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The enduring horror and psychological trauma of a Gothic mansion

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Oct 14, 2020, 1:00 PM EDT

Ghosts are just as versatile as humans when it comes to the homes they take up residence in. Real estate can be just as daunting for the dead as it is for the living, so haunted houses come in all shapes and sizes. There isn't a certain historical grade or building age cutoff for malevolent spirits. Suburbs are desirable, but secrets that linger in older buildings are formidable. A mainstay of the genre is the Gothic mansion, which provided the location for scares long before cinema in novels by Emily Brontë and Edgar Allan Poe short stories. A once-impressive building is now in a state of disarray, and the creaking and dilapidated condition only adds to the frightening visage. While the estate is likely lacking funds, the rich history provides a wealth of spooky material in drumming up scares for the residents, visiting guests, and the audience.

Certain rooms, such as attics, basements, and bathrooms, are ideal for terrifying antics, but sometimes the whole home is the issue. The haunted house genre is a real estate listing smorgasbord including The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring, Paranormal Activity, and The Sixth Sense. Some notable Gothic mansion attributes, such as a sense of isolation for guests and its rundown state, are present in these movies, but they lack all the necessary ingredients. Meanwhile, The Shining's Overlook Hotel bears some Gothic story hallmarks and is a private residence for the winter. The cabin fever and secret rooms combined with the literal and figurative ghosts — not to mention the maze — are all signatures of this subgenre, but the hotel element ensures that it only gets an honorable mention rather than stealing the spotlight. Back in 1932, James Whale's comedy-horror classic The Old Dark House jump-started an exploration into why this has been an effect setting across nearly a century of filmmaking.

Credit: Universal/Getty Images

The film opens on a stormy night when three friends abandon their car because they are at risk of driving off the road. Stumbling upon the titular residence, the group seeks shelter in this hour of need. They are met with a mixed welcome from the Femm family, who provide refreshments and a dose of terrifying warnings about violent people in the house. While there are no actual spirits within, the production design and monstrous presence evoke Gothic imagery.

"We make our own electric light here, and we are not very good at it. Pray, don't be alarmed if they go out altogether," Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) explains regarding the unreliable utilities. Lighting and electricity (or the lack of) is one way to emphasize the Gothic aesthetic, but these stories are not predicated on a complete lack of technology. The run-down state of the abode simply emphasizes this factor. Levity in this genre isn't relegated to the 1930s; The Addams Family in all its renditions uses the family home for humor and to subvert expectations. 

Credit: Netflix 

The mix of modernity and deep wounds from the past is prevalent in Mike Flanagan’s Haunting anthology for Netflix. The incredibly popular first series kicked off with an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s iconic 1959 novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House. It's a definitive Gothic ghost story that has been adapted for the stage, screen, and radio, and Jackson provides the blueprint that many have followed. “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more,” she writes. Despite the decay, there is a far greater force keeping the structure in place.

Terror comes not only from within the walls of the once-impressive New England accommodation, but the secret inner life of the characters also poses a risk. Flanagan’s 2018 version emphasized the link between deep-rooted family trauma, mental health, addiction, and the evil that permeates the fixer-upper that draws the Crain family to this abode during one fateful summer. The ripple effects stretch far beyond the walls of this address while also acting as a gravitational pull to some of the remaining siblings. 

Credit: MGM

Taking the bones of the narrative (and the name of the house), the loose rendition of Jackson’s novel explores intersecting psychological frights with real specters. The reveal that Nell Crain (Victoria Pedretti) has been seeing visions of her own ghost as the terrifying Bent-Neck Lady — who is unable to warn her of the trap she will walk into — ensures her demise is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The house wanted to claim her for its own, and it is successful in this venture. The psychological aspect is present in the novel and the 1963 movie adaptation The Haunting, while the 1999 version (also called The Haunting) is more interested in actual spirits and scares rather than the nuance of Jackson’s novel.

Duality is part of the appeal of this location, in which the remote location and decaying structure are symbolic beyond a frightful image. “It’s a privilege we were born into, and one we can never relinquish,” explains Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when his blushing bride Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) enters the once-grand Allerdale Hall in Crimson Peak. From the outside, the heavy iron gates and peaked turret structure that cuts the chilly Northumberland skyline is a foreboding but impressive sight. From within, the ceiling has rotted away — it is colder outside than in — and red clay bleeds through the floorboards. Edith is instructed to stay away from the basement and any locked door for her safety. The literal ghosts she sees are explained away as her imagination, and the ghastly wind is blamed for the harsh sounds. She is told by her new husband that the house itself breathes. 

Credit: Universal Pictures

From the trailer alone, the Gothic credentials of Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 horror romance are fully on display, including baronet Thomas Sharpe’s assessment of his ancestral home: “A house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing. It starts holding onto things ... keeping them alive when they shouldn't be. Some of them are good; some of them bad ... Some should never be spoken about again.” Del Toro also wrote the introduction in the 2013 edition of Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, which emphasizes his love of the genre. The movie opens with the death of Edith’s mother in 1887 and a glimpse of her ghost warning her daughter of the Crimson Peak danger. This message from the great beyond doesn't give any context, so Edith is unaware of her soon-to-be husband's nickname for his family estate until she is already inside.

