Haunted Real Estate: The Gendered Architectures of the Victorian US Landscape
Drawing on recent studies in film, economic theory, and gender, the long-term research project by Paula Vilaplana, Haunted Real Estate: Gendered Architectures of the Victorian US Landscape explores the architectural dimension of haunting, reflecting on the intersections between gender, real estate, and the occult that such spaces articulate.
By paralleling the media construction of these spaces with historical accounts, her work exposes the emergence of the haunted house as a spectacular apparatus and questions the significance of assimilating Victorian architecture with haunting as a pleasurable form of entertainment.
Structured into three parts, Haunted Real Estate has been presented as a performance lecture. Vilaplana combines visual and textual work to address the different stages of spectral occupation of American houses, from the radical spirits of the 19th-century séance rooms to the speechless spectral bodies of contemporary paranormal attractions. Her research focuses on the specific furniture and devices that mediate the communication with the afterworld in haunted spaces, and studies both archival material and historical locations in the United States. What follows is an excerpt of the second act of her research, Winchesterland, The craft of the Haunted House Industrial Entertainment Complex.
Part 1: Terror is building
Winchesterland. A Victorian roadside attraction
“Inspired by true events. On an isolated stretch of land 50 miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, it is a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant twenty-four hour a day, seven days a week mania for decades, it stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To the outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman’s madness. But Sarah is not building for herself […] She is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts.”Film Details, CBS Films - Winchester, accessed 12 March 2019.
Winchester, the House that Ghosts Built is yet another cinematic iteration of the Winchester House, a 160-room Victorian Queen Anne style extravaganza, located in San Jose, California. Built between 1884 and 1922, it is popularly known as the Winchester Mystery House. The film’s synopsis is very eloquent about the logics shaping what I will call the 'Haunted House’s Entertainment Industrial Complex'. In barely six short sentences, Sarah Winchester is outlined as a disturbed maniac, a character driven mad, her house a haunted, monstrous, and terrifying construction. The reason for such a dreadful plot is the presence of spirits transiting the mansion – the result is an archetypical horror story set amongst 19th-century decor.
The film's publicity images are equally revelatory – one shows the widow’s mutilated face, her head split off by the house; on another, we read an ominous warning – “terror is building”. Terror is indeed carefully built up in this and other locations throughout the US, accommodated in the domestic interiors of Victorian historical landmarks reshaped as haunted attractions. This special form of entertainment today counts more than 2,000 houses listed in the US, populated by an army of ghosts that solidifies the association between Victorian domestic architecture and the feminine channelling of spirits.
Yet spirits have long occupied the Victorian house, even if haunting has taken different forms in the last two centuries – from the subversive territory of early spiritualism in the 1850s, mobilising political discourses through militant mediums, to a reactionary space where any hint of haunting is deemed condemnatory.To the point that haunted houses are classified as 'stigmatised properties' for real estate purposes. Radical Spirits have progressively turned into soft manifestations, speechless and uncritical spectral bodies with a merely visual presence.Anne Braude describes the radical political implications of early spiritualism and its links with the suffragist movement in Anne Braude, Radical Spirits Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-century America (Indiana University Press, 2013). From early spiritualist practices to haunting in popular culture – including haunted houses as hybrid artefacts of history and folklore – the entanglement of ghosts, women, and 19th-century settings seems to be a recurrent trope that has been profusely exploited in literature, sociology, gender theory, and film studies. Still little has been said of these constructions as proper architectural devices.
Such haunting, we might say, also plays a role in preserving the abundant Victorian heritage of the US, fictionalised through historical landmarks offering a dual experience combining the historical and magical through the hosting of paranormal programmes. 12 million visitors – admitted with a $20 to $49 fee – have visited the Winchester Mystery House since its public opening in 1923, proving it to be a remarkably cost effective business model that remains stable after 95 years.This data is accessible online at "Winchester (2018) - Financial Information", The Numbers - Where Data and Movies Meet, accessed 12 August 2018.
