…In Time for Halloween : What Makes Victorian Houses look and feel Haunted?

Heck-Andrews House in Raleigh, North Carolina (Worldwide Public Domain)

The Heck-Andrews House in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As my hectic year draws to a close and I can soon pick up where I left off with my blog, I thought it appropriate to add a lovely guest post by author Stephanie Carroll. It is no secret that the purpose of the post is to add a certain flavour to any up and coming Halloween festivities, but both Stephanie and I agreed something should be said about how a particular era and its architectural styles project peculiar and eerie feelings for the viewer.

The focus of the piece is nineteenth-century US domestic architecture which had its origins in Europe, but came into its own across a fairly widespread area of the country with industrial expansion. Many of these styles exist in the UK, but a viewer (even with limited architectural knowledge) will quickly recognise the cultural differences. Reinforced by film and literature, there are certain architectural qualities which we today associate with certain emotional responses.

These are not country houses, but historic houses and are subject to care and conservation in the same way. For example, Stephanie has pinpointed the incredible Doyle-Mounce house, Hannibal, Missouri as a main influence on her writing. The image below comes from Dave’s Victorian House website which I say illustrates Stephanie’s piece perfectly.

hannibal09

The Doyle-Mounce house, Hannibal, Missouri (copyright David Taylor)

Stephanie Carroll is the author of Gothic Victorian novel, A White Room, a story inspired by Art Nouveau furniture and a house with a mixture of Gothic Revival and Second Empire characteristics called the Doyle-Mounce House. As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. She holds degrees in history and social science. Her key inspiration comes from authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).

Find Stephanie Carroll on FacebookTwitterGoodreads or on her website at www.stephaniecarroll.net. The blurb for A White Room follows the post. Enjoy!

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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 historical associations which make some Victorian houses scarier than others.

Architecture

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 represent refined prominence and achievement. There are probably some houses in these styles that one could say look creepy, but that is usually due to deterioration as opposed to the original appearance. The two types of Victorian houses that seemingly represent the quintessential 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 the medieval period, 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 into our minds as a symbol of something dreadful and sinister. Nineteenth-century writers developed this further within literature as the Gothic genre evolved new tactics for creating fear. Gothic Revival houses and mansions not only look reminiscent of the horror story castles, but they became a fundamental setting for Victorian Gothic literature. Recognizable symbols of Gothic literature still commonly populate modern day horror genres.

Second Empire architecture was 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. Victorian Second Empire houses are usually very large and ornate, with lots of floors and windows. They are styled in a box shape with mansard roofs and often include a foreboding tower as a focal point. 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.

Bates Motel Set from the movie Psycho at Universal Studio Hollywood CA (Worldwide Public Domain)

Interior Design

Victorian floor plans were designed so that each room came off a central hallway and but were closed off from other rooms. 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 intimate spaces, but 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 have 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.

1850 New York Parlor PD-US Published Prior to 1923

New York Parlour c. 1850 (Public Domain)

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 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 early twentieth century. 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 made use of by Shirley Jackson in her 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.

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.

History

Of course, the history of Victorian homes is what makes them seem quite eerie. 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.

Premature death was common during the Victorian Era. A large percentage of babies and children died as well as adults. New discoveries about death spurred even more questions than answers. It wasn’t clear if death occurred due to the heart stopping or the brain dying first or what triggered these things 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 as a result of an illness. Lack of clinical care and instead 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. Furthermore, the byproducts of the human body ceasing to function were experienced and cleaned by family members or by servants in an upper class home. Elaborate sets of traditions called Mourning Etiquette were a conspicuous response to the emotional upheaval of losing a family member. For those who could afford it, these traditions involved rather ostentatious 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. One Victorian tradition was the covering of mirrors with black sheaths because vanity was considered highly inappropriate; the more sorrowful and pitiful the face, the better. 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 deliberately 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 or sinister. Certain architectural styles have been manipulated to become 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.

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A White Room 600x900 by Jenny Q of Historical EditorialAbout A White Room by Stephanie Carroll.

At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family.

John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.

Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.

A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.

Links:

http://www.stephaniecarroll.net/

Stephanie Carroll at The Unhinged Historian http://unhingedhistorian.blogspot.co.uk/

Some fantastic images of Second Empire style architecture http://www.ontarioarchitecture.com/Second.htm#SecondEmpireEurope

National Park Service – National Register of Historic Places http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov/npsbrowse.do?thesaurusID=2&isnatreg=Y

Dave’s Victorian House Site (US) http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~infocom/scndempr/index.html

The Gothic Revival on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_Revival_architecture

Queen Anne Revival (US) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Anne_style_architecture_in_the_United_States

Architectural styles including Second Empire http://nookstowersandturrets.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/name-that-style-second-empire.html

The Psycho House/Bates Motel http://www.thepsychomovies.com/psychohouse/about.html

3 Comments

Filed under Architecture and Design, Book reviews, Non-British country houses

3 responses to “…In Time for Halloween : What Makes Victorian Houses look and feel Haunted?

  1. Stephen Pollock-Hill

    One of the best winter gothic haunted stories is a slim volume of 63 pages “Tales by Candlelight” by the Pulitzer prize winning author Edith Wharton, better known for “The Age of Innocence”. It is in fact two separate “ghost / supernatural” stories, beautifully crafted and matched…….

    “The Triumph of Night” is about a young man who arrives at a lonely snowbound train station for a new job as a personal secretary, but no one is at the station to greet him, He is rescued by the coachman and carriage of a neighbour who he realises is one of the richest men in turn of the century 1890-1900 America., but there is a mystery…..

    The second, “The Eyes” is about a men only dinner party where they discuss ghost stories and each recounts a supernatural event….but there is much more.
    In just 63 pages Wharton’s suspense and mastery of character ensnares, you, so much so that I have to read them each winter at least once!
    Two of eighty short stories you can buy these in a slim volume on their own
    published in the UK by The Parsimony Press Ltd (ISBN 1 902979 09 5and I dare you not to be alarmed if not thoroughly scared!
    I am sure a US edition exists also.
    I found it on the bookshelf of a Cheshire country house B&b and borrowed it to finish (I was to scared to read both, the same night), and sent it back to the house owner with humble apologies for packing it in my case. I then found my own copy!
    ,

    • I’m so glad you mentioned this, as I tried really hard to find a copy in time for posting Genre: The Haunted House many many weeks ago. I wanted to get a good quote, but failed miserably and looked elsewhere. I’m certainly grateful for the ISBN, as I do want so much to read ‘Tales by Candlelight’! I’m sure to be unnerved – that’s a guarantee!

  2. Oooooo, that sounds so good! I’m going to have to hunt a copy down myself. =) I found a couple books by Edith Wharton that have similar titles… wondering if they are new editions. One is “To Read by Candlelight” and the other “Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural) ”

    Stephanie Carroll

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