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The Craft of Fear: How to Build a Haunted House for the Big Screen

Through six films, IndieWire's Craft Team breaks down the key ingredients of sound, lighting, and production design that make the best onscreen haunted houses so scary — and so fun — to explore and escape.

THE SHINING, Danny Lloyd, Lisa Burns, Louise Burns, 1980, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Shining”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

As discussed when thumbing through IndieWire’s favorite horror scores earlier this month, much of the work of horror filmmaking is about giving fear a shape. Horror movies imbue the world we know with a malevolent power, bringing out the threat of violence we suspect is always lurking just below the surface. The home is a particularly potent setting for such a transformation, and while there are a lot of different methods for making a moviegoer question the safety of their supposed haven, one of the most dependable is a good old fashioned haunting. Looking at horror movies from across the decades, we can see patterns of production design, composition and lighting, special effects, and sonic choices that give haunted houses their ghostly and/or ghastly strength. We’ve selected six essential films exhibiting the key building blocks the best filmmakers use to construct the sinister shadows and otherworldly presences that we love to see materialize in the places we should feel most secure.

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, from left: Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, 1947. ©20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, TM & Copyright/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”

20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, TM & Copyright/courtesy Everett Collection

Ostentatious Design — “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947)

Fear was a part of filmmaking from the beginning (just ask the late folks from 1896 about their emotional reaction to seeing a realistic train speeding right towards them) and the roots of horror filmmaking are everywhere in the history of cinema. But there is something deliciously sinister about the way the American film industry took the expressive lighting and outsized sets of German Expressionism and adapted them so that less outré stories could capture the same kind of expansive emotions. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is a gothic romance, pairing a young widow looking for a new start in a seaside mansion with the house’s previous owner, a late sea captain. It gets major bonus points for turning its protagonist into a ghostwriter/ghost’s writer, too: Gene Tierney takes down Rex Harrison’s colorful memoirs as they fall in love.

There isn’t too much fear, suspense, or malice that doesn’t originate in the stubborn lovers’ hearts, but the twists and turns of the old New England house figure prominently throughout the film and especially in the candle-lit sequences of Mrs. Muir’s discovery of her unwanted lodger. There’s just something about the Queen Anne style of architecture: The extra details and reliefs on roofs, gables, and columns cast unnerving geometric shadows, the shifting forms of the interior can give rooms distinct senses of environment and yet make the whole feel a little bit knotted or twisted when moving from room to room. The level of detail within the house is an expression of the ghost’s personality, and his faded power from beyond the grave. While the captain’s desires are mostly benign, the faded glory and crumbling complexities of an old architectural style can help give a haunted house its otherworldly presence. —SS

THE HAUNTING, Julie Harris, 1963.

“The Haunting”

Courtesy Everett Collection

Blueprint for Disorientation — “The Haunting” (1963)

Nearly 60 years after director Robert Wise put Shirley Jackson’s malevolent Hill House on screen for the first time, there’s still room to debate whether the mansion’s effect on its guests is psychological or supernatural. You can never be too sure about anything in “The Haunting,” and this is by design: From the camera angles and movements executed by Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton to the way that the editing deliberately obscures the house’s layout, the film’s primary mode of fright is a kind of funhouse disorientation. It’s no wonder “The Haunting” was a major influence on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction. 

Sound has its role to play, too. When a menacing thump leads Nell (Julie Harris), Theo (Claire Bloom), Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), and Luke (Russ Tamblyn) to cower behind a door that might not be the sturdy barrier they’re hoping for, the question of where the noise is coming from becomes just as disquieting as the thought of what could possibly make such a racket. The heard-but-not-seen terror of “The Haunting” reaches its peak in an earlier scene, in which Nell is awoken by strange voices in the night. With the visuals restricted to volleying shots of Harris’ face and a spooky relief carving, the bewilderment zeroes in on the ear: Can you make out what the murmuring man is saying? And do you need to, when it’s so clearly invoking fear in Nell and the little girl? The scene ends on one last dizzying sleight of cinematic hand, proving once and for all that wherever you go in Hill House, there you aren’t. —EA 

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Expansive Isolation — “The Shining” (1980)

Okay. Okay. “The Shining” isn’t set in a haunted house. It takes place in a hotel. But Stanley Kubrick does haunting better than almost anyone, and one of the many reasons why the film is so affecting is the way that Kubrick uses space to make the Overlook Hotel feel like such a force of nature on the verge of consuming the film’s characters. The opening of the film is 100 percent landscape, after all. While the score is doing a lot of work to drum up a sense of dread, Kubrick’s camera soars through the sky above the Torrance’s car like a circling vulture, and the expansive view of the Rockies isn’t too dissimilar to the ocean in “Jaws.” When you can see for miles, and see no safe harbor, the vastness of the world itself is terrifying.