What makes this house so appealing, and what does its success tell about the long-lasting association of ghosts and Victorian houses, so often haunted by the presence of female spectres?
Reduced to mottos such as 'Hauntings for all', or 'Beautiful and bizarre', the Victorian and neo-gothic traits of the Winchester house seem to make it the perfect site for mystery, as harmless as it might be.In the surroundings of the Winchester House in San Jose, one can find several billboards announcing the mansion, one of them with the text 'Beautiful but Bizarre', a motto circulated in the brochures of the house since the 1970s.
Every oddity in the design substantiates its occult nature and is accordingly described during the tours of the house, where architectural features are amplified to serve a script; the number of bathrooms – 13, the size of the steps – unhuman, the apparently unusable cabinets – only fitting for evil spirits. Converted into a Victorian-themed architecture park, this place has become a paradigmatic case study and the model upon which the Haunted House Industrial Entertainment Complex, as I will refer to it, has been built during the 20th century, with Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion as its apex.
Have haunted houses always been entertainment complexes? If we consider haunting in the context of turn of the century spiritualism or more contemporary haunted attractions, there seems an intrinsic recreational component associated with conjuring ghosts. Alas, their forms of circulation and consumption have drastically changed in the last century. First, spiritualism posits Victorian domestic parlours as performance stages, transforming interiors into congregational spaces that absorb religious and political functions. These are subversive forums that reconfigure the role of women as public subjects – channelling spirits allows them to find a voice and certain economic independence at a time when female labour is not economically rewarded.
Following the example of the Fox sisters, hundreds of female mediums emerged in the late 19th century. Mostly practiced by widows or spinsters, spiritualism also helped reintegrate these surplus bodies into an economy that used to render them invisible.Karen Redrobe Beckman, Vanishing Women: Magic, Film, and Feminism (Duke University Press, 2003), 45. Conversely, the curiosity raised by these marginalised bodies results in a social phenomenon – spiritualism turns into a craze, attracting a mass that avidly attends seances, trance lectures, and spiritualistic shows. As a form of entertainment, it entangles the mystic and the spectacular, and it is this tension between truthfulness and fiction that ultimately weakens the movement, progressively framed as a fraud. While the practice is persecuted, publicly scorned, and even banished by the law, a growing industry emerges – The Haunted House Industrial Entertainment Complex.The spiritualist practice was persecuted since its early stages, first by the Church, then by ordinances preventing its practice for anything other than entertainment purposes. These regulations are still in place today This complex remobilises part of the main components of the spiritualist movement – female subjects, Victorian decor, and spirits – depriving them of any subversive content. Its major exponent is precisely the Winchester Mystery House, epitomising the populist recirculation of these elements as commodities within the theme park industry.
Walt Disney based his first haunted mansion on the Winchester model, exhaustively analysing the circuits visitors followed during a tour, drawing and timing them. In terms of scale, Disneyland designers did not have to alter much as the house, built to Sarah Winchester’s five-foot height, worked as a mock-up of a children’s playground.
Conversely, the Winchester house has progressively borrowed strategies from Disney, and many of its managers have been related to the amusement park industry, starting from the inaugural one, John Brown. The earliest buyer of the house after Sarah Winchester’s death, he was the inventor of one of the first rollercoaster attractions, the Blackity-Back in Crystal Beach Park in Ontario.Mary Jo Ignoffo, Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune (University of Missouri Press, 2012), 208 After the initial plan for transforming the Winchester house into a rollercoaster was rejected, Brown opened it up as a haunted attraction. Later, Keith Kittle used his experience in Frontier Village Park in San Jose to renovate the house in 1974, building an entrance, gift shop, and several add-ons to emphasise the presence of the number 13 throughout the house.Leigh Weimers, “How to manage 160 rooms and one ghost”, San Jose Mercury News, 14 August 1994. In a similar trend, the current manager Walter Magnuson was hired from Disneyland – he added spectacular effects to the tours that, with sound and video installations, emulate the 1906 earthquake, among other tricks.Elizabeth Svoboda, "Demystifying the Winchester Mystery House," Atlas Obscura, 8 January 2019, accessed 12 March 2019. Through these implementations, the house not only makes the guilt of westward expansion spectacular, but also the effects of a natural disaster – the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Sarah Winchester was the heiress of the Winchester Rifle fortune. The alleged haunting of her house is often assimilated to the guilt derived from its westward expansion and the many lives the rifle helped take away. ndeed, most of its oddities are but design solutions to palliate the damages of the quake – stairs and doors leading to nowhere used to connect to a whole part of the house that no longer exists.The house was not entirely reconstructed after the quake; only four of the original seven stories are visible today. Its commercialisation reveals the schizophrenic functioning of an adulterated landmark, where every trace of history is a sugar-coated version of a traumatic past.
