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FACTUALLY OBSCURE

From House Parties to Hotels; a bite sized history of the beginnings of the haunted house story.


Happy Birthday, Overlook Hotel! This month Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic take on Stephen King’s The Shining turns forty. The film is a horror masterpiece, thanks in part to its menacing setting. With its twisted greenery, haunted bathrooms and elevators full of blood, the Overlook Hotel is the star of the show, and just as much a character as Jack, Wendy or Danny. Horror fans can usually agree, the Overlook has a warm place in our haunted house loving hearts.

But why do we love telling stories about haunted places? Psychologists say it might have something to do with something they call das unheimlich, or “the uncanny;” when everyday objects or situations take on unknown characteristics. Something about a house, normally thought of as a place of safety, suddenly becoming a place of fear and uncertainty fascinates us. As it turns out, we’ve had this fascination for thousands of years.

We can find haunted house stories dating all the way back to Ancient Rome, when Roman playwright Platus wrote Mostellaria (The Haunted House). Far from being a scary story, the play was actually a comedy; when the young Philolaches’ unsanctioned house party is interrupted by the early return of his father, Philolaches and his companions try to stop his father from entering the house and discovering the party by claiming the house is haunted, with hilarious results (where’s our modern adaptation, movie studios??).

Speaking of theatre; fans of modern Haunted House theme park attractions can also thank the Romans for many of the devices these attractions employ to scare us today. The use of trap doors, Fog, ghostly images, fake blood and gore can all be traced back to ancient thespians (the next time you are in a haunted house, go ahead and imagine everyone in a toga if it makes you feel better).

It didn’t take long for the haunted house to go from funny to scary. Fellow Roman Pliny the Younger spins a far spookier tale roughly two hundred years later, when he recounts the story of Athenodorus, a philosopher from the ancient city of Tarsus who spends a night in a home in Athens, only to discover to his dismay just why the rent was so cheap. Once Athenodorus discovers a skeleton in the yard and gives it a proper burial the ghostly specter haunting him moves on, leaving Athendorus in peace.

The Romans weren’t the only people getting in on the haunted house action. Haunted houses begin to pop up in stories from all over the ancient, medieval and renaissance world; from old folk tales about Taoist priests squaring off against haunted abodes in Sung Dynasty China, to fantastic stories featuring houses full of Djinns in the Middle Eastern Classic, One Thousand and One Nights.

In the west, the Haunted House doesn’t really start to shine until the late 1700s, with the 1764 publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, a story of extreme family drama set in a crumbling castle (Weddings! Murder plots! Someone gets crushed by a giant helmet falling from the sky!). The Castle of Otranto comes complete with secret passageways, bleeding statues, unexplained noises and talking portraits (kind of like Hogwarts’ creepier cousin). If you are a fan of horror stories, you have Mr. Walpole and his castle to thank. Despite some conservative critic backlash, the story was a smashing success with readers and is credited as the beginning of the literary phenomenon and meteoric rise of the “Gothic Novel.” Emboldened by the its success, more and more authors got on the haunted house train.

The horror genre exploded in popularity in the 1800s, with literary heavyweights like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathanial Hawthorn and Charles Dickens all penning stories set in spooky houses. The haunted house jumped from page to silver screen in 1896, in the three minute, first ever made horror film, Le Manoir du Diable. You can find this film in its entirety online. Go look it up, it’s great. Haunted houses played starring roles again in the 1927 silent film, The Cat and the Canary, and 1932’s The Old Dark House (with Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff as a co-star). Vincent Price’s 1959 classic, The House on Haunted Hill, which tells the story of an eccentric millionaire who offers strangers $10 000 dollars to spend one night in his haunted abode that cemented the haunted house as a cinema star (and yes, there is a Simpsons parody). Despite being classified as a “B-film,” by the studio, The House On Haunted Hill received critical acclaim and developed its own cult following, paving the way for future haunted house films to come and pushing the boundaries of the trope. Far from just crumbling castles and spooky homes on hills, we’re now telling stories about haunted hospitals, haunted spaceships, haunted submarines and, of course, haunted hotels.

So happy birthday Overlook Hotel, and here’s to many more haunted house stories to come.