"the universal signifier of .... gloom and crime"
December 3, 2018 2:15 PM   Subscribe

Mansard and gabled roofs, decorative ironwork, gingerbreaded porches and towers: Why are Victorian houses so creepy?

How Victorian Mansions Became the Default Haunted House references “Better for Haunts”: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination, Sarah Burns, American Art 26, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 2-25. Sarah Burns - Fall 2012 Baumer Lecture Series #1

previously on Ask Metafilter
posted by the man of twists and turns (48 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Why are Victorian houses so creepy?

we're conditioned by their repeated usage as a signifier for creepiness in media
posted by GuyZero at 2:25 PM on December 3 [32 favorites]

This is great, a friend was just telling me about her distaste for mansard roofs at dinner the other night.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:26 PM on December 3

As a child, I'd internalized this enough that I thought "haunted" was the name of the architectural style. I only found out I was wrong when I described my aunt's house as haunted and people were confused.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:28 PM on December 3 [40 favorites]

If there's one thing that produces ghosts, it's a long, tormented, voiceless life, and in the nineteenth century, the life of a woman or a servant -- to say nothing of a woman servant -- was likely to be just that. Class, sexism, and (where applicable) racism made people miserable, and the lightlessness of the Victorian house -- often designed that way to avoid loss of heat or cool air -- brings to mind the lightlessness of the Victorian life.

If you have ever had elderly country relatives who live at the end of an unpaved road, and gone to visit them as a child, and sat with them and seventy unspoken years as you all gathered around the heater, listening to the tick of dying walls, you have had one night in the nineteenth century. Failing that, you can see the recent movie Lizzie. It isn't a likely retelling of the Lizzie Borden story, but it is very well executed in its way, and it shows you the wordless misery of a confined night en famille with a nineteenth-century patriarch and his family.

I think the paywalled article also refers to the financial panic in the 1870s which led to the abandonment and/or decay of what would have then been fine new houses. That creates an ideal setting for young children in the neighborhood to people with ghosts.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:29 PM on December 3 [54 favorites]

This is great, a friend was just telling me about her distaste for mansard roofs at dinner the other night.

That's nothing. I've done an hour+ on "Who came up with the idea of a flat roof in the northeast, and what year do I have to set the time machine in order to crush his future father's balls in vice grips."

( they're pitched inward with like a 2" drain in the center that is often occluded by, say, leaves. )
posted by mikelieman at 2:48 PM on December 3 [5 favorites]

Why are Victorian houses so creepy?

They are all full of ghosts. I blame the Spiritualists.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:54 PM on December 3 [13 favorites]

I mean, I can't speak for everyone, but for me it's the ghost children constantly singing those creepy nursery rhymes.
posted by mhum at 3:00 PM on December 3 [21 favorites]

Well, the Victorians are all dead, aren't they?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:04 PM on December 3 [8 favorites]

I always thought it was funny that in the original 13 Ghosts, the lawyer is really apologetic because the family is inheriting a huge Victorian mansion, “one of those big old things that was fashionable 50 years ago.” Like, the audience is expected to take it as this ugly and garish thing.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:11 PM on December 3 [2 favorites]

Seconding Countess Elena, especially the economic roots of the tradition.
From the depression in the 1870s through the Great Depression, scores of larger houses and mansions were left deserted or their upkeep became practically unmanageable. Even where families managed to hold on, often the houses began to go to ruin around them.

Given the season, I think about the Old Granville House in It's A Wonderful LIfe; before George and Mary rescue it, it's that house . . . falling apart, people throwing rocks at the remaining windows . . .
posted by pt68 at 3:15 PM on December 3 [7 favorites]

The Old Granville House at the RKO Encino Ranch
What would you call that? Queen Anne? With the dormers and that hat-like tower?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:22 PM on December 3

A few years ago, I did an oral history interview with someone whose grandmother became known as a "witch" during the Great Depression. She lived on a street near downtown Asheville (this is not the actual house but it's representative of houses on that street).

And, because she was a widow, she was content to live frugally in her big old house. Which, for her, meant dressing in rags--probably some worn-out black mourning gear--and keeping the lights dimmed. She apparently wasn't friendly to children, either, but had many cats as companions. Describing it now, I realize she was just living her best life on Crone Island. But a whole bunch of neighborhood kids thought they were living near an actual evil witch.
posted by witchen at 3:28 PM on December 3 [34 favorites]

What would you call that? Queen Anne? With the dormers and that hat-like tower?

