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Why do haunted houses look the way that they do?

This short 5-minute video by Vox is a perfect example of how, just like with fashion, architecture and design tastes are always changing. The things we like at one point in time may not be what we like in the future. And it can go from extreme desire to extreme disgust. In this video, Vox makes the argument that the mansions of America’s Gilded Age are the reason why all haunted houses seem to look the same in popular culture and in our imaginations.

Once the extreme desire of America’s nouveau riche (who were clearly trying to emulate rich Europeans), they fell out of favor with the arrival of modernism and a new cultural ethos. All of a sudden it wasn’t fashionable to have copious amounts of ornament and labyrinthian-like floor plans filled with a bunch of gaudy stuff. So the rich moved on and many of these homes fell into disrepair, setting the stage for spooky thoughts.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that it can make it difficult to discern what has design and cultural value and what doesn’t. Because something that has value today, may not have perceived value tomorrow (and it may also become the backdrop for future horror movies). Of course, the opposite is also true. We could hate something today, but eventually learn to love it.

Brutalism is perhaps a good example. Though there seems to be a groundswell of people interested in preserving this style of architecture, I continue to think that it remains a generally unloved kind of built form when it comes to the general public. So does that mean it has little present and/or future value? That’s not a straightforward question.

The other thing I find fascinating about this haunted house phenomenon is that it shows how one thing can lead to another. If the typology of haunted houses is a result of the Gilded Age mansion, then it’s also important to consider that the Gilded Age mansion is arguably a result of the new wealth that was being amassed by some Americans at the end of the 19th century.

The Gilded Age was a period economic expansion for the United States. New fortunes were being made via rail, steel, tobacco, and other industries. (Inequality was a concern.) And this new wealth was naturally looking for a way to show off (as it usually does). That happened to manifest itself in ornate European-like mansions. But had that not happened, would haunted houses look the way that they do today?

Happy Halloween.

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