Architecture can play an important role in good horror–dating all the way back to Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. In cinema, the fiends tend to get all the attention, yet some of the best horror movies use environment and space as storytelling tools akin to monsters and villains. Some of these films are classics; others are relatively unknown. What unites them all, though, is that they aim to do more than just scare us–they aim to provoke thought about the built world in which we live.
J.G. Ballard made an entire career of turning the modern city into horror fodder. His novel Concrete Island imagines a modern-day Robinson Crusoe stuck in a no-man’s zone between two highway overpasses; Crash, which was adapted into a 1996 film by David Cronenberg, imagines a new form of sexuality, rising in the wake of the mundane reality of bad traffic planning and vehicular manslaughter.
High-Rise, Ballard’s 1975 novel that was turned into a 2015 film of the same name starring Tom Hiddleston, is probably the ultimate exploration of the themes that obsessed the author throughout his career. Part Towering Inferno, part Lord of the Flies, High-Rise focuses on a 1970s-era apartment tower, which soon becomes a dystopian universe unto itself, full of bloodthirsty, warring factions. The building’s architecture becomes symbolic of society’s own invisible class structure and caste system, with the more elevated higher-ups and repressed lower classes literally going at each other’s throats.
The film is a little ham-handed compared to the novel, but even so, it’s the best cinematic exploration to date of the way that architecture can divide and change us.
Everyone knows H.R. Giger’s design of the titular xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien. It’s widely hailed as the best monster design in history, and for good reason.
What people often don’t comment on, though, is the synergy between the design of the xenomorph and that of the Nostromo, the deep space mining spaceship aboard where the bulk of the film takes place. Lined with sinuous pipes, dripping condensation, and shadowy recesses, the halls of the Nostromo feel like an extension of the alien’s body itself.
This is no accident. It’s very much by design. The screenwriter of Alien, Dan O’Bannon, meant for his monsters to be the ultimate predators, adapting themselves to their environments. So the xenomorph in Alien is literally an extension of the movie’s architecture–and vice versa.
This 1992 horror film, based upon a Clive Barker story and directed by Bernard Rose, may be most famous for its bee-stuffed bogeyman with a hook for a hand. But also deserving of attention is Candyman’s haunting grounds: the now-demolished Chicago public housing project, Cabrini-Green.
In the film, the legend of Candyman is intricately linked with the history and culture of what was once one of the nation’s most notorious projects. Candyman’s story starts in the Chicago shanties of the mid-19th century, where Cabrini-Green would one day be built. There, he falls in love with a white man’s daughter, and is horrifically murdered. His story and legend become, by extension, an allegory of race relations in Chicago.
It’s a movie that explores gentrification, plumbing the built world for symbols for inequity; the upscale condo building that the film’s protagonist (played by Virginia Madsen) lives in is a remodeled Cabrini-Green tower. Eventually, the legend of Candyman, too, becomes gentrified: By the end of the film, Helen, the movie’s protagonist, has become the next urban legend.
Forget the merely passable 2004 remake. George Romero’s 1978 original–in which four post-apocalyptic survivors try to wait out the undead apocalypse in a Pennsylvania shopping mall–isn’t just better, it’s still the essential zombie film.
Much has been written about Romero’s scathing commentary on the nature of American consumerism in Dawn of the Dead. The shambling zombies wandering through the corridors of the Monroeville Mall aren’t just the ultimate consumers; they are implied to be scarcely more mindless than living shoppers. They famously congregate in the mall not because they want to eat the humans who are hiding there, but because they remember the consumerist patterns they followed when still alive.
While many movies ranging from Mallrats to Bad Santa have followed his lead, Romero’s choice of a shopping mall as a set was incredibly progressive. In 1978, shopping malls were just becoming a major part of the American suburban landscape, thanks to legislative changes introduced in the 1960s that allowed multiple companies to group together on the urban fringe to avoid real estate taxes.
Today, shopping malls are on the decline, making it quite possible that future historians of 20th-century urban development will teach Dawn of the Dead in classrooms. The movie not only provides social commentary on the role of malls in our society, but is also one of the most detailed explorations of mall architecture ever caught on film.
