Architecture – Close your eyes and picture a haunted house. Have you imagined a lonely and neglected wooden building with towers and turrets, a front porch, and a steep roof with dormer windows? You imagined the Victorian haunted house.
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They generally sit on a hill or at the edge of an idyllic neighbourhood. Isolated, imposing, empty, and in ruins. They bear an ominous dark aura, hide disquieting secrets and tell of a mysterious bygone past marred by unspoken dread. Why are they so popular in movies, comics, and tv series? The answer begins at the end of the XIX century under the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, a prosperous time known as The Gilded Age.
FROM A SYMBOL OF WEALTH TO A SYMBOL OF DREAD
During the Gilded Age, in the US, a new generation of rampant entrepreneurs yearning to show off their wealth erected pompous mansions emulating the grandeur of European architecture. Doric columns, bold Gothic elements, intricate woodwork, and French-style roofs were some of the key architectural features of the nouveau riches’ homes. Alas, nothing is forever.
After World War I (1914-1918), America’s vision for progress, success, and innovation paved the way for modern architecture: no-frills, minimalistic, light-filled, and functional. The Victorian style became synonymous with an antiquated, grotesque, and ostentatious lifestyle. The mansions’ owners moved on, and people began to tell stories of ghosts haunting the empty houses.
In 1925 artist Edward Hopper painted The House by the Railroad, capturing the unsettling and unwelcome presence of these abandoned buildings. Furthermore, during the Great Depression in the ’30s, Victorian mansions became boarding houses for the working class. Tile by tile, piece by piece, the original grandeur decayed and eroded.
MORTICIA, GOMEZ, AND THE BIRTH OF AN ICON
In 1938, The New Yorker’s cartoonist Charles Addams introduced to the world The Addams Family. The mansion where the quirky clan lived established the iconography of the spooky Victorian haunted house we all know today. A myth was born.
The fictional Addams Family may have listed their address at 001 Cemetery Lane. Still, the original Addams Family house from the iconic 1964 TV series was once located in Los Angeles, at 21 Chester Place. Initially designed in 1887 for Henry Gregory Newhall, it is now almost unrecognizable.
PSYCHO BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Edward Hopper’s House by the railway inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Bates manor in Psycho, 1960. As the filmmaker described it, the house on the hill is “an old house that is, if I might say so, a little more sinister-looking, less sinister than the (Bates) motel itself. Let’s go inside. [He walks through the door] You see, even in daylight, this place still looks a bit sinister.”
Hitchcock contributed enormously to building the Victorian haunted house iconography. Independently produced and financed by the filmmaker, the low-budget movie (only $807.000) was shot in ten weeks. The actual building did not exist; it consisted of just the left wall and the front of the house. The other two sides of the building were completed in the late ’60s and the ’80s and had been traveling to different locations.
THE CINEMATIC RISE OF THE VICTORIAN HAUNTED HOUSE
From the late ’50s on, more and more horror movies were set in Victorian haunted architecture and interiors. Set in Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist Ennis House in Los Feliz, California (1924), the House on Haunted Hill (1959) by William Castle features a mix and match of different styles, including 1890s narrow Victorian corridors, dark furniture, gas chandeliers, and sconces. The Haunting by Robert Wise (1963) depicts the experiences of a small group of people invited by a paranormal investigator to investigate a purportedly haunted house. Different plots but with the exact mechanisms recur in Haunting on Hill House (1999) and Netflix’s series Haunting (2018). A Victorian mansion is the set of Murder by Death by Robert More (1976); the whodunit comedy mocks’ unsolvable’ crime novels from Agatha Christie to noir detective stories.
Crimson Peak by Guillermo del Toro (2015) features one of the most spectacular and twisting interiors curated to the finest detail. The filmmaker was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad. “He liked the loneliness of it,” says production designer Tom Sanders. “It wasn’t anywhere near the scale of the kind of house we wanted, but it had a feeling about it.”
HOUSES FOR HAUNTED GHOSTS*
Impossible, not to mention Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Set in an isolated Victorian house on the top of a hill, and even in a building’s model, the movie reverses the usual point of view. Indeed, the house is haunted… by unscrupulous people who aim to turn it into a tourist attraction and profit from the resident ghosts’ presence.
The same – but definitively scarier – perspective is the crucial mystery of The Others by Alejandro Amenabar (2001). The thriller movie is set in a lonely mansion enveloped by fog. The family inhabiting it is haunted by poltergeist-like presences and a great mystery. The movie is set at Palacio de Los Hornillos in Las Fraguas, Spain. Even if the building is not Victorian, it clearly recalls the dark archetype.
Recent movies, cartoons, and TV series pay tribute to the Victorian haunted house. In the Wednesday is missing episode Scooby-Doo and its gang celebrate and visits the Addams Family mansion. In the latest It by Andrés Muschietti (2017), the evil clown’s home at the movie’s end rots alone at the edge of a quiet neighbourhood. The Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris was inspired by the Bates manor in Psycho. Let’s not forget the Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation in Maine, US, a Victorian mansion, home to the famed horror novelist, with wrought-iron bats & spiders on the gate.
Egon Spengler’s neglected farmhouse is the real star of Ghostbusters: Afterlife by Jason Reitman (2021). Production designer François Audouy studied the architecture of Queen Anne-style homes built in the Midwest. Victorian architecture, countryside, and iconic Cadillacs in a barn.
The final battle of the fourth season of Stranger Things (2022) is set in the villain Vecna’s former house. The whole building is a real Victorian house and former b&b built in 1882 and located in Rome, Georgia, US. The towers, the front porch, the advanced state of decay, all the ingredients are there in plain sight and even exasperated in its parallel dimension.