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