From derelict houses to haunted hotels, subterranean tunnels to creepy compounds, much of the horror genre is predicated on a spooky setting — and for good reason. The ghosts that torment such spaces and their inhabitants are often subtle (sometimes blatant) metaphors for a litany of real-life terrors: racism, domestic violence, gentrification, social mobility and much more. This year, when Halloween festivities have largely been cancelled because of the pandemic, you can binge these 10 must-see horror flicks and thrilling TV series (wherein architecture plays a central role) while spending the holiday indoors.
By 1992, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project was the stuff of urban legend. The neglected, marginalized neighbourhood was a byword for the failures of American public housing; it embodied the racism of 20th-century planning as acutely as any place in the country. It also proved a powerful setting for that year’s Candyman, a supernatural slasher flick that traces the modernist community’s history back to slavery — with terrifying effect.
The original site looks different now. Its high-rise towers and mid-rise blocks, which once housed some 15,000 people, have all been demolished and an upwardly mobile — and much whiter — neighbourhood has been built in its place. But, as Nia DaCosta’s eagerly anticipated sequel of the same name suggests, the cultural erasure that accompanies gentrification cannot undo the past. Instead, the new development weaves a dark and deeply frightening history of its own. Here are new buildings and old monsters.
When it first debuted, Homecoming took us inside the titular therapy program ostensibly aimed at helping American soldiers heal from PTSD (while — SPOILER! — actually using them as guinea pigs for a memory-erasing medicine). That inaugural season, adapted from an absorbing fictional podcast by Gimlet Media and presented by Amazon, was set inside the beige and claustrophobic Homecoming Transitional Support Centre; the second one brings viewers inside its shadowy parent company, Geist Group. Production designer Nora Takacs Ekberg has envisioned a series of sets — from the farmhouse overlooking a meticulously ordered plot of land belonging to the aging hippie who founded Geist to the dazzling HQ, appearing as a distant object on the horizon, it has since morphed into — that slowly reveal the cultish mix of the utopian sacred and the corporate profane at the heart of the enterprise.
Much of the action takes place in the HQ’s lushly landscaped atrium, which is actually the ground floor of the old Toyota North America headquarters in Torrance, California, its spiral stair and tiered landings giving the drama its kinetic feel of various plots unfolding simultaneously. Ekberg builds on this foundation, creating a hybrid, multi-tiered structure that feels like Frankenstein’s monster sublimated into architecture. It is ingeniously topped with a pitch-roofed greenhouse that symbolizes the company’s innocent early days, before it turned into a type of Googleplex-meets-Goop-summit dystopia of nefarious body-and-brain-hacking tech.
Can the subaltern speak? In 1983, Indian scholar and literary critic Gayatri Spivak posed that very question in an influential essay. Interrogating mechanisms of colonial and hegemonic oppression in India, Spivak identified an underclass silenced out of culture, discourse and history: There are people so marginalized they are written out of existence. A formative idea in postcolonial studies and critical theory, it’s the rare academic concept that makes a perfect hook for a horror movie. Enter Jordan Peele.
Nearly 30 years after Spivak’s essay, the visionary filmmaker transplants the question from its academic roots into the cultural — and geographic — landscape of contemporary America. What if there was a second, silent America buried beneath the surface? In a warren of eerily spartan tunnels deep beneath the Santa Cruz boardwalk – actually a Universal soundstage designed and built by production designer Ruth De Jong to feature classrooms, a bunk room and cafeteria out of your worst high school nightmare – an army of voiceless doppelgängers are resigned to forcibly mimic the happier lives playing out above.
It is an otherworldly premise, but like the best supernatural horrors, the most potent terror comes not from the alternate reality it conjures, but from its reflection of the deeply unequal world we already inhabit.
A modern reimagining of the 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, The Invisible Man stars Elizabeth Moss as protagonist Cecilia Kass as she attempts to escape — and is ultimately pursued by — the physical and psychological abuse of her violent partner Adrian Griffin. We first meet Kass in the midst of her carefully coordinated scheme to flee Griffin’s contemporary compound. In actuality, the darting black-clad complex is Sydney-based studio Atelier Andy Carson’s 2018 Headland House, reimagined here as the domain of the manipulative tech mogul.
