If you are a fan of spooky stories, then you are familiar with the ghosts, the goblins and the monsters. But sometimes the scariest of characters are not the characters at all: they are hidden, the unseen things that go bump in the night. And sometimes, as in the seven books listed below, they are the settings themselves; the very places where we are supposed to feel safe and secure and protected from whatever lurks in the shadows outside. And in rarer cases still, the protagonists know the houses are unsafe, but enter them anyway. The reader, of course, is only along for the terrifying ride…right?
Shirley Jackson is the queen of horror, packing her books with bold frights and even more insidious quiet details that really up the scare factor. Jackson’s genius shines in this story of four people investigating a so-called haunted house—it was written in 1959 and is still utterly terrifying.
Nightmare scale: 9 out of 10. (Keep on the lights on.)
The Lutz family thought it would be okay to move their young family into a house that had been the scene of a mass murder. They were wrong. In the short time that they occupied the house, the Lutzes, and others who spent time there, heard voices, noted disturbances and—perhaps most disturbingly—say that their five-year-old was visited by an unseen playmate named “Jodie.” Still creepy even if it isn’t true.
Nightmare scale: 7 out of 10. (9 if it truly is non-fiction.)
The Overlook Hotel is—and its inhabitants (and catchphrases) are now—iconic in the lexicon of horror lovers, and for good reason. In the vacant hotel, Jack Torrance is slowly going insane, his son can see things (like those creepy harbinger-of-murder twins) and the snow just won’t stop falling. The only thing that could make this place scarier is if old murdery scenes kept playing out in the seemingly empty rooms. Oh, wait…
Nightmare scale: 10 out of 10. (Redrum.)
Poe’s Gothic take on a doomed family and the house they live in may be short, but it packs a punch. Dark, sinister and endlessly creepy, the Ushers’ lives are figuratively crumbling as the house they have always lived in does so literally. With Poe’s masterful whispers of horror, this one will stay with you a long, long time.
Nightmare scale: 10 out of 10. (2 points for style.)
To be fair, the house in this story is not truly the horrific part, but that looming, dark mansion with one upper bedroom lit up, the silhouette of “Mother” in a rocking chair…that is one house that gets no trick-or-treaters, I guarantee. Come to think of it, the Bates Motel sounds like a pretty terrifying place to spend the night, as well.
Nightmare scale: 8 out of 10. (4 for each property.)
Like Hill House, this story involves four people investigating the mysteries of a so-called haunted house, but this time the book is laced with gruesome details of the home’s past and grisly promises of what the home is still capable of. Matheson, incidentally, was also a writer for some of the scariest episodes of The Twilight Zone ever broadcast.
Nightmare scale: 7 out of 10. (Loses a few points for cheesy dialogue.)
This is a book for children. I tried to read this to my children. They were scared. I was scared. There are wolves in the walls of Lucy’s house. They scratch to try to get out, and the only one who can hear them is Lucy. But they’re there. And now my kids don’t sleep. Thanks, Neil!
Nightmare scale: 10 literal nightmares.
So which haunted house would you dream of visiting this Halloween? Let us know!