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It's time to dissect the house of horrors into its blood-chilling parts.
The interior of a dilapidated prison building, showing a long corridor with doors on both sides
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia – image © alamy

There are many factors that contribute to a good ghost story: a fear invoking setting, a tragedy, and unexplainable supernatural phenomena. While all of these elements are essential to create a thrilling tale, the architectural setting and the landscape play a major role in creating the right atmosphere for the plot. Therefore, in many a story or legend, the haunted house plays a central role to the haunting, and with good cause.

From a skeptic's point of view, the visions of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are products of an imagination. However, imagination or not, it is hard to deny that the myths of supernatural occurrences and the feelings of spirituality are deeply embedded in the general public’s psyche. These myths and experiences are generally shaped by personal expectations in the right atmosphere and setting.

This is mostly due to architecture’s power to manipulate our actions and feelings. We experience examples of this every day in various spaces we occupy; the effects of public square designs on our behavior and movement, the winding and maze-like layout of IKEA stores to encourage spending more time and money, the disorienting casinos cut off from the outside world to forget the time, and Disneyland with carefully designed spaces to create a magical illusion and shopping fest. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine that certain types of architecture can distort the sense of space and orientation to create a mysterious, uncomfortable and uncanny effect.

While there are stories of public spaces and even whole cities being haunted, the image that most readily lends itself to a spooky setting in the mind is of the haunted mansion. This is reasonable, as dwellings are where we grow the most attachment. Home is seen as the root of our daily life. As Alain de Botton explains in The Architecture of Happiness, “[the house] has provided not only physical but also psychological sanctuary. It has been a guardian of identity.” This important bond between the dwelling and the dweller imprints itself into the architecture, leaving the ghostly traces of past inhabitants in its skeleton. As mentioned in Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey, “Ideologies, aesthetics, demographics change, but the buildings are left behind.” And with the buildings, we get a glimpse into its past.

As a result, architecture is found to be in the heart of many ghost stories, for a building can be both the setting and the object of a haunting. Examples of these are deeply embedded in popular culture, literature, legends and urban myths. An interesting consequence of the architectural ghost stories is its ability to bring the old, forgotten and sometimes condemned buildings back into the spotlight. The abandoned buildings can be introduced back into the culture through legends.

Architecture as the setting of a haunting has the idea of unheimlich, or the uncanny, at its core. Anything that creates a feeling of confusion, unsettlement, and a deviation from the conventional or the familiar can fall into this category. Hence deserted spaces and architecturally quirky buildings are often the locale of a ghost story. Abandoned houses provoke the imagination as to why they were left in the first place; creating a sinister feeling of abandonment in a place that should be warm and homely. This is also the reason why ruin porn has possessed a strange attraction in popular culture: these structures reflect the reality of our own insignificance and the inevitable deterioration of what we have created to be lasting.

Interior of an abandoned house, showing a dilapidated dining room with dark wood furniture and peeling ceiling
The interior of an abandoned house – image © Michel Heisbourg

Apart from the ominous effect of abandoned ruins, many structures with strange and disorienting architectural features also associated with ghost stories. As Dickey expresses in Ghostland, “the most unusual the house, the more likely it’ll cause unease among its neighbors and we seem to require some sort of story to explain its construction.” Examples to this are the Winchester house (which is dubbed as the most haunted house in the world) and the House of 7 Gables in Salem. For those unfamiliar with these structures, The Winchester House is a construction of fear and superstition beyond logic, made up of an endless labyrinth of rooms, dead end staircases, trap doors and detours. This aim of this architectural contraption of desperation was aimed to confuse vengeful spirits, from a small scale (like the details of keyholes) to a larger scale. Similarly, The House of 7 Gables in Salem was a construction in a constant state of change and addition. This Victorian or gothic style house has become a popular trope for haunted settings, possibly from the influences of popular culture at the time, like the literary works of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and the rise of spiritualism in that era.

Facade of the Winchester House with its many windows and doors on upper floors opening up to voids
The Door to Nowhere on Winchester the House façade – image © Winchester Mystery House

Architecture can also be seen as the object of a haunting, which prompts the question “to what extent is the house alive?” A house that has lost its purpose to be homely, stuck in the limbo between alive and dead, functional and desolate, is unquestionably the essence of unheimlich. This unsettling approach has influenced many stories in our popular culture, such as the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. In the latter novel, the house appears to be larger on the inside than it is outside, changing its dimensions and spaces on a whim of its own with no rules.

So, what makes up the anatomy of a haunted house?

An essential factor is the sense of emptiness, of abandonment and of faint signs of previous occupants. This creates the feeling of being alone in an increasingly sinister feeling hollowed out space. The presences of quirky, unexplainable architectural details also contribute to the history of a haunted building. Architecture that is difficult to understand or decipher, leads to enough open-ended questions to feed the fuel for imagination and superstition. Lastly, common architectural elements such as unforgiving, cold exteriors (and aggressive architectural elements such as towers) are also commonly used in books and movies as forbidding settings.

The use of these architectural elements that have held a place in our subconscious as “spooky” contribute to our perception of the spaces we inhabit. Therefore, participants of the “ghost tourism” often claim to experience supernatural visions and sounds in the spaces marketed as haunted. However, most of the details in haunting stories have been debunked for years. For example, in the case of the house of 7 Gables, which possesses a hidden staircase spiraling around a chimney, has been the object of a famous ghost story. Many visitors have claimed to hear or see supernatural phenomena at this location. However, it has been later confessed by the owners of the house that the staircase was added to the building later on to encourage the ghost tourism in a once-forgotten house. So, as in its nature, architecture was used to create a narrative, but this time of a haunted past that does not exist.

Therefore, the architectural properties of the spaces we occupy have the power to affect our psyche in a manner to trigger our imaginations. Whether this trigger is a vision of the supernatural, or just a creeping feeling of uneasiness, we as architects should consider the legacy we are leaving behind can also become a strange, haunted mark in history.


Reading Recommendation

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski


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