It goes without saying that one of the defining characteristics of Gothic fiction is a creepy setting—a castle falling into ruin, a haunted manor, or some mist-covered moors. But what’s a creepy setting without some creepy inhabitants? One of the most iconic of these, particularly in mansions and manors, is the creepy housekeeper. The creepy housekeeper is usually an older woman with personal ties to the manor itself or its previous inhabitants. Her primary role is generally to make the young female protagonist feel anxious and out of place as a newcomer and to provide either threats or warnings of danger.
The trope of the creepy housekeeper goes as far back as the earliest Gothic novels. One of the most popular of these novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, features an old housekeeper named Dorothée. In this early example, the housekeeper is not a malicious character, and her creepiness stems primarily from her ominous allusions to the path and hints at supernatural occurrences. She is morbidly devoted to her dead mistress and spends much of the novel bemoaning the deteriorating state of the castle, longing for the days when her mistress was alive, and encouraging the young protagonist Emily to believe in and fear the supernatural.
The early establishment of this trope has led to it being parodied many times. In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney alludes to Radcliffe’s Dorothée, specifically, when he teases Catherine that an “ancient housekeeper” will lead her through remote passages to her chambers when she arrives at the abbey. Oscar Wilde presents a very similarly tempered housekeeper in his humorous short story “The Canterville Ghost,” which blends classic gothic tropes with a cutting satire of American consumerism. Like Dorothée, Mrs. Umney in “The Canterville Ghost” tells newcomers the tale of her master’s death and insists upon supernatural happenings. She is the only one in the story to act in a traditional gothic manner, however, fainting and issuing dire warnings while the family goes about un-scared and offering practical solutions to ghostly problems.
While early Gothic novels established the trope and laid the groundwork for humorous interpretations, it was Mrs. Danvers of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca who truly secured the place of the housekeeper among the creepiest of gothic stock characters. In Rebecca, the housekeeper character takes a darker turn. No longer simply a supplier of mood and information, Mrs. Danvers is actively antagonistic, and her devotion to her dead mistress sets her at odds with the protagonist. (For more on that, see my review of Rebecca.) Despite these differences, Rebecca borrows heavily from The Mysteries of Udolpho, and the scene where Mrs. Danvers shows the narrator Rebecca’s bedroom is almost identical to a similar scene in the earlier novel. Mrs. Danvers became an iconic part of the gothic imagination when Judith Anderson portrayed her in a 1940 film adaptation of the novel directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Later novels continued this trend of the dark and ominous housekeeper. Dragonwyck by Anya Seton splits this role between two characters—the actual housekeeper, Magda, who is mildly unpleasant and antagonistic, and another servant, Zélie, who holds all of the secrets. The two characters are combined into one in the film version which continues in the tradition of Hitchcock’s Mrs. Danvers.
The creepy housekeeper continues to be a popular trope to parody in comedy horror films, with prominent examples including Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein and Magenta from Rocky Horror Picture Show,
Who’s your favorite creepy housekeeper? What other tropes would you like to see me discuss? Let me know in the comments! And if you liked this one, be sure to check out my earlier Gothic Tropes post on The Unreliable Narrator.