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Haunted houses: A History

Some things just look wicked. Take the haunted house with its fish-scale shingles, sharply sloped mansard roof, arching windows and looming tower. We all know that terrible things will happen here, but why?

Our shivers are largely due to a single painting from 1925, by the American artist Edward Hopper. Over the decades, it has inspired cartoonists, film-makers and contemporary artists. Its most recent incarnation is as a sculpture by the British artist Cornelia Parker, exhibited on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


The original haunted house is found in Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” (above). It depicts a building of the late-Victorian style standing silvery and pale under an empty blue sky. It is a tall, steepling structure with ill-proportioned windows and ornate pediments. Cold sunlight strikes the house’s left side casting razor-sharp shadows across the veranda, obscuring the entrance. A railway line bisects the front of the picture, further cutting the viewer off from admittance. It appears to be a house that you cannot reach and cannot enter. Its stillness and desolation make you think of a coffin.

Hopper painted “House by the Railroad” at a time when Victorian architecture was out of fashion. Tastes had moved away from the overwrought creations of the Gilded Age of the 1880s and on to the sleek simplicity of Arts and Crafts bungalows. Hopper took these aesthetic prejudices and infused them with existential dread. His house is not only out of time but out of place, isolated, empty and alone. He marvelled at how houses can be “more moody than nature…in the daytime they have an astonished look; at dusk they are evil, seem to brood over some crime.” Here he created a symbol of domestic melancholy and dread that has since appeared again and again.

The Addams Family (1945)

“Psycho” (1960)

“Days of Heaven” (1978)

“Beetlejuice” (1988)

“Transitional Object (Psychobarn)” (2016)

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