Oct. 31, 2022

Killam award winner identifies connections between the haunted house and the sick body

Amy LeBlanc is researching the literary haunted house as a metaphor for disability and disease in the body
Amy LeBlanc
Connections between the house and the body are at the heart of Amy LeBlanc's research-creation project. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Think about the “haunted” part of a haunted house: it’s corrupting, it’s unsettling and it makes the house no longer feel like home.

Now think about a disease or a disability — it has a similar impact on a person’s body that the ghostly presence has on the haunted house.

The connection between the haunted house and the sick body lies at the heart of research being done by Amy LeBlanc, a doctoral student in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary.

“Getting diagnosed with an autoimmune disease a couple of years ago changed the way I viewed my body as a home,” says LeBlanc. “It’s supposed to be a space that’s stable, a space that will always do what you need it to do, and then one day it doesn’t.”

'Uncanny' connection between body and haunted house

A lover of haunted house literature, LeBlanc connected the uncanniness she was feeling with her own body to the experience of a fictional haunted house, a research project which has now earned her the Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarship, UCalgary’s pinnacle award for graduate studies.

“On first glance, they seem like two things that don’t necessarily line up,” she says. “But when you start digging into haunted house literature, there’s a lot of ways the house can be a metaphor for the body.”

LeBlanc says this is particularly the case with autoimmunity, where the body will start to attack itself and lose its stability in the same way a haunted house no longer feels like a home.

In a time where “more and more people are joining the ranks of the disabled,” or having their bodies turn against them due to the COVID-19 pandemic, LeBlanc says this research is also timely, particularly given the tropes of disability within genre fiction, which sees disability portrayed as grotesque or monstrous.

“I want to put the house and the body together to make some new metaphors that might be less harmful and more generative in a community way,” she says.

The house does not haunt itself, just as a body does not sicken itself. In both cases there is a haunting or sickening force that cause house and body to malfunction or break down.

“There are entire groups of people living with chronic illnesses or disabilities who don’t feel at home in their own bodies,” says LeBlanc.  

Novellas to probe relationship of house and body

LeBlanc will be probing these connections in a rather unique way. Under the supervision of another UCalgary haunted house expert, Dr. Suzette Mayr, PhD, LeBlanc plans on writing three novella-sized works of fiction.

“These will interconnect, like an anthology series in book form, where the house is the main character and people pass through it in different ways,” she says.

To be recognized with the Killam Doctoral Scholarship means a lot to LeBlanc, particularly since this research is personal to her and her experience with disability and illness.

“Amy’s research and creative work brings a fresh perspective to how we understand and interpret our own experiences of disease,” says Dr. Robin Yates, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies.

As with all our Killam laureates, Amy’s work addresses real-world concerns that will resonate with many people outside of the university community. 

On top of just being selected for the award, LeBlanc appreciated being selected for a work of genre fiction.

“Working within literary horror, it’s not always the side of studies in English or the side of creative writing that we really promote,” she says. “There’s a really big focus on literary fiction, so it’s quite exciting to do this work, with the support of Killam, and work within genre.”

With society dealing with a mass-disabling event like COVID-19, LeBlanc says it’s more important than ever to not rely on tropes or cliches of disability that have existed within the horror genre before.

“I’m hoping to get away from that and hoping to have disability be more normalized, and something that’s almost inevitable,” she says.

“Because, in life, it is inevitable. If you live long enough, your body will malfunction in some sort of way.”

The Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarship was established by the late Dorothy J. Killam in honour of her husband, Izaak Killam. The scholarship is awarded to doctoral students deemed likely to contribute to the advancement of learning or to win distinction in a profession and is worth $45,000 per year for two years.