As Alfred Hitchcock well knew, nothing sets a mood of suspense better than a spooky old house. The brooding Mansard-roofed Victorian in Hitchcock’s 1960 film "Psycho" is probably the best-known creepy old house in pop culture. But there are plenty of others.
For instance, the eerily rendered Xanadu, home of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ milestone 1941 film, "Citizen Kane." The hauntingly composed images of Xanadu are so central to the story that they’re used to both open and close the film.
More recently, there was the anthropomorphic house featured in 1979’s "The Amityville Horror," perhaps the world’s only frightening Dutch Colonial. On the lighter side was the eccentric television abode of "The Addams Family" (another Mansarded and iron-crested Victorian, although, like Xanadu, it was actually just a matte painting).
Just what makes for an unnervingly spooky house? And mind you, we’re talking aesthetic creepiness, not pulp-novel-style haunting. Well into the 1960s, old Victorians of the Gothic or Mansard variety were Hollywood’s standard issue for spookiness, probably because they were decaying and far out of fashion at the time. After their popular renaissance in the 1970s, however, those gaily colored gingerbread houses possessed a much less sinister effect in the public mind, and hence Hollywood has moved on to other archetypes.
A really creepy house usually has some anthropomorphic character — the vaguely hunchbacked, head-and-shoulders silhouette of Mrs. Bates’ house in "Psycho," for example, or the diabolical, eye-like attic windows seen in promotions for "The Amityville Horror," or the gaping mouth-like porch of Freddy Krueger’s house in Wes Craven’s "Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984).
Anthropomorphism plays an even bigger role in one of the scariest spooky-house films of all time: Robert Wise’s "The Haunting" (1963). Here, the gloomy stone pile known as Hill House features rearing Gothic towers and cavernous window openings that eerily recall the empty eye sockets of a skull.
In this case, Hill House was not a matte painting but an actual English manor house called Ettington Hall near Stratford-upon-Avon, and director Wise used a special high-contrast film to make the window openings seem black and empty. Ettington Hall seen in normal light looks considerably less diabolical, and in fact is now a popular hotel.
What makes Hill House so deliciously spooky is the fact that we never see anything more explicit than mundane parts of the house itself: a door swelling and bending as if under pressure from some terrible force beyond, or malevolent faces creepily emerging from the patterns in ordinary wallpaper.
These nightmarish inversions of the ordinary, unlike the explicit fare of "slasher" films, are all the more frightening precisely because they’re so domestic and familiar. How many of us, as children, didn’t imagine faces in the wallpaper?
The fact that we never learn just what malevolent force stalks Hill House in "The Haunting" only heightens its stature as one of the spookiest houses in pop culture. Just as in real life, we aren’t presented with neat conclusions — only more unnerving questions.
As Alfred Hitchcock once put it: "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it."
The real-life home in Amityville, N.Y., made famous in "The Amityville Horror." Image courtesy of Dougtone.
Set for the Bates Motel in the Alfred Hitchcock film "Psycho," with the Bates home in the distance. Image courtesy of ste3ve.