Haunted by Houses: On the California Victorian in Fiction

October 2, 2021   •   By Joy Lanzendorfer

RIGHT BEFORE SHIRLEY JACKSON began working on her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, a postcard depicting a California mansion started bothering her. “It was an ugly house,” she wrote. “[A]ll angles and all wrong. It was sick, diseased.” She wrote to her mother, who still lived near San Francisco where Jackson grew up, and asked if she knew anything about it. Her mother replied that her “great-grandfather had built it. She remembered when the people of the town got together one night and burned it down.” Soon, Jackson was at work on the best haunted house novel I’ve read.


Jackson’s great-great-grandfather was Samuel C. Bugbee, the architect who built two of the famous “robber baron palaces” for San Francisco’s railroad tycoons in the 1870s. These elaborate houses on Nob Hill (after “nabob,” a conspicuously wealthy person) were known for their sprawling design and Victorian bric-a-brac. Even when the houses were new, people thought they were tacky. An 1891 article in The San Francisco Call described them as “lifeless and forlorn; they tell no story but of pride ungratified and happiness that could not be purchased.”


One of Bugbee’s mansions belonged to Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad. According to Ruth Franklin, it was 41,000 square feet, with 50 rooms, six chimneys, and mahogany doors flanked by columns. When Stanford’s teenage son died, the family left the house empty with the boy’s picture hanging in the window, a shrine to grief, the first haunted Victorian. Then there was Charles Crocker, who wanted a house so big, he bought an entire city block, acquiring 12 properties to build what a newspaper called a “monument to successful railroading.” He ran into a problem when the 13th man — an undertaker named Nicholas Yung — refused to sell. In retaliation, Crocker built a 40-foot spite fence around Yung’s house, blocking out the sun. Yung moved out but wouldn’t put the lot up for sale. The fence stood for 28 years, long after Yung’s death in 1880 and Crocker’s death in 1888. (Jackson’s fourth novel, The Sundial [1958], is about a family who lives in a mansion on a hill surrounded by a wall.)


While no one set fire to these palaces, they did burn down following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There’s something fertile for the imagination in the destruction of such extravagant displays of wealth, which were built on the exploitation of workers, especially Chinese laborers. Crocker brought thousands of Chinese people to the US to build the railroads, intentionally targeting them for low pay. Many died from the dangerous work and inhumane conditions. For years, the Chinese contribution to the building of the West — and that of other people of color — was written out of history. The idea, then, of the robber-baron mansions collapsing to the ground seems like justice, as if the earth itself was taking vengeance. Of course, that’s not what happened. Most of San Francisco burned after the quake, making the fate of these mansions a footnote in a much bigger tragedy. Besides, the railroad tycoons were dead by then; none of them saw their homes go up in smoke.


Like Jackson, I’ve always found something sick and fascinating about California’s grand estates. I grew up near the Carson Mansion in Eureka, owned by the lumber baron William Carson. The lolling gingerbread house is considered the pinnacle of American Queen Anne architecture. It’s as green as a new dollar bill, with a tower, turrets, gables, and stained glass. Dozens of railings made of carved spheres run the length of the house, like beads in an abacus. The only people allowed inside are members of an exclusive club.


It’s a handsome house, yet something about it bothers me. Every inch seems covered in carved woodwork: strips, fans, curlicues, and other shapes glob in patches under the eaves and up and down the walls. I’m both fascinated and repelled by the mansion, the same way I’m repelled by the holes in the seed pod of a lotus plant but still want to touch them. To me, the Carson Mansion represents the destruction of 96 percent of the world’s old-growth redwoods. These enormous trees, which can live 2,000 years and once spanned millions of acres along the north coast, were decimated in a few decades by the timber industry. What’s left is the Carson Mansion, made up of old-growth redwood boards and financed by the wealth the wood yielded. This almost unimaginable environmental damage fills me with nostalgia for forests that must have once existed near my home — a haunting of a different kind.


It’s odd that so few novels have explored the darker side of the California Victorian mansion, especially since they have such dramatic histories. While my own novel, Right Back Where We Started From (2021), isn’t horror fiction, it is about the cost of greed during the century after the California Gold Rush. Mabel, one of my three main characters, becomes obsessed with crowning her agricultural empire with an ever-expanding Victorian mansion. I based Mabel’s estate on the Carson Mansion and the Winchester Mystery House near San Jose. Like Mabel, the architect of the Winchester mansion was a woman.


Sarah Winchester was heir to a $20 million gun fortune. She lost her daughter, Annie, shortly after birth, and her husband, William, when he was 43 years old. Soon after his death in 1881, she bought a farmhouse and added onto it for the next four decades. The house grew into a strange maze, studded with luxurious touches such as Tiffany windows and parquet floors, and full of oddities: a door that opens onto a wall, a chimney that stops mid-room, a skylight located in the floor. Linen closets are an inch deep, staircases dead-end at the ceiling, and wallpaper contains crushed mica that sparkles in the light. There were 40 bedrooms for a single occupant and a so-called séance room with 13 hooks on the wall. At one point, the house was seven stories tall, until the tower fell in the 1906 earthquake, prompting Sarah to spread outward instead.


No one knows for sure why Sarah built the house this way, but legend claims that it all started with a medium. This was, after all, the height of the US spiritualist craze, and many people turned to the occult to contact the dead. The medium told Sarah that the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles were angry and that her tragedies were retribution for a fortune built on blood. The solution was to build an elaborate house, either at the ghosts’ instruction or to confuse them, depending on which version of the story you hear. It’s hard to know what’s true since Sarah lived alone among her many servants and workers. Certainly, there are signs that she was superstitious. The number 13 appears throughout the house, in drain holes in a sink, steps on a staircase, glass panes in a window, and bricks on a fireplace, among other things.


