Empty McMansions do look “eerie” when someone puts RIP on the sidewalk or a teddy bear in the driveway

Pictures of abandoned homes in a Canadian community due to flooding do not look so odd – until the images help point out something is wrong. Take two pictures: first, an abandoned home, and second, an abandoned home with an extra item.

The auction for the homes started at 50 Canadian dollars.

Photo by Seph Lawless – sephlawless.com

The homes will cost tens of thousands of Canadian dollars to move, in a conservative estimate. According to the Calgary Sun, many of the bidders have backed out since the auction.

Photo by Seph Lawless – sephlawless.com

There are numerous images of homes that could be from innumerable Canadian or American communities where no one is outside at the moment. Imagine a colder day between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM – how many people would be outside their McMansion in a suburban neighborhood? If anything, the lack of cars in driveways might be the biggest giveaway that these are empty homes.

On the other hand, put RIP on the sidewalk and now it looks like someone died in this McMansion. A teddy bear in the driveway suggests childhood has gone awry in that home. These are no longer just McMansions; they are ripe for horror films involving McMansions and twisted suburbanites.

The switch from empty home to eerie or creepy home may not take much. On the whole, these homes look to be in pretty good shape. But, just add a little extra to the information about the home and all the sudden that same home is less than desirable.

Perhaps it is then not too surprising to read the Mission of the photographer:

Seph Lawless, is a pseudonymous American-based Photographer, Artist, Published Author, Political Activist, Huffpost contributor and photojournalist who is best known for his extensive documentation of abandoned places all over the world. His satirical musings and subversive epigrams combine dark humor along with his work.

Abandoned McMansions, “satirical musings,” and “dark humor” could all easily fit negative depictions of McMansions.

Another horror film set in suburbia; same old story?

The new horror film Super Dark Times treads some familiar ground in its story:

Director Kevin Phillips stunning feature debut is true to its title. An unnerving and bleak examination on teen angst, Super Dark Times turns a horrific tragedy into a ticking time bomb of violence. In Brad’s review, he raves, “Super Dark Times is tragedy in its purest of forms, removing the safety blanket from suburbia, tormenting the town with a morbid tale that will leave scars on each and every person who lives there.”…

That Super Dark Times takes place in mid ‘90s set suburbia is fitting; the lack of cell phones and the internet as we know it today meant growing up during this time amounted to boredom. Teen angst and boredom in the quiet suburbs was a recipe for destruction, especially if there’s already an underlying darkness as there is within Josh.

The article then goes on to list other notable horror films set in the suburbs but does not get to the obvious question (at least obvious to me): how many horror films can cover this same ground? There is no doubt that bad things do indeed happen in suburbia and often they feel worse because residents and outsiders do not expect them to happen in the suburbs. After all, that is why many of them moved there in the first place. Yet, more broadly, how many times can it be original or interesting to rehash the typical suburban critique that peeling back the curtain on perfect looking suburban lives reveals pain and horrors? Perhaps each generation has to tackle this issue but the more times a trope is used, the ante is raised on how it is going to stand out this time.

See earlier posts on this topic here and here.

Haunted McMansions vs. creepy unfinished construction sites

I posted Wednesday about a claim that McMansions appear haunted because of their poor architecture but I think unfinished construction present their own horrors. See this suburban example:

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This is an early evening image of a new residential construction project not too far from our house. All that is standing at this point are elevator shafts. Imagine being trapped in such a project late at night with shadows and wind. There are piles of debris and materials all around. The only escape may be to climb up…shafts that go nowhere. It could be an outdoors, David Bowie from Labyrinth sort of scene. All within sight of a wealthy suburban community with nice homes and lively commercial areas. Yet, it is difficult to imagine how someone might end up in such a situation where they are wandering around such a site.

In contrast, McMansions and other homes may be easier to consider haunted because we associate warm, fuzzy feelings with single-family homes and creepy or evil beings and happenings seem to be such opposites. From the beginnings of the American suburban single-family home, this space was to be a domestic refuge from the outside world or any other intrusions.

But, an empty construction site or unfinished project presents different problems. Is there anyone around? Was the project abandoned for a good reason or some unknown or unspoken reason? Are these ruins or a work in progress? In the end, does the unknown – the construction site – or the familiar – the single-family home, however weirdly designed or old it is – present a more problematic situation?

