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Horrifying Houses: Architecture in Horror Films

The subtle—yet spookily effective—role of architecture in your favorite horror films.

Amityville Horror House
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons Images

Everyone loves a spooky old house. The historic residences featured in horror movies and TV shows often make for an evocative setting. These places are more than just haunting backdrops, their architecture carefully considered for maximum effect. The following describes several much-loved horror homes, and how their architectural styles are well-suited to telling our favorite ghastly tales.

Amityville Horror: Dutch Colonial Revival Style

Amityville Horror House
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  • Photo Credit: American International Pictures

Haunted history abounds in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film, The Amityville Horror, based on Jay Anson’s book. This horror story (or tale of true crime, depending on your persuasion) takes place in a Dutch Colonial Revival home in Amityville, New York. It’s based on “real” events that occurred in 1975 when the Lutz family moved into a house where the previous owner had gone on a gruesome killing spree. The Lutzes got a great deal on the property, but allegedly experienced baffling and freaky occurrences that caused them to vacate after about a month. The Amityville Horror is a classic tale of the American Dream gone wrong and a staple of the haunted house genre. 

The Dutch Colonial Revival style is perfectly suited for this filmThe gambrel roof is the defining element of the style—despite lack of a strong connection of that feature to the actual history of Dutch immigrants. Suggesting a past that never really happened, this “revival” style conveys the falsehoods of the American Dream. A seemingly perfect nuclear family has put all their money into a haunted house they just can’t leave. 

The actual murder house stands today though is blurred on Google Street View and has had an address change to deter visitors. The film location is another address, 18 Brooks Road in Toms River, New Jersey (house constructed c. 1924). Disappointingly, the distinctive gambrel roof has been removed and changed to a side gable, possibly to avoid connection with the popular Amityville franchise.

Burnt Offerings and Phantasm: Neoclassical Style

Burnt Offerings house
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  • Photo Credit: United Artists

Dan Curtis’ 1976 film, Burnt Offerings, and Don Coscarelli’s 1979 film, Phantasm, were both shot at the Neoclassical style Dunsmuir Hellman House (constructed 1899, designed by architect J. Eugene Freeman) in Oakland, California. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this house has a macabre history of its own. Original owner Alexander Dunsmuir built it to live in with his new bride, Josephine, though Alexander passed away on the honeymoon and Josephine died right after moving in, which does not bode well for the haunting level in this home. 

Burnt Offerings is based on Robert Marasco’s novel and stars Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Bette Davis. Dunsmuir House is a too-good-to-be-true vacation home (truly grandiose with 37 rooms set on 50 acres) that wants something from its visitors. While the house is in a state of decay, the visitors are obsessed with the image of a large vacation home and choose to stay. The architecture signals wealth with its monumental scale and double-height Corinthian columns. The Neoclassical style was popular in the United States following the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and renewed interest in Classicism at the time. References to Greek and Roman precedents suggest staying power and work well to convey the antagonist (this house is truly alive) as a foreboding enemy. 

Phantasm uses the house as the Morningside Mortuary, the setting for a story about an extra-dimensional grave robber, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who steals dead bodies for his own purposes. Appropriate for a mortuary, the Neoclassical style’s ancient underpinnings afford a feeling of stability and endurance for eternity. What better kind of architecture to mark a grisly final resting place? 

Halloween: Folk Victorian Style

house from the film Halloween
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  • Photo Credit: Compass International Pictures

South Pasadena lives a chilling double life as Haddonfield, our favorite horror town of John Carpenter’s 1978 film, Halloween. While the city is home to several film locations from the franchise, the centerpiece is the Century House, a Folk Victorian residence constructed c. 1888 that may be the oldest frame structure in South Pasadena. Built as a duplex, the house was moved to its current location, 1000 Mission Street, along railroad tracks in the late 1980s, and served as the home of our beloved Halloween slasher, Michael Myers. 

Folk Victorian homes were commonly built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and known for their modest appearance, symmetrical plans, and clapboard siding. Decorative features were kept simple with pre-cut ornament applied to the façade. Advancements in mechanization and the expansion of railroads had increased the availability of such materials. The Myers House fits the bill, with its decoration including turned posts and spindlework at the front porch.

The inherent simplicity of the Folk Victorian style made it popular for early homesteaders. What better place for a terrifying masked killer to grow up than a seemingly innocuous home—one you might not notice? Conveying Halloween’s message of the horrors embedded in everyday American life, the Century House offers us a gentle reminder. No matter how innocent a house may look, no matter how common-but-cute the porch might be, a Folk Victorian cottage likely houses a knife-wielding killer who just won’t die.