I think so! As a kid, I was fascinated with the ironwork, the rail across the top of the roof . . . that just made it creepier (and exotic; there was nothing like that where I grew up in Louisiana . . .)
posted by pt68 at 3:33 PM on December 3

What would you call that? Queen Anne? With the dormers and that hat-like tower?

I'd call it Hollywood sound studio, heavily inspired by Queen Anne. Not so much the dormers or tower, it's the gingerbread (and iron work), and the lateral extension with the veranda type front.
posted by humboldt32 at 3:38 PM on December 3 [2 favorites]

Oooooh, we had one of those creepy abandoned Victorian houses just outside of town when I was a kid. It loomed in a big fallow field, down by the swamp, just across the railroad trestle. My rational brain knows I was programmed to fear that place, but my lizard brain knows that motherfucker was capital-H Haunted.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 3:41 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]

It would appear that, as a Victorianist, I am the wrong audience for this post. I live in a village full of Victorian homes (it was incorporated in the 1820s) and my usual response to them is "oooh! If only it were practical to own one!" (The combination of small rooms and frequently low ceilings can't be reconciled with lots of 8'+ bookcases.)

That being said, there are plenty of real-life terrors lurking in Victorian houses, like dry rot, bizarre electrical wiring, dirt basements, rusted plumbing...
posted by thomas j wise at 4:00 PM on December 3 [17 favorites]

Where we live, there must have been Nazis in our street and at our door, followed soon after by Russians in the street and at the door, followed by a long and wicked communist reign. Things happened. If there were ghosts in real life (?) like there are in ghost stories, with unhappy spirits staying on to inhabit places for reasons only ghosts understand, there would be ghosts here. But it's a simple apartment.

Book ghosts want dark labyrinths. Winding stairs, extra rooms no one ever goes into, attics and basements stuffed with the antiquated belongings of dead people. Dark, forgotten, hidden, dusty corners. Whereas our dusty corners are embarrassingly well-lighted and hard to forget. We are practically tripping over one another in this place. I have seen the inside of every room in this apartment every day I have lived here.

Book ghosts want unexplained creaking wood in unseen places, and they want the wind moving the curtains and rattling the shutters. Whereas we've had the floors done and put in airtight new triple-glazed windows all the way around.

Book ghosts want abandoned or dilapidated Victorian homes. Or European castles. Oversize old places that are hard to clean and hell to heat, places that always need roof and plumbing work, places packed with wacky inherited shit you don't need but you'd hate to throw away and could never get a decent price for.
posted by pracowity at 4:03 PM on December 3 [11 favorites]

The Literal Hell of McMansions - "The suburban monstrosities fit in a long American tradition of unnatural, ill-constructed, haunted houses."

10 extremely cursed McMansions

Are McMansions the New Haunted Houses? Evaluating a Flawed Argument about Why Some Houses Are Scary - "But I think I’ll keep the point simpler: Every generation remakes haunted houses in the shape of the recent and vanished past, diabolizing that which is just outside of living human memory, the time when gods and monsters walked the Earth. Fifty years after the Victorians, their ruins had become “haunted.” The only reason we don’t do the same with our ruins is because the media froze this folkloric process in time—and also because midcentury tract houses are both too humble to serve as substitute castles and are still in use in a way that Victorian mansions were not at a similar point in their lives."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:19 PM on December 3 [8 favorites]

I go along with "because we've been conditioned to think they look haunted."
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:38 PM on December 3 [4 favorites]

I live in a 150 year old Italianate these houses are a little creepy. They're often pretty dark and full of narrow hallways and weird room layout and they cost a fortune to maintain so even they're constantly in a state of disrepair. Also I'm sure that people died in here; in the 19th century, upper middle class folks didn't go to the hospital, the doctor came to them and if you died, you probably died in your own bed.
posted by octothorpe at 5:02 PM on December 3 [3 favorites]

A theory I heard once: It was the Victorians themselves who developed a mania for having ghosts in their houses, because ghosts meant history and old money and respectability. If you were a middle class arriviste, a ghost was a great way to add a bit of class.
posted by clawsoon at 5:04 PM on December 3 [15 favorites]

I also blame Poe, Lovecraft, and Disney.

That's nothing. I've done an hour+ on "Who came up with the idea of a flat roof in the northeast, and what year do I have to set the time machine in order to crush his future father's balls in vice grips."
(they're pitched inward with like a 2" drain in the center that is often occluded by, say, leaves.)

