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By Ali Byers March 24, 2015

Haunting In Cold Blood

This essay is part of a series entitled The American Gothic: A TRANS– Discourse. Click the link for a description of the series and links to all the essays.

The haunted house is a common motif in many Gothic texts—from the castles of Victorian England to the eerie homesteads of New England,. They tend to comprise a physical abnormality as well as a psychological manifestation reflected on the house by the main characters. In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood the Clutter house is not obviously haunted; there are no ghosts or secret passageways and the house is not built on sacred Native American ground. The haunting of this house is present but in the psyches of those that know its violent history. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith know the violence present in the house better than anyone because they are at the center of it however it affects the entire surrounding town as well.

The first glimpse we have of the house becoming more than just a site of horrific crime is when Perry tells Dick that ‘the only real regret I have –I wish the hell my sister had been in that house.” (Dick had laughed, and confessed to a similar yearning: ‘I keep thinking what fun if my second wife had been there. Her, and all her goddam family’)” (Capote 143).  This is the first time in the novel that the house is used as a physic space. Beforehand, the house was simply a building but here we see that the house, to Dick and Perry, has become a place where violence can feed off of itself and grow to monstrous proportions. Essentially, the house takes on the psychological aspects of the Gothic haunted house. The house becomes monstrous because of what it represents to Dick and Perry and to the rest of the town. 

A letter from his sister Barbara from April 28th, 1958 provokes Perry’s comment above (Capote 138-42). While the letter does not paint Perry in the best light and is at times condescending, it is still an attempt at reconciliation. Barbara wants to reach out to Perry to help him and consequently change him. This upsets Perry not because she believes there to be something wrong with him but because in the letter Barbara lists the achievements of her three children and her husband and consequently herself. Barbara is another reminder of Perry’s broken childhood and traumatic past. She is a reminder of how Perry was the result of an unfair world where some children get a loving home and others get an alcoholic mother and an absent father. She is everything Perry should be according to American society. Because of this she is seen as a threat to Perry and he feels the only way to be rid of said threat is to kill her. 

Perry has good reason to feel as though he as been treated unfairly and to feel as though the American Dream, and it’s consequent ideals surrounding houses and the home, has failed him. Any semblance of a home he ever had has been destroyed. He had a somewhat happy childhood until his parents “fought, and Flo ‘took to the whisky’” (Capote 131). After that Perry found himself living with nuns where, he recalls, “the Black Widows were always at me. Hitting me” (Capote 31). After that he went to live with his father where things improved a little but even that ended in violence as Perry tried to strangle his own father (Capote 136). Therefore, we see that every time Perry had any sort of home it ended in disappointment and more often than not, violence. This skews his idea of the house and what inhabits it. Perry sees violence, fear, and a lack of control where most people see a house full of love and security. 

As Capote renders it, the near-perfection image of the Clutter family was unbearable to Dick and Perry and only became worse and worse as the collision of the two opposing sides of the American Dream meet. Dick and Perry are the perfect example of how the American Dream can ruin people whereas the Clutters are the picture of the successful pursuit of happiness that is so ingrained in American society. Dick and Perry however know that life was unfair and wanted to show the Clutters this and did so in the worst manner possible, by killing them in cold blood. When asked how much the killers gained from the murder-robbery Perry responds, “between forty and fifty dollars” (Capote 246). The Clutters were not killed for their money. They were killed for their lives; their lives that revolved around their house, which was filled with Dick and Perry’s deepest insecurities, fears, and inadequacies.

By using the Clutter house to resolve their own feelings of inadequacy and alienation, Dick and Perry also project those fears onto every house in Holcomb. The crime not only affects the killers and obviously the family but it affects every single person in the town. The owner of the hardware store in Holcomb says, “Locks and bolts are the fastest-going item” to show that the inhabitants are projecting their fears of the so-called criminal element onto their homes; by locking their homes they are effectively locking themselves away from the worst side of the American Dream (Capote 88). Capote describes the town as eerily alert:  “windows ablaze, almost every window in almost every house, and, in the brightly lit room, fully clothed people, even entire families, who sat the whole night wide awake, watchful, listening” (Capote 88). The inhabitants of the town, while not a part of the crime physically are mentally and psychologically implicated because of random nature of the crime and its seeming senselessness. The killers came from within their world.

They keep the lights on and lock up their houses to keep the crime away however, when it comes time to auction off all of the items inside the Clutter house the entire town wants a piece.

The underlying violence resulting from the destruction or failure of the American Dream haunts the ideals of the home that are so present in the novel and society today. The ideals of the American Dream mean that someone must be left behind. Capote shows how those left behind will always be there despite being marginalized. These individuals cannot be left in the dark forever; eventually they will come back and release their own long-repressed feelings of resentment and inadequacy upon the world around them. The world that was so cruel to them. Said outbursts of violence are often seen as isolated and yet they result from years of violence brewing within the house and the home. These incidents are reminders of how close crime can be; it is inside everyone. It born in our homes and there it grows until it explodes.  The crime may last seconds, but the haunting is forever. 

About the author

Ali Byers is a first year environmental studies student who took Reflections as a way to deepen her understanding of literature. She is currently preparing for a six week internship in Mexico centred around sustainability.

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