Haunted houses are a standard horror trope. One of the first horror books I ever read as a teenager was The Amityville Horror, a fictional account of a haunted house in the US, allegedly based on real events. Of course, haunted places don’t have to be houses. Castles, churches, hotels, ships, graveyards, apartments, funeral homes, and abandoned amusement parks are all permitted too.
In terms of word origin, the verb haunt just means to inhabit, visit regularly, frequent, or treat as a home. The meaning of haunt in any negative, psychological, or supernatural sense is secondary to this basic meaning. So, simply, a haunted house is a dwelling with a presence of someone or something inside it.
Where there any such places in Bible times? There are two stories in the Bible that can count as haunted house stories, in my opinion. Both are fascinating and incredibly helpful in thinking about this theme.
The Haunted House of Dagon
The first is an Old Testament story about the famous ark of the covenant, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once upon a time, the Israelites were fighting their old enemies, the Philistines, and losing. To help them win, they brought the ark to the battlefield camp, and their army shouted. The Philistine generals sent out scouts to find out why the Hebrews were cheering when they were losing. They soon found out.
The gods have come into their camp. This is a disaster for us! Nothing like this has happened before. We’re doomed! Who can save us from these mighty gods? These are the gods that slaughtered the Egyptians with plagues in the desert.I Samuel 4:7-8
The extra motivation of fear makes the Philistines fight harder and they eventually win. They slaughter the Israelites, capture the ark, and carry it into the temple of the own god in Ashdod. There, they set the ark beside an image of Dagon, and leave for the night.
The next morning, something strange happened in the temple. Dagon has fallen on his face before the ark. So, the priests of Dagon set him up again. But the morning after, Dagon has fallen again. But this time, Dagon’s head and hands were broken off, and lying on the temple entrance. The priest are so shaken by this that from that day on that they leap over their own temple entrance in fear rather than step on it. Then, they immediately try to get rid of the ark, and it ends up back in Israel. (1 Samuel 5-6)
The Haunted House of Solomon
The idea of a haunted temple isn’t so strange. Temples aren’t only places where priests perform religious rituals. Both in ancient time and today, temples are viewed by the faithful as houses for their gods. When king Solomon built and dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, one of the things he did was bring the ark into it.
Then the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, into the inner sanctuary of the temple, to the Most Holy Place…And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.I Kings 8:6, 10-11
In other words, Yahweh, the God of Israel, came and took up residence in his temple. As Solomon himself puts it in his dedicatory prayer:
The LORD said he would dwell in a dark cloud. But I have built you a magnificent house, a place for you to dwell in permanently!1 Kings 8:13
There are many places in the Old Testament that describe the temple as the house of God, the place where he dwells. Rudolf Otto – in his seminal book The Idea of the Holy – takes two of these verses and gives them a translation very relevant to this blog post topic.
Yahweh, I have loved the house where you dwell, and the place haunted by your majesty.Psalm 26:8
But Yahweh haunts his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.Habakkuk 2:20
The Haunted House of Demons
The second story is from the New Testament. It’s the well-known incident where Jesus heals a man possessed by a Legion of demons. The description of the man is both tragic and graphic.
When Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs…Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains, he was always crying out and cutting himself with stoneMark 5:2-3, 5
Here we have a haunted man haunting a haunted space. The place is what we today would call a graveyard. But on those times, they were more like burial caves, sepulchres, repositories for the remains of the dead, often carved out of the rock in the sides of the limestone hills. That’s why tombs and mountains are mentioned together.
But the main haunting isn’t the place with a man in it, but a man with demons in him. Jesus describes a possessed man in terms of a haunted house in Matthew 12. This is a chapter that contains an account of Jesus casting out demons, where he compares the process to robbing and ransacking a house (29).
When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it roams through desert places seeking rest and finds none. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house vacant, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they entre in and live there. So, the final condition of that man is worse than the firstMatthew 12:43-45
A possessed man is a house haunted by spirits, a temple of demons. That’s how Paul can describe Christians as temples of the Holy Ghost, houses haunted by God, in his first letter to the Corinthians.
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?… Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is within you, who you received from God, and that you are not your own house?1 Corinthians 3:15; 6:19
It seems there is good haunting as well as bad haunting. And the ultimate haunted houses aren’t buildings at all, but us.