You know the place — that imposing Victorian manse at the end of the block with the knee-high-weeds, broken-in windows, peeling paint job and tendency to send potential buyers fleeing because of its reputation as being supernaturally stigmatized.
Hollywood loves to paint Victorian-era homes — ornate, fanciful and generally non-threatening when not in disrepair — as having the most menace-potential of housing types. If we were to trust film and television, every run-down Victorian, if not populated by a gaggle of ghosts, would be home to a semi-retired witch waiting to pounce on any Girl Scout troop brave enough to mosey up to the front porch. Either that, or there’s a hideously deformed creature chained to the radiator in the basement.
In a great piece for Co.Design that explores the inherent creepiness of stately Victorian homes (kind of a much hated-on 19th century version of the McMansion), Shaunacy Ferro calls out Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Adams Family” for rendering decaying Victorian homes synonymous with things that go bump in the night. (Am I the only one that thought the Bates Motel itself was more menacing, architecturally speaking, than that taxidermy-filled old house up on the hill?)
Ghosts, ghouls and otherworldly interlopers haven’t been entirely relegated to dusty old Victorians, however. Over the years, horror films have spread the love around to different architectural styles. (Heavy on the turrets, bay windows and stained glass, Victorian-era architecture itself is somewhat of a highly decorative modge-podge of earlier architecture styles.) English manors, mid-century apartment buildings, suburban split-levels and, of course, Dutch Colonials, have all served as the spine-tingling backdrops for haunted house flicks.
The split-level suburban tract house
The original film trailer pretty much says it all: “The house looks just like the one next to it … and the one next to that … and the one next to that.” Released in 1982, the Steven Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist” is just as much a condemnation of cookie-cutter suburban sprawl and unscrupulous development as it is a supernatural horror film. Violent clown dolls, paranormal abductions and skeletons in the swimming pool aside, that early-'80s kitchen is the stuff of nightmares.
The critically panned (but terrifying) “Poltergeist III” shifts the otherworldly action away from the homogenous suburban wastelands of Southern California to a modern high-rise in Chicago (the 100-story John Hancock Tower), proving yet again that malevolent spirits aren’t in the least bit discriminatory when it comes to architectural styles.
The neoclassical grand dame
Gorgeous but in need of a solid dusting, there’s a very good reason why the stately Neoclassical Revival country house (that portico!) featured so prominently in 1976’s “Burnt Offerings” is rented out to Ben and Marian Rolf (Oliver Reed and Karen Black) for so incredibly cheap: bad mojo, and plenty of it.
In addition to its star-making turn as a super-possessive and hungry summer rental from hell, the Dunsmuir House, a historic 37-room mansion in Oakland, Calif., also appeared a couple years later as the Morningside Mortuary in “Phantasm,” another '70s horror classic about a gangly grave robber who enjoys transforming the deceased into evil dwarf zombie slaves in his spare time.
The Brooklyn brownstone
If the message wasn’t loud and clear enough in “Burnt Offerings,” the derivative-but-effective 1977 shocker “The Sentinel” really drives the point home. If Burgess Meredith is in any way part of a real estate transaction involving an older home, be it landlord or downstairs neighbor, get the heck out before it's too late.
Sporting a fun cast of aging Hollywood greats (Ava Gardner!) mingling with up-and-coming stars (Jeff Goldblum!) and featuring with one of the most excruciatingly creepy birthday party scenes ever committed to film (it’s for a cat), “The Sentinel” — an outer-borough “Rosemary’s Baby” of sorts — is about a classic Brooklyn brownstone (Brooklyn Heights, to be exact) with one major flaw: it serves as a portal to hell.
The English country manor
The imposing English country house — more of a castle, really — lends itself to haunted house-dom almost as much as a creaky and crumbling Queen Anne. After all, manors and mayhem often come hand-in-hand. There’s bound to be something unspeakably evil lurking in one of the dozens of empty guest rooms.
Appearing as the supernaturally afflicted, fog-shrouded Belasco House (aka “The Mount Everest of Haunted Houses”) in the fun 1973 British production, “The Legend of Hell House,” the Gothic Revival Wykehurst Place (1874) in West Sussex does a commendable job at providing spooky, Scooby-Doo-y atmospherics. That séance scene is crazy.
The Dutch Colonial
The Brutalist apartment block
There’s something already a bit unsettling (and weirdly suburban) about Roosevelt Island, a narrow island alongside Manhattan in the East River that used to be the site of a prison, a small pox hospital and, most notoriously, an insane asylum. Nowadays, the former Blackwell Island is jam-packed with a series of concrete mid- and high-rise apartment towers — the perfect setting for a horror yarn about a young, divorced and priced-out-of-Manhattan mother being terrorized by the ghost of a girl drowned in a rooftop water tower!
Depicting Roosevelt Island as being a grey, dreary and altogether depressing place where the housing stock is run-down and/or haunted, the Jennifer Connolly-starring “Dark Water” (2005) didn’t exactly get rave reviews from island residents who didn't appreciate their home being portrayed in such a sinister light.
The creepy mansion (Japanese-style)
One of the most striking things about “Ju-on: The Grudge” (and its many sequels/remakes) is how seamlessly the concept of a haunted suburban house in Japan translates over to Western viewers. Sure, the damned piece of real estate in question looks different from Western dwellings. This just makes it the more eerie, unfamiliar and, ultimately, scarier.
And there’s the 1977 cult film “Hausu" ("House"). It too, like “Ju-on” is about a haunted house. But this house, a grand affair in the Japanese countryside that can best be described as chez Bates plunged head-first down the rabbit hole, just happens to physically devour young girls. One of the most bonkers things ever committed to film, after experiencing “Hausu” you’ll never look at a piano or a cat painting in the same way again.
Do demonic spirits really need that much closet space dedicated for shoe storage?
The New England Farmhouse
Real estate pro tip: Always check for sealed-off basements and hidden crawl spaces before committing to anything.
Based on the true (pre-Amityville) story of a young family terrorized by a particularly "active" 18th century farmhouse in Burrillville, R.I., 2013's big summer scare-fest, "The Conjuring," not only terrified/stressed-out movie-goers but also made the lives of a certain real-life family living in a real-life 18th century farmhouse in Burrillville, R.I. a complete nightmare.
The Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece
If you were under the assumption that a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home has never made a prominent appearance in a horror film (I’m still waiting for the “Usonian that Dripped Blood”), you were, well, dead wrong.The exterior of one of Wright’s textile block masterpiece, the Ennis House in Los Angeles, serves as the titular abode in William Castle’s 1959 schlock-fest, “The House on Haunted Hill.” One of the more iconic — and in-peril — works of Mayan Revival architecture birthed during the movement’s heyday in the 1920s and '30s, the historic Ennis House (1924) has hosted many film and TV crews since “The House on Haunted Hill.” Billionaire business tycoon Ron Burkle bought the partially renovated landmark home in 2011 but Vincent Price owned it best.
The fully-automated contemporary
While vengeful entities from beyond don't make an appearance in "This House Possessed," the main antagonist in this 1981 made-for-TV thriller is just as terrifying: a large, tricked-out and totally ugly smart home — complete with solar panels, high-tech security systems, storm-proof windows, automated everything — that has a very disturbed mind of its own.
I caught "This House Possessed" as a kid (forget Saturday morning cartoons, early weekday mornings on TBS were, apparently, prime-time for traumatic B-movies) and it has forever stayed with me — the boiling hot swimming pool, the evil garden hose, the voyeuristic security cameras and one hell of a shower scene.
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- 6 DIY ways to tell if your house is haunted
- 6 real all-American haunted houses