Yesterday I read a very interesting but flawed argument in Slate magazine about the origin of haunted houses. Timed to the upcoming Halloween festivities, the article is an excerpt from the new book Ghostland by Colin Dickey, and I disagree with his evaluation of where haunted houses come from, pretty much wholesale. And as somebody who literally wrote the book on the horror genre, I have more than a little experience with the sources from which Dickey draws his argument.
According to Dickey, haunted houses are the product of unusual architecture that does not conform to our expectations about what a “normal” house should look like. To that end, he suggests that the haunted house is one that is aesthetically “wrong,” meaning that it violates that traditional language of architecture or the traditional rules of home design. Consequently, he believes that McMansions, with their unstable floor plans and irregular application slapdash and random architectural embellishments, are prime locations for a new locus of hauntings.
To support this argument, Dickey turns to horror literature. He cites Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (1851), which contains the seven titular gables and a garbled architecture born of its remodeling and reuse over the years. He then cites Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), in which the title house seems to have a “wild inconsistency.” To these he adds Hill House, from Shirley Jackson’s masterful Haunting of Hill House (1959), whose angles were all off-kilter, and finally the McMansion from the 2009 movie Paranormal Activity, whose exterior is never seen in the film but which nevertheless is for Dickey unbalanced and ugly.
What is this connection between odd constructions and ghosts? Perhaps it’s because these strange buildings defy common sense and time-honed principles, creating in us a sense of unease that’s hard to name. The principles of architecture—the ones so readily abused by McMansions—didn’t appear overnight; they emerged from centuries of use and tradition. They reflect how we move through houses and how we are most comfortable in them. They maximize the kinds of spaces where we feel most at home, organized around layouts that facilitate ease of use and movement.
Dickey is partially correct here: Odd angles can be disturbing. H. P. Lovecraft used them in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” to suggest cosmic horror, and they define the unsettling architecture of the Old Ones in “The Cal of Cthulhu.” But notice that Dickey elides his point—moving seamlessly from artistic representations of haunted houses to real-world beliefs about haunted houses—all without acknowledging the change from fiction to fact.
As someone who has read more than his fair share of ghost stories, several problems immediately jumped out at me. First, the stories that Dickey chose from literature are examples of psychological horror rather than explicitly supernatural horror. As a result, the odd buildings in which they occur externalize the imbalance within the characters. The houses are not haunted because they are ugly but rather they are imbalanced because they reflect the mental instability of the people inhabiting them. Therefore, these stories cannot be said to represent what people outside of the psychological horror subgenre would consider to be a prototypical haunted house.
To evaluate Dickey’s claims, we need to look at what regular folk imagine haunted houses to be, not one small fraction of horror literature. Here we find that there is simply no connection between asymmetrical or architecturally unbalanced constructions and hauntings. In the real world, anything old, decrepit, or associated with negative events or feelings can become a haunted site. Even in the broader world of the media, there is a wide range of haunted house types, or at least there used to be.
If I asked you to imagine a haunted house, the chances are pretty good that as a Western individual exposed to media messages for your whole life, you pictured a Second Empire-style Victorian with a central tower, arched windows and a mansard roof. This is because Hollywood decided this was what a “scary” house looked like in the middle twentieth century. It was one of several options bandied about in the 1930s and 1940s—alongside expressionist-tinged modernism and historical “old dark” houses, like those of The Old Dark Houses (1932) and The Uninvited (1944). In turn, the Victorian version was canonized by the aesthetic choices Alfred Hitchcock made in his psychological horror movie Psycho, drawing on the Second Empire manse occupied by the gruesome Family in the Charles Addams cartoons of the 1940s. The Psycho House, as Hitchcock’s set became known, appeared in so many productions of the 1960s and 1970s—everything from Boris Karloff’s Thriller to the Western Laramie to Rod Serling’s Night Gallery—that it became synonymous with horror. Indeed, when The Old Dark House (1932) was remade in 1963, Charles Addams designed the new Second Empire home that replaced the original’s vaguely Romanesque design.