Again, the situation is rich in metaphor — a wealthy woman living alone in her bloated mansion while the guilt of her inheritance drives her mad. This wasn’t lost on Shirley Jackson, who had a picture of the Winchester House in her file. In The Haunting of Hill House, the protagonist, Eleanor, goes insane, but it’s unclear if the house is causing it or if it’s all in her head. This idea borrows from Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, in which an English governess goes to a large country estate only to discover that it may or may not be haunted. In both cases, it’s impossible to tell whether the women are imagining the ghosts. The texts support both interpretations, which eloquently illustrates the subjective experience of mental illness. Jackson, an agoraphobic, no doubt understood this subject well.


As in these novels, the question of motive hangs over Winchester House. Sarah may simply have been a bad architect who liked numerology. Or maybe she heard voices, and if so, who’s to say where they came from? One thing’s for sure, she never recovered from the death of her family. In the ballroom, where no one ever danced, a hidden safe was found after Sarah’s death. It contained two locks of hair, one from her husband, the other from her baby daughter.


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While horror movies often take place in California, classic novels set in scary dwellings (regardless of architecture) tend to be in other locations. Think of the eerie New England settings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft. Or Anne Rice’s vampires lurking in a Louisiana plantations and V. C. Andrews’s children locked away in a Virginia attic. In New York alone, there’s Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), set in a Gothic-style apartment building; Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1977), with its haunted Long Island colonial; and, upstate, the creepy mansion in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979). William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) takes place in a Washington, DC, rowhouse, while Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter is imprisoned in a Maryland mental institution. Many Stephen King novels are set in Maine, but his Overlook Hotel is in the Colorado Rockies.


Few of these places are Victorians, and yet they’re considered the epitome of haunted houses. In fact, if you search “haunted house” online, one of the first images that comes up is a doctored version of the Carson Mansion. The place has been smudged and darkened, as if covered with a layer of grime, and it sits in a nightmare forest of gnarled trees. A single light is on in the second story. Evidently, I’m not the only person to find the mansion sinister.


So how did the Victorian become associated with the haunted house? After all, at one point they were the castles of the Gilded Age, an era known for unprecedented greed and wealth. But after World War I, architecture shifted toward cleaner lines, and the Victorian began to seem fusty and antiquated. Returning war veterans were disillusioned with the systems that had allowed for so much suffering and violence. In her article on the subject, art historian Sarah Burns argues that the Victorian became “a symbol of past corruption still haunting the present.”


Soon, owners began abandoning their Victorians, and they became run down and dilapidated. Edward Hopper depicted this new derelict version in his 1925 painting House by the Railroad. A 1928 article in House and Garden magazine called Victorians “hiding places for evil spirits,” where “chipmunks roll acorns about during the night” and “bats play tag.” In 1945, The Addams Family, a comic strip before it was a TV show, revealed that the ghoulish clan lived in a Victorian. The artist, Charles Addams, said that Victorians “look better for haunts than a stone castle. I can’t picture a castle musty and cracked with peeling paint.”


In 1959, The Haunting of Hill House added to this idea, as did another book, Robert Bloch’s Psycho. While Psycho is the rare horror novel set in California, it was inspired by a Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein, who exhumed corpses and fashioned objects out of the body parts. Bloch, who lived near Gein, wanted to write about a depraved madman living quietly next door. His fictional Fairvale, California, is an all-American town where “everybody knows everybody else’s business.” The description of Norman Bates’s Victorian is in keeping with the attitudes of the time. When a character looks into the parlor, she’s shocked that “such places still existed in this day and age”: the decor is “straight out of the Gay Nineties.” Alfred Hitchcock used Hopper’s painting as an inspiration for the Bates house in the movie Psycho (1960), which cemented the Victorian’s spooky reputation.


And yet today, the California Victorian remains an aspirational symbol. It’s more likely to show up in a novel about people falling in love than in a ghost story. Maybe it’s the cost of real estate. Unlike the crumbling mansions of the Northeast, California Victorians haven’t been empty long. Even during their slump, when the rich moved on to Craftsman houses and the modernist dwellings of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Victorian remained desirable. People documented them in books like Morley Baer’s Painted Ladies: San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians (1978). And why not? The houses are lovely. They seem, on the surface, to be the fulfillment of the California dream — evidence that you can come to this state and strike it rich. They’re like the endless sunshine, a symbol of our great lifestyle.


Just as it takes experiencing a few forest fires to understand the costs of so many sunny days, living through the cycles of boom and bust reveals the dark side of the California dream. The impulse of the rich to build monuments to themselves is ancient, like Shelley’s Ozymandias declaring, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Unlike in the poem, these vestiges rarely disappear into the sand.


Instead, the impact of the robber barons’ exploitation of people and resources lives on in our culture even now. The past may be buried, but its ghost lingers in our midst, in the very buildings themselves. Perhaps this was the wrongness and disease Shirley Jackson sensed in that postcard of a California mansion. Maybe the most haunted history ignores its darker side; instead of exorcising ghouls and demons, it repeats the same pattern with no thought of the past. But that history still remains, surely, over time becoming as sick and insane as Hill House itself.


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Joy Lanzendorfer is the author of the novel Right Back Where We Started From. Her work has been in The New York Times, The AtlanticPoetry Foundation, and many others. Follow her @JoyLanzendorfer.


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Featured image: “EurekaHistoricDistrict-CarsonMansion2” by Burley Packwood is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped, desaturated, and darkened.