From gothic mansion to haunted house: what makes a building spooky?
This Halloween, what will you do? Sit in the dark, hiding from trick-or-treaters, or scare yourself with a slasher movie? Going on a ghost walk or a haunted house tour? Remember the dear departed from All Hallows, or do you embrace the holiday season which now stretches through to Mexican Day of the Dead on November 2? Halloween culture is big business.
We can trace the origins of this love of spooky things very precisely. In 1764, Horace Walpole, the nervous son of the first British Prime Minister, published a strange book titled The castle of Otranto, a great story of supernatural shenanigans in medieval Italy. It was posted anonymously, with apologies for its crass superstitions. A success, Walpole quickly put his name to it and added the subtitle “A Gothic Romance”.
Walpole’s book was inspired by the strange house he created in Strawberry Hill on the banks of the Thames near Richmond. In the 1720s, his father built the classic country house model, Houghton Hall in Norfolk, a celebration of majestic Palladian architecture. In response, from 1747, Horace spent 50 years crafting an eccentric house in a mix of ancient styles borrowed from medieval churches, cloisters and castles across Europe. You can still visit this fantasy, a key origin of British Gothic Revival.
William Beckford was another outrageous Gothic book writer and builder of great follies. His home, Fonthill, was a medieval mock abbey in Wiltshire. His mania for building consumed the family fortune acquired from the sugar cane plantations in the West Indies. Beckford eventually depleted his funds and was forced to sell the place in 1822. On a windy night in 1825, his huge spire overturned, leaving little room.
The story goes that on his deathbed, the master builder confessed that he had run out of money intended for adequate foundations. Without them, the house was doomed to fall.
Yet Fonthill’s influence can be traced to examples such as the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, completed in 1860. By this time, the revivalists had revalued Gothic as national architecture, a symbol of centuries of security and continuity. . In his writings, John Ruskin and other supporters tried to flush out all the moldy cobwebs of Gothic as a progressive movement, to displace the association with ancient horror. No chance.
Walpole made sure the horror and the houses were linked from the start. Classics of literature often speak of haunted or cursed houses. They began as symbols of a malevolent past, sieges of feudal tyrants threatening serious representatives of modern England.
Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 bestseller, The mysteries of Udolph, established this plot. The labyrinths of this decaying castle resonate through the ages, from “The Fall of House Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe or from Bly Manor by Henry James in his Screw turn to the 2000 novel by Mark Danielewski The house of leaves, a puzzling puzzle of a story about vast spaces that open up inside a tiny house in Virginia.
Cinema thrives in these difficult spaces. James whale The old dark house in 1932 was one of the first films to be classified by censorship as a “horror” film. It taught us that it’s never a good idea to go upstairs. Hitchcock psychopath used the disturbing space of the house on the hill overlooking the Bates Motel as a map of Norman Bates’ deranged mind. This time it’s best to avoid the basement.
In both John Carpenter Halloween and Stanley Kubrick The brilliant, innovations in film technology have allowed the camera to glide with a dissociated effect through rooms and hallways, making every door a menacing void and making every space in the house decidedly unpleasant.
It is still a common trope in the Gothic genre to see churches or mansions signaling a lingering evil past. But this is just as often found on the ruins of modern institutions. Abandoned prisons or hospitals fascinate us because they represent a past architecture of optimistic reform, the belief that the buildings themselves could help rehabilitate themselves.
Nowadays, the ruins of mental institutions mark our horror of so-called “persuasive architecture,” buildings that were supposed to monitor, coerce and coax obedient subjects into restrictive standards. This is the horror of Sam Fuller’s movies Shock corridor at Martin Scorsese Shutter island.
Likewise, a Gothic hue has engulfed abandoned malls or entire ghost towns, places left behind due to economic fragility. It is no wonder that several horror films take place or touch on the plight of Pripyat, the town that housed workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and which was left under arrest when it was evacuated. Fukushima, after the nuclear disaster of 2011, is another space of ruins, as is New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The ruins of Detroit have served as the backdrop for many recent horror films, including It follows. The zombie apocalypse introduced us to the gutting of modern urban space, from the family home as an area of destruction to empty views of downtown where complex cities have collapsed in an instant.
The updated Gothic spaces aren’t limited to castle ruins on beetle cliffs beneath gibbous moons. What also horrifies us is the superficiality, spaces with a disturbing lack of history. psychopathThe best-known murder scene isn’t in the Gothic house above, but in the bland motel rooms below. Bates gets away with it because he is trafficking rootless vagrants.
In the 2005 novel by Hilary Mantel Beyond the dark, the spiritualist medium is harassed by her ghosts in the square rooms of new housing estates with invented pastoral names, or in the seedy conference centers off the M25. The controversial 2008 film lake of eden takes place during the construction of a closed private estate that attracts violence from the poor avengers displaced from its land. Sudanese asylum seekers haunted by terrors of their difficult stint in England at their dingy hollow council house in 2020 Remi Weekes film His home.
Standardized suburban housing units have long had hidden secrets, as we know from Ira Levin’s 1972 novel. The Women of Stepford, or Hell’s Mouth under Sunnydale in Buffy the vampire slayer, or Jordan Peele’s satirical take on the racial politics of wealthy white suburbs in 2017 Get out. Ben Wheatley’s Horror Kill list it’s all the better to start in bland suburbs, hotel chain rooms and car parks, or in boxes in industrial zones on dilapidated edges.
This sensitivity has crept into the mainstream. In their book Horror in architecture, Joshua Comaroff and Ker-Shing Ong argued that the Modernist home, this vision of openness and transparency, still hides horrible voids or “obscene and recessive spaces” behind its curtain-shuttered windows and white walls. The book is almost an introduction to Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, the luxurious rational space of a prestigious Seoul home hiding dark secrets of violent inequality in its bowels.
We no longer need the malicious characteristics of the Ruined Castle or the Standard Haunted House. This Halloween, it might be worth thinking about the horrors that Gothic sensibility can now step out of our ordinary, everyday spaces. The Gothic is hidden as much under the luminous halogen lamps as in the dark shadows.
Roger Luckhurst’s book “Gothic: An Illustrated History” is published by
Thames and Hudson
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