Tag Archives: Gothic

…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

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

Genre: The Haunted House

The Ash Tree Illustration by George Chastain

The Ash Tree illustration by George Chastain (The Twilight Zone 1981)

‘… there were no more mysterious occurrences … no rings on the bells, no raps, no footsteps, no more curious incidences of any kind. The house continued to … “behave itself” ‘.             (The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, p. 386)

After a lapse of a few weeks, I have finally been able to return to the literary country house. My last post on this topic is here, and concerned the country house poem. Here the focus is how the country house can play host to something more supernatural and chilling, and ultimately more claustrophobic.

In an article for The New Statesman (2011), John O’Connell identified the country house genre as two distinct groups; the Gothic (the focus here) and the social.  This article is now exclusively for subscribers, but the overview is given by John Lucas in The Guardian from February 2011. Lucas himself states, ‘It’s dramatically useful to be able to force characters together in a physical space where they have little choice but to interact with each other. In this sense, the country house functions in much the same way as a pub in a soap opera.’ Yet the Gothic and the social country house did not just appear from nothing. There is certainly something which links the steady move towards privacy for landowners and their families, Acts of Enclosure, and extensive landscaping which suggests that the house itself became ever more remote and mysterious during the eighteenth century.

Of course the Gothic setting may not even be a country house. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778), and Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) all play out within murky castle walls. Indeed Gothic originally implied medieval, but by the end of the eighteenth century its meaning had altered to incorporate the purely macabre, eerie and supernatural. The medieval element was not always important.

How the country house setting fits into the Gothic model is complex, and is as much the backdrop as it is a character. This is not about whether ghosts or the supernatural are real, but often about social commentary and the psychological and physical threats posed by others. For example the artificial relationships set out by the class system and patriarchal dominance, the paranoia of rightful inheritance, tyrannical masters seeking sexual deviance, or the consequences of inbreeding. Add to these the architectural decay of a world that once thrived or the intrigue of an ill-fated inhabitant brought to an early demise through murder or suicide and the scene is set for monsters and ghouls stepping forth to tell their tales.

The haunted house may simply be the desolate detached thing at the end of the road. Yet the country house (big or small) provides the writer with a greater variety of space, of past opulence, of dysfunctional families and their struggle to uphold pride and lineage. The dark corners, damp basement passageways and dusty attics are all places for secreting horrifyingly disfigured relations, ancestral sins, or discarded womenfolk.

Front cover for the Turn of the Screw, making use of an typically ethereal painting by Atkinson Grimshaw.

Front cover for the Turn of the Screw, making use of an typically ethereal painting by Atkinson Grimshaw.

Key authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would certainly include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839),  Charles Dickens et al., The Haunted House (1859), J. S. Le Fanu, ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’ (1870), Charlotte Riddell, The Haunted House at Latchford (1872), Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898), and M. R. James, ‘The Ash Tree’ (1904). All of these have different tales to tell, but the techniques are similar wherever you look. Ultimately, the haunted house is the static setting into which one or more characters are introduced in order to relate the tale to us as the readers. The madness and hysteria may have already existed before their mediation like in H. P. Lovecraft’s, The Rats in the Walls (1924). On the other hand this new character or characters may or may not be the trigger for the haunting as in the genre’s present day revival like Sarah Waters’s, The Little Stranger (2009).

Front cover for The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (first published 2009)

Front cover for The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (first published 2009)

M. R. James does not use this technique in ‘The Ash Tree’, but instead has his narrator pass on the tale as though it were stuff of legend or folklore. Yet, this too is common, especially in short stories. The period setting is therefore important and may be familiar to the reader. Supernatural suspense in the protagonist’s own present or recent past for example  might be provided by a tortured spirit, often with a message from the grave like in the late James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006) or even Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983). Also common is the retelling by the main character of their version of events (usually by firelight) to a contemporary audience.

The role of the haunted house has never really changed dramatically in literature over time, but it has seen a handful of revivals. The country house as haunted house however does not fit obviously into the social changes occurring simultaneously.  The interwar years see little production of ghostly tales, as the country house at that time became the social house model as noted by John O’Connell. Presumably this might have more to do with a dismissal of all things Victorian rather than a severe dislike of the supernatural tale itself. Moreover, demolition of the country house in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s does not seem to impact too heavily on the genre.

As a child I was probably reading haunted house stories produced during a wave of interest in Victoriana and past opulence in children’s literature. Many of my favourite authors like Robert Westall, Philippa Pearce and  Helen Cresswell knew how to twist the fate of an old mansion. Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) for one, is as much about a fantasy world as it is about the dismantling of a golden era. Today’s revival has been a few years in the making, but there is a wealth of novels and short stories to examine further. Perhaps the accessibility of the country house has aided this fascination; the layers of history witnessed in the blocked up doorways and windows, glistening mirrors that once held someone’s reflection, creaking floorboards, the maze of passageways, empty beds, and unnamed portraits…

Still from the 20 film of The Woman in Black (Cotter Hall)

Still from the 2012 film of The Woman in Black (Cotterstock Hall, Northamptonshire)

References and further reading:

John Boyne, This House is Haunted (2013)

E. J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction (1995)

J. S. Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly (1872)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (2000)

Peter Haining, The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories (2005)

James Herbert, Haunted (1988)

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

P. J. Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914 (2012 ?)

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986)

J. B. Priestley, Benighted (1927)

John Sullivan, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From Le Fanu To Blackwood (1978) and Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories (1983)

Robert Westall, Ghost Abbey (new edition 2011)

Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (first published 1887)

Links:

The Ghost Story on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_story

The Gothic literary genre on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_fiction

Haunted Country Houses in Country Life Magazine http://www.countrylife.co.uk/countryside/pursuits/article/153019/Top-10-haunted-country-houses.html

University of Sheffield, School of English course Literature of the English Country House http://soeblog.group.shef.ac.uk/mooc/

And last but not least, Horror Film Haunted Houses http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/2009/03/sense-of-wonder-hollywoods-most-haunted-houses/

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