I’m assuming that the descriptive bit at the end there describes the roof, and not the future father’s balls...
posted by darkstar at 5:09 PM on December 3 [8 favorites]

A Victorian once bit my sister...
No, realli!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:15 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]

I think rambling Victorians are scary if you’re most afraid of who’s watching/what might come from inside the house. Glass walled modern places are scary if you’re more afraid of what might come from outside the house.

I once spent a weekend in a glass walled joint on the side of the mountain, well aware that at night anyone/anything could see me from outside. The host was like, “This house is in the middle of nowhere. Who do you think might be watching?” And I was like, “well, that’s a terrifying question.”
posted by thivaia at 5:47 PM on December 3 [25 favorites]

I used to live in one... kind of in the style of this one from the 'This Old House' link.
It was brightly painted and not creepy at all. (Except for that one time a bat came flying up the stairs at me...)
I think if you keep them in good condition (which I could not afford to do then), they are not scary. But if they start to fall apart, you are now in potential Stephen King territory.
Just the angle of the gate in the JSTOR link is freaking me out.
posted by MtDewd at 5:47 PM on December 3

All I have to say about this is that mansards are lousy for solar. Of all the roof types that you get in New England, they're the worst.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:38 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]

Elizabeth Warren has a mansard roof on her house in Cambridge. Her husband is a lovely person (at least, that was my experience; before you ask, I did not get to meet Senator Warren herself) but their house was a total PITA to survey and if they had a less complicated roof they could have had a much more cost-effective installation. A fine house, but as a PV candidate I'm still not convinced it was anything more than a vanity project.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:44 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]

The city I grew up in is positively dripping with old Victorian buildings. There's Elizabeth Cottage, the Hochelaga (across the street from the courthouse where they used to perform hangings), Stone Gables (check out the front gate), the old Kingston Penitentiary Warden's Residence... None of those scared me. Not even the Rockwood Asylum.

This house scared me.

Now, it doesn't look very spooky anymore. But, in your minds eye replace that manicured lawn with an overgrown jungle of trees, lilac bushes and weeds. Imagine the house in drab shades of yellow-beige and brown, the paint peeling. The front path was a tunnel through the shrubbery. In the spring the ground turned blue with a carpet of Scilla flowers, giving the house a positively supernatural appearance. And there was, no joke, a black cat that would lounge about on the veranda. The house belonged to Miss Ettinger, who seemed to us kids a mysterious reclusive figure - we called her house The Witch's House. She lived there alone, in the house she grew up in, until she was 96 years old (and she lived to be 105).
posted by Secret Sparrow at 9:14 PM on December 3 [3 favorites]

Honestly, I can tell you spending years stripping and painting all that Victorian trim will make you run around shrieking with your head in your hands like a banshee. We've been here 24 years and it's almost done!
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:52 PM on December 3 [7 favorites]

Maybe that's the secret--there's nothing inherently scary about Victorian houses, people are just hallucinating due to heavy metal poisoning.
posted by MrBadExample at 10:14 PM on December 3 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I can tell you spending years stripping and painting all that Victorian trim will make you run around shrieking with your head in your hands like a banshee. We've been here 24 years and it's almost done!

An apartment we lived in for a number of years was in a house built in 1890, and we had two full floors (aside from the very back section of the house). Our place had the original banisters, windows, and trim. Some of the interior window trim had the original finish, and in one room some of it had been sanded down, and then never refinished. The thickness of the original finish is pretty incredible.

One day, we were sitting on our front porch and a guy pulled up in a car in front of our house. He got out and approached us, and introduced himself and said his family lived in the house when he was a kid, before it was carved up into apartments. His story seemed to check out, so I showed him our place, and he said the thing that creeped him out most about the house was the old octopus furnace in the basement that was a coal-to-gas conversion job. I showed him the shared basement area that we had access to, which was by now just home to three gas water heaters for the apartments in the house plus a washer and dryer. There was no longer any furnace because the apartments were on electric baseboard heaters.

In the bright light of the fluorescent lighting in the basement he laughed, because he said it was previously creepy as fuck when he was five or six because there was one light bulb, and the flicker from the gas ring in the furnace was the only other light.

I would maintain the front and side gardens of the house for our landlord, and I would find a piece of coal every once in a while when I was turning soil around where the coal chute used to be.

But those original windows. Drafty as fuck.

With electric heat.

You know what was truly frightening?

