The idea of “home” is supposed to be comforting. In an ideal world, you'd return home to a fire crackling, tea whistling on the stove, and your favorite afghan waiting for you on the sofa along with a great novel and a glass of Scotch. But what happens when the fire crackles a little too loudly, the teapot whistle sounds more like a scream, and the afghan ends up in a heap on the floor whenever you leave the room? Maybe you're losing your mind. Maybe there's someone else inside. Maybe your house is keeping secrets.
The idea of a haunted house is terrifying precisely because a home is supposed to be safe. Just like demonic children are especially frightening because children typically stand for all things sweet and innocent and good, haunted houses give us that same sense of psychological unease: Something's off, and it's not supposed to be this way. The haunted house fits in with Freud's notion of the “uncanny,” a thing that feels familiar and strange at the same time. It's just your house! Your bedroom, your comforter, your teddy bear! And yet... and yet....
Literature is speckled with terrifying houses, from old Victorian mansions with blood-drenched pasts to ordinary-looking homes with magical properties. Thank God these creaking, blood-drenched domiciles only show up in books. Right?
The House of Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher
The Usher siblings are dreary, sickly, and haunted, just like the house they live in. When the sister dies, the brother decides to preserve “her corpse for a fortnight ... in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building.” Never bury a corpse in the walls of a haunted house, because this funeral rite results in the destruction of all involved, including the house itself.
Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre
Mr. Rochester's mansion is full of long hallways, plenty of unused rooms, a troubled owner who's always leaving, and a terrible secret in the attic. When Jane Eyre arrives at Thornfield, she notices that “a very chill and vault-like air pervaded the stairs and gallery, suggesting cheerless ideas of space and solitaire.” There's also a lot of weird, ghosty laughter that floats around after midnight.
The “ancestral hall” in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
The narrator's husband takes her to a “colonial mansion” for the summer in hopes that her “nervous condition” will improve, but she can't stand the strange, sinuous wallpaper in her room. By the end of the story, she's in the middle of a full-fledged breakdown, haunted by the “strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths” that she sees in the patterns, and convinced that there's a woman in the wallpaper trying to get out.
4. Manderley in Rebecca
There's nothing less cheerful than moving into a mansion decorated by your husband's first wife. In Rebecca, the first wife lived in the ornate west wing, which is now creepily preserved exactly how she left it, and smells like must and decay. The new wife is forced to live in the east wing, and can't help seeing the first wife's fingerprints on everything. Everything.
The castle in The Castle of Otranto
The setting in the world's first Gothic novel is pure Gothic atmosphere: an ancient, creaking castle full of inexplicable accidents, secret passages, and portraits that talk.
The house in House of Leaves
This country house looks lovely from the outside, until the inhabitants discover that the inside dimensions are three-fourths of an inch longer than the outside dimensions. This tiny discrepancy quickly expands in horrific ways, literally, as the house starts growing and rearranging its rooms all on its own. Hallways open up where no hallway used to be, cavernous rooms filled with darkness appear out of nowhere, and the inhabitants, as you might expect, start to go a little crazy.
Bluebeard's château in “Bluebeard”
Houses aren't always haunted by something supernatural; sometimes, they're haunted by murder. In this folktale, the new wife discovers that her husband's digs are spotless and well-decorated, expect for one little room that holds a lot of blood inside.
Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House
In Shirley Jackson's famous novel, the house itself is a bad seed. It's got a history of inhabitants dying violently and enough supernatural weirdness to scare the most stoic of skeptics. When four characters decide to spent some time in the house to figure out its secrets, the house begins to possess one of them, and by the end of the book, she refuses to leave, insisting that it's now her home.
Eel Marsh House in The Woman in Black
Some haunted houses hold a lot of spirits; some hold one very particular ghost. Eel Marsh House is haunted by a woman in black, whose presence always precedes the death of a child. As the novella progresses, we learn that during her lifetime, the woman in black watched from one of Eel Marsh House's windows while her young son was killed in a carriage accident right outside.
The house in The Shunned House
A man and his uncle decide to spend the night in a creepy house whose inhabitants have “died there in alarmingly great numbers.” They're pretty sure the house's nasty history has something to do with the “dampness and fungous growths in the cellar, the general sickish smell, the drafts of the hallways, or the quality of the well and pump water,” but sometime during the night the uncle begins rambling in French. When the faces of those who've already died in the house begin to play across the uncle's “blackening and decaying features,” the narrator realizes something a lot worse than mold in the cellar is going on.
The house in The House of Seven Gables
Ancient curses are often the reason behind a particular house's bad history. The House of the Seven Gables was built on stolen land — a rich man had his eye on the land, the poor owner wouldn't sell, so the rich man accused the poor owner of witchcraft and had him hanged. The poor man's last words were “God will give him blood to drink," and soon enough, the the new owner was found dead in his chair with blood all over his beard.
The House in The Shining Girls
If you've got the key to this particular Chicago home, referred to as the House, you can travel through time. Unfortunately, time travel comes with a caveat: the House demands that the traveler use his powers to kill the “shining girls,” precocious women with bright futures.
The house in The House Next Door
Not all haunted houses are old—some are brand new. When a brilliant young architect starts building a house in an affluent suburb, the neighbors initially admire the architect's work, until terrible things start happening on the property. But it can't be the house's fault, right? As a neighbor says, “If it was an old house, I’d almost think it was haunted, but who ever hears of a haunted contemporary less than a year old?” And that's exactly what the house wants you to think.
Images: Getty (4); Wikimedia Commons (8); Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer