Americans have always designed our living spaces to respond to threats both real and imagined
Barbara Williams sees spirits all the time.
As a medium, communing with ghosts (or spirits, as she prefers to call them) is her job. She relays messages from the deceased to their living relatives and friends. I do not know if I believe in spirits, but if they do exist, I believe that Williams has spoken with them. She is very convincing. A few months ago, I watched Williams give a psychic demonstration in front of a room of people as part of a launch party for my friend Mira’s new book. The air felt electric with anticipation as we listened to Williams speak. She told a gray-haired woman in the audience that she saw a spirit behind her. I found myself looking over, squinting, trying to see what Williams saw. I did not.
In her professional life, Williams acts as a mediator between the physical and metaphysical residents of a space. Sometimes, she leaves a house cleansed, free of spiritual residue. But sometimes, she can’t convince a spirit to leave, and she has to be satisfied with a delicately brokered truce.
This is what happened at the yellow farmhouse near Maine’s Sebago Lake. Williams was called in to deal with a malevolent spirit. In real life, she says, most spirits aren’t malevolent. “It’s not like it is on television.” But this one was bad. “They had this big farmhouse and they were living in a tiny trailer on the property because they couldn’t live in their home,” she remembers. “They couldn’t go in! They were terrified. The bravest of them would go inside and get clothes and bring them back to the trailer. That’s heartbreaking to me.”
There were three adults living in the trailer, and none of them felt safe. According to Williams, the house had become “unsafe for them to occupy.” It wasn’t just noises and bad dreams. It was more than that—the house was changing their personalities. “It was more an entity than a person. It was very powerful,” she recalls.
Multiple deaths had happened on that soil. The land had seen violence, and that violence had created some evil force, one that didn’t want people inside its walls. It didn’t want people to cook and clean and take showers and make love and argue and do all the things that one does at home. The entity had several faces. First, there was “an Indian that was tortured” in the woods behind the yellow house. Later, a man moved in, bringing his family with him. He was an alcoholic. Williams says there had also been a murder-suicide in the house. “It happened twice, and it was going to happen again.”
When Williams arrived at the farmhouse, she sat the residents down in the living room and began talking to them about their predicament. “I got an overwhelming smell of whiskey,” she remembers. “I tactfully asked if anyone had had a drink that day, to see if it was on their breath.” No one confessed. The smell was coming from the entity. “It smelled like there was someone standing there, in front of me, breathing right into my face,” she says.
The entity didn’t want to go. The family didn’t want to stay. The spirit agreed to leave the people alone, for a time. Eventually, they moved out. The entity stayed.
Even though this sounds to me like a bit of a professional failure—pretty yellow houses by big, clear lakes aren’t supposed to stay empty, as far as I’m concerned—Williams says it was a good thing she came when she did. “It was a setup,” she says. “History repeats itself. But nothing happened. They’re all alive. They’re doing great.” The house, however, remains deserted.
Relatively few people hire spiritualists to clean their homes, but I know dozens of women who have waved sage in the air, wafting the fragrant smoke into corners, trying to enhance the “good vibes” of their space. Before I understood the culturally appropriative history of smudging with sage, I was a smudger myself. I still sometimes burn sacred plants, even though I feel a little conflicted about it. Now that I’m stuck at home for the foreseeable future, burning a stick of palo santo gives me a small measure of control over my environment, a sense that I can improve things incrementally.
Smoke is a particularly trendy way for those of us who identify as vaguely spiritual (but not religious) to purify, protect, and enhance our living spaces. It’s appealingly ephemeral, but sometimes you want a little more staying power in your invocations. Maybe you want your protections to be visible, to broadcast their purpose to every passerby. Even in our relatively young country, you can drive down country roads and see evidence of folk magic practices in the paints and finishes of houses and barns. Americans have always designed our living spaces to respond to threats both real and imagined—threats of bad weather, angry neighbors, and wild animal intruders. Imperialist settlers built their houses with thick walls and small windows, to keep the warm air in, and thick doors, to keep the animals out. They also added layers of paint to protect the wood and improve the longevity of the house. Sometimes, the iron-rich milk paint was stirred and applied with a heavy dose of superstition mixed right in.
