Haunting House: A Ghost Story’s Rumination on Home

In an exclusive interview with Interiors, Contributing Writer, Willa Granger, spoke with Director, David Lowery and Production Designer, Jade Healy of A Ghost Story (2017). Photos are courtesy of Jade Healy, Andrew Droz Palermo and Bret Curry.

With every ghost comes the house it haunts—and David Lowery's recent film, A Ghost Story (2017), starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, has everything to do with the suburban ranch house that the couple inhabits. "When I was little and we used to move all the time," Mara's character "M" recalls, "I'd write these notes, and I would fold them up really small, and I would hide them." These were "things I wanted to remember, so that if I ever wanted to go back there'd be a piece of me waiting." M's childhood gesture captures the feeling we all have about the places we have lived, or are living: that the structure itself becomes a receptacle for remembrance. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard, whose 1957 book The Poetics of Space examined the phenomenology of intimate places, described the house as "an instrument with which to confront the cosmos." In many ways, A Ghost Story cinematically captures many of Bachelard's ideas, including his concept of topoanalysis: “the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives."[1] Particularly for "C," Affleck's character, his humble home reflects his cosmos, a fact that is literally underscored through Lowery's introductory shots of the starry night sky. “Ghosts are almost always confined to spaces,” the director reflects. “Ghosts have an inherent nostalgic quality, and our own sense of nostalgia often has to do with very specific places.” It is our subconscious, Lowery observes, that likely benefits from bounding those ghosts within four walls.

These notions—of attachment, memory, and home—are old hat for architectural historians. As early as 1849 John Ruskin described architecture as a "strong [conqueror] of the forgetfulness of men" for "we cannot remember without her." A forerunner of the modern preservationist, Ruskin recognized the home as having "all the record it bare of [men], and all of material things that they had loved and ruled over, and set the stamp of themselves upon."[2] Both the physical and mental space of "home" registers our own memories, but also those that have come before us: quite literally, the material "ghosts" of others, such as M's notes, hidden in nooks and crannies. "Ghosts are ubiquitous in the places in which we live," writes sociologist Michael Mayerfeld Bell, "and they give a life to those places."[3]

Whether consciously or not, we apprehend these ties to home. When C is asked why he loves his house so much, he simply responds: "history." It is unclear whether he means his own history, or that of others, but A Ghost Story, which jumps forwards and backwards in time through multiple inhabitants of this home, seems to suggest both, and the suburban house becomes a medium for those histories. According to the film's Production Designer, Jade Healy, that's exactly what Lowery and his team were looking for. "The main parameter was to find an old house that had a sense of history," Healy reflected, "A house that had seen many lives before and after C & M." Director Lowery notes how, “All my feature films to date have revolved around the concept of home.” True to trend, and especially for a “haunted house movie,” Lowery knew from the start that A Ghost Story would “be a mainline to whatever sort of thematic obsession I [had] with domestic environments.”

Much of A Ghost Story takes place within and around the young couple's house, which, significantly,  is not a manicured McMansion, but a firmly middle-class, semi-rural, mid-century tract home. The building is single-story, and its features are all too familiar, from its picture window to the paint peeling off its wood siding.  You can almost imagine the olive-green station wagon that once parked underneath the carport, or the Ambrosia salad whipped up in the dark walnut kitchen. We've all seen this house, either on small-town backroads or at the fringe of cities. The banality of the form matches the comically-classic image of C's white-sheeted ghost after his car accident. Yet the ubiquity—of both house and ghost—becomes a vessel, a blank slate able to support the memories of multiple people.

