Happy Halloween, everyone! Have you ever wondered why it is that popular opinion has long viewed old houses as creepy, scary and almost certainly “haunted”? Many will be quick to blame television — or Hollywood in general — but movies are only partly to blame. The trend actually began much earlier… with books.

Yes, before movies, television and the digital age arrived, people enjoyed a good scare through books. Mary Shelley first published her novel Frankenstein in 1818 — two hundred years ago! That book no doubt helped to shape and foment popular opinion regarding the inherent character of decrepit old buildings. Similar “Gothic novels” were popular in the 1700’s. The book genre has changed a lot since then — the concepts of “creepy” and “haunted” are now more closely associated with Victorian-era houses of the nineteenth century rather than earlier European castles (and more emphasis is now placed on romance).

Let’s take a look at some of the ways books (and Hollywood) have served to reinforce the stereotype that old houses are decidedly spooky (and probably haunted)!

Indoctrination often begins early… with children and young adults! This 1933 Nancy Drew novel illustration perfectly captures the image we’re all led to believe about old houses: they attract lightning, rain, danger, mystery and almost certainly ghosts. Though the house as described in the book sounds very Italianate, the illustrator appears to have drawn from his imagination rather than an actual house for inspiration. Frontispiece, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, 1933 by Carolyn Keene (a.k.a. Mildred Wirt), Grosset & Dunlap, NY.

The endpapers of books in the Judy Bolton mystery series also promote the idea of perpetual storms and lightning in association with old houses. The dead trees are a nice touch, too. Another house which is not stylistically pure, but sports the seemingly requisite tower. Endpapers, The Haunted Attic, 1932 by Margaret Sutton, Grosset & Dunlap, NY.

Girls were not the only target for the indoctrination… boys were just as vulnerable when it came to stereotyping Victorian houses! Here Frank and Joe Hardy are dwarfed by a looming house which suggests a vaguely Second Empire character. Cover, The Disappearing Floor, 1940 by Franklin W. Dixon, Grosset & Dunlap, NY.

In the 1960’s, Gothic novels experienced a dramatic revival in paperback form. With a strong emphasis on romance, these new stories shared little in common with older books in the Gothic tradition such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher — except for the inclusion of a creepy old house. The new genre was quite formulated; nearly every book cover featured an attractive young woman urgently fleeing a Victorian house — and that house typically featured a single illuminated window (easily spotted in the examples below).

Here, Sheila flees a towered house of indeterminate style.

Here, Darrie flees a multi-towered Queen Anne.

Here Helen appears a bit ambivalent as she flees a fine example of the Stick style.

Here, Sabrina appears to be taking her time in fleeing a “castle” exhibiting numerous Revival influences.

Here, Dee can’t help but take one last look back at the Queen Anne she is fleeing.

Gothic novels weren’t the only way Victorian houses were maligned in the 1960’s… movies and television were more than happy to cash in on the new taste for neo-Gothic entertainment!

No doubt one of America’s most famous spooky houses, the facade built for the 1960 movie “Psycho” is still located on a Universal Studios backlot. It has inflicted more than its share of character assassination toward Second Empire style houses everywhere. Image source: https://news.avclub.com/fans-petition-to-save-the-psycho-house-which-isn-t-rea-1798266358

The trend continued in 1964 when television viewers were introduced to the Munsters. This stylistically adventurous facade disparages numerous Victorian-era styles simultaneously.
I rarely watch television or new movies so I’m not sure if there are current efforts at marginalizing Victorian houses (other than what I’ve seen done to them on HGTV). Is this still a thing? Image source: https://screenrant.com/the-munsters-trivia/
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