Jeremy Wells, Roger Williams University – Haunted Houses

jeremy_wells_photo_low_resIs this place haunted?

Jeremy Wells, assistant professor of historic preservation at Roger Williams University, delves into our attraction to haunted and decaying places.

Areas of Expertise:
Historic Preservation/Heritage Conservation, World Heritage, Preservation Law, Community Planning, Place Attachment, Environmental Design and Behavior Research, Social Science Methods

Haunted Houses


What would Halloween be without haunted houses? Authentically haunted houses become real through time and decay. In this way, the emotional experience associated with authentic haunted houses is similar to people’s experience of authentic historic places. Without decay they just don’t feel real. I study people’s emotional connection to this decay and its relationship to historical authenticity. What I’ve found is a correlation between a certain degree and kind of building and landscape decay and the propensity for people to have what I’ve termed “spontaneous fantasies”. A spontaneous fantasy is the involuntary appearance of vignettes of the past in the mind’s eye that are catalyzed by building decay. These fantasies are quite different from daydreaming because they are not under the voluntary control of the people who have the experience.

Spontaneous fantasies seem to have a significant role in people’s emotional attachment to historical places. I’ve been able to establish a positive statistical correlation between the frequency of people’s spontaneous fantasy events and the degree of emotional attachment to an historical neighborhood. In other words, people who live in authentically old places are more emotionally attached to them than people who live in new construction with similar design characteristics. This has important ramifications for the conservation of built heritage because new construction lacks decay and authentic patina is difficult to create artificially. Therefore, saving authentically historic places may have positive psychological benefits for people. And, interestingly enough, spontaneous fantasies seem to have a lot to do with why only decayed buildings feel authentically haunted.