Victorian homes for monsters?
July 21, 2013 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone explain why Victorian mansions like the ones the Addams Family and the Munsters were depicted as living in were, apparently, widely seen as plausible homes for monsters by the mid-20th century? Bonus points for detailed / scholarly analysis of this question.
posted by ryanshepard to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I always thought it was because, for people watching TV in the '50s and '60s, the typical house in each neighborhood that all the kids thought was haunted would have been a poorly maintained Victorian mansion, either abandoned or inhabited by a decrepit witch nice old widow.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:10 PM on July 21, 2013 [18 favorites]

The Addams Family was based on the work of cartoonist Charles Addams, and most of his characters lived in decaying Victorian mansions.
posted by jlkr at 9:14 PM on July 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

I would argue that the AF house used in the TV show is Gothic rather than Victorian and that the gothic aesthetic involves references to the supernatural.
posted by Kerasia at 9:15 PM on July 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Kerasia: Gothic Revival / Victorian Gothic is a subset of US Victorian architecture - by the 1960s (probably earlier, since Addams' cartoons start in the late 30s), many of these styles - e.g. the Munsters' Second Empire house - seem to evoked creepy feelings in enough viewers to be a widely used.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:25 PM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I always thought the Munsters was modelled on the AF, thus they would copy many of the elements, both visual and character.
posted by Kerasia at 9:32 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the post-war period, that type of home just wasn't seen as the kind of place people wanted to live anymore. It represented everything that was old and fusty and weird and potentially unsafe/unsavory.

Notice, for instance, the difference between the house the Brady Bunch lived in and the house the Munsters lived in.
posted by Sara C. at 9:46 PM on July 21, 2013 [12 favorites]

I think the Bates Motel in "Psycho" was also kind of like that. Different kind of "monster" though.

Stab at analysis:
I think Victorian houses visually hearken back to European castles and thus evoke an impression of both older culture and defensive or warlike stuff. A lot of our cultural references wrt architecture seem to have roots in that. My sons and I recently talked about the idea of "hidden doors" and how the draft is a clue. This makes no sense in the modern world. It only makes sense as an artifact of castles, whose interiors were covered with tapestries both as insulation and to cover things like arrow slits. Then if you also cover a door, a secret door works.

Plus Victorian houses would be the right age for that era to be run down old places. The Addams Family was supposedly formerly wealthy and had the house a while, as in a couple generations at least. Victorian houses of that sort were typically built by well off families, often subdivided into apartments later. It was the right age to be an inherited house that was now run down because the family could no longer afford it.
posted by Michele in California at 9:47 PM on July 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This (free) article purports that the mansions of the era were the US/North American substitute for our lack of ruined castles which fit the European Gothic idea.

This free article on children's literature discusses the idea that thus a ruined mansion is the antithesis of the aspirations of Americans, a sign of failure, and ergo spooky.

The article “Better for Haunts”: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination by Sarah Burns, published in American Art , Vol. 26, No. 3 (Fall 2012), pp. 2-25 (link if you have JSTOR access). In short, it describes the interwar period as formative for creating the idea of the Gilded Age mansion as a place of mongrel (sic) agglutination in architecture and interior design, thus impure, and a sign of the excesses of the time, anti-industrial and anti-progress. In addition, there remains the idea of the grand old family and the secrets, hidden unhappiness, and isolation which may have remained in the childhood memories of artists creating in a post-WWI era - which has its own Zeitgeist, a combination of glitter and ennui/angst, both meanings of decadence. So by the 1930s the decrepit mansion 1. was actually decrepit when seen and 2. was not appropriate in several ways by economic/socio/cultural standards.

More recently, some occultists (such as the ones I know) suggest that the 'unfinished' nature of the trapezoidal mansard roof are innately unsettling to the Western (Greek and Christian) aesthetic which promotes the triangle/trinity as a form of perfection.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 9:52 PM on July 21, 2013 [52 favorites]

By the post-war period, that type of home just wasn't seen as the kind of place people wanted to live anymore. It represented everything that was old and fusty and weird and potentially unsafe/unsavory.
Plus Victorian houses would be the right age for that era to be run down old places. The Addams Family was supposedly formerly wealthy and had the house a while, as in a couple generations at least. Victorian houses of that sort were typically built by well off families, often subdivided into apartments later. It was the right age to be an inherited house that was now run down because the family could no longer afford it.

That's pretty much how I see it. The Victorian age in America largely coincided with the Gilded Age of late 19th century. By the 1950s, those houses were possibly no longer feasible to build or maintain. The style was no longer in fashion and hadn't yet achieved its "classic" status (with the possible exception of some larger mansions like the Carson House in Eureka, CA), so buildings of that type weren't yet desirable. I don't think Victorians came to be really coveted until the 1970s or 80s.
posted by LionIndex at 10:06 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

In general, also, at the time shows like the Addams Family were on the air, the current trend for looking to the past for aesthetic inspiration just didn't exist. Newer was better.