As with many horror locales, the house becomes a kind of parable — a sleek facade or carefully choreographed image that hides a far more sinister interior beneath its seemingly “honest” and “restrained” design. After Griffin has staged his suicide, it’s revealed that, in the fluorescent-lit subterranean depths of the home, the optics pioneer has devised a special suit that renders the wearer entirely invisible. (The film’s interiors were shot on both a sound stage and in the nearby Pebble Cove Farm). Throughout the remainder of the flick, he uses this technology to torment Kass to the brink of insanity, nearly destroying her life in the process.
Without spoiling the ending, which departs dramatically from the source material, the residence’s three floating pavilions encircle a glazed courtyard where the final act crescendos — all under the watchful eye of Griffin’s elaborate security system. For a film centred on the dread of the unseen, it’s proof that there are plenty of horrors lurking in plain sight.
Last year’s film sequel to The Shining had big stylistic shoes to fill: In addition to providing plenty of chills, Stanley Kubrick’s legendary adaptation of the Stephen King novel was a visual tour de force, especially in its rendering of the Overlook Hotel, a combination of seventies-era chalet chic and Grand Guignol elan. In Doctor Sleep, a now-adult Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor) returns to the Overlook, allowing us to revisit the Gold Room, the Red Bathroom and of course the Hedge Maze, but this time the haunted hotel is the culmination point of a sad, moody journey that also takes in gloomy New England apartments and creepy forest campsites.
Whereas Kubrick’s vision was all colour-coded creepiness and white-hot fear, Doctor Sleep is characterized by a subtler chiaroscuro dread. Kudos to the cinematography and production design teams for doing the original justice while making this follow-up their own.
H.P. Lovecraft, an author of proto horror that continues to influence the genre to this day, was a vile racist. This HBO series, based on the book by Matt Ruff and created by Misha Green, is a big “fuck you” to him. In it, a trio of Black friends on a mysterious cross-country mission has to dodge a slew of monsters that riff on the writer’s lurid imaginings while facing another mortal danger: the violent racism of Jim Crow America. From the prevalence of sundown counties, where African Americans were lynched if seen out past dark, to the murder and open-casket funeral of Emmet Till, Lovecraft Country navigates a history full of real, rather than invented, horrors.
It also boasts some beautiful scenes care of production designer Kalina Ivanov. The set design includes two marvelous houses: a sprawling estate owned by the evil Braithwhites (actually the Bisham Manor, in Lagrange, Georgia) and a marvelous if dilapidated mansion in Chicago (the Parrott-Camp-Soucy House in Atlanta, Georgia) that serves as its counterpoint. Leti, one of the trio, intends on transforming the decrepit structure in a wealthy white neighbourhood into a lively 13-bedroom apartment building for Black renters (you can guess what happens). Outside these buildings’ walls, the show recreates larger tableaux of 1950s America — like the Chicago streets of that era with their quaint storefronts and the elegance of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, the Black Wall Street of America, before it was burned down by a mob of racists.
Some critics have found the historic depictions problematic, to say the least; among them, Maya Phillips, in the New York Times, explains how the show “cross[es] the line between mining the past and exploiting it” and “uses Black trauma as narrative currency.” Lovecraft Country is a fascinating inversion of Lovecraft’s work, but its failure or success in how it depicts the horrors racism is another question.
We’ve all had our fair share of terrible landlords and equally horrific neighbours, but none quite like those seen in this 2019 slow-burning indie fright. Inspired by writer and director David Marmor’s own experiences of moving to Los Angeles, 1BR follows Sarah, a young aspiring costume designer new to the city, as she secures a too-good-to-be-true unit in a seemingly tight-knit apartment complex.
The thin veneer of charming communal bliss quickly fades. Following a series of grotesque physical and psychological tortures, Sarah is unwillingly indoctrinated into the Synanon cult that calls the property home. Based on the teachings of Charles D. Ellerby’s The Power of Community, this enclave and the complex they inhabit encapsulate the sinister depths of collective living.