Our electric bills in winter. Our rent did not include hydro.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:41 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]

I think ghosts as such are a bit quaint and Victorian themselves. If you want something scary in a modern brutalist building you’d get post-apocalyptic zombies. In fifties suburbia you’d have bug people or or some flying saucer monster.
posted by Segundus at 11:46 PM on December 3 [2 favorites]

Why is it called Victorian in places where she never reigned?
posted by gnuhavenpier at 1:44 AM on December 4

This post needs a soundtrack
posted by pxe2000 at 2:33 AM on December 4

Why is it called Victorian in places where she never reigned?

Something the Edwardians came up with, no doubt.
posted by clawsoon at 3:26 AM on December 4 [5 favorites]

Mansard roofs don't seem to have been a thing in England - apart from those, a lot of the examples here look like, well, houses, but then I've never lived anywhere built after about 1880, and none of those places were even slightly spooky. It's definitely the roofs, I think. There is one mansard-roofed house just up the road from where I live, that was inhabited for a while by someone who kept a very spiffy 1950s hearse parked outside. Just letting a house run down gives it some sort of spooky look, though. Every village and small town has somewhere like that, empty or with a single older resident who just can't keep it maintained - there's one just down the road from me, inhabited by an old chap who dresses like Buffalo Bill.

Convincingly spooky houses over here have to be much older, or have a proper bloody history of some sort. My brother's house (or at least some of it) dates back to the 1500s, and the part of it that was a courthouse in the 1600s is supposed to be haunted by the infamous Judge Jeffreys, who has a very busy haunting schedule in that part of Somerset. Unfortunately for atmosphere, the house looks ridiculously quaint and cosy, and has the nicest atmosphere of anywhere I've ever been.
posted by Fuchsoid at 4:54 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]

Unless I missed it, I found it odd that the articles seemed to skip the most obvious reason—Victorian houses are ornate, tawdry messes of industrial-age mass-produced carpentry that people threw up as fast as modern McMansions as a sign of exuberantly showy aspirations to wealth, made of cheap wood aping stone ornamentation and complicated furniture that you wouldn't leave outside for a very good reason...and because they were essentially impossible to maintain by most of the people who owned them (particularly in the middle classes) without having a housepainter in residence to continually keep up with their ten thousand unsheltered wooden surfaces, they often ended up looking like ominous grey heaps of shit in twenty years or less. Add in all the cloying tension of that buttoned-up, shades-drawn upright-and-uptight Bible-thumping cultural claustrophobia rendered into an architectural style and you've got the perfect setting for whatever horrors you want to imagine would be found in all those sun-blasted, mold-soaked dead wedding cakes littering the once-fancy parts of town.

When marriage equality passed, my mother wistfully told me that she always hoped I'd find a nice gentleman and that we'd buy an old Victorian and restore it together...which made my wonder why my mother wanted to doom me to a life of fruitless housepainting, replacing dry rotted painted fishscale shingles, and trying to find a leak in a collision of jagged, unrelated rooflines. Give me a nice minimalist residence rendered in Italian breton brut any day.
posted by sonascope at 7:08 AM on December 4 [11 favorites]

Here is some fun info for the architectural influences of the various Haunted Mansions (and Phantom Manor) at the Disney parks.
posted by Fleebnork at 8:01 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a Victorian-clogged town with this in the middle of it. I spent a lot of time there as a kid (both of my parents had Estate-affiliated jobs--they were a client of Dad's and Mom did art restoration there for a while) and I associated the Gothic attributes with, like, Christmas or getting the guards to let me slip under the velvet rope in the banquet hall and recline on the bear rug (True! And disappointingly not very soft, fyi). I spent my childhood playing in Victorian houses (which were, as has been noted, always under construction for something). I took ballet this building when it was mostly a ghost-haunted/ancient guest-haunted derelict hotel, and spent a lot of quality time chasing feral cats around the old smoking lounge and trying to convince my fellow ballerinas that the basement contained a portal to Narnia.

I was, however, terrified of this joint, which was right around the corner from my parents' on a block otherwise comprised of small 1920s vacation cottages and modest ranchers. I never saw anyone come in and out if it and it was the only house I knew of that had a gate and a call box like a place where supervillains lived in the movies and it looked precisely like sort of place a supervillain would do nefarious brain experiments on people (my friend Seaneen, who used to ride bikes with me, once swore that the mysterious supervillains inside the house had, in fact, done nefarious brain experiments on her brother and that was why he was why he kept punching me in the arm on the school bus. NEITHER CONFIRMED NOR DENIED, by the way).
posted by thivaia at 8:15 AM on December 4 [4 favorites]

I love those houses and always fantasized about someday fixing one up. I set out to buy one, back in 2012. Not a specific house, but I house hunted for one. Every such place I looked at had multiple very expensive dealbreakers, and the ones I managed to convince myself were OK, and offered for, all went to bidding wars which I did not win - I am not the only one with this fantasy. I still just love driving past them and admiring them from the street.

