What will the haunted house symbolise in the future? asks Will Wiles
There are a lot of evil houses in the stories of HP Lovecraft. In The Rats in the Walls, the scratching of rodents causes the inhabitants of a house to find that it sits on suspiciously ancient foundations, which leads to more horrible discoveries. In The Lurking Fear, the almost-ruined Martense house sits atop a secret and strews murder across the surroundings. In The Dunwich Horror, the terrible deeds old Wilbur Whateley is committing are suggested by the sinister alterations he makes to his farmhouse. And in The Dreams in the Witch House, a young scholar is tormented to madness by a non-orthogonal corner in his bedroom. Lovecraft was an architecture buff, and describes all these not-so-ideal homes in pedantic detail. Certain details proliferate: sagging gambrel roofs, rotting gables, loathsome mansions long past their corrupt prime.
Lovecraft died in 1937, while still quite young. The pessimistic (and flagrantly racist) world view that informed his work sprang from a sense of humiliation. He hailed, in his view, from an excellent and venerable family brought low by medical and economic upsets. From this sense of decline came his fixation with degeneracy and decay. Literary form has followed financial disaster.
And literary form follows architectural form, too. We all know what a haunted house looks like: Victorian, Gothic. The Addams Family pile, the Bates residence in Psycho. Mansard roofs, looming gables, bullseye windows, porches, verandas. The renowned art historian Sarah Burns of Indiana University has made an exhaustive study of how this late 19th century style became ‘the prime sinister locus’ of American culture, chiefly gathered in the marvellous essay Better for Haunts: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination. To précis Burns: late-Victorian architecture was anathematised in the 1920s as a way of passing moral judgement on the tawdriness and excess of the Gilded Age. This was, in turn, a way of condemning the flashiness and superficial opulence of the pre-Crash 1920s. When artists such as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield painted houses as empty and sinister, they were indirectly passing judgement on the corruption of the day.
But were there also financial reasons for a surfeit of empty late-Victorian homes, ripe for spectral squatting? An alternative theory connects the haunted mansion to the Panic of 1893. This led to foreclosures and abandonment of property, disproportionately affecting over-large newly built homes; and by the early decades of the 20th century the eerie, unoccupied Victorian mansion at the end of the street haunted the American city, occupying the imagination long before being enshrined in culture. Bernice Murray has since connected the resurgent popularity of haunted house films to the financial struggles of the American middle class after the 2007 financial crisis. The demons stalk families alongside negative equity and bad credit. Significantly, these films mostly abandon the Victorian house and take place in generic suburbia – perhaps the new symbol of the excesses of a regrettable prior age.
Where will the hauntings strike next? The delvings of superbasement builders and the empty homes of the offshore investors seem well situated for ghostly infestation. Or perhaps the next haunted house will be the piled-high, not-so-cheap inner-city suburb in the sky. Ghostly riderless bikes on abandoned Juliet balconies, mysterious uneven stains or spectral efflorescence on the cladding, the horrifying Thing on the Doorstep the service charge statement from the management company.
Will Wiles is an author and columnist