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1x04 | Origins of the Haunted Mansion

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a haunted house, chances are you would think of a Victorian mansion. Why is that? Victorian architecture, especially from America’s Gilded Age is a visual shorthand for spookiness and hauntings. We see the Victorian façade and immediately know something isn’t quite right. So how did this come to be? I’ll explain.

My name is Lenore and I’m the Victorienne.

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If you read the Gothic literature of European writers, you’re more likely to find a story set in an old, decaying castle rather than in a regular home. Of course, in America, we don’t have centuries-old castles, so our Gothic stories need a different setting. Conveniently, the architecture of the Victorian era was largely inspired by Gothic architecture of the middle ages, so American writers didn’t need to look far for their castle substitute. 

There are multiple types of Victorian architecture, like the Queen Anne style, or the Romanesque style, but the one most associated with the archetypal haunted house is the Second Empire style. Its signature mansard roof was inspired by French architecture and it was the design of choice for the nouveau riche of America. This was especially so in the more prosperous northern cities during the Gilded Age that followed the American Civil War. The second empire’s ornate style was meant to show off wealth and its Gothic-inspired elements were meant to be impressive and imposing to show that a family was important. This can be seen in the turrets, towers, and balconies that so many of those homes have.

While this Victorian architecture was supposed to show off prosperity, it could have a very dark, depressing look to it. Some houses had superstitious, death-related symbolism both inside and out, like decorative urns or carvings of Medusa meant to ward off evil. The houses’ tall, narrow windows didn’t let much light inside, but that was actually preferred. Indoors, the windows were hidden by heavy drapes to block out the sun so it wouldn’t damage the expensive, difficult-to-maintain furniture. The Victorians wanted to show off their wealth not just in the outer architectural style of their homes, but also inside with the furniture they chose and rooms cluttered with items they were proud of being able to buy. Today’s minimalism would’ve seemed ridiculous to them. What was the point of having money if you couldn’t show it off in every possible way?

That kind of conspicuous consumption did end up going out of style in the early 20th century. The first world war broke out, then the Great Depression hit, and American values changed. Victorian homes came to be associated with the excesses and inequality of the Gilded Age, and the new designs were more open with natural light. 

Besides Victorian homes just going out of style, some of them fell into disrepair. The houses were more expensive to clean and maintain and they weren’t always wired for electricity, so they weren’t all that desirable. During the Great Depression, scores of Victorian homes were abandoned after their original owners died. Their children either couldn’t afford the upkeep or just didn’t think it was worth it and then had trouble getting anyone else to buy the house. 

Images of decaying Victorian homes mixed with people’s attitudes toward that bygone era to create the collective idea of an old, haunted house. The first notable example of this is Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting "House by the Railroad" which depicts a dark, empty Victorian home sitting alone by railway tracks. It’s a visual representation of how Americans had come to see Victorian houses and their decline. The painting was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s inspirations when he was designing the ominous home of Norman Bates in his 1960 horror film "Psycho".

Another well-known Victorian home is that of the Addams family. The cartoons first appeared in the New Yorker in 1938 and the exterior of their house was revealed in 1945. Eventually the fictional family had a hit TV series in the 60s and their house is instantly recognizable. In the Scooby Doo cartoons, which premiered in 1969, Scooby and the gang frequently investigate old, haunted Victorian homes. Those depictions along with movies like Beetlejuice made the Victorian mansion the go-to design for a haunted house.

Another reason people began associating Victorian homes with ghosts and death is the number of people who died in those houses. At that time, it was typical to die at home and funerals were held in the parlor room. Some of the decor inside the house was death-related, like wreaths woven from the hair of dead family members. 

Death was more prevalent in the minds of Victorians and this was partly because of the houses themselves. While diseases  and different accidents were common killers at the time, there were plenty of things inside the house that could kill you.

One of the major culprits was the stairs. Today there are still plenty of accidents that happen on staircases but it was much more common back then. As urban populations grew, the new houses being built became narrower to fit all those houses in such little space. This meant a lot of steep staircases. Since a foyer with a grand staircase was a symbol of wealth, those main stairs were usually fine, but builders cared less about the servants’ stairs. In addition to being dangerously steep, they could be built with cheaper materials, without handrails, and so narrow that only one person could use them at a time. Going up or downstairs was treacherous for a servant, especially if they were carrying a tray or a pile of laundry or, in the case of a maid, wearing a long skirt that could cause them to trip. On top of this, those hastily-constructed stairs didn’t always have uniform steps, making it all the more likely a person would lose their footing.

If you managed to survive a trip down the stairs, you might still end up dead because of wallpaper. It was trendy at that time because new forms of lighting in the home meant colorful, patterned walls could be seen more easily. The more intense the color, the better. There was one shade of green that was particularly vivid and it didn’t fade. Scheele’s green, which was named after the Swedish scientist who first mixed the pigment, was made using arsenic. The color was used in making toys, carpets, even food coloring, but it was most commonly seen in wallpaper. This led to the air in a room becoming poisonous, which was especially dangerous in large industrial cities where people always kept their windows closed to block out the filthy air. Outside your lungs were filled with pollution, and inside they might be filled with arsenic that slowly poisoned you. Unfortunately, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning aren’t that far off from the symptoms of cholera, which was a common killer at the time, so a person might have no idea the problem was actually the wallpaper.

The Victorians loved science and innovation and there were a lot of new inventions that were mass produced before they were properly tested for their safety. One of the major new advancements was gas. It could be used for the gas lighting in rooms, for central heating, or for stoves. The dangers weren’t fully understood and there was always the risk of a gas leak suffocating you or an explosion being cause by the mix of gas and electricity. This was made even worse by the competing gas companies who would cut corners to reduce their costs or who would go so far as to tamper with a rival’s pressure levels to sabotage them.

One result of the Victorian interest in science was a new fear: germs. They knew the basics of germ theory, but not much more, and became obsessed with killing germs around the house to protect their families. This meant a lot of dangerous chemicals were being used as cleaning products. The packaging was similar enough to other things that people would sometimes get them mixed up in the pantry and those chemicals could end up in food or drinks. 

Another new and dangerously misunderstood innovation was indoor plumbing. The first bathrooms were constructed with inefficient sewer systems. This meant human waste could build up in drains underneath the house. Of course, this would have smelled awful, but it was also a hazard. The methane and hydrogen sulfide coming from that waste got caught in the pipes and those gases happen to be both flammable and explosive. If someone went down to check on a blockage, their only source of light was likely to be an open candle flame which… didn’t work out well. Those gasses in the pipes could also leak back into the house and create danger upstairs. 

Another advantage of indoor plumbing was being able to fill a bathtub with water more quickly. Some tubs were equipped with gas heating so you could have a warm bath, but there are reports of people dying after being scalded by bath water because it wasn’t widely known how to safely use this new invention. 

While the Victorians were obsessed with science and innovation, they were also increasingly interested in the occult. It was during the Victorian era that spiritualist beliefs gained popularity and more and more people believed you could communicate with the dead. This meant people - mostly middle and upper class people - were experimenting with things like seances or ouija boards in their homes. This is a creepy association we have with the Victorians and, if you believe in ghosts, it’s also one more reason to believe a Victorian home would be haunted. A lot of the people trying to communicate with the dead probably didn’t know what they were doing and opened up all kinds of portals to hell. Even if ghosts don’t exist, the spiritualist movement still left its mark on Victorian society and our collective imagination about that morbid generation and their homes.

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