The best haunted houses don’t necessarily charge an admission fee or feature electronic bats and actors in zombie makeup; often, they are found in between the covers of books, where our own vulnerable imaginations finish the job an author has begun, of scaring the hell out of us. With allusion-rife Gothic romance Crimson Peak in theaters and Halloween around the corner, we thought we’d revisit some of the creepiest, deadliest, most uncanny, and occasionally funniest homes in all of literature.
Incest, murderous mothers, ghosts, houses that take possession of their residents, and “Bluebeard”-style secrets in hidden wings of the attic are the elements you’re most likely to come across in a classic Gothic house novel. And more often than not, the house’s eventual destruction will symbolize something rotten in the ancestral family that cannot sustain itself.
In fact, a fun game to play with this list would be to count how many of these houses eventually get consumed by a fire or explosion of some sort.
In the meantime, don’t turn out the lights.
Hill House, The Haunting of Hill House
In Jackson’s short novel The Haunting of Hill House, the house in question is the site of an investigation into supernatural activity, an “experiment” wherein supernaturally sensitive folks are crammed together in a reportedly haunted house to see what happens. Nothing can go wrong, right? But it’s the masterful quality of Jackson’s suspenseful narration, which leads us to wonder how much is real and how much is happening in the characters’ heads, that makes this the most critically beloved haunted house novel of all time.
The sinister presence of Rebecca, the first Mrs. DeWinter, haunts the Cornwall estate that her successor roams like a scared child. Eventually, the crashing ocean beneath the estate yields a terrible secret.
There would be no Manderley without Thornfield, the house where Jane Eyre works as governess. The place is most notable for its locked attic wing, from which cackling laughter sometimes emerges. The source of that laughter holds the secret which metaphorically haunts Thornfield and all its inhabitants.
The original Transylvanian horror palace, where Jonathan Harker is at first happy to be hosted by an incredibly genteel Count Dracula, soon learns he is a prisoner, and is later visited by three residents who happen to be lady succubi. Bram Stoker got his influences from a hodgepodge of sources, but the creepy terror of the Count is all his own creation.
This New England house, the setting of the eponymous Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, is built upon land seized from neighbors during the Salem witch trials, and a curse lingers in its very eaves, illustrating the way the misdeeds of one generation linger into posterity. Hawthorne was never light on symbolism or his obsession with the sins of his Puritan forbears.
The Gothic-style mansion where young Catherine Morland comes to stay with the Tilneys in Austen’s spoof isn’t haunted, but novel-loving Catherine thinks it is. She gets herself worked into such a tizzy that she thinks a pile of laundry bills are a secret letter. It turns out the main culprits in the house are Austen’s usual bugbears: money-grubbing relatives and rakish young men.
The reason Austen’s Catherine Morland is so susceptible to her own imagination? She has read too many Anne Radcliffe novels. Radcliffe wrote bestselling tales like The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest, featuring young women trapped in castles, sinister Europeans, and mysterious goings-on in the night. Udolpho in particular is the quintessential castle with secrets behind curtains and noises in the night.
The House of Usher, The Fall of the House of Usher
Another common theme in the haunted house novel is incest, and the House of Usher is the paragon of this sort of doomed abode, cursed by the unnatural “sympathy” between the Usher siblings, whose gruesome hold on each other appears to extend beyond the grave — and eventually leads their home to split in two.
Otranto, The Castle of Otranto
A very early example of the Gothic novel, this story of the tussle over who will be the prince of the titular castle involves curses, deadly helmets falling from the rafters, lots of mistaken identities and some stabbings — all of which were extremely influential.
The Silver House, White Is for Witching
A contemporary update of the Gothic trope, Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching is partially narrated by the haunted house itself. As the New York Times notes in its 2009 review:
But the house — which has its own spirited personality — has other ideas. It frightens off the hired help and even insists on narrating some of the story. (“One evening she pattered around inside me . . . and she dragged all my windows open, putting her glass down to struggle with the stiffer latches. I cried and cried for an hour or so.”)
Sarah Waters’ novel is another twisted update on the Gothic house novel, featuring references to Poe, DuMaurier, and all the biggies of the genre. The Guardian notes:
As well as dwindling fortunes, madness and tragedy, the Ayres family seem beset by all manner of things that go bump in the night. Furniture appears to move of its own volition and very much against the wishes of the householders. An apparent malicious presence taunts a dog into biting a little girl’s face during a fantastically awkward social occasion. Spooky writing manifests beneath the paintwork. Servants start to worry that there’s something “bad” hanging around the house. The house itself takes on a macabre life of its own (in one memorable passage, the narrator says the eldest Ayres daughter, Caroline, “went into the house as if stepping into a rip in the night”).
Charles Dickens got particularly Gothic in Great Expectations, describing Ms. Havisham’s abode that has been stopped in time from the moment she was jilted at the altar, everything covered in dust and decay.
The house in Toni Morrison’s great novel is literally haunted by the ghost of slavery: Beloved, an infant who died when her mother killed her rather than let her be sold into slavery, lingers there and eventually becomes re-embodied. The opening lines are some of the best ever written in English:
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old—as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill.
Another brilliant parody of the Gothic comes from Stella Gibbons, whose Gothic-style farm, full of family dysfunction and resentment, gets “tidied up” by her Austen-loving heroine. The highlight of the book is Aunt Ada Doom, the matriarch who shows up every so often to remind everyone about the secret in their house: “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!” We never know what it is, but the novel is all the better for it.
Hipster Danny is invited by the cousin he once nearly killed to help renovate a castle somewhere in Eastern Europe. Creepy hijinks ensue in Egan’s postmodern treatment of the genre.
Bly Estate, The Turn of the Screw
The scariest household help ever are the maybe-supernatural villains of this Henry James ghost story, which finds a governess arriving at a wealthy estate, only to find her supposedly dead predecessors still have the run of the place. *Shiver*
Sutpen’s Hundred, Absalom, Absalom!
In Southern Gothic classics like Faulkner’s, the decay of a corrupt society — stained by the sin of slavery — forms the same kind of background as the decay of the British gentry does for Gothic novels from across the pond. Incest, murder, and damnation are what condemn the mansion and surrounding plantation that are the subject of this dark novel.
The Overlook Hotel, The Shining
The Torrances don’t know what they’re getting into when the family moves into the Overlook in remote Colorado in Stephen King’s deliciously rich tale of horror. The hotel, it turns out, has a life force of its own, and it’s malevolent and begins to take possession of Jack, while young Danny sees things no ordinary child would see.
A word of advice to young women: never consent to move in with sinister relatives in a remote area of the countryside. The horrors in DuMaurier’s slightly campier tale of Cornish crime are not supernatural, but they are all the more horrible for that. Abuse, alcoholism, and plundering are the secrets that Jamaica Inn holds.
Pink Palace Apartments, Coraline
Neil Gaiman knows his Gothic fiction. The apartment Coraline moves into is a broken-down old house, the unoccupied apartment a classic Bluebeard’s castle with a secret. Doubles, the uncanny, and monstrous moms all wait for Coraline on the other side of the sealed-off passageway she finds.