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The Architecture Behind The Quintessential Haunted House


Picture the quintessential haunted house. Maybe you're imagining the Addams family home, or perhaps the Bates Motel from Hitchcock's "Psycho." They have one thing in common - I mean, besides being spooky.

On this night before Halloween, Mary Jo Bowling from the website Curbed joins us to explain the theme. Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: OK, what's the answer to the quiz? What do these houses have in common?

BOWLING: Well, they're all Victorians.

SHAPIRO: So we're talking about towers, ornate, decorative trim, turrets. The Victorian period was named for Queen Victoria, who reigned over England through a lot of the 1800s. What does she actually have to do with us thinking of Victorian houses as haunted?

BOWLING: Well, Queen Victoria had a lot of sadness in her life. She lost her husband. And in an age where mourning was something of an art and a social tradition, she took it to a new level.

SHAPIRO: Queen Victoria actually wore black in mourning for decades.

BOWLING: Mmm hmm (ph).

SHAPIRO: And that obsession with death, you write, translated to some of the architectural features that we find in Victorian houses.

BOWLING: To our modern eyes it did seem like Victorians were obsessed with death. In fact, they would often put funeral images, funerary urns, things like that...

SHAPIRO: Medusa heads with snakes coming out of their head instead of hair.

BOWLING: Yeah. Medusa was said to ward off evil and death. And that was worked into the architectural trend. Death was a real part of Victorian life. People did not, you know, typically die in a hospital. They would die at home. And many Victorian homes had particular rooms where the dead were laid out and visited by and mourned by relatives.

SHAPIRO: These rooms were also so crowded, ornate, full of fancy furniture and ornamental objects, that they seem hard to keep up, so easy for them to get cobwebs, dust, the sorts of things that we associate with haunting.

BOWLING: Well, it was layered, and it was dark. That is true. And the homes themselves, the exterior, that was hard to keep up. So when Victorian architecture started to fall out of favor toward the 1930s many of these homes, which were very large and very ornate, they were hard to keep up. And they became for many cities the homes that were starting to crumble and...

SHAPIRO: The spooky old house on the hill.

BOWLING: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: I wonder, as our fear evolves from ghosts and spirits to fear of technology, do we start to see more contemporary architecture? Like, I'm thinking of the movie "Ex Machina," which is about, you know, what's a robot, what's a human, and it's suspense and thriller set in a very contemporary, beautiful building. Do you think as our fears evolve the architecture that represents those fears evolves as well?

BOWLING: Possibly. In architecture and interior design it's like a pendulum. So what's beloved and cherished today is often the thing that is out of favor tomorrow. So, you know, Victorians in their age, they were very proud of their homes. They would have never thought this is spooky. But then the pendulum swings. So the things that we really cherish today, the clean, minimal lines of modernism, that could be looked at as cold, brutal and frightening in a later age.

SHAPIRO: That's Mary Jo Bowling from the real estate website Curbed. Her research on spooky Victorian architecture caught our interest. Thanks so much, Mary Jo, and happy Halloween.

BOWLING: Thank you. Happy Halloween, Ari.