If I had a place like that in my family (I don't) and some older relative left it to me, I would absolutely be the grandkid who moved to some dead-end town and tried to save a rotting house.
posted by elizilla at 8:49 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]

There are some mansard roof-ed homes in my neighborhood of otherwise generic, formless ranch houses. They are ranch houses too, just with flat mansard roofs. They look like mushrooms. I dig old fancy homes. Most homes are just too small with too few floors and too few rooms for creepy sounds to travel. I'm sure with modern cement board instead of wood, you could side a Victorian that would last a long time. Especially the upper stories where the siding is more of an abstract thing than something you can really see and touch.

"The host was like, “This house is in the middle of nowhere. Who do you think might be watching?” And I was like, “well, that’s a terrifying question.”"

I also have really noticed, especially obvious during the holiday decorating season, that modern mansions have way more glass and are way more open. It's no longer just a single room with a bay window, the 'publicly viewable' portion of new built fancy homes almost covers the entire street frontage.Ghosts will have to live in the backs of new mansions.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:58 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Syracuse. NY, which is just lousy with Victorian houses. Many of them have been converted to apartments, or abandoned. It's depressing as hell.

As others have said, I blame Disney and children's cartoons for the idea that they are all haunted. (Edited to actually address the topic.)
posted by corvikate at 9:46 AM on December 4

. . . people are just hallucinating due to heavy metal poisoning.

Or carbon monoxide [audio].
posted by ryanshepard at 10:58 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]

I've been a public historian a long time and have a very special love for Victorian architecture, in its exuberance and creativity. I know other people find them "creepy" but as someone who doesn't consume much "creepy" media, I have barely been exposed to most of those tropes.

A few years ago I volunteered on a town Christmas event to give tours of historic houses - mostly Colonial or early American in this case - staying on station in the house while thousands of people filed through. If I had $5 for every time someone said "It feels like someone died in here" I could have taken a tropical vacation. All I could do not to reply "OF COURSE people died in here; it's 300 years old and most people died at home." There's nothing necessarily "creepy" about that.
posted by Miko at 11:01 AM on December 4 [6 favorites]

I don't find them creepy at all. I love a good mansard roof, and I thank Vampire Weekend for introducing me to the term in the song on their debut album.
I like Jugendstil furniture and decorations, and fantastic Gothic flourishes. I also like small rooms, although I could do with slightly higher ceilings. Take the curtains off the windows, though, and we're good. New England and Upstate New York have fantastic housing stock, in my view. The scariest thing in an old Victorian is usually the wiring.
The most accursed home style is Brutalist. I always feel like I'm awaiting a purge.
posted by Svejk at 11:14 AM on December 4

Victorian houses are ornate, tawdry messes of industrial-age mass-produced carpentry that people threw up as fast as modern McMansions as a sign of exuberantly showy aspirations to wealth

That's a really interesting link I never considered. I bought a house for the first time this past summer in Minneapolis, and I ended up buying a nice post-WW2 home. The no-frills but nicely sized homes built for America's new middle class at the time are right in my wheelhouse, and this one is still in Minneapolis proper instead of the burbs, toward the end of its build out in 1950. I had originally thought I could sneak into a more expensive neighborhood (something between the lakes, uptown, and 35W if you know the city) but found that even for what I could afford, it's going to be a craftsman in mediocre repair, the style of which has its own outdated floor plans. Even the fancier houses going for $600k+ from the same era still need work.
posted by MillMan at 11:56 AM on December 4

I once read a neat proposed explanation for this phenomenon that suck with me. It argued that Victorians were the last style of homes where it was normal for grandparents to live and die at home, so a generation of American children grew up with the "ghosts" of their older family present in their childhood homes in a way that became abnormal when they were adults, imposing in a sort of backward paranoia back on to their childhood memories and associations.

Obviously, there are tons of contributing reasons, but this is a nice one too.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 1:12 PM on December 4 [7 favorites]

I used to live on the top floor of a slate-tiled-mansard-roofed Second Empire brick townhouse and let me tell you about mansard roofs. The walls start to slant inwards about three feet off the floor. Even the interior walls were problematic (chimney breasts). And then there were the stairs. I believe the ground floor had 40' ceilings. Also it was on top of a hill.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:49 PM on December 4

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