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?