What’s spookier than exploring the inside of a haunted house? Answer: exploring the outside of the same house. Okay, maybe touring the grounds isn’t any more frightful than tip-toeing through the bowels and guts of a house possessed. But the exterior environment can be pretty darn frightening as well. Consider a painting of a haunted house and its surrounding environment. A full moon looms in the sky above the roof. The sky is painted dark gray. Bats populate the canvas air. There are bare trees with gnarled branches. And there are graves. They surround the house.
I’m sure most of you have seen a painting or drawing that resembles the above description. If you are a fan of haunted houses (and I’m sure you are otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this) then I’m certain that what you saw was delightfully chilling. It’s all about the atmosphere, see? Atmosphere establishes mood, and one must be in proper form before stepping inside a haunted house, even if such an entry occurs only in the imagination. A creepy, external background effectively prepares a person for admission. You must be respectfully fearful and giddy with gloom! A haunted house surrounded by rainbows, posies and a sun-shiny orange background is sacrilege, I tell you!
This article will explore the exterior environments that are found in many haunted houses of film and literature. Such mediums go beyond the flat scope of a painting. As such, the external environment offers so much more than a means to establish atmosphere, although it succeeds in that area as well. The outer environment can provide clues to the house’s history. Secrets are often buried somewhere on the grounds. Nature’s elements foreshadow events that are to come to pass.
Grab your coat and put on your hiking boots, for we are about to trespass across the grounds of your favorite haunted houses. I have divided our tour into five categories with each category being representative of a particular area of “scare.” By no means are these categories all-inclusive; these groupings are not representative of every possible external arena of fright. But I believe they consist of the most common “attractions” that surround haunted houses. Anyway, let’s go to it!
Oh the Weather Outside is…Frightful!
Rainstorms! Blizzards! Fog! Oh dear! Nature’s wrath can definitely chill an atmosphere. However, frightful weather can also be a sign. Protagonists are never in for a mundane evening if they happened to be trapped within a story that begins with “On a dark and stormy night.” James Whale’s The Old Dark House is the epitome of the “stormy night quip”
(originally penned by Edward Bulwer-Lytton) . Travelers struggle along dangerous roads. The rain storm is causing mudslides. They are forced to take shelter in The Old Dark House. Though the owners are accommodating, they are mighty strange.
While severe weather often causes travelers to stay in a house they would normally avoid, it also traps them inside these frightful places. The Torrances knew they would be confined inside the walls of The Overlook Hotel in Steven King’s The Shining. It was Jack’s job to care for the place during the blizzard season. Of course, we readers (and viewers of the Stanly Kubrick film) knew there would be more terror to come for this family than a simple outbreak of cabin fever.
Then here is fog. What of fog? Fog has a way of capturing the essence of the unknown. Within its smoky haze there exists something – but what? The fog is highly symbolic and continuative of the mysteries that hover about in the house. For instance, an important clue towards understanding the dynamics of the Stewart family materializes right out of the fog in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others. The clue is Mr. Stewart himself, who went off to war and never came back. But there he is, underneath those haunting vapors that never seem to cease. It seems that they forever surround the grounds of the Stewarts’ manor.
Now, how about a bog within a fog? Protagonists John and Carole hear someone trashing about in the bog but they cannot see it. This phantom thrasher is also the phantom haunter of The House on the Moor – a book by author William Meikle.
Anything’s Game on a Haunted Terrain!
Be careful where you tread! Watch where you put your feet, for the ground you step upon may be cursed. Take for instance The Amityville Horror house. The book claims that the site on which the house is built harbors evil. But what of the “finer” elements that make up the grounds, such as the grains of sand on a beach. Can’t get much finer than that! Normally, one does not think of a sandy beach as a location for a haunted house. But The Elementals by author Michael McDowell teaches us otherwise. (Earlier, did I say that haunted house stories that are set against a sun-shiny orange background are sacrilege? I did, didn’t I? Well…The Elemental house doesn’t count, hee hee hee!) Surrounded by ever encroaching sand dunes, the house struggles against a mound that dwarfs it. As the sand spills into house through the broken windows, it pours into disturbing formations.