Ironically enough, even though Psycho and the Addams Family were not ghost stories, their aesthetic ended up defining the modern ghost genre thanks to some complex interweaving that occurred during the 1960s “monster craze,” too complex to get into here. Suffice it to say that all of these expressions were efforts to translate the hauntings of the European strain of Gothic literature, which centered its ghosts in medieval castles, into an American idiom. We don’t have castles, but we have Victorian castle-like mansions and Hollywood fabricated Universal’s so-called “Deco Gothic” to create modernist castles for movies like Frankenstein.
By the middle 1960s, the Second Empire Victorian house was the most widespread popular depiction of a haunted house in pop culture, in Halloween decorations and cartoons and movie comedies. What’s interesting is to look at the difference between haunted houses before and after the influence of Psycho, The Addams Family, and The Munsters, all of which used Victorian architecture to suggest a violation of midcentury social norms. Compare, for example, two media products based on the same idea. In 1963, right before the Psycho influence had bled into pop culture, the Andy Griffith Show did an episode called “Haunted House,” which depicted the aforementioned haunted house as an early nineteenth century farmhouse in a rather plain style. This episode was expanded into The Ghost and Mister Chicken in 1966, at which time the house became a Second Empire-style Victorian mansion, the so-called “Simmons Mansion” or “Harvey House” on the Universal lot. (It was one of the Desperate Housewives’ homes in a later incarnation.) Consider, too, the last great haunted house movie before the canonization of the Psycho house: The House on Haunted Hill (1959). This haunted house was, of all things, done in Mayan Revival style!
I’ll grant you that that one certainly conforms to Dickey’s idea of unusual architecture.
It should, I hope, be obvious the idea of the Second Empire haunted house is a recent conception. The Victorian style was itself a locus of horror (and, conversely, Yuletide nostalgia) because after World War I, it became associated with a lost era, one that was simultaneously a reflection of an idealized past and a reminder of the horrific decay of that vanished world. During the 1920s, the Victorian Neo-Gothic and Queen Anne styles were decisively rejected as the antithesis of the modern, and during the Depression, few could afford to keep up the ramshackle Victorian homes, leaving them to decay or to be cut up into skid row housing for the lower classes. Consider an early example that crossed the Halloween-Yuletide divide: the old Second Empire Victorian in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is widely considered a “haunted” house in its ramshackle state, but after George Bailey restores it, it becomes a Yuletide haven.
The long and short of it, though, is that Victorian houses of the Second Empire and Queen Anne style are not unbalanced, usually not unduly asymmetrical, and more or less conform to the traditional language of architecture and home design. Worse, for the Victorians, haunted houses were dilapidated old colonial constructions, often in the Federalist style, which were if anything even more symmetrical and regular in form. We don’t think of them as scary because the colonial revival style of the 1920s, which made up most of the housing stock after World War II due to limited construction in the Depression and War years, became the style depicted on TV sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, and The Donna Reed Show, canonizing it as what we think of as a “house.”
I could go into Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime and beautiful, and how the elements that Dickey identifies as “unbalanced” and therefore figuratively haunted are some of the same that Burke identified as taking us outside of the normal world to induce a feeling of terror. But I think I’ll keep the point simpler: Every generation remakes haunted houses in the shape of the recent and vanished past, diabolizing that which is just outside of living human memory, the time when gods and monsters walked the Earth. Fifty years after the Victorians, their ruins had become “haunted.” The only reason we don’t do the same with our ruins is because the media froze this folkloric process in time—and also because midcentury tract houses are both too humble to serve as substitute castles and are still in use in a way that Victorian mansions were not at a similar point in their lives.
To that end, I can certainly imagine the McMansion becoming the new haunted house, and on that point I will agree with Dickey—if any of those foam and clapboard piles survive fifty or a hundred years to become frightening ruins of a forgotten age.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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