Drive through rural Pennsylvania, and you’re bound to spot a hex sign. The name of these intricate, colorful circles comes from the German and Dutch words for witch (“hex” and “heks” respectively). The mandala-like decorations show up on the sides of barns and houses, businesses and churches. (They’re notably absent on Amish buildings; Amish people believe the signs are pagan and more likely to invite bad things than good.) While hex signs often feature simple geometric designs like stars and petals, sometimes the designs include stylized horses, tulips, birds, and hearts. Some historians believe that the diversity of imagery indicates that these hex signs were created in response to specific desires. One containing hearts and goldfinches might be a marriage charm, and one containing animals might have been placed on a barn to protect the creatures within. Oak leaves and acorns could signify a wish for strength and calm, and eight-pointed stars might mean the homeowners were wishing for more children.
Another example of paint-based magic can be observed up and down the East Coast, where blue porches and doorways are an uncommonly common sight. While some people chose “haint blue,” as the color is called, for aesthetic reasons, others came to the color with a mixture of hope and fear. According to legend, haint blue can help keep your home safe by tricking spirits into seeing flowing water instead of hard timbers. Spirits don’t like to cross water, so upon seeing the robins’ egg paint, they’re likely to flitter off to find another family to spook. Or so the story goes.
A few years ago, when I was neck-deep in haint blue research for a color column I had been writing, I happened to mention the practice to a builder I know. Dan had seen many haint blue porches in his time restoring homes in Maine. (Sometimes he’d been asked to paint over the original milk paint, which we agreed is a damn shame and likely to bring bad juju to the current owners.) “Have you heard about concealed shoes?” he asked me. I hadn’t. “We found one,” he said.
When Kolbert was renovating his late-1800s home in Portland, he was midway through the project when he tore open a bedroom wall only to find a small shoe entombed inside. It was a filthy scrap of a thing, brown and smaller than his hand. He was surprised to find it there; Kolbert didn’t know much about the history of the house, and nothing he did know would explain the presence of a lone baby’s shoe. “My house is just two blocks from St. Dom’s, in the heart of what was once the West End Irish community,” he said. “I’ve since learned it was a common good luck charm for Irish immigrants.” He kept the shoe. It’s a curiosity, a strange piece of history. Plus, it had been in the house for hundreds of years. I can’t help but think moving it would be somehow wrong.
Concealed shoes have been found all over America and in homes in the U.K., Ireland, and Europe. Historians believe the practice dates to the early modern period. The Northampton Museum in the U.K. has cataloged nearly 2,000 discoveries of concealed shoes, the majority of which were buried in the walls of homes, but some were also found in churches, barns, and shops. While the shoes may have been fertility tokens (shoes have been linked to fertility in folk magic before, including the practice of tying shoes to the back of newlyweds’ cars), the prevailing theory is that children’s shoes were protective objects, designed to trick spirits into latching onto a shoe rather than a person. In the New Yorker, Geoff Manaugh relays a theory that is gaining ground in the field, that of “architectural protection.” Since the concealed objects are often found near “portals” (doors, windows, chimneys), British historian Brian Hoggard believes they were put there to discourage entities that “required something stronger than locks and shutters,” as Manaugh puts it, to prohibit their entrance.
“The objects testify to people’s acute fears regarding witchcraft and other supernatural dangers,” writes Hoggard in his book on the subject, Magical House Protection. “They are the actual counter-spells which were created in an everyday battle with perceived forces of evil which, it was believed, existed all around them.” I can’t help but think it makes a certain amount of sense in context. We didn’t always understand contagions. We once thought “bad air” and bad smells caused death directly. The world must have seemed full of these atmospheric, airborne poisons, invisible and deadly, sowing fear and chaos. Not even the church could keep these ill forces at bay; Hoggard adds that the proliferation of these objects can be read as evidence that “the church alone was unable to provide the kind of protection people felt they needed.”
If a concealed shoe didn’t work—or if you couldn’t spare a child’s shoe—sometimes people would bury “witch bottles.” These were stoppered bottles filled with a mixture of bodily fluids, fingernail clippings, hair, and other bits of a person that could serve as a decoy. People also sometimes buried dead animals in their walls, and while we don’t really know why, it may have come from the same impulse. Perhaps the ghost of a beloved cat could protect a family against a witch’s familiar. Or perhaps it was just a good place to dispose of a body.
According to the logic of concealed shoes and witch bottles, witches were unable to tell the difference between a person and a pile of their cast-off cells. They were also pretty terrible at moving around in their immaterial forms. One of the reasons people may have buried things in walls was to trap ghosts, witches, and demons inside. They would come for the fingernail clippings or shoe leather and find themselves stuck within, unable to return to their hidey-holes or lairs.
