Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Are you American? Then I think you're creepy and kooky.

Lately I've been delving into representations of the gothic in American culture. For us Brits, gothic America is a slightly uncanny place - many of the cultural mainstays are alien and don't resonate in quite the same way. A good example of this is the classic American haunted house - a tall, faded, wooden clapboard structure. We have very few examples of clapboard constructions in the UK so these buildings immediately strike us as 'alien' and 'other'. There is no sense of familiarity about them. Good examples of such houses in pop culture are the Bates house in Psycho, and the Addams Family mansion. It's the latter I want to delve into, particularly because of the franchise's pedigree.

Created by cartoonist Charles Addams in 1938, the fictional family continued to appear in printed cartoons until 1988. They have been the stars of numerous TV shows, cartoons, movies and video games, as well as featuring in other universes like Scooby-Doo. Throughout, their residence has been described as a 'mansion' and its depiction has stayed pretty consistent.

The mansion in a panel by creator Charles Addams 

Another Addams panel, giving a view down from the central tower. This scene with the boiling oil is recreated in the opening of the 1992 movie.

The facade of the mansion from the 60s TV show

The box cover of the 60s plastic model kit by Aurora, later re-issued by Polar Lights

The house in the 1992-3 (I think) cartoon

The set at Toluca Lake for the 1991 and 1993 movie adaptions

The mansion in a SNES video game
(I'm not sure which of the four games this is, all were released by Ocean between 1992 and 1995)

This is an unofficial and speculative plan of the mansion from The site says:
The Addams Family Home Floor Plan was drawn by Mark Bennett.  Mark Bennett has been drawing floor plans of TV homes and offices for years.  The floor plan appeared in the LA Times Magazine on September 10, 1995.
Timber became increasingly uncommon as a construction material in Britain as the centuries passed. We destroyed many of the forests which covered our island. Land was converted to agriculture or the wood used for buildings, industry and the fabrication of ships to fight the French and Spanish. Brick and stone have been common for several hundred years. These materials also have the benefit of being less combustible, as fire was a constant threat in dense, cramped cities like London. America has had no shortage of wood (especially split oak, pine and spruce which are ideal for construction), nor space on which to build and so wood has persisted in vernacular architecture. The clapboard style has come to resonate as historic and is therefore a common signifier of a 'haunted' house. Indeed, the faded grey of the Addams' mansion is a natural consequence of the tannin being washed out of the clapboards as the years pass.

The Addams mansion is in the Empire style - neoclassical inspired by French architecture under Napoleon. This aesthetic was popular in America from about 1810. Charles Addams had probably seen the SK Pierce mansion in Gardner, Massachusetts. This is one of America's most famous 'haunted' houses. Built in about 1880 it later fell into disrepair and was the site of various alleged murders, deaths and suicides.

The SK Pierce Mansion. Its bay windows and central tower make it a likely source for the Addams' residence.

In 2013 Tim Burton was attached to an animated reboot of The Addams Family, but, to date, this hasn't come to fruition. It would be fascinating to see how me might have re imagined the franchise and its mansion, especially given how he overhauled Batman in the 1989 movie. Alas I can't find any concept art for this aborted version.

I'll leave you with this great bit of fan art of the mansion by IrenHorrors:


  1. I had never considered that clapboard would not be part of the British architectural vernacular, but as you say, it makes sense.

    My wife and I nearly bought a "haunted house" of our own last year, but alas, the cash flow issues of remodeling made us pass. I suspect you would have loved it.

    1. Oh wow Lasgun - I love it. Probably for the best though. I would have visited you, slipped into the crawl spaces and spent years scratching at the walls to ensure you were suitably terrified.

    2. Yes, on our "Pro/con" list my wife listed "probably haunted". I did not mention that the prior owner had died in the house until after we decided we would not pursue it.

  2. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as I'm exploring this theme of Gothic America in most of my writing these days.

    The architectural style you've shown here is definitely an American mainstay of classic Gothic haunted houses, but the concept also extends to almost any style of large house that is either outdated to the extent of being part of another age, an abandoned or decrepit structure, or one that is markedly isolated such as the "cabin in the woods" (or some combination of all three).

    I'm originally from the southern US, where there are any number of decaying plantation "mansions" done in some form of classical style, empty and left to rot by a family line that has either met it's end through time or tragedy, and the house now sits overgrown with kudzu and the errant tree that has taken root somewhere in the house and has forced its way through the structure itself.

    The legacy of family lines themselves seem to be a major aspect of the Gothic aesthetic as well, but that's an entirely other discussion.

    It's a fascinating subject to research.

    1. Thanks Odie,

      Yes, I do love Southern Gothic with all its trappings. I used to read a bit of Poppy Z. Brite which really delves into that subculture. I had to google Kudzu - I don't think we have it in the UK. It looks terrifying!

  3. Facinating stuff ._ psycho comes to mind._.

  4. Interestingly enough, America even has its own haunted castle, as well: