Spooky Architecture?

The Second Empire style of architecture has become Hollywood’s “go to” setting for tales of paranormal phenomenon and spine-tingling horror.  Todd Mansion, found in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, (pictured above) is arguably Atlantic Canada’s greatest example of Second Empire domestic architecture.  Had I taken this photo at night with a full moon hanging low over the wrought iron cresting and eerily illuminating the path to the front door, you would instantly expect that I was about to regale you with some sort of scary tale associated with the place.  Don’t worry.  Even though it is just two days before Halloween, as I write this, I do not wish to contribute to the monstrous body of irrational fears that are already associated with these nineteenth century masterpieces.   Still, it is a curious association.

When did pop culture first usurp this noble style and twist it into the macabre mansion of faulty electric wiring and secret passages?  And why this particular style anyway?

I’ll take a “stab” at a few answers.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates has become so entrenched in our culture as the gold standard of the genre and progenitor of so many horror /thriller stories produced since its release, that everyone knows it – even if they’ve never actually watched it.  And the set – the Bates Motel, with that old Second Empire style house looming behind is, I hate to say it, perfect.  The choice of house is said to have been influenced by a painting by artist, Edward Hopper (1882-1967), titled “The House by the Railroad” (1925).  That house was, of course, a Second Empire house.

In 1964, The Munsters aired on CBS.  Once again, a Second Empire house was chosen as the set for the creepy characters with the over-the-top Gothic appearance.

Similarly, the Addams Family’s Second Empire residence has “endeared” itself to many as that franchise successfully introduces itself to succeeding generations through cartoons, television, movies and video games.  Creator, Charles Addams (1912-1988) first brought the family to life with single panel cartoons illustrated for The New Yorker.  Perhaps the earliest and arguably the most influential depiction of the iconic haunted house in the Second Empire style is an Addams cartoon titled, Boiling Oil.  It appeared in the December 21, 1946 issue of The New YorkerBoiling Oil depicts Addams family members tipping a cauldron of hot oil onto carolers below from the top of the central tower of their Second Empire home.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Second Empire style had fallen out of favour with architects and builders who were busy satisfying new tastes like the popular Queen Anne Revival style.  So, by the 1940s, 50s and into the 60s the once fashionable and unique Mansard roof appeared dated.  It is perhaps the distinctive roof feature that, more than anything amplified the peculiar nature of the architecture to a point that it became a likely candidate for ghosts and ghouls.  Additionally, the iron cresting generally associated with the style is reminiscent of cemetery gates.  The often generous scale of Second Empire homes also contributes to the mystery of a “typical” haunted house.  And finally, the massing and profile of the style lends itself well to the all important interplay of light and shadow – especially spectacular on dark and stormy nights.  Happy Halloween everybody.

Posted by Joe Oct 29, 2013 Posted in Atlantic Canada Comments Off

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