The Haunting of Victorian Houses

The Imaginary Bookshop drew my attention to this Scientific American article about how the Victorian house became so haunted.

I love haunted house stories and Victorian architecture. I also live in a Victorian house in Salem, MA. Before you get excited imaging the big gabled and turreted Painted Ladies lining the Salem Common or looming over the residential section of Essex Street, I must disappoint you and myself by clarifying that I live in what I call a workaday Victorian. No turreted windows or gables, although we do have a few bits of fancy trimming. It is a small house built in the 1880s as two apartments for a professional woman and her mother, with an attic apartment added later. My favorite part of my apartment is the pocket doors separating the living room and dinning room, and the original Art Nouveau trim around the windows and doors.

My least favorite part about my apartment is that parts of the house crumble around us if we’re not careful: the walls old horsehair plaster, the basement a flaking rubble-stone foundation, one front porch railing spindle rotting away. I don’t own the property, so I can’t invest in replacing or restoring any of these problems. I couldn’t even afford the purchase this creaky old place if it were on the market.

I was struck by these lines in the article, regarding the shift in America’s societal attitude toward Victorian homes in the 1930s and 40s:

It’s during this time that the very experience of the home came under fire for representing outdated customs. For example, prior to rise of funeral homes, it was customary for the dead to be received at home, meaning it was a Victorian custom for the deceased to be laid out in the parlour of the home for viewing. For a society looking forward, this was another perversion that these home harbored. This feeling of wrongness was able to grow exactly because so many people of the time had experienced these things themselves: they had seen home funerals, they had watched the factories belch soot in their towns, seen the spread of poverty that served to support the economic advancement of a few.

The article goes on to mention the chopping up of Victorian houses into apartments and “rooming houses, which carried their own horrific experiences.” Many of the grand old houses around Salem are divided into smaller units, rented for increasingly outrageous prices to people like me, who work in Boston but can’t afford to live in the city or buy a house in its very steep market. Even if I could afford the cost of buying one, the horrors of knob-and-tube wiring, rot, and badly-done past renovations give me pause. My husband and I make good money, but the longer we live here, the more I feel that I teeter on the edge of the poverty I see across the country. Everything I make is sucked into rent and student loan payments. A costly renovation to draw one of these houses into the current century is even further beyond our means than saving a down payment. It’s a common story in today’s America, nearly a century after society first turned on the Victorian, and it remains the same: the few advance economically on the backs of the rest of us, trapped in moldering Victorian shrouds.

If I wanted to return to my home town in the Midwest, I could purchase a Victorian mansion in the city’s historic district for less than I owe on my student loans. But my home town, like its grand old houses of a bygone era, has been left to decay. While I may offend those who happily live their lives there by saying so, I can’t escape the feeling every time I visit. Sad strip malls and an aggressively-judgemental small-town attitude make a mid-sized city feel claustrophobic and provincial to my East-coast city-living tastes. Even those living grandly in the historic district, slowly restored one house at a time, exist side-by-side with the residents of the houses that were converted to smaller and smaller apartments in the decades of the neighborhood’s decline. One neighborhood, layers of social strata: the wealthy, the comfortable, and the poor. And I wonder every day, how many are truly comfortable? Do they feel the precipice at their toes, as I do?

Poverty haunts America, and has since the founding of the country. For some, poverty is a terrifying malevolent specter, waiting to jump out and ruin their lives, looming like the turrets of the Victorian mansions, the status symbols of their wealthy predecessors left to rot. They hoard their wealth, hide their money, push through economic policies crafted to safeguard and increase their wealth with no regard for the rest of us. For others, poverty is a workaday companion, Grandad’s ghost who twitches the curtains of their workaday lives in their workaday homes, mostly ignored because who has the time to be worried about that when the bills must be paid? My workaday Victorian home stands on a quiet side street amongst other plain facades of the era, evoking the Colonial coastal-town aesthetic more than an Amityville horror vibe. Nonetheless, my upstairs neighbor informed me when I moved in that we have a vagrant ghost in the basement, a transient-spirit who moves from house to house on the street, staying only a day or two at a time. I’ve never encountered the vagrant, but I also have no time for that. I would rather write fiction and see economic equality for the living in my lifetime than tangle with the restless dead, be it an inhabiting spirit or the house itself.

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