Keep in mind this the era of "better living through chemistry", tomorrowland, bigger/better/faster/more.

The idea of "oh what a beautiful old X" is very new, ironically enough.
posted by Sara C. at 10:12 PM on July 21, 2013

I agree with everyone else. The houses are inherently contrary to the sleek modernism that was starting to prevail in the 50s and 60s, just in the same way the Munsters and the Addams families were (supposedly, superficially) contrary to the Cleaver family types they lived among.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:31 PM on July 21, 2013

Best answer: Charles Addams was a huge architecture fan (one possibly apocryphal story has him breaking into Victorian mansions to sketch). This article may be helpful:
Why we imagine haunted houses in Victorian style

"Steven J. Mariconda notes in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural (2006), '[a]s a style favored by the upper class of their era, houses that were once places of privilege became symbols of a decayed aristocracy and places of mystery' for the solidly middle class middle America of the middle twentieth century"
posted by Paragon at 10:47 PM on July 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

Also, they're just BIG. By the time the Addams Family was a thing, you didn't have houses on regular old streets that were big enough for several generations plus the help. Also, Victorian houses have all sorts of tiny staircases (for the servants) and weird little attic rooms (for the servants).
posted by small_ruminant at 10:47 PM on July 21, 2013

Came here to rec "Better for Haunts" and was beaten to the punch, so I will simply second it. Very interesting stuff.
posted by PussKillian at 10:51 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ghost stories and haunted places (and vampires and Dr Frankenstein) were something from Europe - things from the past, and Euro past is much older than US past. Castles haunted with people who died violent deaths centuries ago. Often aristocrats. Ruins and cemeteries hundreds of years old. etc. And these even moreso aristocrats. Much like sacred relics, spooky things weren't new things, they would be old things. Usually old great things fallen to ruin - dark places, not brightly lit places. The US didn't have those kind of old things. Likewise, secret passages have a long history, and (in story at least) tend to be set in great/large rather than poor/small structures. Likewise, stories of ghost ships were from the era of sail.

If you're going to set a haunted/spooky house in the US, to pull the established strings it should be old, large, decrepit, yet sufficiently American to fit the setting.
posted by anonymisc at 12:24 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

As someone who watched TV in the 50's and 60's, oinopaponton is spot on.
posted by rmmcclay at 1:15 AM on July 22, 2013

The Psycho house was also a weathered Victorian, though like Addams's favored style, was more Second Empire than Gothic (I would also say that many Second Empire elements in the Munsters house were obscured when it was redressed for that series; Second Empire was how it looked before that). For that matter, The Birds had its very Victorian Gothic schoolhouse, and even Shadow of a Doubt had its Italianate Victorian. In all these cases, I think it's important to realize that Hitchcock was intentionally subverting classic imagery of Americana. Night of the Hunter, by the way, was another classic of the era that used Gothic architecture emblematically.

It was also very true that this was an era in which Gothic and Second Empire -- even more specifically, but also generally Victorian -- architecture were deprecated and hated, much as we're seeing currently with Brutalist architecture, and represented by the wave of demolitions (particularly Penn Station) that actually birthed the historic preservation movement in the US. (What I wouldn't give if we still had our courthouse today....) Some of that was just visual taste, but there were also underlying thematic elements such as what this architecture represented in American history -- things like Westward Expansion, and Victorian attitudes toward women and sex.
posted by dhartung at 2:20 AM on July 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

By the time I grew up in a similar sort of house in the 1980s (same era, not really a mansion), I could definitely see--even remodeled--why such a house would be seen as 'haunted' if it wasn't kept up. Even the one that *was* kept up, there were constant little noises. Even after we drove the bats out of the attic and tried to seal it, individual bats and sometimes birds would still get inside. There were mice skittering in the walls. There were spiders in the basement. All the electrical stuff had been added after-the-fact and the lights would often flicker upstairs just from having too many things running at once, and we just plain couldn't make an air conditioner run. The stairs creaked. The floors creaked.

My grandparents' house was built in the 1950s or 1960s, and was hardly brand new at that same time, but had none of the same problems. If things had been reversed, if we'd lived in the tidy modern place and my grandparents had lived in the aging Victorian, I think I would have found the Victorian terrifying, instead of just really annoying.
posted by Sequence at 5:27 AM on July 22, 2013

I have a hypothesis,

The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allen Poe.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:32 AM on July 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

Maybe I'm being a little simplistic, but doesn't any "house with a lot of secrets that you can explore" basically have to have a bunch of rooms? And it has to be abandoned (i.e. older). And it has to be in this country's historical architectural style.