Seeing McMansions as perfect haunted houses

Pile on the McMansion hell: one writer argues McMansions capture all the essential features of haunted houses.

The term McMansion is itself still relatively recent, coined only in 1992 according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But the landscape of America has long been populated by these off-kilter, jumbled houses, homes whose shape defied all balance and order. At least since the 19th century, we’ve had to deal with ostentatious monstrosities, built without symmetry or class, gargantuan hallmarks of the nouveau riche. We didn’t call them McMansions back then; we called them haunted.

The archetypal American haunted house has always been one whose construction was aesthetically unbalanced. Take one of the most famous American haunted houses, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house of the seven gables. Defined by its “seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst,” the house is the ill-gotten gains of Colonel Pyncheon, who accuses his neighbor Matthew Maule of witchcraft in order to acquire his land. There is no order or symmetry to the house; indeed, it’s not even clear where the front of the house is, since it lacks any kind of façade or welcoming front door. The titular, odd-numbered gables poke out in different directions, overwhelming the house with secondary masses and voids. A McMansion 150 years before the term was invented, Hawthorne’s creation set the template for a house that exemplifies wealth without class, ostentation without order…

What is this connection between odd constructions and ghosts? Perhaps it’s because these strange buildings defy common sense and time-honed principles, creating in us a sense of unease that’s hard to name. The principles of architecture—the ones so readily abused by McMansions—didn’t appear overnight; they emerged from centuries of use and tradition. They reflect how we move through houses and how we are most comfortable in them. They maximize the kinds of spaces where we feel most at home, organized around layouts that facilitate ease of use and movement…

In the absence of a good vocabulary to describe that sense of unease, we often fall back on the language of hauntings. A house that’s settled uneasily in its foundation, so that doors swing closed by themselves, and whose layout may trigger a feeling that something isn’t it right—how easy it is to call it haunted, to blame that sense of unquiet on a ghost. The lexicon of the paranormal, after all, is far more ubiquitous and widespread than that of architectural principles, and the language of ghosts is often far easier to call upon than that of primary and secondary masses.

McMansions do regularly feature in horror films. But, this argument is a stretch and I suspect this is another McMansion pile on: “I already don’t like the homes so why not link them to something many people don’t like?” By this argument, any building that is not balanced or orderly is haunted. There are plenty of structures that would fit this description, including many older homes and much of postmodern architecture. On the other hand, do prototypical haunted houses share common traits? Probably, particularly as they are depicted in mass media (whether books, films, or television). In other words, haunted houses may be largely cultural constructions and if enough people paint McMansions as haunted, perhaps it will become real.

Additionally, this argument suggests the supernatural potential of haunted houses is nothing more than bad architecture. How many people would accept this argument, whether they are ghost hunters or people who believe in spiritual beings?

Houses cursed when can’t sell at original asking price?

Here are brief descriptions of two large Chicago area homes that might be “cursed”:

It’s not the only house in Chicago afflicted with bad juju, but it’s one that has it all: an overspending celebrity (former NBA player Antoine Walker, who built it for his mother), a house way bigger than anything anywhere around it, floods both before and since the foreclosure, and now a series of unconsummated sales. There’s even a lawsuit, which Mack filed in December against a buyer who was under contact to purchase the house last summer for $900,000 but backed out…

The years-long saga of the mansion took yet another twist last year, McClelland said, when a sprinkler on the top floor broke, spilling water down the main staircase and into the kitchen and other rooms. A sizable chunk of the rehab work was ruined, McClelland said…

The Tinley Park manse is not the only snake-bit property around. A three-acre property in Schaumburg that includes a Tudor-style ranch house and an adjacent guest castle complete with three-story turrets and battlements has been on the market since 2009, originally priced at $2.4 million. Several years ago, seller Christopher Kowalski acknowledged that what began as a whimsical project “got out of hand.”

The property has been under contract twice, in 2012 and this past April, but in the end neither buyer has gone on to wear the crown. When the April sale fell through, it was relisted June 29, now at $759,000. The listing agent, Nelson Avila of Accord One Real Estate, did not respond to a request for comment, and Kowalski could not be reached.

I get the idea that housing going for a much reduced rate is not something that realtors like. But, I don’t think “cursed” is the right word here for two reasons:

1. There are not guarantees that houses should retain their value. Granted, most people don’t expect to lose money when they purchase a home. (Hence the angst over the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s.) Yet, these two houses seem to be unusual for their area and there are only so many wealthy buyers.