Kubrick’s approach to photographing the hotel itself is exactly the same. We always see the height of the ceilings, the depth of the stretching, maze-like corridors, and the overwhelming walls of color. Obviously the elevators releasing a river of blood is an iconic example, but the moment that Jack (Jack Nicholson) turns on the lights in the Gold Room — and the frame goes from almost void black to strong geometric lines of light — sets an equally unsettling, if slightly harder to parse, tone. The old Napoleonic saying that quantity has a quality all its own should have a “The Shining” corollary: scale has a scariness that’s all its own. As winter comes and Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and Danny (Danny Lloyd) are shut in, it’s the size of the hotel and its grounds that makes escape feel all the more impossible. It’s not because of unreliable telecommunications that horror stories generally take place on the edge of the wilderness, and in big houses that hold all sorts of secrets. Horror is about confronting something overwhelming and impossible, and “The Shining” reflects that in its mesmerizing, terrifying setting.—SS

©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Impossible Effects — “Poltergeist” (1982)

There are films with more gore, more naturalistic special effects, and more shocking jumpscares, but few films absolutely wreck the house they’re set in with more gusto than “Poltergeist.” Tobe Hooper’s tale — one of a reasonably-happy family living in a slightly-unreasonably-sized house that kind of has its own weather patterns — ramps up slowly. The Freeling home is so well-appointed and so comfortable that you need to get very close to the TV set in order to glimpse the evil that is, perhaps, lurking in the spaces between the frenetic static. It features all the hallmarks of a good ghost story — things that should not be built over a graveyard, ominously shifting objects, and ooze oozing out of places where ooze should not ooze. But the fun of “Poltergeist” really is in the payoff, and by payoff we mean the absolute mayhem that erupts when the forces haunting the house make themselves fully felt.

The effects look slightly dated and it would be hard for them not to. But the careful way in which Hooper positions his camera (with an assist from producer Steven Spielberg, fresh off the spooky catacombs of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and alien lights of “E.T.”), always tying the viewer to the characters’ perspective, makes the violence of the spiritual presences that attempt to drag the Freelings down to hell affecting even now. The film does such a good job of animating seemingly benign imagery in the first hour that when everything breaks bad and gets gory, there’s still a twisted kind of playfulness to it. The special effects in “Poltergeist” aren’t necessarily there for spectacle’s sake (although they are that, too). They’re there to twist the film’s environment into a dark mirror version of itself, and then to shatter it. —SS

THE OTHERS, Nicole Kidman, 2001, (c) Dimension Films/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Others”

©Dimension Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

Shadow and Light — “The Others” (2001) 

Nicole Kidman may be celebrating the times we when all go into a darkened room to have a shared experience these days, but she had both darkness and light weaponized against her in one of the biggest horror movies of the early 21st century. “The Others” is the story of a woman who lives in a — sing it if you know the words — very large and very old country house, specifically a mansion in the Channel Islands in the aftermath of World War II. She’s waiting for her husband to come home from the war and protecting her children who have a condition that causes extreme sensitivity to sunlight. It is that plot point that helps director Alejandro Amenábar hyperfocus the audience on the gothic atmosphere of the house and its surrounding, mist-covered grounds.

The film almost looks like a Dutch master’s painting in its scariest moments, with deep, deep dark blacks threatening to envelop Kidman’s character. But the sight of what would otherwise be beautifully textured light coming into the house from a set of pulled curtains also cuts like a knife and feels viscerally frightening. The film sets up a no-win situation where any change from the dim coolness of the house’s interior is frightening, and where a significant bit of the suspense comes from the way the characters find themselves visually trapped within compositions by blocks of color, even if they have the freedom to get off a staircase or out of a closet. It’s a nice way of setting up the film’s answer to why objects in the house keep shifting unnaturally and why the family’s new set of servants were already so familiar with the house. Amenábar really doesn’t need to do much to scare us. He just shows us characters unable to make sense of what truths are hiding in the darkness and lets our imaginations do the rest. —SS

Everett Collection

Sharp Corners and Reflective Interiors — “Hereditary” (2018)

The less said about the plot of “Hereditary” the better, because the ways in which the emotional damage festering among the Graham family explodes out as violence are so much more impactful than any description of them would be. But while this is a film about a family living in a house haunted by lots of things — some of them psychological and some of them Biblical and some of them very surreal — there’s an almost antiseptic precision to Ari Aster’s construction of space in the film that works like a silent, visual pressure cooker. The characters feel locked into their environments and all the environments contain a sense of latent danger. (Tie a drinking game to every close-up of a pointed object at your own risk.) Aster mines much of the tension of the first two-thirds of the film by emphasizing the sharp edges of the Grahams’ home and the strong lines in the design of the interiors, mirroring a growing understanding of the sharp edges hidden in the way the family members speak to each other.

“Hereditary” really embodies the motif of doll houses (or, in the case of Toni Collette’s character here, artistic dioramas) in horror movies: The genre twists the idea that we can construct a world for our own happiness by implying that the world is constructed: it has an order. There is a reason why bad things keep happening. But the reason is always a force that does not have our best interests at heart, and that can cast us aside or crush us as easily as a child’s plaything. Seeing ourselves reflected, tiny and vulnerable, is part of why key details in a horror film’s production design can have just as much power as a vengeful spirit. —SS

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