Today, the Winchester house is little more than a shell. Only the façade and some of the interior cladding remain as the decorations and furniture in the house have been manipulated following an interpretative curatorial style.“The story element is infused into the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell… Armed only with their own knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe”. Don Carson, “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry”, Gamasutra.com, accessed 12 March 2019.This way, the architecture of the house, along with a few historical details and massive media coverage, enables the functioning of this location as an environmental narrative device, where every room serves the fiction crafted around its walls. “The story element is infused into the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell… Armed only with their own knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe”. Don Carson, “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry”, Gamasutra.com, accessed March 12, 2019.
This strategy has successfully maintained the house financially, but is problematic for its status as a museum and a historical landmark. This tension between fiction and fact at the Winchester house is nonetheless revelatory of the plasticity of certain histories, moulded to satisfy particular episodes and interests, in this case intertwined with the political, religious, and social controversies that have coupled Victorian architecture with the occult since the late 19th century.
Fiction enters the historical landmarks registry
Two signs rise in the main entrance of the Winchester house in San Jose. The first reads, “Welcome to the Winchester Mystery House – Guided Tours Daily”, the second, “California Registered Historical Landmark No.868” Christine R Junker first notes this parallelism in her text, Christine R Junker, "Unruly Women and Their Crazy Houses", Home Cultures 12, no 3 (2015), 330. This juxtaposition anticipates the ability of the house to dissociate its historical relevance as a Victorian landmark from its persistent commercialisation as a haunted attraction, included in tourist guides for water parks and shopping malls.
Both fictions, circulated in the media and script of the guided tours of the house, share a similar structure built upon local folklore, a tale started by tabloids even before Sarah Winchester died. After Sarah Winchester moved to San Jose and started building the mansion, rumours circulated in the local press about her alleged connection with the spiritualist movement and the occult nature of the house. What seems more surprising is to find similar descriptions haunting the application of the house as a historical landmark in 1974.The legend of Sarah Winchester's visit to a Boston medium is cited as a historical fact on the application for the Winchester house as a historical landmark. “Mrs. Winchester was deeply upset by the deaths of her husband and daughter and seems to have consulted a spiritualistic medium. Reportedly, the medium explained that the spirits of all those who had been killed by the rifles her family had manufactured had sought their revenge by taking the lives of their loved ones. Further, these spirits had placed a curse on her and would haunt her forever. But the medium also stated that she could escape the curse by moving west, buying a house, and continuously building on it as the spirits directed. In this way, she could escape them and perhaps find the key to eternal life. Whether Mrs. Winchester believed the medium or not is unclear. But she did move to what is now San Jose, California in 1884 and purchased an eight-room farmhouse from a Dr. Caldwell. She immediately began her never-ceasing building project” The applicant not only adds the word 'mystery' to its name, but also lists the presence of ghosts as part of its history under 'Relevant historical events related to the site'.“The only major historical event connected with the House was the San Francisco Earthquake occurring on April 18, 1906. […] The debris from the [observation] tower fell directly on top of the bedroom in which Mrs. Winchester was asleep, trapping her inside. Reports from the servants who helped to remove her from the bedroom state that she was in hysterics and claimed that the spirits had come to her to tell her they had caused the earthquake because she had spent so much time and money on the front section of the home” Mrs Winchester is further described as 'hysterical', 'crazy', and 'whimsical', and her rambling design assimilated to a sick enterprise, “spreading like cancer over the terrain”. Again, on the application of the Winchester Mystery House as a California Historical Landmark in 1974, one can read value judgments rather than objective descriptions. “With a great deal of money and very few responsibilities, she satisfied every whim […] as a result of the constant building her mansion spread like a cancer”.The assimilation of the sickness of the house and that of its architect is even more significative in relation to Sarah Winchester’s status as a widow with no heirs – a stigmatised body herself too.
