When asked to describe a spooky haunted house, the homes belonging to the Cryptkeeper, the Munsters, and the Addams Family, Vincent Price’s house from The House On Haunted Hill (1959), or more recently, the mansion from Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting Of Hill House come to mind. But how did these once lavish homes become the dilapidated haunts of your nightmares?
According to a new video essay by Vox producer Coleman Lowndes, this phenomena can be broken down two ways. The first reason for the Victorian home aesthetic evolving into a playground for terror was that, after World War I and the Great Depression, American society wanted to move on to a more modern and innovative style. Not to mention that these heavily ornate Victorian homes were built to emulate the architecture of medieval Europe, and show off the owner’s vast wealth. Showing off one’s immense fortune while large swaths of Americans were living in dire financial straits didn’t bode well with most people of the period, with even The Washington Post calling the Victorian aesthetic “grotesque.” The abandoned home began to represent death, and a remnant of a much more gaudy time in our history.
As Victorian homes were abandoned in favor of modernity, these homes were no longer being taken care of and slowly fell into disrepair. Cobwebs formed, dust piled up, and the floors rotted and decayed. With all of these dark elements now in place, the second reason becomes quite clear: Nothing is more intense and frightening than walking through a dark hallway in silence when the floor creaks or a flimsy door slams shut. That inspired early horror auteurs like William Castle, Alfred Hitchcock, and Hammer Film Productions—just to name a few—as well as cartoonist Charles Addams, to blow off the dust and clear out the cobwebs from the halls of these mansions and breathe new, spine-tingling life into them.
Even if you haven’t seen a single William Castle film or read a single one of Charles Addams’ comic strips, you have almost certainly seen a film or a TV show or read a novel that was inspired by one or more of the aforementioned creators. They made the Victorian home what it is: The hallmark of haunted-house movies for decades, eliciting a fear response in your brain every time you see that castle-like house—usually on a hill.