How the Gothic got haunted

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29 Nielbolt St., in the movie It. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Here’s an interesting article, perhaps a day early, on the history of Gothic architecture – you know, with the pointed arches and towers reaching for the sky. All haunted houses are Gothic, are they not? Some say haunted houses are more likely to partake of the Victorian, but those are just some cranky modernists who look down their noses at beauty. Boo!

How Gothic Architecture Lost its Lofty Image,” by Peter Lindfield for the Epoch Times, traces Gothic through periods of popularity and otherwise. It arose in the centuries prior to the Renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman classicism in the 1600s, and then again in the second half of the 1800s, when it came to symbolize the resurgence of Roman Catholicism. Religious subservience to Rome was de rigueur in Britain before King Henry VIII and his rupture with the Vatican over his divorce. With the rise of Protestantism, Church of England leaders turned to classicism to express disdain for Catholicism during its period of banishment.*

My knowledge of British religious history does not quite stretch to precisely how Catholics managed to creep back into the fold in England, and neither does Lindfield’s article, but Britain’s alliance with Spain, Portugal and the Holy See itself against the godless Napoleonic France led to a softening of attitudes in Britain toward Catholicism. The longstanding battle between the faiths was reflected in an architectural style war. Eventually, after a terrible fire, Parliament was rebuilt in the Gothic style. Unfortunately, both sides were ultimately defeated by the modernists, in more ways than one, and with only a minimal hope, as of today, for “regression” in the future.

Yikes! What are we getting into!? Let’s get back to haunted houses! Bram Stoker’s Dracula and all those vampires! The Gothic novel! The Castle at Otranto (1764), by Horace Walpole, the English politician, socialite and literatus, is considered the first Gothic novel featuring a haunted house. In my opinion, his estate at Strawberry Hill, built in the Gothic Revival style, has been haunted by its too-pristine 2012 restoration. (See photo below.) Was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a Gothic novel? Well, certainly there was a castle involved, possibly a Gothic one, and the local townfolk chased after the good Dr. F with pitchforks, stirring sentiments that settled down over the years, maybe, into “American Gothic,” the famous painting by Grant Wood.

The photo on top is the haunted house from the 2017 movie It. That’s not the movie that was previewed for next week’s feature on the regular Saturday night TV horror show “Chiller” back in the 1960s. As kids, sitting in the dark, my brother and I watched that preview. It seemed lame. We said in unison: “That’s it?” Immediately the announcer said, “This is It!” But I can find no online mention of a black-and-white ’50s movie called It. So maybe what the announcer really said was “This is it!” And the movie – it now dawns on me – was called The Thing. Still, this really happened! Really! Cue the theremin!

* My friend Will Morgan, an architectural historian and pesky mod-symp, warns me of a certain inaccuracy, not fully explained, in my description of historical relations between Catholics and Protestants in Britain, in particular the extent to which Gothic architecture grew in esteem among the Anglicans during the 19th century. (I ought to have pointed out, as well, that most if not all of the great cathedrals in Britain and Europe were Gothic.)

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Strawberry Hill estate (1749-76) of Horace Walpole after 2012 restoration. (Chiswick Chap)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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