Garret vs. Cellar SMACKDOWN!

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who find basements scary and those who find attics scary. I suppose there might be some folks (bless their hearts) who are disturbed by both, like those ethereal creatures with one blue eye and one brown. I refuse to countenance the idea of people who have no feelings of unease in either space. To be that well-adjusted, that free from inchoate fear, that grounded in the solid objects of reality—I draw back in horror at the thought. We will leave these hale and pragmatic types to their smoothies and their 401Ks and godspeed to them.

Of course, having sketched this rigid opposition, I must immediately set about tearing it apart. (I was trained in literary criticism in the 1990s, and am constitutionally incapable of leaving a perfectly good dichotomy in peace.) I personally am creeped out by both attics and basements, but in different contexts: attics in dreams and basements in reality. (Dreams include literature and reality includes movies.) The idea of attics is deliciously spooky: that’s where the ghosts live, and the animals that sound like ghosts when you’re alone in the house at night. But I would be hard pressed to feel truly frightened in a real attic: they’re mostly hot, and cramped, and full of prickly insulation and mouse poop, and you’re there to grab the box of back-up highball glasses or the fake Christmas tree and get out before you boil to death. Even filmed attics fail to be genuinely scary: they are usually picturesquely stuffed with picturesquely overflowing trunks full of the heroine’s ancestor’s stuff from Ye Olden Times. (The ancestor always seems to have been a theatrical impresario or budding lexicographer.) If there is a moment of fright, it’s occasioned by the heroine catching a glimpse of herself in a full-length beveled mirror in the corner and then laughing when she realizes it’s just her reflection. Later she will try on some of the theatrical costumes from the trunks and study herself in the same mirror, where she will notice a resemblance to her ancestor for the first time.

Basements are fucking scary as fuck. There are no ghosts here: only serial killers and emaciated soon-to-be victims of serial killers chained to the radiator. Sounds coming from the attic can be laughed off as the wind or squirrels or “the house settling”; if there is a sound coming from your basement I advise you to get the hell out of your house immediately.

At this point I have to tell you, and you have to believe me, that I wrote the above paragraph before I turned to Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space to see what he has to say about basements vs. attics. And that is where I read this:

In Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul we find a comparison…: “Here the conscious acts like a man who, hearing a suspicious noise in the cellar, hurries to the attic and, finding no burglars there decides, consequently, that the noise was pure imagination. In reality, this prudent man did not dare venture into the cellar.” … Instead of facing the cellar (the unconscious), Jung’s “prudent man” seeks alibis for his courage in the attic. In the attic rats and mice can make considerable noise. But let the master of the house arrive unexpectedly and they return to the silence of their holes. The creatures moving about in the cellar are slower, less scampering, more mysterious.

So either I am an unsung savant who has already anticipated all of psychoanalysis without fully realizing it, or Jung is maybe on to something. (Now I am reminded of the time that I received a hostile question from a colleague after a research presentation at a former place of employment: Why, the questioner wanted to know, was I using psychoanalytic theory anachronistically by applying it to Victorian literature? Because [I replied with some irritation] it is true.)

But to return to my ongoing deconstruction: one of my most frequent recurring dreams involves a haunted attic. In this dream, I am suddenly transported to a much older and larger house—a mansion, really—that turns out to be my ancestral home. Or, alternatively (and this part of the dream is so delectable that I warn you I’m about to bust out the italics again) I suddenly stumble across a heretofore undiscovered wing of the house I’m already living in.[i] In my gloriously large dream house, with its vast tracts of unexplored bedrooms, solariums, and extra kitchens (!!!), there are always exactly four floors. The ground and second floor are occupied, the third floor is home to disused bedrooms and bathrooms (all made up and waiting for guests, but covered in dust—shiver), and the fourth floor is a finished attic space that can be accessed only through a pull-down ladder or staircase. This last space is haunted—I know it’s haunted in the way that you know stuff like that in your own dreams because you are the writer, director, producer, and star—and it’s haunted because my grandparents died up there. They are now quasi-malevolent presences living above me, and I understand that were I, or anyone, to go up there, something vaguely bad would happen. The action of the dream consists of me trying to convince various people to go up to the haunted attic floor under various pretexts.

I assume that you, like I, have several important questions at this point. 1. Why are my mild-mannered grandparents, whose worst sin against me when alive was denying me more hard candies from the crystal dish on their sideboard before dinner, suddenly transformed into evil succubi in death? 2. Why am I trying to get visitors to my house to go up to the attic, given the whole haunted-by-dybbuk-grandparents situation? 3. What is going on with the third floor? Why am I not using this space for giant house parties or a writer’s colony? 4. How much can one’s appetite really be ruined by a single wrapped peppermint, anyway? I’m afraid I don’t have answers for you at this time. In that strange logic that we all know from our own nighttime productions, in my dream there is something attractive and succulent about the feeling of evil seeping down from the floors above. It’s bad, but I want to cozy up to it. I want to know more, but I don’t want to go exploring alone. (I guess that is an answer to Question #2.) I am positively drawn to the evil and scary feeling in a way that would be impossible in real life—assuming that “real life” includes ghosts and me owning 5,000 square feet of charming Victorian fixer-upper. This is why I contend that the existence of this recurring dream does not pose a real challenge to my attics-vs.-basements opposition. Not only have I never once experienced a feeling of actual fear in an actual attic, but I think the illogical nature of this dream underscores the impossibility of that feeling occurring in real life.

Important attics in literature include: 1. Flowers in the Attic, obviously. For the uninitiated, this novel tells the realistic tale of a group of children who are sealed in the attic of their house “temporarily” by their mother, who wants to keep their existence secret from her own father for some reason I have repressed. The days stretch into weeks then months and years, and the children grow up in the attic alone, isolated and forgotten (and presumably ricketic). The only plot detail I remember from my tweenage reading of this potboiler was the simmering sexual tension between the sister and brother, who end up doing it (ew! and yet—not?) once they reach puberty.[ii] Subsequent novels focus on their illicit love, which continues after they are finally released from the garret. 2. The Diary of Anne Frank. I think Anne and her family are technically in an attic-like space adjacent to a commercial building? At any rate, they are sequestered from the rest of the house on one or more upper floors, and they must keep very quiet in order to avoid discovery and deportation. Horribly, as we all know, they are detected shortly before the end of the war and all perish in the camps. 3. Jane Eyre. This is a mistake. Important news flash: Bertha Mason is not in the attic. I repeat: Bertha Mason is not in the attic. I include Brontë’s novel here only because so very many people are convinced that Rochester’s wife is concealed in the garret (spoiler: she is actually on the third floor) that the phrase “madwoman in the attic” has become part of the collective lexicon. What all of these literary examples have in common is secrecy, concealment, and the necessity for quiet. The attic is where you stow someone whose very existence you want to deny. The people thus treated become ghosts. They haunt the house and their hiders. They pass through the permeable membrane into the world of the supernatural, through no desire of their own, before they die. Attics are spaces of intense sadness.

Now basements, on the other hand. To complicate matters a bit, I do also dream about creepy basements (or to be more precise, the actually creepy basement of the actual house I grew up in), but there is nothing flavorsome or compelling about the feeling of evil emanating from the cellar. First of all, it’s not ghostly or supernatural: it’s more like a clear sense that there is a person or persons down there who, were I to venture down the damp wooden staircase alone, would not hesitate to carve me up into tender steaks for their later delectation. Even more horrifyingly, in this dream I am often already in the cellar, trying to get out before something in the other section of the cellar gets to me. This is not a fun situation. Basement dreams, like basements themselves, lack poetic possibility.

Bachelard writes:

The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls, that they are walls with a single casing, walls that have the entire earth behind them. And so the situation grows more dramatic, and fear becomes exaggerated…. The cellar then becomes buried madness, walled-in tragedy. Stories of criminal cellars leave indelible marks on our memory, marks that we prefer not to deepen.

Important literary basements include: 1. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado.” Too horrifying to relate in detail, but a madman (maybe? or is he the most sane one of all?) murders a rival by luring him into the catacombs of his palazzo with the promise of a yummy wine, then chains him to the wall of a small underground chamber which he seals shut with stones and mortar. This method of execution is established enough to have its own name: immurement, from the Latin murus, meaning “wall.” Let us pause a moment to appreciate the limitless, breathtaking ingenuity of the human species. 2. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a lovely and chilling story by Ursula K. LeGuin. Omelas is a utopian city where everyone is happy, beautiful, well-fed, and at peace. It is not a boring place, however. LeGuin is at pains to explain that the inhabitants of Omelas are not automatons experiencing a stultifying, deadened happiness; they are truly fulfilled and practice the arts, have lots of sex, and drink beer. But there is a catch. Somewhere in the city, a small child is sequestered in a basement and forced to live on meager rations and sit in the dark in its own excrement. Everyone in the city is taken to the basement and shown this child when they come of age, and it is explained to them that through some obscure logic, this single child’s misery secures the happiness of all the rest. Everyone who learns the dark truth of the city is initially horrified, and then most gradually come to rationalize the situation. (After all, freeing the child won’t do anyone any good, including the child!) The story ends with a brief description of the very few souls who simply decide, given this untenable situation, to walk away from Omelas: alone, at night, with no planned destination. The end. My main question upon first reading this story was “What good does walking away do?” I suppose “The Ones Who Get Out the Vote in Omelas” would not make nearly as compelling reading. 3. The Silence of the Lambs. Stephen King’s It. And other novelistic Cellars of Horror that have been adapted for the cinema. I assume that there are also plenty of stand-alone films that depict “caves criminelles,” as Bachelard so eloquently puts it. Probably one of the tortures in Se7en takes place in a cellar, but I was far too traumatized by that film to remember any of the details. And maybe some of the Saw movies involve a basement? Again, who knows. The point here is that while literary attics are dreamy, ethereal spaces where people optimistically hide themselves or others, usually with some fantasy of freedom or rehabilitation in the offing—even Rochester claims that he hid Bertha in Thornfield Hall so as not to subject her to the insalubrious damps of his country estate—basements are overt factories of death. The basement is where you end up after your attic plan has failed.

While I think it is clear that a world with only basements or only attics is an untenable world, a world of terrifying imbalance where either rationalization or rapacity holds sway, it is not so clear whether we would want to live in a world with neither. If we had no shadow selves, would the ego fall away? If our motivations were crystal clear, if we hid nothing from ourselves or others, would we need to tell stories? If you never heard a terrifying thump from below, could you live without a place of refuge? What would life be like on a single story, forever? Where would you put your fake Christmas tree?

[i] Apparently this is a fairly common recurring dream; my spouse also has it all the time, and we share its sense of sheer delight. For any readers who may share this recurring dream, check out this real-life version!

[ii] Friends who have siblings of the gender to which they are attracted inform me that this is not, in any way, remotely titillating.