2. I suspect many readers would read “cursed” as “haunted” or some other horror story descriptor. Ghosts? Violent crimes? Weird sounds and noises? Oh, you mean the house just won’t sell anywhere near an older value? That’s something different than cursed.

 

What motivates people to document the “urban ruins” of New York City?

There is the glittering New York City, capital of the world, and then there are the urban ruins:

From the creepy to the bizarre, Ellis’ exploration of the derelict and decrepit has lead him to document nearly 50 locations across New York City and beyond. The images chronicle forsaken schools, asylums, and forts, along with railroads and waterfronts. He updates his popular blog constantly, and a collection of 150 images has been published in Abandoned NYC.

Ellis has become somewhat of an expert at discovering the city’s hidden ruins. He gleans a lot of information from other “urban explorers” who post their findings online. He also uses Google Earth — if he sees a building with a collapsed tree outside or what look like abandoned cars, it’s a sure sign no one’s inside. In three years of urban spelunking, he’s somehow avoided being arrested. There are occasional run-ins with security guards, but he usually leaves when they tell him to and that’s that. “Getting in is easier than you think,” he says.

Wired runs stories like these regularly and you can find lots of such pictures online (particularly from Detroit). What is the appeal? My guesses at the moment:

1. It contrasts with the glittering/branded images most cities want to present.

2. It fits in with those interested in darker things like deviant activity (not necessarily illegal, but at least out of the mainstream), horror films, and post-apocalyptic stories. And all of this may be down the block or around the corner in the city! And there are such artistic opportunities!

3. It strikes me that it may be relatively easy to find these sites. Some of the pictures here are from larger sites but some could be from relatively small buildings. It may not be clear from the outside how ruined it looks inside.

4. Perhaps this is some reaction to the orderly middle- to upper-class presentation of the world where everything has to be in its right place. Sites like these present an opportunity to revel in disorder.

5. Humans can survive in such spaces? Again, we are used to seeing the more upscale settings in which the rich and famous live but seeing how the lower half lives may just be more hidden and/or blocked.

6. This is about preserving history. Without such photos, it is easy for buildings to quickly or slowly disappear.

Horror film featuring dissertation writing sociology Ph.D. student does not end well

Sociologists don’t often make it into movies or TV shows but here is a new horror film that features the trials of a sociology Ph.D. student:

Matt Passmore (The Glades) and Huntingdon Valley native Katie Walder (Gilmore Girls) star as Las Vegas couple Josh and Sarah – he’s a croupier at one of the big casinos; she’s a Ph.D. candidate in sociology – whose quiet, cookie-cutter lives in a quiet, cookie-cutter housing development are turned inside out when the ultimate neighbor from hell moves in across the drive.

A scrawny, Norman Bates-ian creature with stringy, greasy hair parted in the middle, Dale (Nathan Keyes) is instantly, and most creepily, besotted with Sarah.

That’s because Sarah is the spitting image of Dale’s mom, who was viciously stabbed to death by Dale’s pop, as we see in a brief prologue…

The creepfest begins one afternoon when Sarah is jotting down some thoughts about the latest chapter in her dissertation, a study of the social effects of Internet porn. She falls asleep, only to wake up later that night dressed in an entirely different outfit.

Doesn’t sound like a good film. Also, it doesn’t sound like the sociology Ph.D. matters much for the plot. Could any graduate program have fit the bill here? Don’t sociologists get to do anything interesting in the media?

Crafting the perfect Gothic McMansion in a 21st century novel

A review of the new novel Fallen Land suggests the McMansion at the heart of the book plays a big role:

The McMansion, that derisively nicknamed trophy home of suburban arrivistes, is different things to all people: the darling of building contractors, the forest-guzzling residential equivalent of the SUV to land preservationists.

Among American practitioners of the modern Gothic novel, the McMansion has rarely been rendered with the resplendent gloom of, say, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, or the majesterial melancholy of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. In his smashing followup to his formidable debut novel “Absolution,” however, Patrick Flanery has fashioned a crumbling 21st-century manor that can hold its own among those authors’ most sepulchral, ALLEGORICAL inspirations.

