Second Empire = Haunted House?

On Halloween, the thoughts of most Americans turn to haunted houses, and odds are, those who do think about haunted houses are picturing what architectural historians would call Second Empire style buildings, complete with a tower (or two), mansard roof (usually sporting dormers with broken glass), iron cresting on the roof, arched windows, and a spindly porch. The question is, is this style inherently scary, and if not, how did it get lodged in the American psyche?

In his Fast Company post “Why Are Victorian Houses So Creepy?,”Shaunacy Ferro argues, “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.” By the 1930s, the ornate Victorian styles were about 40 years old, which is about when people start thinking of a style as unacceptably old-fashioned.

The Family's home, as drawn by Charles Addams

The Family’s home, as drawn by Charles Addams

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.


Jason Colavito, in his recent blog post “Are McMansions the New Haunted Houses? Evaluating a Flawed Argument about Why Some Houses Are Scary,” agrees with the link back to the Addams Family cartoons and later TV show and Psycho and adds:

Even though Psycho and the Addams Family were not ghost stories, their aesthetic ended up defining the modern ghost genre thanks to some complex interweaving that occurred during the 1960s “monster craze,” too complex to get into here. Suffice it to say that all of these expressions were efforts to translate the hauntings of the European strain of Gothic literature, which centered its ghosts in medieval castles, into an American idiom. We don’t have castles, but we have Victorian castle-like mansions and Hollywood fabricated Universal’s so-called “Deco Gothic” to create modernist castles for movies like Frankenstein.

Mississippi doesn’t have a huge number of Second Empire houses because we were trying to recover from the economic devastation of the Civil War in the 1870s and early 1880s and didn’t really get building again until mansard roofs were becoming passe. But we have a few, scattered in communities large and small. Here are a few of the ones I’ve noticed.

"Glen Auburn" by JuralMS (Flickr)

“Glen Auburn” by JuralMS (Flickr)

Bishop Galloway House, Jackson (1889)

Bishop Galloway House, Jackson (1889)

S.S. Finger House, Ripley (c.1884). Photo by David Preziosi, MHT. Downloaded from MDAH Historic Resources Database.

S.S. Finger House, Ripley (c.1884). Photo by David Preziosi, MHT. Downloaded from MDAH Historic Resources Database.

And this one would have made an excellent haunted house, if it hadn’t been demolished around 1950

Institute for the Blind, built 1881, architect Alfred Zucker

Institute for the Blind, architect Alfred Zucker (1881), corner of N. State and Fortification, Jackson.

Happy Halloween!



Categories: Cool Old Places, Jackson, Natchez, Ripley


9 replies

  1. Delightful post.


  2. LOVE the Galloway house!!! Every time I am near it, I have to go by to see it. The person who maintains it does a wonderful job.

    Enjoyed this post!
    Go Cubbies is right!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess Columbus is probably Mississippi’s most haunted city by the standards of this post, with the Steers-Sykes-Locke House (224 Fourth Avenue, South) null
    and Cox House (122 3rd Street, South).

    On another note, let next year come next year. Go Cleveland!


  4. amusing, informative post. there are two nice 2nd empire houses in aberdeen– 413 s franklin and 503 s. franklin. perhaps someone can add images of these.


  5. I love this! Great post! Also–definitely go Cubs go!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA, the “Mourning Picture” of Edwin Romanzo Elmer shows the painter and his wife Mary with deceased daughter Effie in front of their house built in 1875. It certainly has the mood of a haunted Second Empire house. Some people consider the painting a precursor to Surrealism. Perhaps this architectural style became conflated with the Victorian approach to mourning like a grenouille du bapteme, revisiting loss like a sustaining well, which reached its apex in the late Victorian era. Queen Victoria set a fashion for this with her long grief over Prince Albert accompanied by the veil, jett jewelry and her little black dog, also a symbol of loyalty.


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