Remember, anything’s game on a haunted terrain! If a house is haunted, chances are that its surrounding terrain is all spooked-up as well. A beach, a field, a canyon, a garden – beware! One of the haunted houses in Author Anya Allyn’s Paracosm: Bleath: The Hauntings overlooks fields of wheat. Within these fields there are ghosts, and portals to strange worlds. If you’re ever combing the outskirts of Hollywood, I’d stay clear of Coldheart Canyon. It is the canyon that surrounds the manor of silent film star Katya Lupi. Author Clive Barker has filled this canyon with abysmal creatures; creatures that were spawned from the coupling of spirits with animals. Now, how about gardens? Paradises of greenery. There is such a garden in Author C.M. Saunder’s Sker House. The problem is, it isn’t always there. Just because you partook of its Eden-like charm once doesn’t mean you will find it again. You just might go mad trying to relocate it.
Little House in the Big Woods? – This ain’t for you, Laura Ingalls!
Think of the countless legends involving magical forests. There are the forests of Lord of the Rings saga – populated with its elves and talking trees (Fine! “Ents!). How about the forest at the edge of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series with its giant spiders and centaurs? Go back, way back, to the tales of Little Red Riding Hood and her encounters with the wolf as she hiked the woodsy trails to grandma’s house. Or how about Hansel and Gretel and the witch’s house they stumble upon in the woods? Perhaps the last tale best fits with the theme of this article – houses and the terrains that surround them.
True, “forests” can easily fit into the previous category of “terrains of terror”, but since there are so many stories of haunted houses within forests, I felt it deserved a category of its own. The forests of myth are giant ecosystems of the supernatural. Cut off from civilization, mystical beings and deadly forces can thrive with little notice or interference from the larger world. What of a small house or hut that sits somewhere in the middle of this vast woodland of spiritual chaos? It is doomed. Or rather, it is susceptible to all the haunting forces that breed amongst the trees. Director Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 1 and 2 illustrates this phenomenon. True, the demons materialize via chants spoken from a book within the cabin in the woods. But as the main character Ash Williams points out “It lives…out in those woods”. What is the “it”? The “It” is the evil force that spawns the soul-possessing demons that take over the bodies of the cabin’s inhabitants. Don’t believe me? Run away from the cabin and see how well you fare with the trees. They just might…well, watch the movies!
Then there is the house that is at the center of the madness of the woods. It is the reservoir to which all the terror must flow. In the Blair Witch Project (From Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) three hikers are hopelessly lost in the forest. One just ups and vanishes. The terror builds and builds until finally they encounter a creepy old house from which they never return.
Finally, there are wooded trails that are perhaps extensions of a house’s hauntings. Think of this haunting as a giant hand – it surrounds the house within its grip. But the hand is several times the size of the house. The fingers spill over into the trails of the forests, damning them with ghosts, demons and all kinds of unnatural beings. I go now to the novel The Haunting of Lake Manor Hotel (edited by Nathan Hystad). As its name implies, the hotel is the subject of this collection of thirteen stories. The lake is also a centerpiece of these tales. The surrounding woods collect the ghostly remains that wash ashore from the lake; that journey outside of the haunted hotel. Possessed with witches, talismans, and strange dishware that are labeled with the names of body parts, this forest is not for the faint of heart. In Scott Nicholson’s Creative Spirit , artists gather in a manor for a creative retreat. The manor is indeed haunted, and the ghostly activities flow from the house and onto the old wagon trails and wooded pathways.
Bodies of Water (Or , perhaps, bodies in water)
Ah water! Fluid by nature, it has so many properties. Thus it can be so many things. Look into its pooling mass and you can see yourself in its reflection. Maybe, just maybe, within this reflection lurks a truth that otherwise goes unseen to the unreflective eye. In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the “House of Usher” as revealed by the pool’s reflection is telling, especially as it applies to the relationship of the owners of the estate, Roderick and Madeline Usher. Sparknotes.com sums it up best:
“Doubling spreads throughout the story. The tale highlights the Gothic feature of the doppelganger, or character double, and portrays doubling in inanimate structures and literary forms. The narrator, for example, first witnesses the mansion as a reflection in the tarn, or shallow pool, that abuts the front of the house. The mirror image in the tarn doubles the house, but upside down—an inversely symmetrical relationship that also characterizes the relationship between Roderick and Madeline.”
Water seeks its own level – it conforms to the shape of its container. Given the chance, it will conquer its beholder. One must not remain inside a seaside cave for too long, especially during the tide. The Orphanage, a film by Juan Antonio Bayona, has such a cave. And it just might be inhabited by ghostly children! In The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgeson, there is a deep rift beside the house. Deep down, carved into the rift’s wall is a cavern. The protagonist decides to go exploring. Oh but there is water within the rift! It rises day by day and spills into the cavern on the day of our hero’s exploration. Not good!
