I want a haunted house, but perhaps without the ghosts.
Ever since I was a teenager, whenever I see a stereotypical haunted house with full-on ghosts in a movie, my first thought is always, “I want it.” And, the answer to that has always been some variant of “we get it: you’re goth.”
Hey now! As a teenager, I was not a goth. I mean, I kind of am now, but when I was sixteen, the difference between being an alternative rock kid and a goth kid was a major point of contention for me, and I was very definitely the former! By the way, the only difference between being a goth kid and an alternative rock kid was the amount of effort you were willing to put into planning your outfit, the alternative rock look being the lazier option, but don’t tell teenage me that.
That said, the word “goth” was probably pointed in the right direction. It wasn’t really that I wanted a haunted house; ghosts always struck me as a mighty inconvenience. However, I loved those houses themselves. I thought they were beautiful. I loved the wallpaper, the grand staircases, the high roofs, and even the shape of the windows. A house got extra points with me if it was made of brick or stone.
In other words, what I really liked was the Gothic Revival aesthetic… not the ghosts. I suppose if my love/hate relationship with the Victorian era has an origin story, that would be part of it.
It’s commonly argued that the fact that Victorian houses are often associated with hauntings and ghosts is a twentieth century phenomenon. The argument goes that as the thirties hit, there was a push for more modern home design. Meanwhile, the Great Depression was happening, and those old houses became seen more and more as a sign of unnecessary excess. So, as these old houses became less and less popular, they were being increasingly abandoned by the upper and middle class, while being considered somewhat vulgar by everyone else. An abandoned building is already creepy, but an abandoned house that is seen as vulgar takes it to a different level. Now the sense of unease is combined with resentment.
As someone who has spent an embarrassing amount of time looking at Gothic Revival house photos, I can say that Gothic Revival houses weren’t all giant manors. However, even the smaller homes did tend to be very ornate. In a time where people were selling their possessions on the street just to feed their families, I can see why that might be off putting. And, then the Addams Family became popular, and the whole thing was cemented with hauntings and ghosts and the like..
Well, that’s how the story goes, anyway. However, I would argue that it has more to do with how the previous century and a half used the word “gothic.”
Using the phrase “gothic” as a neutral descriptor is relatively modern. The word derives from the Goths, a Germanic group that was known for fighting with Ancient Rome and later, in the Middle Ages, fighting with a number of different groups in Europe. Because of that history and cultural bias, the word “goth” developed very negative connotations. In Europe, calling something “gothic” was historically synonymous with calling it “barbaric.” The phrase “Gothic Architecture” comes from criticisms of an architectural style in France in the 16th century. After all, calling something “barbaric” isn’t typically intended to be a compliment.
The 1764 novel considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, had the subtitle of “A Gothic Novel,” as a reference to barbarism. It is set in a “barbaric” house, and our protagonist descends into barbarism. The phrase “Gothic novel” comes from that subtitle.
Over time, Gothic fiction grew into a wide-spanning genre, complete with ornate haunted houses and ghosts, and the phrase eventually became more associated with the mood and the setting than the aforementioned barbarism. The concept of barbarism remained in the stories, of course, but by the Victorian era, literacy had increased and genre fiction rose in popularity.
During this time, stories with themes of barbarism were common across many genres. What set Gothic novels apart was the setting and writing style. Gothic Revival houses were growing in popularity in parts of Europe and some areas in the United States in the mid-19th century, around the same time as Gothic fiction was also growing in popularity.
Like today, Gothic novels were not all horror novels, nor were all horror novels, even those featuring ghosts, considered Gothic novels. However, a huge amount of popular horror was Gothic fiction at the time… to the point where “gothic” and the “macabre” were already considered synonymous.
Gothic novels use a lot of visual descriptions, and in Gothic horror in particular, the scenery is treated as ominous and evil. Finding ways to make this common scenery at the time frightening became a major part of the Gothic horror novel. At the time, the point was “look how creepy your house is,” as opposed to how we see it today, which is “look how creepy these old houses are.” We see it that way because what your house looks like today is very likely different from what it might have looked like then.
Unless you live in a Gothic Revival house, in which case, I envy you.
It would make sense, therefore, that by the twentieth century, people thought those old houses creepy and full of ghosts; they had already been a secondary, if not primary, antagonist in horror for over a century. The major change that I suspect really happened in the twentieth century was that, as we moved further away from this style of architecture, we came to associate the design with classic horror stories almost exclusively. It became a lot more common to read about haunted Gothic houses in horror novels than to actually live in a Gothic Revival home. From that, the pre-existing association between this style of architecture and horror and ghosts became even more cemented. That said, if American, and much of European, horror claimed much of its modern roots from the 1950s, we’d most likely be afraid of raised ranch houses and swing skirts right now.
In other words, the problem with originating the Victorian haunted house trope with the Depression is that the type of Victorian house in question was already associated with ghosts. When you say “old haunted house,” you’re usually not referring to any old house. The image that you conjure up is probably a Gothic Revival house, a style of architecture that has been a popular horror setting for a century and a half.
As much as I want to give Morticia Addams credit for this, at most, she reinforced a trend that predated her.
I still want her house, though.
Check out this Dead Talk Live Episode about “Horror Locations!”