We’ve been talking a lot on this blog about the idea of haunted objects. One of the most exciting things about haunted objects is how they can gather in certain places. One, of course, being a museum, which we will get to, but another one is the antique shop or thrift store.
This is something about an antique shop that immediately ignites our imaginations when you walk in — lured in by some shiny object in the window, something archaic-looking, or an Annabelle Doll innocently passing itself off as a Raggedy-Ann doll. You never know what you’re going to find inside an antique shop.
We discussed a couple of items on the blogs already, like the dybbuk box and Annabelle. Seemingly innocent items that were found in antique shops. But how often do you hear from someone that they’ve purchased a thing that then turns out to have a bit of life of its own?
A haunted rocking chair that moves in the corner without anyone sitting in it, a windup toy that seems to play itself, a picture that can start fires by being in the room alone, or a mirror with a trapped ghost inside.
What makes an item haunted when you buy it an antique shop? Many times the story behind the item has been lost, so there’s no benefit of back history to enlighten the new owner. So how do we decide that an unknown object is actually a spirit container?
The idea that what makes something spooky is a loss of memory of the thing is something Jeb Card brings up in his book Spooky Archaeology. It’s the loss of place or purpose of an item here in the antique shop. We may know what this plate was, the pattern, the maker, the purpose of the dish itself. But what we don’t know is who owned it last and if they use the item correctly.
Perhaps this silver serving platter was the centerpiece for many a family dinner. Maybe it was a dissection plate for the neighborhood animals? Or could it have just been a trinket tray, or something shoved in the back of a cupboard and forgotten until grandma passed away and it was sent away to the thrift store for rehoming?
Not knowing the history of an item allows us to create one ourselves. We can observe the object, decide if we see any abnormalities, come up with a story for it, and let it marinate in our minds till we’ve decided it’s real.
I went and spoke with several of the vendors in my local antique shops, identifying myself and telling them what I was doing. After they all got over me being an archaeologist, we were able to have some interesting discussions about haunted objects in the antique shops. I asked a few of them if they could show me an item that they consider haunted. One item that was presented was an old print at least 50 years old. I asked what it was about the print that made it haunted, did it do something, or cause an effect on the environment?
Sometimes just a feeling is enough for something to be believed to be haunted. It’s creepy or brings a sense of serenity, or any strong emotional response that doesn’t seem to have an explanation. Contributing emotional reactions to an object is a way of imbuing it with human-like qualities, and that’s the first step to making an object a spirit container. The old postcard that you picked up as a collection piece on a whim from the antique shop last time you are out shopping, the image sparks some kind of feeling to you that makes it now unique. Perhaps you wish to display it or keep it near. You’re now going to treat it a little bit more special, make sure it doesn’t get bent or wet. Pay a little bit more attention than you would any other postcard that you might receive in the mail.
The nature of the object is now changed because of the human reaction to it. And because that nature has changed, further human reaction to it will continue to adapt and change.
Many practitioners of pagan religions maintain what they call an altar, either for magical practice purposes or for worshiping purposes. Whatever the reasoning for the altar, they are almost always adorned with various objects that mean something to the practitioner. And though items specific to certain religions and magical practices can be purchased, intentional items made for intentional rituals or such, often times a variety of objects on altars seem to be random everyday items that have been elevated to a position of spiritual or magical significance.
Often times, these items come from antique shops. The feel of something old or mysterious looking is enough to spark the human imagination and make an item special enough for an altar. Or it could be something specific is being sought for the altar, a silver bowl, a particular type of stone jewelry, a golden knife which could be a gold letter opener in a former life. Often these items are expensive if purchased new, but in an antique shop, they can be purchased for cheap. These items are then brought home, and through and imbuing process becomes a religious object.
But what about the shop itself?
One of the interesting conversations I had with shop owners was the idea that the shop itself was haunted. Some were specifically because of the buildings the antique shops were in. Philadelphia is a 400-year-old city; it has ghosts in every nook and cranny. But most interesting was when a shop owner would tell me that a space within the shop has become haunted because of the objects inside of it. Often the objects provenance, or place of origin, is known to the shop owners and employees. The story has not been lost yet, and that can affect the haunted status of an object or set of objects. I was shown items that were considered the favorite pieces of an elderly relative who passed. The family, of course stating that they could feel remnants of their relative on the items. That being interpreted by the shop owners has the spirit of the relative has somehow attached itself to the items. Thusly, the item becomes haunted.
Haunting, in this case, is not inevitably negative. Most of the things I was shown were haunted objects in that they were anchoring points for a portion of the spirit of a deceased person. They were not evil or good, and they were simply haunted.