When waters reach its own level, it conceals its depth. How deep does it go? Often we don’t know. Fathoms down, things are buried. History is hidden. Part of the reason for “The Haunting” of Lake Manor Hotel has to do with plague victims, their bodies unceremoniously thrown into the lake many years ago. Out of the depths from way back in time, they can return. How well does a lake hide the sins of the past? Sometimes very well, sometimes not. It depends what it returns. This situation is at the forefront of the movie What Lies Beneath (directed by Robert Zemeckis) and Stephen King’s novel Bag of Bones.
Let us dispense with the lakes and return to sea – an aquatic chasm of time and tragedies with a history too enormous for any generation to fully comprehend. Even the surface is but a platform of memories as vast as the sea itself. Not everything sinks. True, the treachery of men has pulled ships down to their watery graves. But the ghost lights of these ships remain and reflect off the waters. CS Saunders explains all this in great detail in Sker House, which is a coastal inn that absorbs many of the tragic memories of the sea.
Prowlers and Growlers and the Ground-Bound
Beast or human, paranormal or not, watch for the things that prowl the grounds of a haunted house. Some are guardians. The gargoyles on castles and cathedrals, for instance, were there to scare away unwelcome guests. But some of these things bound to the grounds are just malevolent beings with nowhere else to go. In the film Cat and the Canary (Director: Elliot Nugent), for instance, the house guests must be wary of an escaped lunatic that just might be creeping around on the outside of the house. Rapping at the outside windows of The House on the Moor is a ghostly phantom. This is the same phantom I referred to earlier, the one that splashes about in the bog in the fog.
More to the point of guardianship, The hedge animals in Stephen King’s The Shining are not to be reckoned with. Yes it’s creepy when they sneak up on little Danny Torrence, but they can me much more deadly than that. After all, they out and out attack Dick Halloran as he tried to rescue the snowbound family.
Perhaps inspired by the gargoyle is The Bell Monster. It lives in the bell-tower on Scott Nicholson’s The Red Church It has wings, claws and livers for eyes. Mutilated bodies have been found on nearby roads and fields. These were Its victims.
And what are we to make of the herd of swine! With sharp teeth, crawling up from the cracks within the earth, they gather into an army and assault The House on the Borderland.
Don’t Wake the Dead! (They are sleeping underneath the yard)
You knew this was coming. How can there be an article about the grounds of a haunted house without a cemetery category? There can’t be, so here comes the dead!
Lying underneath the mounds of soil are the former inhabitants of a house, or the once living/now dead congregation of a church. The obvious implications are that the ghosts of the buried dead have found their way inside the corresponding structure. That which remains does so to the fullest of intentions. To have a sprawling cemetery surrounding a house is to wrap a place forever in the spirit of the past. It’s only a matter of time before this figurative spirit breaks apart into literal ghosts bent on haunting the premises.
There is a churchyard in Scott Nicholson’s The Red Church. At one point in his novel, the ghosts in the graves rise to the sound of the church bell.
Some graveyards are not out in the open. Though connected in some way to former inhabitants of the nearby house, they are small and hidden away. This makes it more difficult for new occupants of a home to pinpoint the source of the haunting. Such is the case in the film The Others. There are three lone graves way across the fields some place. The weeds shelter them with the help of the groundskeeper. In the Haunting of Gillespie House (author Darcy Coates), temporary house renter Elle stumbles upon the house’s family cemetery. It is far away from the house, across the grounds and surrounded by locked gates. But she soon discovers that there are other ways that she can enter this cemetery, secretive ways.
So there you have it!
Houses by lakes and by sea and the things that come from their depths. Houses in forests and canyons and the things the hide within. Houses on shape-shifting terrains; monstrous metamorphoses. Houses built on unholy grounds, propped up in magical fields. Houses with neighboring corpses in their cozy graves, Houses that summons the demented and strange and set them loose on their terrifying grounds. Houses that weather terrifying storms and call forth the most brutal of nature’s elements to assist with their onslaught of horror.
These are the houses that are haunted inside and out. For every hallway spirit there is a ghost roaming the graveyard. Wandering around inside a haunted house can be terrifying. But fleeing the house does not guarantee one’s safety. You must get out and then run, run far. Far away from the house and all the things that surround it.