Americans have a very specific idea about what makes a house look creepy. If you search for “haunted house” on Google images, only one type of architecture appears in the first 25 images: a Victorian mansion.
Art historian Sarah Burns wrote about the phenomenon for the academic journal American Art back in 2012. “Certainly, there are other sorts of places we associate with ghosts: old world castles, dungeons and crypts, the antebellum Big House, the alleged ‘witch’ houses of seventeenth-century Salem,” she writes. “Yet none so pervades and dominates the haunted visual landscape as the Victorian house does today.”
Why do we consider Victorian architecture–with design features such as “mansard roofs or multiple steep, craggy gables, along with assorted towers, Gothic gingerbread, ornate pillars, and cavernous verandas,” as Burns writes–so spooky? The phenomenon may have its roots in the cultural changes of the early 20th century, as well as two of pop culture’s ghoulish touchstones: the Addams Family, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Victorian architecture wasn’t considered particularly sinister until around the 1930s, when popular magazines began to present this style of building as something to be hated. “There was a most intense fear and loathing of the Victorian style during that period,” Burns, a professor emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington, tells Co.Design. “Writers and artists and designers all just spurned it. And they talked about it in the most exaggerated terms–they thought it was filthy and creepy and perverse and horrible and monstrous.”
The Victorian style of residential architecture had once been all the rage in America. “It was fashionable especially among nouveau riche of 1860s,” Burns explains. “In the 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, that was the McMansion, and it came to be identified with vulgar, excessive, conspicuous consumption.”
By the time the 20th century rolled around, Victorian architecture had gone out of style. The architecture world had moved onto modernism, eschewing the ornate decoration of Victorian housing for simpler, airier architecture. This was part of a broader cultural shift. “In the early 20th century, the vision of America was all about progress–technological progress, industrial progress, social progress–toward some great powerful utopian future, and that had to involve sweeping the past out the door,” Burns says. “You had to trash the Victorian if you were going to carry your own vision of modernity forward.” Victorian houses went against the grain of the dominant architectural discourse of the day. “If you think of somebody like Frank Lloyd Wright, the prairie houses, they were meant to be clean and open and light and healthy–all of the things that Victorian houses were the opposite of,” Burns says. “They were thought of as dust traps.”
So it made sense that people began associating ornate Victorian houses, where perhaps their grandparents had lived, as old, decaying, spiderweb-filled messes. Plus, before the advent of color-fast materials and disposable Ikea furniture, Victorian homes could be dark places–people used heavy curtains to protect their rugs and furniture from being bleached by the sun. And is there anything creepier than a shadowy, musty house with peeling wallpaper?
In the late ’30s, the Victorian mansion’s haunted reputation was solidified by the creation of the Addams Family, a cast of macabre characters that premiered in a series of New Yorker cartoons starting in 1938. The creepy clan’s home was portrayed as a decrepit, cobweb-filled Victorian house in the cartoons, and when the television show premiered in 1964, its intro opened with an exterior shot of the family’s spooky Victorian-style house.
Then came Alfred Hitchcock, the original master of the scary movie. Many of his films involve Victorian mansions, but Psycho, made in 1960, really turned the spooky Victorian into an icon. The Bates Mansion is the definition of creepy, and it has all the trappings of the archetypical Victorian home: the steep mansard roof, the deep porch, the ornate flourishes. Inside, it’s crammed with furniture, plush drapes, and knickknacks typical of the Victorian era–plus, of course, the dark secrets the mansion hides.
Nowadays, it’s hard to say what came first: That we thought of Victorian mansions as creepy, or that pop culture presented us with a lot of creepy Victorian mansions. But for almost a century, the potential ghosts lurking in ornate Victorian homes have haunted our cultural imagination. Of course, that’s not to say that Victorian architecture is the only American housing type we tend to label creepy. There’s a long history of ghost stories embedded in the grand slave estates of the south, with their giant estates swathed in Spanish moss. But if you’re looking for a stock image of a haunted house? Chances are it’s Victorian.