Not only do these stories reflect the anxieties of the characters, but they also portray the ruptures in society. At the turn of the new century, technology is exploding, and America is gaining more power. The Sharpe title might sound fancy, but it is little more than window dressing covering the cracks of a lost fortune — a lesson Edith learns upon her arrival at Allerdale Hall. The staircase might be grand (a key feature of all Gothic homes), but it can't hide the giant hole in the roof that allows snow and soot to rain down. 

Credit: Universal Pictures 

Decades of abuse and rage linger within, and the red clay is far from the only sticky crimson substance that has been spilled within these grounds. The floorboards and ceiling are far from the only rotten elements of this archaic building. Latent Victorian repression, family trauma, and forbidden love provide the base for this haunting tale of a woman who breaks the Sharpe sibling spell. 

Written at the turn of the century, when the world was hurtling toward exciting inventions and a world war, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, ticks a lot of the Gothic haunted house boxes. An unnamed governess is charged with looking after two orphaned children at the remote Bly Manor location, but the lack of apprehension when the governess arrives is a noticeable difference to the usual unease experienced by the new resident of this genre.

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The Innocents is the 1961 adaptation of this story, which sees Miss Giddens' (Deborah Kerr) cheerful arrival when she first sets eyes on the sun-dappled grounds — she even asks the coachman to let her out early so she can walk through the gardens. Upon entering the house she is just as happy, marveling at the size of the manor. Housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) quips that "half the rooms are empty now" and it is "a job to keep clean.” Another Gothic staple is all the extra space gathering dust that represents eroded status, as society pays less attention to traditional hierarchal structures. Land and gentry are far from extinct, but the old rules no longer apply to all, as the middle class has expanded. Additionally, the upkeep and staffing for a home like this often far outweigh the existing bank balance.

Holding onto customs and titles in a world that is changing is part of the fabric that suggests not only is this house a relic but so are the institutions these families are rooted in. A newcomer disrupts the already crumbling status quo, and the faded decor is a reminder those so-called glory days are long gone. The staff is far smaller than it used to be, but loyalty is baked into their sense of duty — like Mrs. Grose in the various Turn of the Screw adaptations.


The second series in the Haunting anthology is taking on the Henry James classic (while weaving in two other short stories by the author), which includes the staff who run the manor for the uncle, who has no wish to set foot in this building.

Setting the action in 1987 means the governess is now a nanny/tutor — Victoria Pedretti is leaving Nell Crain and the Bent-Neck Lady behind to take on the role of Dani Clayton. Bright daytime cheer juxtaposed against terrifying nighttime events, far too many dolls, and precocious children are the perfect setup for an updated take on this classic Gothic story. 

Credit: Associated Film Distribution/Getty Images

Dani is running away from her painful past and unfortunately turns to Bly Manor as her temporary salvation. A place like this will always magnify those problems and even wield this as a weapon. In the 1980 horror classic, The Changeling composer John Russell (George C. Scott) moves to Seattle after his wife and daughter die in a car accident. Taking a job as a music professor, he moves into an abandoned mansion that boasts a music room in a bid to work through his grief.

Trauma is often at the heart of Gothic horror, leading the protagonist to question their sanity (or others fear they are coming apart at the seams). Sorrow has a supernatural pull in this case, which explores John's isolation and anguish through a terrifying series of events. 

Credit: Focus Features

Family is a central theme weaving its way through all of the movies and TV shows discussed within. These particular ghosts that linger in the shadows are both figurative and literal. In Lenny Abrahamson's 2018 gothic drama The Little Stranger, the years have not been kind to Hundreds Hall. An estate that once stood tall is now falling apart. Set in 1948, the wounds of World War II linger both physically and mentally. Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) lives in his family home with his mother and sister; his severe burn scars from his time in the RAF still cause great pain. When Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to treat an unwell maid — who is actually just scared of the house — he tries to offer Roderick remedies too and becomes beguiled by the setting. Faraday's link to this building dates back to his childhood, when his mother worked as a maid and the Ayres family hosted grand parties. Nearly 30 years later and Faraday has status through his medical career and the Ayres family is fading into obscurity. The movie explores desire, class boundaries, and the death of a child amid the disturbing supernaturally charged events within these once-opulent walls.

It doesn’t matter if it is a story written in the 1950s, the 19th century, or the last five years, the potency of this setting is timeless. The dark corners, cobwebs, and dust covers draped over furniture are indicative of the old glory that once existed. These manors and grand halls are a reminder of what was and the pain that has filled the cracks of the still impressive but creaky building. Viewers are still drawn to these familiar stories because, while not everyone has lived on acres of land or had a fancy title bestowed upon them, the notion of secrets and trying to keep aspects of the past buried is universal. Skeletons are hidden in everyone's closets, but in the case of Gothic mansions, some of these will no doubt spring to life — the shadows cannot conceal everything.

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