Though Sarah manages a bloody escape, she soon realizes that the neighbouring properties share a disturbingly similar logo to the brand given to cult members. (In another scene, we notice a nearby building is managed by C.D.E Properties in a nod to Ellerby’s leadership). While the haunted house may be the preeminent horror setting, the apartment building — with its insidious cast of managers and developers in toe — is not far behind.
Bleak, isolated and the scene of some seriously questionable treatment methods, a 1940s psychiatric hospital is pretty much synonymous with horror. But with Ratched, the eight-episode Netflix series by Ryan Murphy (based on a creation by Evan Romansky), that trope is reimagined in a way that distracts from the terror with plenty of style and glamour.
Conceived as the origin story for one of literature and cinema’s most iconic villains, the show follows the titular Nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) as she rises through the ranks of Lucia State Hospital using manipulation and only slightly veiled menace to secure the position of head nurse. And, as with any Murphy production, the set designs are more strong supporting character than mere backdrop.
For the aforementioned institution where much of the action takes place, Murphy and Emmy-nominated production designer Judy Becker looked to the luxury of a golden age Hollywood resort to create a setting that feels more glam hotel than hospital — specifically the Arrowhead Springs Resort in San Bernardino, California, by architects Paul R. Williams and Gordon B. Kaufmann and decorated by the anti-minimalist Dorothy Draper. At Lucia, this plays out with copious amounts of polished wood, flattering lighting, boisterously patterned wallpaper and plush velvet upholstery that feels more inviting than chilling. But those are only the public-facing spaces. Elsewhere, Becker employs more appropriately institutional-like scenery, but they’re no less enjoyable to look at thanks to their overindulgent use of colour. Deep in the bowels of the hospital, for instance, the therapeutic bath treatment room is covered floor-to-ceiling in a seafoam green — a queasy hue that befits the torturous treatments that take place there.
Like in Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s previous hit, Goodnight Mommy, the sense of place holds profound meaning in The Lodge. In the former film, a family is sequestered in an isolated modernist home; in the latter, another family — also emotionally fractured in the aftermath of tragedy — holes up in a rustic retreat in the midst of a snowy landscape. While it intertwines many tropes (mommy issues, death cults and cabins in the woods), The Lodge drives home the ultimate scary movie theme: that the real horror resides within us. But the set design by Montreal’s Sylvain Lemaitre still deserves credit.
His lodge is a typical one, which makes it all the more menacing. Apparently mundane, the log walls, creaky attic, old kitchen cabinets and Christmas decorations become the focal points of a tension arising between the supernatural and the psychological undercurrents that seem to sway the minds and moods of the tenants. In a fugue state, one of them stomps off across the frozen lake only to find herself trapped in a winter mirage, her only refuge another cabin: a bizarre, almost church-like structure assembled from clapboard boxes stacked vertically and horizontally.
For Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, his 2018 atmospheric and architecture-heavy horror, the director took a decidedly different turn. Set in the pastoral Hårga commune in central Sweden during midsummer celebrations, when the area experiences near constant daylight, Midsommar is an unsettling folk tale in the vein of The Wicker Man (1973).
To bring the ancient and secretive community’s rich history to life, designer and art director Nille Svensson devised a range of striking set pieces — from an invented rune system to the idiosyncratic wood-frame structures populating their sun-drenched terrain. There’s the graphic sun ray gate that marks the entrance to the compound as well as the Silv house, decked-out in custom wallpaper, and the charming yellow A-frame temple that later serves as the site of Hårga’s ritualistic human sacrifice, to name a few.
Perhaps the most unnerving element, though, is the narrative mural by Ragnar Persson that envelopes the sleeping structure. The group’s fate (and overarching plot of the film) is quite literally spelled out in the intricate, almost whimsical panels lining the interior. Here, architecture really does tell a story — and it’s a terrifying one at that.
Fit for a year when annual celebrations have moved indoors, these frightening films and suspenseful series emphasize the architecture of terror.