years of abandonment and an inability to develop familial relations as he transfers time and again among foster families. With each new home Johnny maintains the status of a “guest[,]…living with” yet never becoming part of the family (Danieleswki 92). Through tantrums of “throwing things,” runaways, and school expulsions, Johnny is perceived as a beast for causing trouble (Danielewski 587). Just as the Minotaur was spurned for its abnormal appearance, Johnny is rejected for his abnormal behavior. Both Johnny and the Minotaur exist as black sheep, unable to fit within the mold of societal norms.

After uncovering the hidden truth of his childhood abandonment, Johnny reveals physical scars of parental neglect and consequently, further epitomizes the Cretan Minotaur through his beastly appearance. Johnny is finally able to “retrace [the] history” of his deformity to his “familial ties” with a derelict mother and an abusive foster father (Cox 7). Although both Johnny and the Minotaur were disfigured involuntarily by the choices of another, the Minotaur was born malformed whereas Johnny acquired marks of trauma. In addition to the “half-moon” scars on the back of his neck from his near death experience, Johnny wears sleeves of “horror [that] swee[p]” the length of his arms from a childhood accident involving spilled oil by the hands of his mother (Danielewski 20). Displaying scars from a foster father that span beyond a “broken…and discolored front tooth,” white marks on his legs, and a discolored line “intersecting [his] eyebrow,” Johnny parallels the Minotaur’s freakish and monstrous appearance (Danielewski 130). Although Johnny subconsciously attempts to lock away the memories of his traumas as a mechanism of self-protection, his physical disfigurements, like the walls of the Minotaur’s maze, act as a constant reminder of the horrors of his past.

As his attachment to The Navidson Record grows, Johnny further exemplifies the Cretan Minotaur not only by his daily routine that shapes his present state of isolation and physical deterioration, but also through his entrapment generated by paranoia. Johnny possessed a nearly unvarying daily schedule that consisted of clubs and one-night stands prior to his discovery of The Navidson Record. However, it is not until the “transformative effects of…Zampano’s writing” both impact Johnny’s cognitive stability and alter his way of life that he acknowledges a sense of imprisonment (Cox 5). Although his interest in the documentary initially proves to be mere “curiosity,” reading inconsistently, Johnny reveals that now, due to a growing obsession, both hours and days disappear in the “twist” of sentences, scenes, and patterns of the fragmented “scrap[s]” (Danielewski xviii). As a result, Johnny, in response to the fear that suddenly appears tugging at the back of his mind, becomes increasingly closed off from and unaware of the existence of the outside world; ultimately paralleling the incarcerated state of the Minotaur. While the Minotaur is secluded from society by the inescapable pattern of a physical maze, a sentence resulting from the trepidation of others, Johnny is isolated by his own terror, escalating confusion, and apprehension that accompany the arrival of unexplained memories of which he has no recollection. In his anxiety regarding the condition of his social standing, King Minos fabricates accounts of Athenian deaths and “publicly” frames the Minotaur as the bloodthirsty monster culpable (Danielewski 110). With walls meant to “conceal” and the “residents” of Crete “never get[ting] too close to the labyrinth,” it becomes clear that societal paranoia and fear for individual security are what confines the faultless Minotaur to its prison (Danielewski 110). Through a display of claustrophobia, impaired breathing, and hallucinations of “a stalking [and approaching] monster” that threatens to cut his throat, Johnny is similarly overwhelmed with paranoia (Cox 13). With the former routine of his life incapable of providing comfort, clarity, or an escape from the memory of a near-death experience that haunts his present, Johnny reverts solely to Zampano’s manuscript for answers. Johnny turns away from his personal relationships by missing calls, trashing phone numbers, and forgoing social outings. As Johnny further detaches himself out of fear from the outside world, he exemplifies a state of entrapment both within his home and in a lifestyle of deleterious behaviors as he traverses the maze of his mind. In “nai[ling] his windows shut” and layering his doors with locks, “chains,” and “storm proof” precautions, Johnny rarely leaves his apartment (Danielewski xviii). Unable to sleep or keep up with the demands of daily living, he appears “pale and weak” (Danielewski 404). Along with the deformities induced by his childhood, Johnny’s protruding bones and sickly demeanor highlight a bodily deterioration that mirrors the monstrous appearance of the Minotaur.

