Eerie narrow corridors, soot-stained walls, clawed drapery, crackling floors, and at the end of the dark hall, a piano’s shrill notes take you by surprise while shivers run down your spine…

From covering our eyes during a suspicious scene of a horror film to clutching onto an adult’s hand while walking through a Mystic Manor exhibit, Haunted houses have always left us with a rush of fear, excitement, and intrigue. Our racing heartbeats, change in temperature and the general sense of uncertainty is proof that these structures are designed to play with the subconscious mind by engaging all the senses rather negatively. Multiple factors such as historical significance, spatial configurations, colors, textures, sounds, lighting, and ventilation influence in creating a structure, where each aspect is tailored meticulously to bring chills to anyone entering its premises. 

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The Victorian Gloom

Be it “The House of the Seven Gables” or the ghoulish neighbors of “The Adam’s Family”, the portrayal of dingy, run-down Victorian architecture is significant and has undeniably been effective in creating an instant sense of horror. The reasons for this date back to the 1930s, when the emotional status of the grieving widow, Queen Victoria, changed the outlook of mourning into art, gradually escalating into an obsession with death. Funerary articles such as images, urns, and even Medusa’s visage adorned their homes. The era witnessed the death of people within the confines of their homes rather than hospitals and even had dedicated rooms to lay the dead for people to pay their last respects. The interiors, especially rooms with a much more eerie significance, were highly ornate, layered, and dark. The intricacy in forms such as towers, decorative turrets, extensive carvings, ornamental objects, and furniture began to seem hectic in terms of maintenance, leading to the formation of unkempt, crumbling structures, that reeked a history of suffering and death.

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The Age Factor

Other styles around the Victorian era also became popular for their ghostly nature. Gothic, Colonial, Georgian, Neoclassical and even hints of Roman and Greek architecture started to be increasingly portrayed in the haunted theme for its strong yet disintegrating and grim appearance. The most obvious reason for this popularity in style was the age of these buildings. It is quite a common notion to consider that there are more chances of a gruesome incident to have occurred in a much older building rather than a younger one. This instantly enhances the paranoia in any inhabitant, an important aspect to draw out of people in order to create a truly frightening experience. The reputation of the house is what develops the foundation towards the series of psychological manipulations within the site.

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Architectural Discomfort

The most unnerving haunted houses are those which have been designed using principles completely opposite to what is required for human comfort and a sense of safety. Going against everything taught in architecture or design school by creating layouts that cause anxiety and confusion results in a level of unease, which is another crucial psychological aspect to tap into. Twisting and turning corridors, rooms that are hard to find or nearly hidden, loose floorboards, crooked towers, suspicious marks in walkways, wide lower spaces, and thin taller spaces develop into a combination of anthropometrical discomfort and a deep-seated fear of getting lost without escape. Forced vertical perspectives, alluding objects into appearing closer or farther from their actual distance, and the dilapidated forms have been instrumental in producing an environment of subconscious fear.

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Fear of the Unknown

A sudden expanse of darkness or any mild movements in our peripheral vision would almost instantly cause us to slow down our approach, trying to frantically analyze what lurks in the darkness. Haunted house designs are rooted in a lack of legibility, by keeping the line of sight as short as possible. Sharp turns in hallways, the excess number of rooms, dark corners, flickering lights, and the addition of an ethereal mist heightens our flight or fight response, awaiting a scare right around the corner. The addition of shabby drapery or other loosely hung elements is instrumental in blocking considerable vision while also enhancing a creepy tactical experience. The sense of mystery created by the partial impairment of vision heightens other senses due to the uncertainty and the vulnerability it exposes. This results in triggering an anxious wait prior to the actual scare, which in most cases turns out to be a much more nerve-wracking experience.

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The Three-Pronged Approach

The design of any haunted house has three rudimentary factors assisting its drear- spectacle, scare, and story. It is essential to balance fear and narrative to create the spookiest experience for the visitor. The context of the chosen structure sometimes has a huge role to play. A century-old solitary confinement prison or a mental asylum would tend to add an edge to the overall fear factor. Extracting a building’s creepiest features while merging its possibly hidden mysteries creates a highly intimidating and tense atmosphere. Even the smaller contextual aspects such as colors, fonts, light fixtures, furniture, and everyday objects appropriate to the structure could set the tone of the narrative and produce heightened intrigue among the audience, involving them to be a part of the story and not a mere spectator of events. Camouflaging a scare or a series of scares through the design of the space or through props is undoubtedly the most important aspect of any haunted house, as the combination of mystery, rhythm, and timing produces the most frightening chills in any person. The control of acoustics throughout the structure is also quite influential to scare individuals and yet keep them isolated from any other visitors. A haunted house is designed to control anything that the audience sees, feels, hears, or smells, which is why the psychological impact upon leaving is quite stark and bizarre.

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The Future of Scares

Although we have been accustomed to being on edge in buildings with a long history of gruesome events, we are slowly moving into an era where the minimal lines and brutalist surfaces of modern architecture are starting to appear cold and unearthly. The designs that we find highly appealing today are the same structures that would soon seem deserted and dark. With the advancement of technology, the routes towards a scare have also been multiplied to a great extent. The use of virtual reality, prosthetics, highly streamlined audio-visual effects, and excessive research over the years on the anatomy of a scare has given rise to haunted houses that make your organs pause with fright. Designers have also begun to understand that the causes of fear have changed since the 1930s and are now being extracted to their advantage. History begins to repeat itself differently while the fear lurks on, peeking deep into the mind of humans, waiting to be intrigued, to be left petrified by impacts trapped in the abyss of the sub-conscience.

“Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwrecks”- R.L. Stevenson

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References

Ferro, S. (2014). The Architecture Of Fear: How To Design A Truly Terrifying Haunted House. [online] Fast Company. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3037618/the-architecture-of-fear-how-to-design-a-truly-terrifying-haunted-house.

D’Costa, K. (2016). Why are Victorian Houses Haunted? [online] Scientific American Blog Network. Available at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/why-are-victorian-houses-haunted/  [Accessed 29 Nov. 2018].

Archinect. (n.d.). Architecture of the Anthropocene, Pt. 2: Haunted Houses, Living Buildings, and Other Horror Stories. [online] Available at: https://archinect.com/features/article/114117296/architecture-of-the-anthropocene-pt-2-haunted-houses-living-buildings-and-other-horror-stories.

Smith Brothers Construction. (2014). What Makes a Haunted House? Architectural Styles Throughout the Years. [online] Available at: https://smithbrothersconstruction.com/architectual-styles-haunted-house-throughout-years/#:~:text=The%20architecture%20itself%20gained%20a   [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021].

NPR.org. (n.d.). The Architecture Behind The Quintessential Haunted House. [online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/2017/10/30/560920908/the-architecture-behind-the-quintessential-haunted-house  [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021].

CNN, J.R. (n.d.). “Darkitecture”: The art and psychology of haunted house design. [online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/haunted-houses-architecture-psychology/index.html  [Accessed 5 Sep. 2021].

D’Costa, K. (2016). Why are Victorian Houses Haunted? [online] Scientific American Blog Network. Available at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/why-are-victorian-houses-haunted/ .

Author

Carmmel is an aspiring architect at SPA Vijayawada. A keen observer who enjoys converting her love for the built environment and her intricate thoughts into words. Her soul thrives on old-school pencil sketching, scribbling pages of poetry and long road trips, but is also constantly in the hunt for new experiences.

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