Houses are a staple of the spooky season. Whether the house is infested with ghosts and no more to blame than one with a termite problem, acting with intent (evil or otherwise), or not actually a house at all but a maze, portal, or mouth, they loom large in the landscape of spooky prose and spooky films.
Bill, Sandy, and I decided to take a look at a few of our favorites. Today’s spotlight—or at least our high-tech ghost-hunting apparatus—is trained on houses, in books and movies. They are listed in (roughly) alphabetical order.
One commenter will get a hardback edition of Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House, or a $5 Amazon gift card if you prefer. If your address is outside of the United States, you will get the gift card.
Marion: The outwardly majestic, internally rotten manse in del Toros’ 2015 gothic ghost flick Crimson Peak perfectly symbolizes the souls of the murderous Sharpe family who own it. (Spoilery) recap: in 1901, a brainy, creative young American, Edith Cushing, becomes infatuated with charming British baronet Thomas Sharpe. Edith’s wealthy father recognizes Thomas and his sister Lucille as grifters and sends them packing. The next day he is killed in the bathroom of his men’s club, and before you can say, “Murdered for your money,” Edith is Mrs. Thomas Sharpe, swept off to the Sharpe ancestral house, Allerdale Hall.
The house is a doozy. The moment Edith steps into the grand great hall, she notices the snow pouring in from the gigantic hole in the roof that the siblings have never bothered to cover over. (Like, not even a tarp.) Del Toro creates sets of decaying grandeur and faded luxury, all spiraled around a birdcage elevator, bordered by an elaborate staircase. Trademark del Toro moments abound. Scene after scene of innocent Edith, highlighted in watery light at the end of long shadowed hall, fill the film. The bathroom is strangely proportioned, driving the viewer’s eye to the vulnerable body in the tub—or the dripping, black-and-red ghostly body in the tub, whichever. Bright red oozes up through the floorboards and glistens everywhere—not blood, surprisingly, but the “crimson clay” the Sharpe family mines. Dark wooden accents look like teeth or outstretched claws. Windows look like eyes. Even the lived-in rooms of the house—basically a sitting room, one bedroom that we see, and a kitchen, are larger than life, with a sense that beyond the frame of the shot there are even more wonders or terrors. The scary ghosts aren’t evil, just desperate. The true evil in the house, of course, are Lillian and Thomas. In the final scenes, the house isn’t subsiding into the blood-red goop, but we’re still expecting it to.
Bill: Because we’re lucky enough to live in a city with the George Eastman Museum and its Dryden Theater, I’m going to go way back to 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, which the Dryden showed this month. One of the earliest full-length haunted house movies, this silent film was directed by Paul Leni and has all the classic genre tropes (can they be tropes at such an early stage?) one could wish for: an isolated, rambling gothic structure surrounded by wind and lightning, rumors of a ghost walking its halls for decades, a gaunt and foreboding housekeeper/caretaker, a creepy big portrait, a cobweb-covered door knocker, a will-reading where all the heirs gather, flickering candles, secret passageways and hidden compartments, distorted shadows on the walls, a grotesque and clawed hand creeping around corners and reaching from shadows, tracking shots (from whose perspective?), an escaped lunatic, and more. From an early image where the exterior of the mansion morphs into a shot of the dying millionaire trapped amidst gigantic medicine bottles and watched by even larger malevolent black cats (his family waiting for money from “the canary”), the whole movie is a feast of atmosphere. The genre elements are nicely balanced by light humor, the cast does a nice job in their various roles, the story is passable, but really its Leni’s expressionistic visuals that make the film worth watching (and if you can see it on the big screen with live music as the score, all the better! Did I mention we were lucky?)
Sandy: The House on Haunted Hill, directed by the great showman William Castle and written by Robb White, is the only house—and film—in my trio not based on a literary source. In the film, a multimillionaire named Frederick Loren invites a group of strangers to the creepy abode that he has rented for a little party challenge: Anyone surviving the night in the supposedly haunted house will come away with $10,000. And what a house he has chosen … a building that, although it resembles nothing less than a penitentiary from the outside, is as creepy a Victorian-seeming derelict on the inside as one could ever hope to encounter.
Before the evening is over, the houseguests are witness to a falling chandelier, a levitating hag, a decapitated head, attempted murders, a suicide, a floating skeleton, a self-playing organ, ghosts, and a cellar replete with acid pit, in a film that has been traumatizing generations of viewers for almost 65 years now.
True confession: The sight of Mrs. Annabelle Loren, indelibly portrayed by the great Carol Ohmart, floating outside the window of Nora Manning’s (Carolyn Craig’s) window, noose around her neck on a stormy night, was enough to give me kiddy nightmares for many years!
Anyway, The House on Haunted Hill, I have since learned, is actually the Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923, and constructed in 1924 in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, in a style now known as Mayan Revival architecture. Wikipedia happens to have a long and detailed article on this house, for those who are interested. As for me, I am half torn to visit this famous house one day, and half compelled to stay as very far away from it as humanly possible!
Sandy: Now I come to the haunted house that just might be the most intimidating proposition of them all – at least, from an architectural standpoint. In my review of the British film The Legend of Hell House, which Richard Matheson scripted and which was based on his 1971 novel Hell House, I wrote “Hell House, with its carved gates, gargoyled pillars and Gothic towers, really does look like the real deal …this is a house that tells you, at first glimpse, that all visitors will certainly be in for a rough ride!”