Although Johnny embodies the animalistic features and seemingly violent nature of the Cretan Minotaur in a dream, the account demonstrates a compassionate portrayal of his character, for like the Minotaur, his perceived savagery proves misunderstood. As Johnny dreams, he “wander[s] lost” (Cox 4) among the seemingly familiar “dead ends” (Danielewski 403). While Johnny expresses the belief that he has been searching the corridors for years, it is not until he undergoes a bodily change that this frequent dream exemplifies a “nightmare of self-evaluation” (Cox 6). As the threat of death from a drunken frat boy’s swinging ax prompts Johnny to physically transform into the figure of a Minotaur, “sprout[ing]” course hair, “long, yellow fingernails,” and an “enormous bulge” on his forehead, it becomes apparent that, like the Minotaur, Johnny takes the form of a monster as a result of external forces (Danielewski 404). Despite the creature’s “gentle” nature, only consuming Athenians who died of starvation lost in the maze, the Minotaur is cast as a villain through King Minos’ “secre[t] execut[ions]” and fallacious claims of his child’s barbarous acts (Danielewski 110). Although the Minotaur is “nearly murdered” by a criminal, it is unable to muster enough brutality to survive (Danieleswki 111). The Minotaur’s inhuman countenance that resulted from its mother’s indiscretion along with a cruel identity determined by its father supersede its benevolence, forcing the it into the role of a feared beast. Although Johnny typifies the mentality and appearance of a monster, expressing a decision to “carve out” the frat boy’s innards, he reveals that true savagery is also not of his innate nature (Danielewski 405). Johnny’s reaction represents one of defense, generated by a situation of survival. Through an acknowledgment of the “melted” appearance of his hands in the moment prior to his transformation, it is apparent that Johnny’s “appall[ing]” marks of disfigurement, resulting from his relationship with his mother, exemplify external factors that begin to change how he is perceived in the eyes of others (Danielewski 403, 404). As people turn their gaze from Johnny’s scars and his emaciated state, “stunned” and “incredibly uncomfortable” at his unsightly appearance, it is revealed that Johnny is perceived as abnormal (Danielewski 296). However, it is not until Johnny becomes consumed with the external force of a growing paranoia that he is viewed as both lesser than human and frightening. Afraid of losing Zampano’s manuscript, a potential key to his confusion, Johnny primitively and aggressively “spr[i]ng[s] forward…[as if] by instinct to fend off his best friend (Danielewski 324). In fear of an approaching attack, Johnny becomes disassociated with society and secures himself within his apartment, epitomizing a beast hiding among the darkness. Although Johnny buys a gun for protection, the degree of his terror proves both disorienting and dehumanizing. With desires to implement pain by hand and “rip open” flesh by his teeth in a fight, Johnny further exemplifies the characteristics of an animal (Danielewski 296). However, along with an initial claim that blood and brutality “disturb” him, Johnny condemns his thoughts of violence as atrocious and “unspeakable” (Danielewski 249, 497). Johnny, innately benevolent, identifies with the Minotaur for his misunderstood character. As a result of the past, the present environment, and how others choose to see them, both the Minotaur and Johnny are mistakenly distinguished as monsters.

In House of Leaves, Mark Z. Dainelewski highlights that Johnny Truant parallels the mythological Cretan Minotaur. Johnny, suffering from a past that haunts his present, is condemned to a life of entrapment. While the Minotaur is physically bound to its prison, unable to break free, Johnny wanders the corridors of his subconscious, lost among the hidden truths.

Works Cited

Cox, Katharine. “What Has Made Me? Locating Mother in the Textual Labyrinth of Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”” Critical Survey. Vol. 18. N.p.: Berghahn, 2006. 4-15. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.