The functioning of the house as an amusement also overshadows Sarah Winchester’s proficiency as the chief designer of a rare piece of Victorian domestic architecture. A contemporary of Louise Blanchard Bethune, Winchester is still seldom recognised as one of the first female architects in the US. Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856–1913) is usually cited as the first female professional architect in the USA.Instead, her achievements are attributed to other entities – the spirits of the Winchester rifle victims the mansion housed.
When the house was finally declared a historical Californian landmark, the fiction was legitimised, yet it was not until 2018 that the house counted a historian among its staff. To date, a calculated history of the Winchester Mystery House has circulated through its daily tours (closed only on Christmas Day) and is available in the books, pamphlets, postcards, 35mm slides, and cassette tapes on sale at the Winchester Gift Shop.
Designs for the haunted house
“It ought to be possible to design a house in such a way that its occupants never see a ghost. The techniques for baffling, frightening and denying access to would-be haunts are neither precise nor entirely consistent, but they are abundant. What is vastly more difficult, judging from the ghostly lore, is the deliberate effort to design a haunted house to achieve the character, the ambiance, and the specific features that will invite ghosts to appear. It has been seriously attempted at least once, and that attempt took thirty-six years of construction and an investment of at least $5 million”. Alan Van Dine, Unconventional Builders: “Why on earth would anyone decide to build that?” (J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company, 1977), 44-55.
A 1974 brochure for the Koppers Company analyses the building components that make the Winchester house especially suitable for spirits. “Designs for The Haunted House”, Tangents XV (Ed. Koppers Company, 1974). This dwelling, “designed by ghosts and for ghosts”, is constructed on the problematic premise of housing and expelling spirits at the same time. “At the same time [Mrs Winchester] had been assured that there were good ghosts as well as bad ones, and that the better spirits, properly appeased, would protect her in life and welcome her into polite society after death”, in Alan Van Dine, Unconventional Builders: “Why on earth would anyone decide to build that?”.The brochure suggests that ghosts are precise in their design decisions – they seem to hate mirrors, moats, and clocks, but advocate chimneys, towers, and balconies. This way, a house entirely built with mirrored walls would be a ghost-proof shelter; in turn, one planted with chimneys (the Winchester house counts 47) would provide spirits with their favourite mode of access. Always in a parodic voice, the company envisages a hypothetical market niche for haunted houses, offering various solutions from its catalogue to improve haunted locations in terms of permeability, acoustics, avoiding water leaking into dungeons, and isolating the noise of rattling chains from interrupting a seance.Today, the haunted house industry offers prefabricated modules online to create a haunted experience.
Despite its facetious tone, the pamphlet helps us understand the craft of the haunted house as an industrial process positioning these architectures in a wider teleological and disciplinary framework. Yet standardising the haunted house implies several problematic associations. It not only reduces a complex socio-political and cultural movement into a pastiche of easily recognisable Victorian clichés, but it likewise implies a distinction between architectural styles, opposing the Victorian-haunted dichotomy to a rational-modern architecture made of reflective surfaces and new plumbing systems, free from unpleasant presences and ready to exorcise any hint of a Victorian legacy.
