With Halloween upon us, it’s appropriate that CultureMap has spent October helping Houston explore “The Comforts of Home” because when it comes to what terrifies us, it appears vampires and zombies are creeping out and haunted homes are back in. With the success of movies like Paranormal Activity 3 and the buzz around American Horror Story, FX's show about a murderous yet kinky haunted house, the Zeitgeist seems to point to our homes as the next big scary thing.
Whether it’s anxiety from the housing crisis leaking into the cultural psyche or merely that the cycle of spooky things has landed back on haunted houses, this Halloween we have nothing to fear but the things that go bump in our custom built kitchens.
When it comes to the question of the existence of ghostly spirits refusing to pay their share of the mortgage, I’m usually an agnostic, but after learning new information about an old family spooky tale, I’ve come to wonder if it’s not ghosts but another type of spirit that might disturb the comforts our homes.
GiGi and the New Orleans psychic
The story begins long ago in New Orleans with my great grandmother, known as GiGi to her grandchildren. Though a beloved wife, mother, and grandmother, she did have one indulgence my great grandfather greatly disapproved of, her monthly visits to French Quarter fortune tellers. Her favorite psychic den was Bottom of the Cup, a staple back then, and still today, for palm, Tarot, and tea leaf reading, and most bizarre, gourmet teas.
On usual visits, GiGi was told vague generalities about what the future held, but during one notable session that my mother, a teenager at the time, witnessed, GiGi’s fortune teller brought her strange news indeed. The seer gazed deep into GiGi’s tea cup, read the tea leaves once, then once more to be certain, before delivering this message from the future: “The red chair wants to move.”
The seer gazed deep into GiGi’s tea cup, read the tea leaves once, then once more to be certain, before delivering this message from the future: “The red chair wants to move.”
Neither my mother nor her grandmother could decipher what this meant. Was this psychic code? Was the red chair an omen for tragedy or triumph awaiting GiGi?
But the psychic would not interpret this time. She would only repeat the spirits’ message, “The red chair wants to move.”
And that should have been the end of that, except that night my mother received a hushed but frantic phone call from her grandmother. My great grandfather was never told about GiGi’s psychics, yet that evening as he sat reading his newspaper in the living room, without a word, he looked across the room at the low-standing, wood and red velvet chair. It sat in the same place for many years, existing more as an accent piece than a sitting chair.
He put down his paper, got up, walked across the room, picked up the chair, and moved it three feet to the left.
GiGi was so startled she was speechless for minutes, before finally inquiring, “Darling, why did you move that chair?”
He had no answer. He simply felt compelled to move the red chair.
So what did it mean? Was the chair haunted? Was the fortune teller a psychic decorator? Was my practical, Episcopalian great grandfather, a man who worked in insurance, hearing the call from some chair entity?
As a child, when my mother told me this story, I never gave it much analysis, until recently, when we discovered what happened to the chair.
A chair on the move
When my great grandparents died — in their seventies of entirely natural and non-supernatural chair causes — the chair went on the move.
First it traveled across town to my Great Aunt Ruth’s home. Then it crossed state lines to live with Ruth’s son Al in Clear Lake. Years later, it seemed to transfer its attention to Al’s in-laws as it was moved to Dallas and then it caught the professional photographer’s eye of Al’s brother-in-law, Wade Livingston. Perhaps this is the future the Bottom of the Cup psychic saw so long ago, because now the red chair has found a new career as a model. In photos, it moves around the world, as it holds beautiful femme fatales contemplating murder in exotic locations.
As Halloween lurks upon us, I’ve come to realize what I should fear within my home is not demonic poltergeists or spirits of the death both tormented and tormenting. No, I now fear something far more heinous, that my furniture might be judging me.
I no longer think the chair has a ghost clinging to it; instead, I wonder if the chair possesses a spirit of its own. If we believe that some landscapes and even structures have a feel or perhaps a spirit to them, can a thing have one as well?
And as Halloween lurks upon us, I’ve come to realize what I should fear within my home is not demonic poltergeists or spirits of the death both tormented and tormenting. No, I now fear something far more heinous, that my furniture might be judging me.
If GiGi’s red chair can know wanderlust, what’s to keep my mahogany chest of drawers that’s been in my father’s family for generations from seething with resentment when I stuff T-shirts into a drawer, instead of folding them neatly.
Is my Ikea couch silently screaming at me to speak Swedish already? Is my beautiful glass lamp from Bali appalled at my taste in television shows? After years together in a co-dependent and occasionally abusive relationship, did my rocking chair ever plot the death of my cat?
Most of all, as the days grow short and the nights long, I look with paranoia at my own red chair I inherited from my grandmother, GiGi’s daughter. Is it comfortable in its home or does it feel stagnate? Would it like to escape the confines of its existence and move a few feet, a few miles, or even to a new state or country? I wonder if I should find a psychic decorator to read its fortune, and then the most horrific thought of all occurs.
If I do, will my red chair blab about my horrible decorating sense?