Some of the more problematic objects for me were those that contained human remains.
These are not on the level of religious relics, which often contain a piece of the body of a saint or person of religious significance, but it can be the same idea — lockets with curls of hair inside of them, small charm boxes with baby teeth. I have even seen full skeletons recovered from medical schools. In the United States, it’s not illegal to sell human remains on the open market, apparently, as long as those remains are of a certain age and are not Native American. That leaves quite a few people who are now commodities in their death.
The morality and ethics of this particular trade is a bit beyond this blog at this time. However, the reaction to these artifacts is quite on point.
There’s something in us that recognizes humanity and death, and often times these tokens are still treated with a tad more respect than other objects in the shop. This is not to say I haven’t seen human remains in deplorable conditions, but on average, I see them displayed behind glass, up where they can’t be reached easily, or not on display at all and must be asked for. This is a consumer-driven economy, and we must understand the antique shops are not museums, they are businesses, and I cannot begrudge them trying to make ends meet. This is also not the blog for my overall opinions on the matter.
The reaction of potential customers towards these remains is also interesting. There is almost always this childlike interest and glee in presenting an item containing human remains to an inexperienced customer. The customer is then quite interested but reverent enough not simply to grab the item and start handling it. Often these items must be passed between the shop owner and the potential customer with purpose. There is always a moment of hushed observation. I like to think there’s some deep human recognition happening, but I’m probably just being romantic.
I myself do not possess any items that contain human remains beyond those that belong to my immediate family. I have the obligatory baby teeth of my parents that were kept by my grandparents and passed on to me because, I am, of course, an archaeologist. Therefore I get all the weird things from my family’s treasure trove.
I also have several locks of hair that belong to various family members throughout the family history. That is the extent of it, though. I have seen stranger things shown to me by other people that are passed down within the family.
I think the most intriguing was a mostly gold tooth that had been set into a ring. The story being the individual whose tooth it’d been in life had so much gold in their teeth that they had bequeathed it to their family, who then had several pieces of jewelry made from the teeth.
Were I to find something like this in an antique shop would I look at it? Yes. There is a human curiosity when confronting death, even in something as small as a misplaced tooth now set in jewelry. Would I buy it and take it home, no. But that has more to do with my opinions on human remains, then my belief in anything haunted about the item.
But for those antique shops that have become repositories for various bits of past people, there’s almost always a story of haunting attached to the relics. In the case of the skeleton recovered from medical school, I remember being told that it could be found in different locations around the store as if it had moved on its own. Apparently, whoever the individual was liked to walk around the shop when everyone had gone home. I’ve heard stories of Morning Hair displays, the Victorian craft form of braiding human hair into thread from which incredibly intricate sculptures and wreaths were then woven, could be the source of whispers in the shop.
Who’s to say if the antique shop truly is haunted by the collective spirits attached to its jumble of items? Who’s to say they aren’t havens for spirit boxes and haunted objects waiting to be taken home by an unsuspecting customer where they will now take up residence?
We are not here to debate the reality of spirits or the validity of belief in them. What we wish to understand is how the perception of that affects human interaction with those items.
An interesting custom of the medical school skeleton was that it was often dressed in clothing fitting the season. Even though this can be looked on as being a bit comical, it’s not behavior that would have been performed on any other humanoid looking object in the shop. There were several large dolls and even dress forms that could have been draped in a seasonal selection of clothes. They were not. It was only the skeleton that “needed” to be dressed. It can almost be said that this was done out of reverence. A one-time thing would’ve been evidence of a joke, the continuation of the behavior, the selection of clothes, and the care during dressing so as not to damage the skeleton, suggests that this became more of a ceremony in its own way.
The setting of nonreligious relics up and away from curious hands and unobservant eyes is a way of restricting access to these objects. Only someone who knows what they’re looking for will be able to see them or find them, this becoming akin to only those who are worthy can possess them. Maybe this is intentional on the end of the shop owner, wanting to make sure that there isn’t some negative reaction to what many might find an unsettling piece. But even this particular behavior is different from the often overwhelming display of items and clutter that can be found in most antique shops.
So is an antique shop haunted because of the items that it keeps, or do the items become haunted once they’ve gone to the antique shop? Something to explore in another blog in the future. It’s enough for now to understand that there is a connection between antique shops and the idea of haunted objects and spirit containers. This connection is something we will come back to because of the pop culture trope of the haunted antique shop in horror movies and sci-fi. The idea that many haunted objects in a single space can become hazardous, dangerous, or even deadly.
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