Why we love (and hate) our basements

A house’s downstairs adds mystery on a whole other level

By Steve Almond
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2010

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I lived in a basement once. This was in El Paso. I was convinced to sign the lease by a pair of sexy twins, one of whom owned the building. Moving in, they implied, would secure me their friendship. This was just a few months after I graduated from college with a degree in Suburban Gullibility.

If the stone hearth exists in American domestic mythology as a warm, public face, the basement is its evil twin — a dank and private space reserved for dark deeds (or, as last month’s epic rains showed, a new place to practice your backstroke).

The basement where I lived was, shall we say, rustic. The bathroom had no door. In the winter, giant hot water pipes that ran overhead gurgled and burped through the night, raising the temperature in my apartment to the low 90s. But what really depressed me was the lighting, a kind of sickly fluorescent glare.

There were only two windows in the whole place, tiny squares through which I could spy the legs of passersby on the sidewalk outside. Toward dusk, the sun lanced through the eastern-facing window and often I would stand in that shaft of light and remain very still, like a lizard.

This living arrangement lasted long enough to confirm my basic conviction that human beings were not meant to live underground.

Indeed, if you are living in a basement, chances are something bad has happened. You have been evicted from your previous residence, for instance. Or you are hiding from law enforcement officials. Or an atomic weapon has been dropped on your city. One way or another, you have been forced to go underground.

The irony of all this is that the establishment of the basement as a habitable space stands as a powerful symbol of American prosperity. It was only the proliferation of large, affordable suburban homes in the 1950s that ushered in the basement era. Previous to that, subterranean rooms were reserved for storage (think root cellars), servants (think scullery maids) or, more rarely, imprisonment (think dungeons).

My pal Pete converted his Weston basement into the ultimate man cave, with lush carpeting, pool table, large-screen TV, and autographed photos of Boston sports heroes. Our mutual friend Dave created what he calls his “downstairs lair’’ (poker table, mini-theater, wet bar), a monument to regressive pleasures.

In fact, by its very nature — covert, soundproofed — the basement is the ideal setting for adolescent indiscretion. Like most other kids I know, my first game of spin the bottle took place in a basement, as did most of my teenage pot use. And when a buddy named Brent famously acquired an actual pornographic film, you can just guess where it was screened.

My wife has a special fondness for basements dating back to her own teenage years, three of which she spent in the basement of her friend Tracy’s house. “It was awesome,’’ she told me, a bit wistfully. “We had a band room down there. We smoked cigarettes and talked all night and spilled ashtrays on the rug. We threw parties. It was a total sty, but we loved it.’’

The correlation between creative productivity and basements has been cited by no less an authority than Bob Dylan, who produced his “Basement Tapes’’ while recovering from a 1966 motorcycle accident: “That’s really the way to do a recording — in a peaceful, relaxed setting — in somebody’s basement.’’

And yet, despite its obvious appeal to rock stars, delinquent teens, and suburban dads, the basement still occupies a distinctly sinister place in the popular imagination. It’s no mistake that the climactic scene from “The Silence of the Lambs’’ features rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) blindly staggering through the basement of mass murderer Buffalo Bill. Nor that the most harrowing scene of “Pulp Fiction’’ is set in a pawnshop basement.

These Hollywood fantasies arise from, and tend to reinforce, our preexisting sense of basements as somehow illicit.

Yet even though real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy buried no fewer than 26 of his victims in the crawl space of his suburban Chicago basement, for most homeowners, the horrors of the basement are decidedly more mundane. We have to contend with mold infestations, blown fuses, and balky furnaces. When something goes wrong upstairs, chances are the remedy will require a trip downstairs.

Here in New England, where much of the masonry dates back to days of yore, the central fear is flooding. During the record rains of March my friend Zach had his sump pump running full bore for days.

My wife and I have been lucky. The folks who owned our house before us did a great job of converting the basement into a playroom. It was a big reason we bought the house. But I find we use the playroom a lot less than we thought we would. It’s something about the lack of natural light, I suppose. And the proximity to our ancient furnace, which I tend to fear will spontaneously explode.

I especially hate heading down to the basement in the middle of the night — as I must when the heat goes out, or my wife hears a “funny noise.’’ Even with the lights on, I tend to get freaked out.

It is when this happens that I take a deep breath and tell myself the one thing that actually helps: Hey, it could be worse; you could be living down here.

Steve Almond’s new book is “ Rock & Roll Will Save Your Life.’’