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The Haunted McMansion

When we imagine a haunted house, nine times out of ten what we picture is Victorian. I believe that in fifty years, the houses in our horror flicks will be the McMansions of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Why is this? Let’s first examine how Victorians came to be the archetypal haunted houses.

The classic Victorian houses we know were mostly built between the 1860s and 1900. The latter three decades of that are known in U.S. history as the Gilded Age. Following the Civil War, industry in the north was booming and the nouveau riche wanted houses that displayed their wealth. They went with Victorian styles inspired by the Gothic architecture of medieval Europe, often with turrets and towers meant to be imposing and impressive, but they were really just pretentious. Their exteriors featured ornate details which had no practical value but added to their display of wealth. The homes were an amalgamation of various styles – Greek and Roman in addition to Gothic – giving them a confusing appearance. A number of Victorian homes featured superstitious, death-related symbolism, such as urns or the head of Medusa meant to ward off evil. Inside, the homes featured a maze of rooms, many used infrequently, and thick draperies blocking out the sun to prevent damage to the expensive and difficult-to-maintain furniture. The rooms were cluttered by that furniture in addition to bric-a-brac the residents had collected over the years. They had photographs of stone-faced family members because smiles were difficult to hold during the long shutter speeds of the era’s cameras. Still, while we consider these elements to be creepy today, they didn’t feel that way to people of that time.

Victorian houses were symbols of the owners’ wealth and status but they fell out of favor largely for that reason in the following century, beginning after the first World War. Victorians’ ostentatious displays of wealth no longer fit American sensibilities, which came to value progress and modernism. Artists began depicting Victorian homes as dark, soulless, and decrepit, most notably seen in Edward Hopper’s 1925 “House by the Railroad” and Walker Evans’s photos of abandoned Victorian homes in the 1930s.

Evans is known for his photographic documentation of the Great Depression, a time when Victorian houses took on new meaning as symbols of excess and inequality. The few Americans who could afford to buy homes weren’t interested in the Victorians, which were often not wired for electricity and didn’t suit modern tastes. The families who had inherited Victorians sometimes couldn’t afford to maintain the ornate houses and they fell into disrepair, frequently being abandoned or subdivided into rooming houses for the poor.

It didn’t help these homes’ reputations that the Victorians were known to be death-obsessed. Queen Victoria, whom the era is named for, mourned her husband for 40 years after his passing, wearing black until the end of her life. In that time, the funeral industry as we know it today didn’t yet exist and funerals were held at home in parlors. Additionally, it was much more common to die at home rather than in a hospital the way many of us do today, and the phenomenon of post-mortem photography (and associated misconceptions about them) added to the Victorians’ morbid reputation.

The Addams Family intro, 1964.

Moving further into the 20th century, the Victorian home continued to be associated with spookiness when it was used in Charles Addams’s The Addams Family cartoons and the TV show they inspired, as well as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as the ominous-looking home of Norman Bates. The Victorian home was also used frequently in Scooby Doo, and Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction is Victorian. Today, filmmakers can simply use a Victorian home as a shorthand for a haunted house because the association is so strong in our minds. We see the Victorian façade and immediately know something isn’t quite right.

So how will the McMansion become the late 21st century’s archetypal haunted house? Let’s compare the McMansion with the Victorian – which has been described by historian Sarah Burns as the McMansion of its time.

First, the lack of a cohesive architectural inspiration: Just as the Victorian home combined styles, McMansions frequently feature gothic turrets alongside features of Mediterranean homes, French chateaus, and English manor houses. McMansions are simply confusing to look at. McMansions are designed from the inside out, so their exteriors frequently don’t follow the basic rules of architecture, as explained by Kate Wagner in her TED talk on the subject.

Second, like Victorian homes, McMansions have become associated with ostentatious displays of wealth that have gone out of style following an economic downturn. The millennials still feeling the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis are waiting longer than their parents to buy homes. When they do buy homes, they prefer those which are more modern, usually smaller and easier on the environment. Gen Z, which will feel the effects of this coronavirus-induced recession, will likely follow millennials’ lead. McMansions simply aren’t in style with the younger generations, as this Business Insider article points out.

Third, McMansions are difficult to maintain, adding to their decline in popularity the same way the ornate Victorians fell out of favor. The common open floor plans and high ceilings of McMansions make them difficult to heat. Many are cheaply constructed and will require constant maintenance. Like the Victorians before them, McMansions will sit empty and decay. Difficult-to-heat, cheaply-constructed McMansions are also cold and drafty, and a burst of cold air is an oft-cited sign of a ghost in your presence.

Fourth, the McMansions which are still in use but aren’t selling as desired are sometimes divided up, being used as dorms or apartments instead of single-family houses, similar to how Victorians were turned into rooming houses.

Now, you might say McMansions aren’t as spooky as Victorians because their rooms are larger, as well as their windows, so they are airy and let in more natural light. However, as we’ve seen with 2019’s Oscar-winning Parasite, those qualities can be used to create dread, not eliminate it. The horror genre may go through changes I cannot predict, but I’m willing to bet future generations will be creeped out by McMansions the same way we’re creeped out by Victorians.


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