That pretty much only leaves an Addam's Family-type house. You can't get a lot of tension-inducing creeping from room to room in a crackerbox.
posted by DU at 6:12 AM on July 22, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who responded, and especially to Weighted Companion Cube and Paragon - this is helpful.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:15 AM on July 22, 2013

Best answer: I had heard it was due to the Panic of 1893 (wikipedia). In short, the major depression caused a crash in the housing market, leading to a lot of abandoned Victorian mansions, which later became the spooky empty house of haunted legend.
posted by fings at 9:59 AM on July 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

A ghost story needs a place where ghosts and living people might plausibly meet on the ghost's (and author's) terms, and for a 20th-century person reading ghost stories or watching scary movies, the plausible place (other than the town cemetery, of course) would have been an abandoned house in or near town.

At the time, such places would have been Victorian houses (mansions by modern standards), and all the better, because they were big, creaky affairs with lots of rooms on at least four levels (basement, first floor, second floor, attic). An abandoned property would likely have been out of the center of town (isolated), disconnected from any utilities (dark and cold), too big to take care of (large, labyrinthine, disorienting), and therefore in disrepair (dangerously crumbling).

And by dint of having been written into earlier ghost stories, such houses naturally accrued an extra creepiness over time that they wouldn't otherwise have had, so they would have become even more effective for later ghost stories.
posted by pracowity at 12:12 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a further data point, Dark Shadows, also of this era (The Adams Family and The Munsters ran from 1964-1966, and Dark Shadows premiered in 1966) keeps up the gothic tradition of scary old houses full of monsters.

One of the houses used for the exterior shots of the Collins family's ancestral home, Collinswood, in Dark Shadows, was Carey Mansion, which has an interesting and somewhat spooky history of its own. The house was built in Washington, D.C., but its owner, an obscenely wealthy man named Bradley, decided to relocate his mansion (why not?) to Rhode Island, so he had it dissassembled, brick by brick. The move cost him around $2,000,000. He basically took his big old mansion and added it on to an existing big old mansion, Seaview Terrace, to create one big whopping monstrosity of a house (around 40,000 square feet). Bradley's wife died in their home, in 1929, and was buried there; supposedly her ghost haunts the place, where she can be heard playing the old piano.

Amother old house used in the series (and also the movie based on the series, House of Dark Shadows), Spratt Mansion, burned to the ground in 1969 as a result of arson, but Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, which took its place, is still around; it's now a National Historic Landmark. It also served as the setting for the 1975 movie The Stepford Wives.
posted by misha at 11:48 AM on July 23, 2013

My personal unsubstantiated theory is that another factor here is the work of Thomas Story Kirkbride, specifically what was known as "The Kirkbride Plan". Kirkbride believed that designing better buildings for the treatment of the mentally ill would improve patient outcomes, and around the middle of the nineteenth century, he succeeded in getting people to start building them:
Kirkbride developed his requirements based on a philosophy of Moral Treatment. The typical floor plan, with long rambling wings arranged “en echelon” (staggered, so each connected building still received sunlight and fresh air), was meant to promote privacy and comfort for patients. The building form itself was meant to have a curative effect, meant as “a special apparatus for the care of lunacy,” and Kirkbride wrote that their grounds should be “highly improved and tastefully ornamented.
The asylums tended to be large, imposing, Victorian-era institutional buildings within extensive surrounding grounds, which often included farmland, sometimes worked by patients as part of physical exercise and therapy. While the vast majority were located in the United States, similar facilities were built in Canada, and a psychiatric hospital in Australia was influenced by Kirkbride's recommendations. By 1900 the notion of "building-as-cure" was largely discredited, and in the following decades these large facilities became too expensive to maintain. Many Kirkbride Plan asylums still stand today. Most are abandoned, neglected, and vandalized.
Now, this theory goes completely against the theories outlined above. It holds that the Victorian Kirkbride buildings were initially seen as places of cleanliness and light and hope, but that they failed. They fell into disrepair. Elderly lobotomized patients were seen shambling down dark halls through the broken shutters. It's less about Victorian architecture representing creepy ideals or older creepy buildings, and more about failure: architecture-as-cure turning into architecture-as-symptom.

I guess this is a little different than the classic "Haunted House on a Hill" but there's definitely the "Spooky Victorian Home For the Criminally Insane" trope too. Both are places kids dare their friends to ride their BMXs to. But one is haunted by the ghost of murdered toy impresario, and the other by the victims of an insane doctor who did experiments on them.

Anyway, there's a lot of stuff on the internet about Kirkbride buildings.
posted by jeb at 9:17 PM on July 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wasn't there kind of a cultural obsession with the occult during the Victorian era, especially among the aristocratic classes? I wonder if people associated these old houses with the séances that may have taken place there at one time.
posted by evil otto at 3:06 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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