Danielewski, Mark Z. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Online Community Fiction (cecimoff and chrisdubos)

“SCP Foundation.” SCP Foundation. < http://www.scp-wiki.net/ >.

The SCP Foundation provides an excellent example of the phenomenon of divergent fandom. The collaborative community functions as a self-contained fandom, where the participants in the fandom are the writers, editors, and audience. This wiki displays how inter-fandom rules govern the ways that fiction is created when there is no “primary” source other than the primary reason for the website existing. The Foundation is similar to r/nosleep in that it is community driven, spontaneously created, and has accrued a massive cult following. The subject matter of the articles that can be found on the Foundation’s website are similar in theme and genre to the materials discussed in this course, and influences from some of our core texts can be found in specific SCPs given.

Benjamin, Walter, “The Work Of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Illuminations: Essays and Reflection. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

This famous work is massively influential in the fields of cultural studies and Marxist philosophy. In it, Benjamin argues about the future of art and mass media in general using film as a specific example of a medium that empowers the masses. This argument can be extended to the Internet, which is an even more easily accessible and utile medium for expression.

Falzone, P. J.. “The Final Frontier Is Queer: Aberrancy, Archetype and Audience Generated Folklore in K/S Slashfiction”. Western Folklore 64.3/4 (2005): 243–261.

This article, although dealing with a specific branch of fandom (specifically slash fiction in the Stark Trek fandoms) introduces an interesting idea about the evolutionary path of fandoms and the fandom community’s relationship with its primary source. Through the Star Trek fandom, this article details how a fandom community eventually evolves away from the source material and how fanfiction influences the development of other media. In conjunction with the Benjamin quote, the article speaks to the empowering nature of fanfiction and the creative license it lends to participants and consumers.

Johnny and his Fear

“No doubt about that. My fear’s gotten worse. Hearing Hailey describing my screams on the radio like that has really upset me. I no longer wake up tired. I wake up tired and afraid. I wonder if the morning rasp in my voice is just from sleep or rather some inarticulate attempt to name my horror. I’m suspicious of the dreams I cannot remember, the words only others can hear…”

In House of Leaves, Johnny’s footnotes serve on the surface as a translation of certain parts of the Navidson Record into layman’s terms, but more importantly they give another dimension to his mentions of being disturbed by the Navidson Record, offering a first person point of view to his anxieties.

As the book progresses Johnny’s footnotes stays at relatively the same consistency, never going away for too long, but the length and content of these footnotes indicates a paradigm. Certain footnotes take up at least a page and continue from an ominously toned sentence in the Navidson Record. They tend to deal little with the content of the Navidson Record and more with the feelings of paranoia and delusion Johnny feels from the book as he reads and annotates.

On Page 179, at the 211th footnotes Johnny again goes on his long tangents before the rescue of Jed and Wax, at a time when Zampano is exploring the subjectivity of space. During this small arc Zampano gives a few academic sources discussing to the idea of spaces or rooms feeling smaller or bigger than previously thought to be. In context of the novel, Reston is feeling nauseated after being in the constantly changing black space of the house for too long, with Zampano commenting that the “disturbing disorientation experienced within that place…can have physiological consequences.” This is where Johnny’s footnotes take the wheel.

“No doubt about that,” Truant’s footnote starts, referring to the “physiological consequences” of the house. In this case he is talking about how his fear, particularly how it is affecting him. The Navidson Record as a whole, and the task of reading and annotating has taken a toll on Johnny.
All the delusions, smells, and sleepless nights lead Johnny to see a doctor that prescribes him a low end sedative. Later in the footnote as Johnny is waiting in another doctor’s office, contemplating the claustrophobic and unknown space that surrounds him, he says “I know what it means to go mad.”

At this point in the book it is clear that the Navidson Record is negatively affecting him, but not in a tangible way. The book is not directly making him feel anxious or experience delusions, but rather bringing up some dormant, underlying problem possibly being suppressed by Johnny. The phrase he writes, “I know what it means to go mad” addresses this by giving a familiarity to the feelings and mentality Johnny is going through.

