What Makes Victorian Houses Seem So Haunted?
This post was originally featuredon The Country House Reader. If you love neat houses, it's a must read!
How is it that some Victorian houses are the cutest darn things you’ve ever seen and some are right out of a Gothic horror story? It’s not as simple as adding dark colors. There are particular styles, cultural symbols, and history that makes some Victorian houses scarier than others.
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There are several different types of Victorian architecture. Some like Queen Anne houses, Greek-Revivals, and Italianates are really cute, usually painted in pastel colors, and representative of prominence and achievement. There are probably some houses in these styles that one could say look creepy, but it’s usually due to deterioration as opposed to the original appearance. The two types of Victorian houses that naturally represent a haunted house are designed in either the Gothic Revival or Second Empire styles.
Gothic Revivals are literally a throwback to the Gothic castles and churches of medieval times, and include steep or peeked rooftops, arches, pinnacles, and decorative ornamentation especially over and around windows. Arches were also popular for entryways, doorways, porches, windows, etc. Sometimes these types of houses will have a lot of height to them or may include a large tower.
The original Gothic horror stories were all set in or around decaying Gothic churches or castles from medieval times and the architectural style became a worldwide symbol of the horror genre. The look of Gothic architecture is culturally embedded in to our minds as symbols of fear. Gothic horror and Gothic literature developed further in the Victorian Era. Gothic Revival houses and mansions not only look reminiscent of the horror story castles, they became the setting for Victorian Gothic literature. Recognizable symbols of Gothic literature still commonly populate modern day horror genres.
Second Empire architecture w,as inspired by the reconstruction of Paris, France under the direction of Napoleon III who had much of the city torn down and rebuilt with wider roads and large elaborate buildings.
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Victorian Second Empire houses are usually very large and ornate, with lots of floors and windows. They are styled in a box shape with flat roofs and often times include a tall tower. Some people have said the squared levels and roofs make these houses resemble stacked boxes or a tiered cake. Second Empire houses have been used in twentieth century Halloween and horror movies including Psycho, The Adams Family, and Beetlejuice.
Victorian floor plans were designed so that each room came off of a central hallway and were closed off from other rooms by doors and walls. The small enclosed space was easier to heat. Unlike modern living rooms, dining rooms, and family rooms that are bright and open, Victorian common rooms were small, closed off, and often times dark because heat could escape easily through large windows. If a room did have windows, they would be covered with heavy velvet curtains that kept heat in during the winter. Although parlors and ballrooms needed to be larger to serve their purposes, most spaces in nineteenth century middle-class homes were smaller than modern day rooms.
It’s an almost universal fear to be trapped in a dark, cramped space, so Victorian rooms can easily be used to create a sense of unease, especially if the objects filling the space has the ability to send chills down a person’s spine.
Interior decoration during the Victorian Era was very ornamental, busy, and overbearing. It was also known for a mixture of old world, new world, and multi-cultural styles that created rooms designed like frantic and chaotic representations of the world and beasts that coexisted within it.
The most popular styles at the time included the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Anglo-Japanese Style, and the Aesthetic Movement. Although each of these styles contributed key characteristics to the creepy Victorian interior design, including the busyness, ornamental influences, and dark colors, none of these were as disturbing as the Art Nouveau Style.
The Art Nouveau style incorporated a lot of animal and human faces or body parts into the designs, such as in the “claw-footed” tub or a bedsteads with cherub faces carved into the wood. The style was also characterized by “whiplash” curves and twirling designs. The designers incorporated a life form or some kind of movement into nearly every piece. Art Nouveau furniture, jewelry, and decorations like statues, knick-knacks, mirrors, lamps, etc., were inspired by the world of nature.
There are also a lot of monsters and fantasy creatures like fairies, dragons, and gargoyles in Art Nouveau decoration. This is due to the fact that the movement was a type of rejection of the modernization, industrialization, and technological revolution of the late nineteenth and turn of the centuries. Some artists wanted to revert to the old world or a world without science where fairy tales and magical creatures ruled the world of fantasy not scientific discovery.
This type of furniture and decoration was used in the famous 1959 Gothic novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which was turned into the 1999 film The Haunting.
Art Nouveau is also a form of architecture but it wasn’t generally used to create houses. It was used to embellish parts of houses, such as stairwells, doors, archways, etc. Most Art Nouveau architecture came in the form of larger non-domestic buildings.
Of course, the history of Victorian homes is what makes them seem quite scary. It's common to feel like those who used to live in the house are present when surrounded by the historical objects that remind us how people lived and suffered in the home during this period in history.
Death was common during the Victorian Era. A large percentage of babies and children died as well as adults. It was an even more frightening thing than in the past as new discoveries about death spurred more questions than answers. It wasn’t clear if death occurred due the heart stopping or the brain dying and why these things occurred at all. This uncertainty led to societal fear that people could be misdiagnosed as dead and then buried or dissected alive.
Unlike modern times, death most commonly occurred within the home in result of an illness. Lack of medicine and the use of family members to care for the ill meant that all the messy and difficult parts of an illness were witnessed by the direct relatives. Further, the byproducts of the human body ceasing to function were experienced and cleaned by family members or by servants in an upper class home.
The Victorians were surrounded by so much death that they created an elaborate set of traditions called Mourning Etiquette in order to respond to it. These traditions involved elaborate funerals and burials as well as keeping memorabilia including post mortem photos, known as Memento Mori, and hair jewelry made with locks of hair from the deceased.
The home was prepared after a death to be a quiet, dark solitude of grief. Victorians would cover the mirrors with black sheaths because women were not supposed to partake in any kind of vanity during this time as they should look dreadful from weeping. Someone would drape a piece of black velvet over the portrait of the patriarch if he had passed. They would drape the family carriage with black velvet too. They also locked the piano because no one was to play any music, and there would be no dinner parties or festivities in the house for some time.
There were a variety of traditions to signal outsiders that the house was in mourning. Some people hung black wreaths on the door, or the family covered the doorknobs in white crepe for a child’s death or black crepe for an adult’s death. Markers like these signaled to visitors that they should prepare to speak quietly and quickly so they would not overtax or burden the bereaved. The family might also muffle the doorbell to prevent any loud noises, which would startle the already anxious nerves of those inside.
Many Victorian houses are quite cheery, but the ones that often times stand out in movies or literature are the ones that are less so. It's not just the age or decay that makes them so disturbing. Certain architectural styles are the symbols of our cultural fears, the interior layout and decoration can be quite fantastical, and the history of death in the home makes some Victorian houses just more haunting than others.
If you liked these creepy houses then you may also enjoy the creepy house in my novel A White Room.