As in another terrifying film, The Haunting, here, a quartet of investigators arrives at the Belasco House, aka Hell House, the so-called “Mt. Everest of haunted houses,” and gets far more than they had anticipated. Director John Hough uses all the tricks of the trade to engender a decidedly menacing atmosphere, and Matheson’s screenplay though lacking much of the sex and violence of his truly unpleasant and horrifying novel – is a highly effective one. The film’s four leads – Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, and the late Gayle Hunnicutt, who sadly passed away a few months ago – are simply marvelous, and the film builds to a truly harrowing conclusion.
And oh, that house, that house! Belasco House is actually Wykehurst Place, a Gothic Revival mansion situated in Bolney, West Sussex, England, whose construction was completed in 1874. According to the Wikipedia article on the property, Wykehurst Place was the home of Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan from 1984 until … 2023. Thus, I believe that the house is once again available for purchase, for anyone brave enough to move in and spend some time there. Trust me, it’s not the lack of 50 million pounds that is holding me back!
Sandy: 1963’s The Haunting is the film that many people, including myself, deem the single scariest movie ever made. It was, of course, based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which I also deem the single scariest book that I have ever read. In the film, Dr. John Markway (English actor Richard Johnson) and a trio of fellow researchers arrive at Hill House, an abode with an evil history in Massachusetts, to conduct some paranormal investigations. And boy, does this quartet ever get more than they were expecting, in a film that has been raising the hackles of viewers for decades now!
Screenwriter Nelson Gidding’s adaptation of Jackson’s source material is a perfect one, and director Robert Wise does a sterling job at emphasizing the creepy nature of the tale without resorting to overt violence and gruesomeness. Humphrey Searle’s musical score will long linger in the memory, as will the interior monologues of Eleanor, memorably portrayed by Julie Harris. And man oh man, what an abode Hill House turns out to be on film … as forbidding a monstrosity as any horror fan could ever wish to encounter!
Ettington Park (now the Ettington Park Hotel) in Ettington, Warwickshire, U.K., is the actual building used for the exterior shots in The Haunting, a neo-Gothic pile that was finished in 1862. Just do a Google Image search for a picture of the place and you’ll see that the structure just screams “Haunted”! I sure would love to visit this place one day, but as for paying hundreds of pounds to spend a night therein … well, just watch the film and tell me whether or not Julie Harris and Claire Bloom had a relaxing night’s sleep there!
Marion: Shirley Jackson introduced the world to the ultimate evil house with her 1959 book, The Haunting of Hill House. Sixty-four years later, Elizabeth Hand revisits Hill House with her chilling novel, A Haunting on the Hill. The house plays all the evil tricks in did in the film—rooms move around, voices can be heard where there are no people, and time doesn’t run in a regular way there. The acting troupe that chooses to stay there to workshop a play doesn’t know the house’s history, although they get snippets of information that are deeply disturbing. Let’s just say the house hasn’t gone hungry in the intervening decades.
Bill: Directed by Bernard Rose, the 1989 film Paperhouse stars Charlotte Burke as Anna, an 11-year-old girl struck by a mysterious illness. Each time she loses consciousness, she finds herself inside the stark drawing she made in the movie’s first scene: an isolated house near the sea, where she quickly learns that what she draws affects this world. For instance, before she can meet the sad-faced boy she sketched in the second-story window she has to draw stairs so she can go up to him. More disturbing is the question as to whether his inability to walk is because she didn’t give him legs in her original drawing. Two further elements darken the film. One is the blurring of worlds — Anna’s doctor is also caring for a young boy named Marc who cannot walk and is dying. The other is Anna’s father, whose absence and past drinking in the real world cause pain and anger for Anne, but whose appearance in the house-world is truly horrifying thanks to the way she accidentally drew him at first and then tried, unsuccessfully to scribble over him. The house isn’t onscreen as much here as in most haunted house films, but I love its Weird-Wyeth vibe that gradually morphs from whimsical to surreal to nightmarish to hellscape, as well as how its haunting nature is more within Anna’s mind than any exterior force. I recall absolutely loving Paperhouse when I saw it originally, and it held up pleasingly well in the rewatch I did this week for this piece.
Bill: I am, I confess, going to cheat twice here with my book recommendations. Once by giving two recommendations and a second time by linking to my reviews of the two books for a more detailed description. The first is David Mitchell’s Slade House, a tight little novel (barely over 200 pages) whose haunted house appears Brigadoon-like every ten years or so, much to the dismay of those poor singular souls who finds themselves venturing inside it in each of the five linked stories. A great mix of haunted house tropes, vividly poignant characterizations, and a neat structure. Daniel Woods similarly makes use of the linked- stories-centered-on-a-single-house structure in North Woods. More a series of character studies than a scary story, the novel-in-story-form is nonetheless suffused with the supernatural, making it a haunted house of a different color (more pastel than bloody red), one that rewards in its own fashion.
Marion: Starling House, Alix E. Harrow’s 2023 creation from the book of the same name, has a taste for human blood. Although it has never been on the electrical grid, sometimes late at night a single light shines from an attic room like a beacon. The gates to the house, festooned with grotesque creatures, are always locked. And yet. In Harrow’s latest work she introduces a house that is frightening and yet not evil. We follow Starling scion Arthur and scrappy loser Opal through the blighted town of Eden, Kentucky, and also on their quest through Starling House, which protects the path to a hidden and alien world. The house is neither haunted nor evil, but it has strong opinions, and God help anyone who tries to thwart its mission. Harrow’s magical house has moods and demonstrates those moods in tangible and memorable ways. I respect Starling House—from afar.
What’s your favorite spooky house? One commenter will get a hardback edition of Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House, or a $5 Amazon gift card if you prefer. If your address is outside of the United States, you will get the gift card.