While fake blood, a suspenseful score and special effects do much of the heavy lifting in any horror film, the places these stories play out in are often central to setting a spooky mood. And while the haunted Victorian mansion has become somewhat of a cliché, sometimes the scariest spaces are the ones that bear the most likeness to our everyday lives. The new Edgar Allan Poe–inspired Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, which jumps between two timelines beginning from 1953 to the present day, required its fair share of eerie settings (around 80 sets, to be exact). Production designer Laurin Kelsey took on the challenge, bringing the vision of acclaimed horror impresario Mike Flanagan to life.
Kelsey had worked with Flanagan on Midnight Madness and The Midnight Club before taking on the House of Usher. Based most prominently on Poe’s eponymous short story, while also drawing on some of his other stories, the series follows the rise of corrupt pharmaceutical CEO Roderick Usher and his sister, Madeline, and the ensuing death of all six of his children. As the episodes follow characters through the ages, the sets had to adapt to reflect the time, and also work together to create a cohesive visual language.
“When there’s a multitude of periods and worlds — for example in this show, the uber-rich in the present day compared against poverty in the fifties — I usually start by looking for what I can do architecturally or what I can do with colour that’ll make everything still feel cohesive even when we’re creating so many different textures and looks and feelings and using such a wide variety of materials. Colour helps me bridge that gap,” explains Kelsey.
The use of colour was a defining factor in each character’s world: Flanagan assigned each Usher a single colour that reflected their unique personality: gold, an apt choice for the pharmaceutical magnate Roderick; red for Perry, a hedonistic socialite; silver for the “sharp-tongued” queen of PR Camille; and green for Tamerlane, an entrepreneur in the health and lifestyle industry, to name a few. These colours went on to define the design language for each of the sets. Camille’s ultra-luxurious apartment, with its crisp white lighting and minimal monochromatic palette, evokes a futuristic and sterile feeling. Meanwhile, Perry’s warehouse party is bathed in the sultry glow of red lights (Kelsey documented many behind-the scenes shots, including inspiration images from her production “bible,” on her Instagram).
To create such a diverse array of backdrops, the production team leveraged real locations in Vancouver, such as Freddie’s unique mansion with a bowling alley next to the kitchen, while imagining other sets from the ground up. “The main factor for deciding what was a build and what was a location had to do with the death scenes because they were so elaborate due to stunts and special effects. A lot of the scenes weren’t conducive to real locations — spraying water all over a location or splattering it with blood and gore. It’s possible, but to the extent we were doing, we knew pretty early on we had to build most of the sets from scratch,” Kelsey explains.
But naturally, it was the House of Usher (Roderick’s home) that took centre stage and transformed over the course of the series. While in the original story, the building is a stereotypical gothic mansion set high on a hill, Flanagan’s script envisioned it as a suburban home (before earning considerable wealth in the pharmaceutical industry, Roderick was raised by a single mother at a time when that would have been socially unacceptable). The same house had to span the characters’ optimistic and family-oriented era of the fifties, to its downfall in the sixties, and its ultimate demise in the present day.
“To take something gothic and grand and combine it with fifties suburbia was very odd; it took me a minute to wrap my head around how to do it,” says Kelsey. “In the end, I liked where we landed because it felt like the house was built in the 1890s. That’s why it’s got a little bit more woodwork. It’s still the fifties — you have wallpaper, and the fridge and everything is period-appropriate. But you felt like Mom couldn’t afford a new house in the fifties so she bought the oldest one on the street.” Kelsey incorporated Roderick and Madeline’s colours, gold and purple respectively, into elements like the wallpaper and furnishings.
While the sets certainly add to the show’s atmosphere, Kelsey was careful not to lean into cliché. “I always start by thinking about what’s going to be the most realistic. It’s about creating opportunities to add an extra layer of eeriness — for someone to come around a corner or to hide behind the door or to not know what’s beyond that part of the space because it drops off or because of the way that the wall is shaped,” she explains. “In Roderick’s childhood home, there’s ghosts coming in and out of the shadows, so there needs to be depth to the space to allow for that. But in other homes, like Camille’s or Victorine’s, we created spookiness by allowing you to see something happening through the glass.”
Throughout the series, Kelsey worked with Flanagan to layer in several Poe-themed Easter eggs, from the architecture to smaller decorative elements. At Perry’s party warehouse in Episode 2, “The Masque of the Red Death,” the long brick-clad hallway and large arched windows are directly inspired by the original story, while the address of the House of Usher, 1849, refers to the year Poe died. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
This Halloween, we spoke to production designer Laurin Kelsey about how she set the stage for the Netflix show’s most spectacular scenes.