The Symbolism of Stairs And Attics


Common-sense lives on the ground floor […] on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

See Symbolism of the Dream House for more on stairs and the places they connect.

stairs from Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber
Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber

Beauty and the Beast

Stairs = Ascent To Heaven

This image is from the 1986 version retold by Anne Carter,  illustrated by Binette Schroeder. Beauty and the Beast has a strong Christian message for young women: Do as you’re told and you’ll wind up in Heaven. Here we see her going up the stairs into the Beast’s castle, sure that she’s about to end up dead.


Stairs as Ascent into Terror and Imagination

I like drawing staircases, so it seems. There’s nothing like a steep staircase to add some tension and drama to an illustration.

Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes
Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes

Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Page 15a of Midnight Feast

The staircase in the horror comedy Courage The Cowardly Dog. A camera tilt makes an ominous staircase seem even more ominous.

A big struggle scene in 101 Dalmatians (1963) features a chase and dodge sequence which takes place on the stairwell of a big, unwelcoming, aristocratic house. Staircases allow for a variety of angles.

Baddie ascends the stairs, where he is close to discovering the puppies.

The nice thing about stairs is, the space beneath offers shelter and hiding place.

A top down view of the baddie sprawled across the landing shows that he has been defeated.

Speaking of ominous staircases, you may have seen this picture on the Internet:


Over at Messy Nessy is an explanation:

“The Stairway to Heaven, also known as the Haiku Stairs, is a series of 3,922 steps in Oahu, Hawaii on the Koolau Mountain Range. The staircase was built by in 1942 by the U.S. Navy and its scenic views made it a popular tourist attraction. The Stairway to Heaven was closed off in 1982, and scheduled to re-open in 2001 after an $875,000 renovation but local residents opposed access in a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) move. Hikers ignored the signs placed by the city, the city hired security guards to block access, so hikers then accessed the Stairway to Heaven in the middle of the night.”

Some stairs are fantastically long.

Some stairs are hidden, functioning as a labyrinth just beyond the familiar walls.

The Hidden Staircase

Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Does anyone else find it ironically hilarious that the steps are made of anti slip metal? I mean, it’s necessary and all, and probably better than nothing, but that, folks, is what you call a death trap. Safety tread or no safety tread.


Wolves In The Walls is a contemporary story, but ‘living beings in the walls’ has a real-life history when we think back to the relatively recent Edwardian era, in which well-to-do houses kept a staff of services who lived, like rats, ‘behind the scenes’. Behind the green baize door. These servants had their own stairways, and were expected to keep apart from the owners and ‘proper residents’ of the house as much as humanly possible. If they were to ever meet their superior in the house, the most lowly of staff were expected to turn away, pretending not to have seen or heard a thing.

Behind the Green Baize Door

In order that the frenzied activity of the servants didn’t impinge on the peace and quiet of the household, there was a second staircase, unlit, between the attic where the maids lived and the basement where they worked. The servants’ stairs were behind the … green baize door, and led to a network of tunnels and passages few from the other side would ever need to see. The servants’ entrance was around the back of the house and, in town houses, was below ground level. It was considered a heinous impertinence for anyone of servant or tradesman class to call at the front door.

Along with the kitchen and scullery, the basement housed the sleeping quarters for the male members of staff as well as the butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s room, where the preserves and pickles would be kept. If the housekeeper was lucky she would have enough room there.

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen

Stairs = Descent into terror

the dark stairs

Geronimo Stilton

In this humorous series we have a mouse who is terrified of entering an attic. This is a small inversion on the norm, which is to be terrified of entering a basement.

Geronimo Stilton staircase_600x911

Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Demon In The Mattress (1999)

a great high angle view of a staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2013)

Stairs = descent into dreamlike other reality

midnight feast stairs

David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts (1977)

At various other points in this picture book we see the young David gazing out at the reader from the second-storey bedroom window.

We don’t find out what it is David is waiting for until the end of the book (when we learn he has been waiting for his mother to come home with a new baby.) In the meantime, there is a deliberately ominous mood to this book, depicted here by the staircase in silhouette and backgrounded in black. David doesn’t know what’s going on. The mysteries of childbirth are kept from him. David is The Boy Upstairs.

David's Waiting Day staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2014)

I am a big fan of stairs in picture books — here, in the wider story, Stairs = economic hierarchy.

Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Page 15a of Midnight Feast


In The Mystery of the Deadly Double we have an illustration of a regular sized house but with the basic features of a gothic mansion — the attic looks like a modern version of a belfry.


Attics can be creepy. They can safeguard horrible secrets. The attic is the architectural equivalent of the psyche, the head. You may have heard the phrase ‘squirrels in the attic’ to describe lying awake at night, ostensibly because your squirrels in the attic are making noise, but really because you’re worrying about something.

The attic can also be a haven, however, as it is for the bachelor in 101 Dalmatians.

As much as the attic is a haven, our bachelor must come down from his safe space, meet a woman, marry and have children. Sure enough, he is forced out of his attic and into the real world.

For more on the symbolism of the attic, see Symbolism Of The Dream House.

Scene from Midnight Feast. In children's books you often have a child locked upstairs. The child generally comes down and enters the real world for an adventure. Upstairs is for dreaming.
Scene from Midnight Feast. In children’s books you often have a child locked upstairs. The child generally comes down and enters the real world for an adventure. Upstairs is for dreaming.

Another view from Midnight Feast. By this point in the story the reader feels locked inside the house along with the main character.
Another view from Midnight Feast. By this point in the story the reader feels locked inside the house along with the main character.


Maids In Attics

In the Edwardian era:

Maids In The Attic

Maids In The Attic 02

Maids In The Attic03
from Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

Mad Women In The Attic

The trope comes from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, in which Mr Rochester keeps a mad wife locked up in his attic. This trope was really common in works written in the 1800s, but didn’t really become known by that name (‘Madwoman In The Attic’) until an academic work published 1979 by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Gilbert and Gubar examine the notion that women writers of the 19th Century were confined in their writing to make their female characters either embody the “angel” or the “monster.” This struggle stemmed from male writers’ tendencies to categorise female characters as either pure, angelic women or rebellious, unkempt madwomen.


The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The main character in Messud’s novel is a middle-aged school teacher who is not imprisoned by any single man, as such, but by a society in which she is increasingly invisible.

The Woman Upstairs Cover

The ‘mad woman in the attic’ is given a voice in this cornerstone of post-colonial fiction. Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress and the wife of a man who, though never named, is understood to be the dashing Mr Rochester of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Cosway’s tragic narrative is delivered in three ceaselessly compelling parts, each brimming with a heady mix of lechery and treachery. A deep sense of injustice – racial and sexual Wikipedia simmers throughout.

The Island Review

Wide Sargosso Sea

Falling Down Stairs

I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called Forensic Files. One thing I have learnt: when people suicide they inexplicably keep holding the gun because their hand muscles kind of seize up. Also: It’s actually quite rare to die after falling down stairs, yet murderers have tried to stage death by stairs on numerous occasions.

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