Not literally, of course. I mean how to make one for a horror novel, movie, or TV show.

Haunted houses are such a staple of horror, tales of them dating farther back than The Fall of the House of Usher, and have continued to terrify readers and viewers alike over the years, whether they be watching The Shining or American Horror Story or even that episode of Doctor Who with the haunted house. The question is, with so many famouse haunted houses out there, both real and fictional*, how do you construct one that stands out from the crowd (and once again, I mean metaphorically)? Here are some tips that might help.

*For those of you who don’t believe in ghosts or hauntings, you can interpret this as houses in the real world that have history of or are purported to be haunted. For those of you who believe in ghosts…well, I don’t need to finish that sentence, do I?

1. A haunted house doesn’t have to be old and dilapidated. I know the standard image in our minds of a haunted house is one that’s an old manor, with shingles falling out and holes in the porch and plenty of leaks in the pipes, or sometimes a castle with no glass windows and plenty of dungeons and hidden chambers.  That’s great if you want to market it to the Addams Family, but haunted houses don’t necessarily have to look like that. They can be only a few years old, very modern-looking, and in the middle of a nice neighborhood. Heck, you can even make the house a haunted apartment building if you so desired (there was a movie that did that a few years back. Would’ve been good if it hadn’t been a direct-to-DVD sequel).

Not your average haunted house, is it?

In this one novel I plan to write, I plan on the haunted house being only about three decades old, and without any sort of dilapidation or other trademarks to make it a haunted house. What makes it terrifying is its current occupant, as well as the atmosphere that hangs over the place.

For some good examples of haunted houses that don’t fit the standard mold, try the remake of When A Stranger Calls, the first season of American Horror Story, the Buffy episode Where the Wild Things Are, and (if you really want to) The Grudge 3 for that haunted apartment building. Oh, and Ghostbusters as well, that has a haunted apartment building. Or is that a doorway? You decide for yourself.

2. You don’t always need ghosts for a haunted house. For example, you can zombies, witches, a serial killer, vampires, werewolves, just something out of the ordinary. A haunted house doesn’t become haunted because it has ghosts in it, but when something (usually malevolent) is inside. That’s why the movie Cabin in the Woods is so genius: besides breaking down and exploring/philosophizing on the tropes of the horror genre, it also shows how much variety there is to the haunted house and what can haunt it. Anything from zombies to wraiths to werewolves to evil dolls to giant bats to merman to scarecrow people and everything in between, you can use.

3. Use plenty of description when describing the house. In a horror movie, you don’t need to describe the house, because you can see it just fine. But in a novel, the author has to supply the information. What does the outside look like? Is there a distinctive style of architecture involved? Is it painted in really ugly colors that don’t compliment one another? What’s inside? Accessories, knick-knacks, the odd little mirror that’s always in the northwest corner of a house? Is there a yard? What’s in the yard? Does a colony of rabbits live in the yard? Keep all this in mind the moment you introduce your characters (and by contrast, the readers) to your haunted house.

4. Don’t go all out as soon as the door’s closed. By this I mean one should use a subtle build-up in order to properly scare the reader. You can’t just come out with a ghost or an axe murderer showing up and attacking people the moment the door is closed and the character or characters are settled in. There should be a steady build-up. First small things go awry or weird things that can easily be explained but are still creepy nonetheless. Then weirder stuff happens: you might see a form out of the corner of your eye, or you walk into a room and the furniture is all moved or ruined. There might be voices you can’t explain, or perhaps something catches on fire inexplicably. You touch a certain section of the wall, and you feel intense pleasure or pain. And then finally, there’s no denying that weird stuff is going on: the ghost has appeared, the threat is revealed, you’re going to have to deal with it or die. Using the house to do all that and more can really ramp up the suspense and terror of the story and make your haunted house terrifying and distinctive.

Don’t reveal THIS too quickly.

A great example of this ramping up of the terror is the original Amityville Horror, as well as the movie Sinister.

5. Your house should have a history. Whether the house is ten, a hundred, or several hundred years old, it should have a history, and the author should know what it is, even if they won’t reveal all of it to the reader. What is the history of the house, or the land it sits on? Does it involve an Indian burial ground? Was there a really nasty murder there? Or was there something even darker than that lurking beneath the floorboards and behind the walls? This will help you flesh out the story, the haunting, and whatever is happening in your story. Also, often times one can figure out how to defeat the antagonist of the story through its history (like Jason Voorhees and water, or Goblin from Blackwood Manor by Anne Rice). And if this history involves certain people or objects, make sure to have that worked out as well.

There are many great examples of haunted houses with history, just watch any episode of a show for investigating haunted locations. If that isn’t your thing, try movies like The Conjuring, or the TV mini-series version of The Shining (not the movie though, that was a terrible adaptation).

6. Research common signs or symptoms of hauntings. I know some of you will be like, “What’s he talking about?” Well, besides sightings of ghosts or voices being heard, people often report certain things when experiencing a haunting: inexplicable areas where it is cold, electrical devices being drained, objects being moved, and even attacks, and each can happen for very different reasons. I like to include these things in my story because they seem to give my stories an air of authenticity (if you want to call it that). You don’t have to go this route with your haunted house, but if you do and you want to do some research, ghost-hunting shows or manuals on ghost-hunting can be great resources. Also do some research on why these signs and symptoms might not be caused by a haunting, because…

7. A little bit of uncertainty goes a long way. One of the scariest things with a haunted house is not knowing. Not knowing if you’re going crazy, not knowing if there’s actually a ghost in the house, not knowing what it wants or how you’re going to stop it. It’s scary not knowing, which is why a writer should exploit it for as long as they can in a story. It’ll make your story that much better. So knowing explainable ways for a “haunting” to occur can help to add to that uncertainty. Could it be electrical fields? Could it be a spirit? Or is it just the pipes and my new medication? It’s scary just not being sure.

Ultimately, it’s how the writer writes the story that makes the story scary. But if these tips have helped make your story scarier, then I’m glad to have helped and I hope that you have fun constructing your haunted house. I bet it’ll be very terrifying.

That’s all for now, I–that’s odd. My water bottle just fell off the counter. I could have sworn I put it farther back on the counter. Wait, what was that I just saw out of the corner of my mind. I must be working too hard or watching too many movies. I–oh my God! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!

….

….

….

He’ll be coming for you next.

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Comments
  1. Yep, just like a real house, right? Every one tells a story, and sometimes, that story is shit-in-your-pants scary!

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