Though the Navidson Record on its own is dense and slightly confusing, referred to earlier in the footnote when he speaks of the frustrating complexities of the chapter 9 footnotes, the book itself does not seem enough to give reason to Johnny’s fear and paranoia. Instead, through Johnny’s footnotes, we come to understand that whatever mystic force gives power to the house’s apparent sentience is what is uncovering or causing his fear. He feels a familiar sense of madness, going so far as to throw away all drugs in an attempt to alleviate any distortions. At this point Johnny is desperate for a way to end the approaching seemingly malevolent force that he senses in his delusions.

The footnotes help to explore these distorted feelings as they don’t happen too frequently. They come almost like a checkpoint in each chapter. As the house becomes stronger and more omnipotent, the effects are felt all throughout, especially to Johnny.

Chasing Infinity

The characters of House of Leaves do not live extraordinary lives. Zampanò, as described by Johnny, lives a very austere life. Johnny works as a tattoo shop assistant and the Navidsons are more concerned with living in an idyllic household than pursuing a fabled lifestyle. It is only when Will Navidson, along with several others, realizes the spatial disparity of the house that they devote their time in investigating its seemingly unending hallways. The idea of pursuing infinity or describing something that has no end is interspersed throughout the novel. In earlier parts of the Navidson Record, Zampanò makes statements regarding reality as being “infinitely more patient” and that “physics depends on a universe infinitely centered on an equal sign.” There are even direct symbols of infinity as seen in the formula for resonance frequencies and explicitly used by Douglas Hofstadter. Despite knowing that the house may never have enough answers for its questions, the characters willingly attempt to deal with the infinite in the belief that nothing was completely immeasurable. Part of the attractiveness of infinity is because of its challenge. Navidson and Holloway both expect a “great deal of fame and fortune” for surveying a staircase that could have no end. For Holloway, his life devoted as an explorer, the house is the ultimate challenge and could finally give him the “recognition the house seemed to promise.” Another part is the unfamiliarity. Although infinity appears throughout the novel, the idea of infinity is better represented through time and space. Looking at the index, there is only one reference to the Infinite Corridor, but if one looks at the page numbers with time and space, it is sometimes paired with “finite” and “infinitely”. It is interesting to note that despite Will Navidson’s interest in recording familiar slice-of-life moments and Holloway’s lack of humor and penchant for conciseness, they are the ones who look the most forward in exploring the house. However, it is neither the challenge nor unfamiliarity that truly makes these characters commit to the unending task. Although critics have noted how the house shapes to the person’s perspective, the characters embark on exploring the infinite nature of the house because they know that it will change them. Given their ordinary lives and the possible lack of fulfillment they may have developed, dealing and pursuing goals that are possibly unceasing forces them to reevaluate themselves despite the consequences.

Use of Space in House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves uses space within its story and within its physical pages to mirror the reader and the book’s characters’ emotions. Passages written sideways, in different languages, and in little blue boxes are instances where the reader may feel confused having to turn the book different directions or stop to decipher a language or code, which parallels the characters’ bewilderment throughout the novel as they live in and explore the house and its labyrinth.

In Rune Garulund’s Text and Paratext in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, they state, “nevertheless, for all its adherence to postmodernist literary conventions, House of Leaves departs from these in one very significant way: for confusing as it sometimes is, it succeeds in keeping a strong narrative core, the clarity of which owes a great deal to the visual presentation of the text.” This emphasizes that however strange the upside down words or blank pages may seem, they actually engage the reader in the characters’ journeys. Not only does the audience experience the adventures of the characters of the Navidson Record, but at the same time the audience experiences Johnny Truant’s escapades in different lapses of time as the novel progresses through his footnotes.

Such as in poetry, many times in House of Leaves space is used to dictate pacing within the story. Jed’s death is an example of this, with the moments leading up to it being four to eight lines written at the bottom of otherwise blank pages, the lead-up is calm (193). Once the event happens, it is rapidly explained in gruesome yet surgical detail. The moments after seem to slow to a near-halt as the book may only have one or two words per page in the pages immediately following the scene.