“Witch windows” are another architectural oddity that supposedly arose from beliefs in prophylactic folk magic and inept witches. Found only in Vermont, these are normal windows that have been installed to run parallel to the slanted roof of a house rather than with the walls or floor, giving them a crooked appearance. According to local lore, witches are unable to fly through slanted windows on their broomsticks, and instead of using another, more conveniently oriented window located nearby, the witch who encountered a crooked window would simply give up. It’s sort of nice, really, how easily malevolence is thwarted, how readily disaster can be averted. There’s something childlike about it; instead of hiding under a blanket, we built our houses just so. In this telling, safety is a matter of painting the right sign, hiding the right shoe, or putting in a window.
When I was pregnant, I became a little obsessed with the presence of the gun. If it was in my house, I reasoned, it might go off. And since I’m a person who finds comfort in statistics, I turned to numbers.
I have a one in 3,000 chance of being struck by lighting in my lifetime. My chances of dying in a plane crash are one in 5,000,000, and there’s a one in 112,400 chance that a dog will be the agent of my demise.
This attempt to soothe irrational worries in a rational way works, most of the time. But when it comes to gun violence, the statistics aren’t soothing. There is a one in 315 chance I could die from being shot. It is 10 times more likely that I will die from a gunshot wound than a hurricane or flood.
Although I trust and love my partner, I do know that my risk of being shot has risen significantly in the past five years. He is not abusive, yet the facts remain: When you live with a gun, your risk goes up. And, as I discovered after becoming pregnant, when you are carrying a child, your risk gets even higher. Gun violence is the second leading cause of injury-related death among pregnant women, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Most of these deaths happen at home.
And yet, people buy guns so that they can feel safe where they live, feel being the operative word in that sentence. A gun does not decrease your likelihood of death. It changes how you feel. It creates an illusion of safety.
My husband understands Chekov’s gun—he’s a scientist, but he studied theater in college—yet he insists that it will not go off, that the gun’s presence means nothing, signifies nothing, invites nothing. For him, the gun is a neutral instrument. It neither puts us at risk nor makes us safer. It simply is, metal and plastic, a consumer good purchased alongside his two brothers, one of three pieces, meant to bond them together.
For me, the gun is a reverse hex sign. I am not normally a superstitious person, but I’ve realized that I regard this gun as a bad luck charm. It brings the negative vibes indoors, somehow. It is a witch’s window tilted the wrong way, a line of salt that has been broken, a black cat.
I see home security systems with the same vague distrust. When I listen to my favorite true crime podcasts, I wince to hear the hosts championing SimpliSafeHome Security among the usual suspects for audio advertisers. I’ve noticed that many of the products advertised via headphones are loosely themed around comfort, home, softness, and hygge. Bombas socks, Casper mattresses, MeUndies underwear, Blue Apron meal kits, Article furniture. In a way, SimpliSafe fits right in. It’s a product you could use while padding around the house in your start-up-designed socks or while lounging on your midcentury modern couch under a blanket heavy with hidden granules of glass or sand.
But in a way, SimpliSafe sticks out like a broken window, a jagged reminder that your cozy little nest could be invaded by bad actors. It’s smart of the company to buy airtime during shows about criminals made for (and by) women. Here’s a segment of the population that has been made, systematically, to feel unsafe. Here’s a group with funds to spend, fears to exploit. It’s an example of capitalism working exactly right.
It is extremely unlikely that you will be attacked at home, and it’s even more unlikely that, should someone truly want to do you harm, they would be stopped by a home security system. It could happen. But you are more likely to be hurt in other ways. You’re more likely to be hurt by a loved one or killed by a drunk driver. These fears are less lucrative for companies. Just as our anxieties about aging or gaining weight or looking unprofessional or unpolished are both heightened by advertisements and solved by them, so too does the feeling of safety at home get undermined and then reinforced by products and services. Once you have all you really need, the only way to get you to spend money is to play upon your emotions.
I do not have a home security system, and on our next trip to visit my husband’s brothers in Ohio, he plans to bring the gun and leave it there. His brothers go shooting, and in my animist’s heart, I sometimes think the gun will be happier with new owners, getting a little bit of use. Maybe that will appease it, and it will no longer bring bad luck. Not that it ever did, exactly.
But that’s the thing about safety. It’s a feeling, up until the moment it disappears. We chase it, we ask for it by means both spiritual and practical, we hope for it. We take it for granted. It’s only later, when we’ve actually been made unsafe or suffered from pain, when our walls have been breached and the evil has come inside, it’s only then that we realize what’s been broken.