Tobe Hooper’s 1982 ghost movie Poltergeist is famous for updating the haunted house for a modern era, replacing New England’s hoary gothic mansions with the cookie-cutter homes of Orange County suburbia. From an urbanist’s perspective, though, what’s fascinating about Poltergeist is how it portrays the early-’80s boom in planned communities.
In the film, Steven Freeling is an Orange County real estate developer, living within the first phase of Cuesta Vista, a new planned community. Despite the fact that it’s a totally new structure, it’s eventually revealed that Freeling’s house is haunted because it’s built on the site of an old Indian burial ground.
Especially early in the film, Poltergeist spends a lot of time examining the dynamic of planned communities. As the action becomes increasingly focused on the interior of the Freeling house, though, Poltergeist becomes a commentary on the nature of mass-produced suburban architecture: It becomes more horrifying, not less, that dead souls could infest a home that is, itself, so soulless.
There aren’t that many horror movies that hinge upon architectural restoration, but even if there were, it’s hard to imagine a scarier take on the subject than Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece, Don’t Look Now.
In the film, Donald Sutherland plays John Baxter, an architect who takes his wife on a trip to Venice in the aftermath of their daughter Christine’s accidental drowning. While he works to restore an ancient Catholic church, his wife becomes connected to a blind psychic, who tells her that her dead daughter is trying to warn her. Meanwhile, John keeps on catching glimpses of a mysterious child wearing a red raincoat identical to the one Christine died in, while a series of grisly murders sweep Venice.
It would be a disservice to you to spoil how all of these plot threads come together in what is, perhaps, the most shocking final 10 minutes in cinematic history. Regardless, Don’t Look Now is as much of a masterful exploration of grief as it is an architectural examination of one of the most sumptuous cities on earth.
Most people think of John Carpenter’s Halloween as a movie about Michael Myers, horror cinema’s first (but far from last) un-killable serial killer. What really makes Halloween scary, though, isn’t so much Michael Myers as it is the suburban neighborhoods through which he prowls.
Before Halloween, slasher movies predominantly took place in isolated rural environments. Psycho, for example, takes place in an out-of-the-way hotel, while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre occurs at an abandoned house in the middle of slaughterhouse country. The idea these movies posit is that the real-life monsters of this world can only get you when you’re alone.
What makes Halloween so scary is that it totally subverts the assumption that there’s safety in numbers. Halloween takes place entirely in the fictional midwestern town of Haddonfield, Illinois. The streets are well lit and idyllic, surrounded on each side by painted white houses with freshly mowed lawns and elm trees. The local kids walk to school; everyone knows everyone. Surely, anyone in trouble in such a neighborhood would be safe.
But when Michael Myers comes to town, the loneliness and isolation of suburban life quickly becomes apparent. Early in the film (in a series of scenes that later inspired It Follows), Myers stalks an oblivious Jamie Lee Curtis down the streets of Haddonfield. In these scenes, which allow Carpenter to trace the outlines of the invisible pockets of isolation that surround the suburban dwellers, Haddonfield becomes just as ominous as the film’s bogeyman. Later in the film, when it’s impossible for Laurie to get help even in her own neighborhood, you’re not surprised: The town and the monster were in it together from the beginning.
We’ll end with a gimme: Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of The Shining. The Overlook Hotel is probably cinema’s ultimate haunted house, and for good reason. As imagined by Kubrick, it’s an impossible labyrinth of a building, every bit as hard to wrap your head around as the hedge maze through which Jack Torrance famously chases his family at the movie’s conclusion.
Foreshadowing Mark E. Danielewski’s House of Leaves–the award-winning 2000 novel about a house that is spatially impossible–Kubrick’s Overlook is bigger on the inside than the outside. But Kubrick was more subtle about it, designing the Overlook in such a way that his characters, and by extension his viewers, can never actually orient themselves within its walls, without actually drawing attention to the fact.
The best explanation of how Kubrick bends architectural space to create horror and suspense is probably this short video essay by Rob Ager. Once you see it, you can never un-see it: The Overlook Hotel is the most Escher-esque exploration of impossible architecture cinema has yet seen.