A custom wrought-iron gate adorned with bats and spiderwebs guards the entrance to the 1858 Victorian in Bangor, Maine, that horror novelist Stephen King once called home.Photo Credit : AP Photo
I guarantee that if I asked you to close your eyes and imagine a haunted house, you’d see a Victorian of some sort. Not a cozy little Cape, not an elegant Federal, not a cookie-cutter ranch, but a decaying, turreted, looming Victorian manse.
Why? How did this archetype work itself into the American imagination so thoroughly?
The genesis of the spooky Victorian is an amalgam of technology, fortunes made and lost, fashion, home repair, and the grip of art and popular entertainment on the public mind. The story is at times conjectural, full of generalizations though occasionally specific, and, like the architecture itself, fascinating.
The middle of the 19th century saw an unprecedented growth of industry: Factories cranked out increasingly sophisticated goods, the marketplace encouraged innovation and rewarded the latest-and-greatest, and railroads expanded across the land to deliver all the new goods. The availability of machine-cut, standard-dimension lumber and wire nails to hold it together brought huge changes to American architecture and construction.
Whereas heavy timber frames once necessitated simple, boxy forms for all but the most opulent structures, this new lightweight “stick” framing eased the construction of corners, making all sorts of overhangs, bays, porches, and other exuberances possible. The availability of factory-made doors and windows, casings, trim, decorative spindles and fretwork, and even roofing and siding meant that the building palette was broader than ever before.
So what to build? As more and more people amassed wealth in the gangbuster capitalist economy, many sought to display it—and what bigger way than through a house? Architects, once a rarity, rose up in their (usually three-named, always male) multitude, promulgating the latest style, often with European historical roots, that allowed their clients to announce their arrival.
Many were inspired by Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1842 Cottage Residences, one of the first books to endorse several different architectural forms, each with different antecedents—Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate—opening the way for a kind of what’s-next mindset in architecture that mirrored the “new and improved” approach of the factories.
Soon enough came the Queen Anne and the Stick styles, with some Tudors, Egyptians, Orientals, and octagons thrown in, and the mansarded Second Empire, straight from the fashionable boulevards of Paris. They were built to be impressive, with tall asymmetric exteriors, towers and wings and off-center porches, and multiple special-function rooms that reflected the social formality of the era. Interiors dripped dark wood paneling and elaborate moldings. In nearly all cases, lavish display overshadowed strict historical precedent, the better to show off what was now technically possible, to take advantage of all the products available, and, not incidentally, to outshine the Joneses’ place across town.
But fashion has a tortured twin and—over time and through a variety of economic booms and busts—many of these exuberant homes became, alas, unfashionable. In some cases they symbolized past excess; in others, the money that built them evaporated. Often, the times and the occupants simply moved on.
Perhaps there was a fatal flaw lurking in their very facades all along. Aristotle believed that “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry,” something borne out in modern research. Interviewed about her 1999 book Survival of the Prettiest, Harvard psychology professor Nancy Etcoff said that regardless of culture or ethnicity, “the more symmetry a body has, the more attractive it is. We find something ‘wrong’ with even slight asymmetries.” If that’s true, it’s understandable that distaste and unease eventually worked their way into the public perception of Victorians.
And as every homeowner knows, miss a few maintenance cycles and you’ll be sorry. Any lack of upkeep on Victorians—with their vast expanses of articulated wood and abundant corners and seams courting rot and leaks— quickly drags the structures down the road to decrepitude. And if, God forbid, an occupant had not moved on but continued to live in such a decaying pile at the edge of town, its formal gardens now gone to seed … well, therein was a recipe ripe for the baking.
In a delightful online article on the haunted nature of Victorian houses, Archipanic.com describes how the style went “from a symbol of wealth to a symbol of dread.” An early intimation of disquiet came in Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting House by the Railroad, depicting a lonely, eerie, turreted Second Empire in Haverstraw, New York. The great photographer Walker Evans did a series on Victorian houses starting in 1930, including a pair of Gothic Revivals firmly in the grip of desuetude in Dorchester, Massachusetts. In 1938, New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams published the first view of what would become the Addams Family: a creepy couple being pitched by a vacuum cleaner salesman in the gloomy receiving hall of their Victorian home.
After that, Hollywood and television took over. Starting with 1959’s House on Haunted Hill—which starred Vincent Price and, according to Archipanic.com, “features a mix and match of different styles, including 1890s narrow Victorian corridors, dark furniture, gas chandeliers, and sconces”—and continuing on through Psycho (1960), The Haunting (1963), Dark Shadows (1966), Beetlejuice (1988), It (2017), and season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things (2022), the screen has provided a steady diet of sinister Victorian backdrops. Heck, horror writer supreme Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, lived for years in an 1858 Victorian in Bangor, Maine; they recently repurposed it to house their charitable foundation.
Of course, someone always has to zig when the culture is zagging. In 1979, public television’s This Old House debuted, taking on, as if out of central casting, a c. 1860 Second Empire slowly rotting on a hill in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Over the course of 13 episodes, the crew brought it back to rehabilitated vibrancy, completely erasing its spooky ambiance.
But don’t despair! Those craving their fix of the macabre can head out to Gardner, Massachusetts, where an imposing 1875 Second Empire home, aka the “S.K. Pierce Haunted Victorian Mansion,” awaits. The building was purchased in 2015 by New Jersey dentist Robert Conti. He says the previous owner became convinced that his wife had been possessed by a spirit in the building and wanted to sell. “I learned about it on Facebook, noticed that it was zoned commercial, promised the sellers I’d keep it as original as possible, and bought it sight unseen,” says Conti.
Since it opened to the public in 2022, caretakers of the property have led hundreds of visitors on $25 60-minute tours of the mansion, and Conti is weighing the idea of hosting overnight guests (more than 3,000 are on the waiting list). The staff has counted a total of 14 different ghosts on-site; at least five people died in the house, the last being boarder Eino Sauri, a World War II vet who in 1963 died of smoke inhalation at age 49 when his mattress mysteriously caught fire.
“I wasn’t a believer when I bought the place,” Conti says, “but I definitely have smelled a whiff of smoke when I enter his room.”