Spooky structures have occupied the popular imagination ever since the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of Seven Gables, for instance, added notoriety to that already-famous period, heavily referencing the 17th-century house of Massachusetts settler Captain John Turner (never mind that the house actually had three gables—seven had a better ring). For Hawthorne the house was a living, breathing thing—it told the story of its wrongfully accused former inhabitants, and those who later seized the property. The Gothic novel was suitably gloomy, with a depressive protagonist in a home fallen into disrepair. The horror genre only grew from there, spawning hundreds of hair-raising novels, movies, and TV shows, all featuring equally creepy architecture. There isn’t one single stylistic thread that connects these horrifying houses, but we find their wide-ranging visual variety—and more often than not, ordinariness—frightfully fascinating. Below are five of our favorites.
F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is an early example of “horrorfied” architecture in cinema. The film was made just 30 years after Bram Stoker’s Dracula hit bookshelves and owes a great deal to the author’s invention; silent and shot in black-and-white, it leans on anticipation and special effects to keep its audience on the edge of their seats. Underpinning the silver-screen fear was a simple, desolate interior rife with crumbling corners and looming shadows. Abandoned salt storehouses (“salzspeicher”) built between the 16th and 18th centuries were used as the set for Count Orlock’s house, and their disused state lent valuable gravitas to what was already a most gloomy film.
Witchery got jazzed a century after Hawthorne’s novel in Dario Argento’s 1977 horror movie Suspiria. The film can come off as rather kitschy to modern eyes, but at the time of its release the plot elicited screams, while the set struck a disturbingly chic tone and was perhaps more akin to Diana Vreeland’s hell-themed living room. Argento utilized Art Nouveau elements, geometric floor designs like stylized pentagrams, faux wall paneling, and M.C. Escher–inspired murals that played with perspective; strangely enough, he also counted “Snow White red” among his main inspirations. He hired cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to help bring his vision to life, and together they pulled from the 1937 Walt Disney version of that fairy tale to draw just the right tones of blood red into the film.
Director Luca Guadagnino looked to more modern references in his 2018 remake of Suspiria, calling upon Bauhaus graphics, Adolf Loos interiors, and Josef Hoffmann furniture. The hues in his film may be more muted but have an equally chilling effect—just imagine turning a corner, with an axe murderer in pursuit, and running into Le Corbusier’s LC4 chaise longue. The production designer, Inbal Weinberg, kept the references geographically tight, deploying the work of Austrian designers as inspiration in a movie that takes place in 1977 Berlin, before the wall came down. The effect is cold yet sumptuous, deceptive in its use of moiré silks and Sputnik chandeliers—all of which was enough to draw in an unsuspecting ballet student without question.
Postmodern architecture enjoyed its own moment in Tim Burton’s 1988 Beetlejuice, the tale of a rambunctious poltergeist insistent on scaring away the new owners of a formerly quaint abode. An actual interior designer—Otho—plans to redecorate and modernize the house, which previously was fitted out with grandfather clocks and papered walls but becomes a modernist masterpiece with jutting exterior walls, yellow accents, and cubic windows. A Brutalist fireplace replaces the wood-and-tiled mantelpiece, while a slab of a table worthy of the Flintstones takes over the dining room. Primary colors dominate the rest of the house, especially the kitchen, which is swathed in a distinct Hockney blue.
Hocus Pocus (1993)
Bringing it all the way back to your friendly, suburban neighborhood, Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus crawled under the covers in our own childhood beds. When teen protagonist Max Dennison reads out of the grimoire that brings the Sanderson sisters back to Salem, he’s standing in a stylized old Colonial, complete with cobwebs, candle wax, and a surly black cat. The house from which the mischievous witch sisters later kidnap his baby sister is every nineties kid’s dream house—white wood, windows everywhere, and a turret perched at the very top, perfect for a quick drop in on the back of a broom. Hocus Pocus may be in a more familiar setting than most Halloween-oriented films, but it’s up to the viewer whether this particular version of nostalgia calms or excites the nerves.
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