Sarah Burns (Ruth N. Halls Professor of Fine Arts at Indiana University) presented a lecture entitled, Better for Haunts: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination, as part of Ohio State University's Knowlton School of Architecture Lecture Series. She discussed what was essentially the visual semiotic and cultural association of haunted houses with Gilded Age Victorian home typologies. Specifically, the analysis was nuanced by tracing a constellation of cultural and artistic signifiers spanning film, painting, literature, and architecture. That ensemble, so to speak, developed the mythology¹ haunting the Victorian home.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
- from The Haunted Palace, Edgar Allan Poe
Although the “iconic resonance” of the Bates Mansion from Hitchcock's Psycho was discussed alongside Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher and the eerie, isolated home paintings of Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield, it was more interesting to
note, architecturally, the formal typology of the Victorian home as bastardized construction, appropriated and banalized by American bourgeois industrialists, bankers and the like during the Gilded Age. From the ubiquitous Mansard Roof to the phallic Gothic Tower to those elongated eye-like, opaque windows, one got a sense of the precedent
referenced (some High-Victorian analog), but lost sight of the specific reference (Italianate, Queen Anne, Romanesque) -- so long as it was grand, appropriated. As Prof. Burns noted, critics during the inter-war period seemed to look back on this ostentation with a healthy disdain which was more than humorous. They preferred terms like “Hideous Beauty,” “Colonial Monstrosity,” and “Turd” to describe, inadequately, the full force of their raging aesthetic disapproval – a disapproval which sought to cast these homes as essentially, defiantly ugly. As a highly visible and ornate symbol of corruption and impunity stemming from Monopolistic oligarchs, the Victorian home in America became ripe for critique and negative association almost contemporaneously with the rise in ghastly association due to bizarre crimes.
But still more curious was a home's interior and the metonymic resonance of the Victorian 'parlor' as tenor for 'old creepy house', 'the dead', or even 'psychological interiority'. Tellingly, the basic Victorian parlor functioned like the inside of some senescent Matriarch's (or Patriarch's) head. Critics, again, pointed to the omnipresence of waxy flowers, photos of the deceased (especially kids), the occasional coffin, long curtains indifferent to light, the odor of horse-hair upholstery, the senior citizenry. All amusing. These are dwellings, yes, but as some moody accumulation of years. Like meeting Proust² in Hospice.
Also interesting, is the curious anecdote about the artist, Mabel Dwight, who happened upon a deserted mansion somewhere in Long Island, and then immediately proceeded to associate Jane Eyre along with a hidden cache of her own inner torments and remembrances -- both haunting and ambiguous. Must have been those anthropomorphic windows. Like deep searing eyes, drooping, deprived of sleep perhaps. Or, the convex mansard roof hinting at the attic behind, storing all the old bones/memories?
Aspects of repression and fear, not unlike Freud's Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny)³, seem to designate and construct a largely typical engagement with the Victorian home, as a consequence (as parti even), as that ghastly, ghostly sense proliferates throughout the cultural subconscious via art and other representative media. Prof. Burns' explication couldn't have been more insightful and entertaining. Ah, the banalized history of the haunted Victorian home via monstrous trope (all that ornamentation) or critical disdain constructing the better part of our learned response every year at the local haunted house. Halloween extended in space and time through fetish.
- Roland Barthes' collection of essays, Mythologies, carefully observed social and cultural semiotic processes that elevated the signifier to mythical status. We can apply this same analysis to the myth of the 'Victorian Haunted Home' or 'Old Creepy House'.
- Marcel Proust, French novelist best known for his monumental musings on memory and time in a 7 (seven!) volume novel entitled À la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time].
- Freud's 1919 essay on positively foreign ('Unheimlich' = 'un-homely') and unsettling emotional paroxysms in aesthetics.