Each fall brings corn mazes, all-pumpkin-everything, and of course, a new crop of terrifying haunted houses that send some people into fits of giggles while others run for the hills. No matter which brand of horror is in vogue that season — werewolves, vampires, the Slenderman — haunted houses will never go out of style. Unlike monsters and the villains found in slasher movies, you can't outrun a haunted house, and that's the scariest part. As the New York Times pointed out in 2012, haunted houses are terrifying because they represent a violation of a seemingly safe space. "That's your sanctuary. When that barrier is breached, you've had it," Dr. John Tibbetts told the Times.
That explains why audiences devour the Paranormal Activity franchise and Shirley Jackson novels alike, but some people prefer to experience their hauntings up close. This is where the modern haunted house comes in — elaborate spectacles in which (inexplicably) willing victims pay to have actors terrorize them in inventive ways. Whether the idea makes you shiver with delight or dread, the fact remains that haunted houses are incredibly popular each fall; last year, the "extreme" San Diego haunted house McKamey Manor reportedly had a waiting list of thousands.
So what are the scariest haunted houses out there? Halloween Express recently analyzed Instagram posts tagged with #HauntedHouse across the United States, and the results are useful reading for anyone who loves Halloween (i.e., everyone). According to their analysis, people in the Northeast tend to post the most often about haunted houses on Instagram; New York was the state with the most haunting-related posts year-round, followed by New Hampshire and Utah. When October was excluded, New York still took the top spot, but the other two states switched places: Utah came in second, and New Hampshire in third.
The most popular haunted house attraction — as opposed to real hauntings, but more on that later — was Netherworld Haunted House in Atlanta, Ga. Second place went to Terror Behind the Walls, which takes place in Philadelphia's famous Eastern State Penitentiary, followed by Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.
But man-made horror certainly isn't the only kind out there. If you're the type to prefer your hauntings a little more historical, the study also looked at the most popular "real" haunted houses on Instagram — locations that have a history of ghost sightings, visions, and things generally going bump in the night. A close look at the top five is below. To read more from the Halloween Express study, including the full list of haunted houses, head over here.
1. Eastern State Penitentiary — Philadelphia, Pa.
On top of being one of the most popular haunted house attractions in the United States, the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) is widely considered one of the most haunted places in the nation. Built in 1829, the Quaker-run prison intended to rehabilitate prisoners through a mix of isolation and labor. Unfortunately, things took a dark turn, and by the time the penitentiary closed in 1971, its walls had been witness to the kind of events that sound lifted out of a horror movie. You can more read about the history of the ESP at NPR.
2. Whaley House — San Diego, Calif.
The Whaley House has been home to supposed paranormal activity for more than a hundred years, beginning with a reported sighting by homeowner Thomas Whaley in the 1800s. Before the house was constructed, the property was used for public hangings, and after the Whaley family moved in, several descendants lived and died in the house. Nobody has lived in the house since the '50s, but reports of ghost sightings come in to this day.
3. The Queen Mary — Long Beach, Calif.
Permanently docked in Long Beach Harbor is the RMS Queen Mary, an ocean liner-turned-war ship that now houses a luxury hotel. Since the ship's construction was finished in 1936, the Queen Mary has been the site of at least 49 deaths, and it has developed a national reputation for ghostly sightings: Spirits, unexplained noises, cold spots, and more. You can visit the Queen Mary yourself and even take a ghost tour if you want — just maybe stay out of the boiler room.
4. The Old Spanish Trail — Jacksonville, Fla.
The Old Spanish Trail runs through many old Spanish colonial towns in the Southeast, but according to local folklore, one of the houses along the trail in Jacksonville, Fla., has seen a fair amount of paranormal activity — first as a stagecoach stop, then as a possible bordello and finally a grocery store until it became the haunted attraction it is today.
5. Lalaurie Mansion — New Orleans, La.
When a place is one of the most infamous haunted houses in New Orleans, La., you know it has to have been the site of serious horrors. In the early 19th century, Delphine Lalaurie was a well-known socialite in public, but after a fire broke out at the Lalaurie mansion, it was revealed that she secretly imprisoned and tortured slaves (or so the story goes). Since then, the mansion has become famous for spirit sightings; Kathy Bates even portrayed Lalaurie in American Horror Story: Coven.