The trappings of “Fallen Land’’ are pure old-school Hollywood. Imagine a housing development that evokes the splashy-cum-sinister Victorian fantasy of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and you have Dolores Woods, a Midwestern subdivision committed to a regressive aesthetic “in which the past was preferable and this country was at its greatest before it tried to tear itself apart in the middle of the nineteenth century.” The community’s pastiche array of gabled roofs and picket fences disguise the jerry-built nature of its construction: pop-up palaces whose yawning spaces and teetering infrastructure “terrify where they were meant to comfort,” the American Dream turned nightmare.

The development’s showpiece, classically enough, has been erected atop the site of tragic events from a darker epoch whose emotional undercurrents will haunt the home’s new tenants, Julia and Nathaniel Noailles. The Noailles have relocated from Boston with their smart, idiosyncratic son Copley (named for the hotel address where he was conceived) in pursuit of snazzier positions: she with a university lab, he with a mega-corporation that powers virtually every private enterprise on earth, including the fascistic private school in which Copley is newly installed.

I’ve noted before that the McMansion has become a popular tragic setting for modern stories. See this post about McMansions and horror films. The McMansion represents a hollow setting, a place that may look impressive but is empty at its core. The people who inhabit such homes are similar: people who thought purchasing a big home would bring satisfaction but are sadly mistaken. Even worse, the inhabitants – and it sounds like those in Fallen Land fit the bill – might be bad people, the kinds who squander money, are mean or amoral, and are up to nefarious purposes. All together, these stories suggest at the least that tragedies befall those in McMansions with the stronger argument that those who live in McMansions and their homes are rotten to the core.

Perhaps my argument would be strengthened by searching for counterfactuals: can we find many positive depictions of McMansion dwellers in novels, movies, TV shows, etc.?

Scarier than McMansions: half-completed McMansions

In the middle of a slideshow about the “World’s Eeriest Abandoned Places” is an image of a South Florida neighborhood of half-completed McMansions. The description of Lehigh Acres (picture 7 of 8):

There’s something bluntly creepy about the abandoned exurbs of Florida. Forsaken construction sites, like the ones in the middle-class development of Lehigh Acres in Florida’s southwest, are filled with half-built McMansions, unkempt yards overtaken by alligators and snakes, and derelict cul de sacs that lead to nothing. Florida’s population is diminishing for the first time ever, and nowhere is the exodus felt stronger than here.

Before Halloween, I wrote about the trend of horror films using McMansions as scary settings. Perhaps abandoned sites are more in the genre of post-apocalyptic films…

Overall, I’m not sure why abandoned buildings are viewed as being so creepy. I wonder if this fear has increased with the prosperity of the Western world in recent decades. With so much money out there, it strikes us as very odd that a building would just be left behind and unused. Is there something horribly wrong with the building? Why wouldn’t someone want to preserve and reuse it? But, I assume this has happened plenty throughout human history. Think about the ruins of empires; what happened with all the structures the Romans built when their empire slowly collapsed over the centuries? Or what exactly happened to those Mayan cities in the jungle? I remember as a kid learning about the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke but this certainly happened with other explorer settlements like the Vikings in Greenland. Until recent history, abandoned buildings and settlements were probably more common and “normal.”

Is a McMansion truly a better scary movie setting than a smaller, older house?

In the last few days, I’ve seen a few stories about horror movies that take place in McMansions (see here and here). Are McMansions inherently scarier than smaller and older houses? I’ll offer a few arguments for each.

On the side of McMansions:

1. Bigger houses allow more room for weird things to happen and more space for bad creatures to pop out of. The victims have room to run away and utilize rooms they may not have entered in weeks (because the house is just that big!).

2. Perhaps residents of McMansions and all of their faux wealth (according to critics) are more deserving of bad things happening to them or are more naive and innocent. Either way, there is something about McMansion owners that makes them better targets for these films.

3. It is really about a commentary on the foolishness of buying and living in McMansions. Perhaps the horror is the inevitable result of American individualism and consumerism.

On the side of smaller and older homes:

1. They are more claustrophobic. There is nowhere else to go.

2. They are older so there is more potential for odd backstories (think of all of those old owners) or odd places (unused cellars, crawlspaces, attics, etc.).

3. The homeowners may be of a different demographic – they don’t have the wealth to live in McMansions or new homes – so there is potential for different kinds of story lines beyond wealthy and pampered teenagers or young couples who have “made it.”

I think McMansions are an easy target for horror movies and other cultural critics. Most Americans don’t live in them but they symbolize the kind of well-off life that contrasts with darker stories. Of course, dark things can happen in all kinds of houses…