Article by Stefan Ivašković
The American haunted house is one of the most recognizable symbols of Halloween. In whatever corner of the world you may be – you know what it looks like. It is so iconic that it has almost become a cliché. It is the Scooby Doo mansion with its wooden turrets and porches. It is Hitchcock’s “Psycho House”. It is the “Well House” in Stephen King’s “It”.
There’s a reason these tropes stand the test of time. They are, after all, “tried and true” – they speak to our collective unconscious.
Needless to say, they sell well.
And yet, simulated haunts are fairly new; they are a little more than a century old. The oldest such haunted house, simply called “Haunted House”, was built by Orton & Spooner in the year 1915 in England.
Flash forward a hundred years later, and it’s still in operation. Nowadays it is part of a fairground museum in Hampshire, the Hollycombe Steam Collection. It is a pretty basic backdrop: on the outside, it looks very naïve, like some bizarre folk art, and in recent years, it has been updated to pay homage to Universal Monsters, like the Phantom of the Opera and the Frankenstein Monster. And while it may look cliché, its crudeness amps the creep factor.
But it wasn’t until the Great Depression that haunted houses really seeped into the mainstream. They were organized by parents as “trails of terrors” – essentially, homemade haunts – to keep their children off the streets. The Halloween pranks of 1933 were apparently so violent that it was dubbed “Black Halloween”, so much that the local governments were considering whether or not to ban the holiday. So this was actually a very creative diversion to discourage vandalism – or so you’d think, because these simulated haunts were far from child’s play.
How far did it go you ask?
There’s a “do-it- yourself” manual on how to set up a fully functioning electric chair.
Ever heard of the saying “desperate times call for desperate measures”? Well, you don’t get more desperate than that!
Of course nowadays haunted attractions are a lot safer. And there’s a lot more thought and talent behind them. But more often than not, they all resort to the same stylistic devices. The man who established this canon was none other than Walt Disney, whose “Haunted Mansion” in Disneyland served as a prototype for everyone to follow.
But how did the Victorian style become synonymous with evil?
One theory suggests that it was the 20 th century demonizing the 19 th century, modernizers lashing at garnishes from bygone ages. To a certain extent that may be true; even so, there is something sinister about these lavish buildings. They are neither subtle nor sublime, always on the verge of kitsch; a mishmash of styles that has no rhyme or reason.
And that is far more unsettling than any Hammer Horror film. With Dracula’s castle, you know what you’re in for. But Victorian kitsch is like an alien trying to blend in. It’s all wrapped in mystery. It makes you wonder, what is really going behind all that decoration, behind those heavy curtains and creaky doors? In the words of H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”.