According to Healy, the production team initially found the house in "a state of disrepair," and it had to be rehabbed into something more "livable." Carpeting was removed to reveal the original hardwood floors, and the entire kitchen was built out; the ceilings were replaced, and in one instance Tom Walker, the co-Production Designer, meticulously re-glued torn-out tiling. For Healy, decorating the house meant not only channeling the tastes of M and C, but also coloring it with a hint of the "imperfect." After all, M longs to leave the space. For the scenic decisions that Lowery did not make are telling. M and C are not living in a cute bungalow, or a sleek condo—though M fantasizes for both, and at one point early in the film she cruises through real estate listings online—but rather a plain, homely place. So often the ghost trope is paired with a creepy, creaky Victorian mansion; not so in A Ghost Story.  "The house needed to feel very lived in, some peeling paint, walls that had been painted over and over again," Healy said. "Basically the house needed to have character, layers that had been built up throughout time."

Their house is not only the site of their love but also, and increasingly, the site of tension. M wants to go, C wants to stay—a rift hinted at from the movie's start, when we see M asking about movers and lugging an antique chest to the road. "The house shelters daydreaming," Bachelard writes, "the house protects the dreamer," and the viewer immediately recognizes C's inability to relinquish his space of daydreaming.[4] But after C's abrupt death, he paradoxically gets his wish by literally haunting the house, watching over his partner, her grief, her growth, and ultimately her departure. Before leaving, M writes a note, presumably to her husband, and forces it into a crack in the wall. Both C and the note haunt the house, the former patiently scratching at the wall to retrieve it. The note becomes the silent center at the heart of the film, the thing that will ultimately absolve C from his hauntings. As time progresses, C stays: terrorizing the small family that comes after his wife, observing a party of young people, and finally: the demolition of the house itself. Architectural historians have often explored the physic, communal, and symbolic impact of changes to the built environment, a question brought into sharp contrast through tragedies such as 9/11. "What happens when we leave that place, or that place no longer exists," Architectural Historian Shelley Hornstein asks. "What happens to the memory of an event if the site where that memory was recorded or is demolished, or we only know it through movies or photographs or the story someone recounted to us about it?"[5] A Ghost Story inverts this thinking by giving us the lens of Affleck's ghost to see how the site itself changes through never leaving, though his connections to the place—his love, his partner—disappear. It is the privileged yet painful perspective of the ghost to see how others memory-make within one's own space.

But even these changes will not stop C's haunting as he lives through the demolition of his home. This scene was so critical in fact that the production team sought out houses with the help of a demolition company. The violence of demolition gives way to new construction, and C floats through the growing high-rise atop his former home’s footprint. This new building swiftly emerges, culminating eventually in a vast, dystopian landscape of dark skyscrapers and neon lights. The film unfolds a spatial spectrum, from rural to urban (and back again), drawn from “what I see around me, living in Dallas,” according to Lowery, a phenomenon that he imagines is “similar all over the world.” Texas, where the film was shot, becomes a particularly acute example of this narrative according to Lowery: “Rural Texas has a very unique and striking aesthetic, and it's interesting to see modern architectural trends manifesting themselves in this landscape.” Such a narrative seems to nullify the house-as-object entirely, suggesting that our personal histories endure beyond this, and further explains the resilience of place and memory even in absentia. "Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere," Bachelard writes, "at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another."[6] Lowery suggests this same alloy, as time suddenly loops backwards to the settlers who first inhabited the site, including a little girl who, like M, slips a note under a rock. It's clear that the concept of "home" has sheltered Lowery's own daydreaming, to return to Bachelard's concept, and A Ghost Story offers a visual and poetic rumination on the intangible and abstract connections that we all make to intimate spaces.

Willa Granger is pursuing a Ph.D. in Architectural History at the University of Texas at Austin. If you would like to submit an article that looks at Architecture and Film, please email us at contact@INTJournal.com.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994 edition), 46, 8.
[2] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1849), 164-165.
[3] Michael Mayerfeld Bell, “The Ghosts of Place,” in Theory and Society 26, no. 6 (Dec. 1997): 815.
[4] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 6.
[5] Shelley Hornstein, Losing Site: Architecture, Memory, and Place (Ashgate Studies in Architecture Series, 2011), 2.
[6] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 6.