Part 2: Nutshell studies of unexplained hauntings
Spiritualism versus the mystery house
There is no proof that Sarah Winchester ever held a seance in the house, or that she definitely visited a psychic medium in Boston who forced her to move west and build for vengeful spirits of rifle victims. Despite this lack of evidence, the Winchester widow has often been associated with the spiritualist movement, either as an active practitioner or as a victim. After he visited the Winchester house in 1924, Houdini described it as a $5,000,000 mediumistic fraud, “illustrative of the extremes to which belief of communion with the spirit world will drive people”. The Winchester house was nonetheless surrounded by a strong spiritualist community in turn of the century San Jose, with two women leading the movement – Mary Hayes Chynoweth, a spiritualist medium and healer, and editor of True Life Magazine, and Nancy Roberts, director of the White Temple. Mary Jo Ignoffo, Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune (University of Missouri Press, 2012), 142.
Both put San Jose at the epicentre of the Californian spiritualist practice by the early 1900s. It seems difficult not to ascribe the building of the house with this cultural context which, by turn, had a notable visual presence in the area, especially in Hayes Chynoweth's house.
Unfortunately, there are no physical remains of either of these structures, which were ravaged by fire and the 1906 earthquake respectively. The Winchester house is one of the few Victorian survivors in the area, its location seeming to embody a history that is not only not genuine to it, but that intertwines fiction and fact to convey a sensationalist survey of San Jose’s spiritualist history. In this context, the Winchester house constitutes a paradigmatic example of the way Victorian historical landmarks have been instrumental in serving a very particular interpretation of turn of the century spiritualism, standing at the centre of a trans-media strategy repeated in attractions throughout the US. How can we possibly reverse this long-lasting multimedia construction?
Playing forensics in the doll houses of death
From 1896 to 1949, Frances Glessner Lee created 19 dioramas based on true crime scenes after a detailed study of court files and medical criminal reports. These dioramas were exhaustive recreations of domestic scenes in which a crime had taken place – rugs, furniture, tableware, wallpaper patterns, and clothes were carefully mimicked, leaving nothing to the imagination of the prospective investigator but the dynamics of the crime itself. Glessner Lee’s doll houses of death became the basis for the training of forensic investigators and are still used today at the Baltimore Police Department.
In the manner of Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, the Winchester house is revisited in this project to present three critical scenes; yet, it is not deaths or crimes that I wish to unfold but rather the strategies and mechanisms that have helped consolidate the tropes of the Haunted House Industrial Entertainment Complex. This forensic multimedia reconstruction doesn’t mean to be aseptic – it insists on the idea that layers such as gender, fiction, or media coverage play a crucial role in the interpretation, circulation, and consumption of the architectures of haunting.
A three-dimensional model choreographs the architectures of haunting as a playground for experimenting with curatorial strategies and technologies, reactivating the haunted house and its architectural features in unexpected ways. This piece works as an immersive experience that puts to use the machinery employed in haunted attractions to re-enact historical events while speculating on visual counter strategies to withstand the automatic responses that attractions like the Winchester house have naturalised.
The model is divided into three scenes representing specific case studies of landmark episodes in the history of turn of the century spiritualism in the US; the Harvard investigation in 1924 for the Society of Psychical Research Prize, the Harry Houdini anti-spiritualist Crusade Tour, and the Schrenck-Notzing reports on The Phenomena of Materialization. These scenes track the evolution of one of the most characteristic devices employed for otherworldly exchanges – the medium’s cabinets, a progression that can be paralleled to the transition from Victorian to modern architecture.
Borrowing former expository practices employed at the Winchester house, the model re-appropriates the spaces of the archetypal haunted house to bring the radical ghosts of spiritualism into it, forcing the cohabitation, both physically and conceptually, of these two antagonistic visions of haunting. Similarly, the use of digital fabrication, trans-materiality, and the insertion of media devices into the model seek to explore alternative representations of Victorian haunted houses, aligning these spaces with technological, avant-garde, or immersive media arts realms, suggesting a new genealogy instead of insisting on a manifold association of haunting with the aesthetics of the rotten, the dead, or the obsolete. What if ghosts, as Tom Gunning suggests, are not residues of the past but harbingers of the future?