Architecture of Fear – the Victorian Haunted House

How did the Victorians’ opulent, affluent homes become an international shorthand for haunted house?

Haunted House or Abandoned Victorian Mansion Chateau Notenboom or Hof van Notenboom in Belgium

Abandoned Victorian Mansion Chateau Notenboom or Hof van Notenboom in Belgium

As art historian Sarah Burns points out, in the 1870s, Victorian houses weren’t horror homes. They were just…houses.

If you call up an image of the typical haunted mansion, it’s probably : Mansard roofs, steep, craggy gables, Gothic pillars, and cavernous verandas.

What we’re actually describing is a more-or-less Victorian style of architecture called French second Empire (also known as the Mansard or “General Grant”).

These flashy gables, towers, and gingerbread were the mcMansions of the late 19th century.

By the early twentieth century, all things “Victorian” had fallen out of style. In a big way.

Victorian architecture was decried as the “ugliness and folly” of the new rich; it was an “abyss of taste” that spawned “wooden monstrosities”.  

Artists like Edward Hopper (House by the Railroad) and Charles Ephraim Burchfield (The House of Mystery) began painting abandoned Victorian houses, steeping them in pervasive creepiness.

The foreboding houses in Psycho, The Adams Family, and Beetlejuice are all in the French Second Empire style.

It’s hard to pinpoint “the” defining moment. Was pop culture inspired by our fear of Victorian mansions or did pop culture teach us to be creeped out by Victorian mansions?

In an apt example of chicken-or-egg, the Disney Haunted mansion was first designed by Walt Disney’s Imagineers. Alfred Hitchcock, who was a friend of Walt’s, apparently visited to find ideas for his Psycho haunted house.

The two houses could, and have been, mistaken for each other.

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“See without being seen, and eat without being eaten”

From an evolutionary point of view, people like places where we “can see without being seen, and eat without being eaten”.

British geographer Jay Appleton described how the more “prospect” and “refuge” a place offers us, the more attractive it is.

Refuge means having a secure, protected place to hide where one can be sheltered from danger, while prospect refers to a clear, unobstructed view of the landscape.

Unfortunately, a Victorian mansion or haunted house is the opposite. They offer very low prospect for us, and lots of dimly lit crevices for the creepy-crawly things that are (no doubt) lying in wait.

Research has shown that we these environments make us feel helpless and vulnerable.

Home is where the horror is

Of course, the history of Victorian homes is what makes them seem so unsettling.

In London, in 1830, the average lifespan for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for tradesman and 22 for laborers.

Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age.

No wonder that the Victorians developed a strict culture of death and mourning.

Mourning etiquette, for those who could afford it, involved ostentatious funerals, and rather fetishistic memorabilia from post mortem photos to jewelry made with locks of hair from the deceased.

Queen Victoria herself set the morbid tone by mourning the death of her husband, Prince Albert, for 40 years — dressing in black every day and keeping their home exactly as it was the day he died.

Widows were expected to spend two and a half years proceeding through three stages of mourning — deep mourning, full or second mourning, and half mourning — each with its own fashion requirements and restrictions on behavior.

The “weeping veil,” of deep mourning allowed one to “weep with propriety,” as the women’s magazine M’me Demorest’s Quarterly Mirror of Fashions put it in 1862.

(These veils could also cause skin irritation, respiratory illness, blindness, and even death.)

Victorians were questioning how to determine when an individual actually had died.

There were documented cases of people coming back to life even after their heart’s had stopped beating and they had stopped breathing.

Being buried alive became such a huge fear among the public that Victorians increased the time prior to burial to confirm that the corpse did in fact begin to decay.

Some buried the dead with a string attached to a bell above ground and assigned a death watch, so that if a person woke up in a coffin, he or she could ring the bell for help.

Records shows that no bell ever rang.

There was a variety of traditions to prepare a home after a death : mirrors were covered with black sheaths; the family carriage was draped with black velvet; door knobs were dressed in black crepe for a child’s death or black for an adult’s death.

“Strange, beautiful, schizophrenic house”

“We scouted for months, and then finally found that house nestled in the woods in the middle of nowhere Georgia. It had no business being there. It was such a strange, beautiful, schizophrenic house. …”

-Director Mike Flanagan on the Haunting of Hill House

Unlike the modern preoccupation with light and open plan spaces, most nineteenth century middle-class rooms were small and intimate.

If a room did have windows, they would probably be covered with heavy velvet curtains that keep heat in during the winter and protected rugs and furniture from being bleached by the sun.

In 1859, one magazine was reminding its readers that:

“too much light is injurious to the objects on which it falls. Every one knows that curtains and carpets are faded by the sun; it is desirable, therefore, to have the means of shutting out the light, and this we can do satisfactorily by means of different kinds of blinds and curtains.”

Interior design during the Victorian era was quite heavy-handed, ornate, and overblown.

The popular Art Nouveau style absorbed a lot of animal and human faces or body parts into the designs, such as in the ‘claw-footed’ tub or bedsteads with cherub faces carved into the wood.

For the full Art Nouveau experience, add a dash of  ‘whiplash’ curves and twirling designs and a complement of monsters and fantasy creatures like fairies, dragons, and gargoyles.

The haunted house furniture and decoration was practically a character in the 1959 Gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House, which has since been adapted for film twice; in 1963 and 1999, both under the shortened title of The Haunting.

And now of course in the Haunting of Hill House.

Maybe our clean, bright streamlined homes will be the glass and steel haunted house of the future. Ex Machina and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – even Twilight – feature their most shadowy characters in floor-to-ceiling glass houses.

As Mary Jo Bowling from Curbed put it very well:

“Victorians in their age, they were very proud of their homes. They would have never thought this is spooky. But then the pendulum swings. So the things that we really cherish today, the clean, minimal lines of modernism, that could be looked at as cold, brutal and frightening in a later age.”

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