Preservation Help or Horror?
By Byrd Wood
Ask a child to draw a haunted house and chances are you'll get turrets, gothic arches, and a steep pointy roof. Go to see a scary movie and you can be sure that when the climactic stabbing, choking, or hanging finally occurs, it takes place in an older house, most likely a Victorian mansion or gothic castle. The House of Horrors at the state fair? An old decrepit house.
Almost a year ago, I read an article in the Minnesota Preservationist, published by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, about haunted houses in movies. The author, Ann Miller, wondered if so-called haunted houses are a boon or bane to historic preservation. She writes: "The people-interesting mansion in The Haunting and the horrifying hovel at the end of the Blair Witch Project do old houses a grave disservice: Such movies give filmgoers the impression that old houses tend to serve as repositories for evil spirits."
After listing other historic houses seen in horror movies, such as the creepy New York apartment building of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and the opulent Louisiana plantation of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), she adds: "A good example of how historic architecture can serve vividly as a walking, talking character is Norman Bates' Victorian monstrosity in Psycho (1960). Could the movie have been half as effective if his residence had been a tract house?"
Yet, Miller points out, so-called haunted houses can subtly encourage historic preservation. In fact, rumors of a ghostly presence can bring a certain distinction to a historic house. Even if a visitor, generally of the younger variety, is bored to tears by the lecture of the tour leader at a historic site, he or she will perk up at stories of sightings of a previous resident who came to a ghastly end, of sounds of weeping from a vacant bedroom or music playing in the empty ballroom, or of candles blowing out on a calm evening.
Visitors to the hotels that are members of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America, a collection of 140 historically significant hotels, are usually intrigued by stories of some of the more unusual hotel "guests." For example you check into room 3502 at the Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado, California, you might share a room with Kate Morgan, a young woman who died mysteriously at the hotel in 1892 while waiting to reunite with her estranged husband. Since her tragic end, witnesses have been puzzled by odd noises, spirited breezes, strange faces and the ghostly figure of a young lady in a black lace dress.
Old buildings come with a past. That past may be an important event found in history books or it may be just a rumor fueled by late night ghost stories. But either way, hearing such stories can help us feel more personally connected to a building's history and to the people who were a part of it. Preservationists are accustomed to being "haunted" by the past. We should celebrate any ghosts that make that past more vivid and compelling for others.
Editor's note: We first reprinted this article in the March, 2001 issue of Reflections with permission of National Trust Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036, (202)588-6053, www.nationaltrust.org. With all of the attention and growing popularity of historic sites thought to be haunted, we thought it bared repeating five years later for those who may have missed it.
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