Why Victorian houses look so haunted

There are some surprising reasons we often feel creeped out by the ornate 19th-century style

(Video: Chloe Meister/The Washington Post; iStock)

The features that define Victorian architecture — bright colors, intricate woodwork, dramatic roofs — sound cheerful enough. So why has the style popularized in the 19th century become so thoroughly linked to horror? With the menacing secrets of Norman Bates’s house in “Psycho,” the more slapstick spookiness of “The Addams Family” mansion and more, the visual language of the haunted-house genre is undeniably intertwined with the turrets, trims and nooks of the Victorian.

Sarah Burns, a professor emerita at Indiana University, is probably the foremost expert on how Victorians became “an enduring icon of the haunted,” as she puts it. “It goes all the way from cinema to architecture to mass culture,” she says. “You see these attitudes toward the Victorian manifest in every medium.”

Here’s why.

Creepy construction

The layout of a Victorian is about as far from an open floor plan as a house can get. Every level is divided into many rooms, each with a distinct purpose, and rarely with sightlines into another one.

The effect is “almost an infinite labyrinth,” says Adam Lowenstein, author of “Horror Film and Otherness” and a professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh. The luxuries of ample space and a room for every occasion can easily turn into a “nightmare version of the utopian idea,” he explains: “a labyrinth of spaces that are out to get you rather than out to serve you.”

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On a practical level for filmmakers, the corners and long hallways of the Victorian create opportunities for jump scares — or at least the threat of them. Laurin Kelsey is the production designer for “The Midnight Club,” the new Netflix thriller set in a Victorian manor called Brightcliffe. She created a layout for the home with “long hallways and creepy hallways,” she says. “The main hallway in Brightcliffe has these big round arches all the way down, … and behind each of those arches is enough space for someone to hide.”

Building materials favored in the Victorian era, such as dark wood, also help conjure a macabre atmosphere. “The rooms felt really heavy and dark and kind of foreboding,” Kelsey says. The era’s characteristic stained glass and thick draperies added to the ominous vibe, but they actually had a utilitarian purpose, too: They protected elaborate furniture and decor from the sun. In urban dwellings, the curtains helped insulate interiors from street odors.

Another nightmarish thing about Victorians is the intense maintenance required to keep up such grandiose homes. For the burgeoning middle class that favored the look in the 19th century, it was a flex to be able to hire servants who could dust and polish all the ornate details. But when the style’s popularity waned and those homeowners moved on, the neglect was all the more apparent. Cue the cobwebs and crumbling exteriors that have become horror-movie touchstones.

“Victorian houses don’t age well,” Lowenstein says. “The image of the haunted Victorian house probably has real reference in all kinds of American neighborhoods where these ornate houses lost their wealthy tenants and became sort of neglected, derelict houses that looked haunted because they weren’t being taken care of.”

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In England, where Victorian homes became the preferred setting for 19th-century ghost stories, shoddy construction added to the impression that many of them were haunted, says Simon Cooke, senior editor of the Victorian Web. He explains that the period’s rapidly growing cities and lack of building regulations led to poor workmanship that could be misconstrued as supernatural.

Mysterious banging and groaning inside the walls, for example, could be a restless spirit — or perhaps badly installed pipes. The creaking of floorboards might be footsteps from beyond the grave — or the expanding and contracting that occurs in poorly built structures. Doors that popped open by themselves could have been pushed by phantoms — or maybe they just didn’t fit properly in their frames.

The potent gas used to light the houses, coupled with the lack of ventilation, might have led to another ghostly effect. “[The homes were] full of toxins,” Cooke says. “Ingest too much of that in an enclosed space, it’s not implausible you could suffer delusions.”

Creepy cultural context

During the Victorian era, spiritualism came into vogue thanks to acts such as the Fox sisters, whose career performing public seances began with convincing neighbors that their home was haunted. At the same time, a literary tradition of setting ghost stories inside ordinary houses emerged, with Charles Dickens among its leaders.

It’s not as if spooky stories didn’t exist before, Cooke says, but they would have often been set in places such as castles. During the Victorian period, audience preferences began to shift: “Most of the readers were middle class, and they didn’t know anything about aristocratic castles. … People wanted to read about ghost stories in their own homes.”

When Victorian architecture fell out of fashion, its eerie associations only became more pronounced. During her research into the archetype of the haunted Victorian, Burns, the Indiana University professor emerita, focused on the period in the 1920s when Edward Hopper painted “House by the Railroad” and other artists were rendering similar works. Hopper’s famous piece “has a presence, and it seems a bit, well, creepy, to use that good adjective — looming over the tracks with its mansard roof and all the Victorian embellishments,” Burns says. “And I just wondered, ‘Why a Victorian house? What did this painting mean?’ ”

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She dug into the cultural tastemakers of the time, such as magazine writers and architectural critics, and discovered a nearly unanimous disdain for Victorian homes: “The terms in which they described them and condemned them were so, so very negative and so scornful and so anxious,” Burns says. They also tended to cast the style as feminine and foreign, attributes that held a negative connotation then, as they frequently still do.

A smattering of the descriptions Burns found: “piles of excrement,” “an abyss of taste” and “ostentatious and arrogant ugliness.” Architect Joy Wheeler Dow characterized the 1870s as a “reign of terror” when it came to home aesthetics.

Why such over-the-top disgust? These critics drew a connection between the Victorian period and the Gilded Age, which they considered a time of corruption and immorality. By the 1920s, “there was a drive towards efficiency and economy and hygiene, all of which come together in the increasing phasing out of the Victorian house and, ultimately, the fear and loathing of the Victorian house,” Burns says.

As people with means moved out of Victorians, many of the homes became boardinghouses for the lower and working classes, which further cemented them as cultural markers of decline. Any chance of a reputation rehab for the style all but vanished in 1960 — the year that Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” debuted.

The fact that the threat inside Norman Bates’s house was human, not supernatural, made Victorians even more terrifying, says Lowenstein, the film professor. In his view, the house in the movie became a symbol of the way the past can trap us in obligation to “things that are no longer there in a living sense, but are very much there in a sort of haunted psychological sense.”

“There’s an architecture,” he says, “for every nightmare.”

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