Haunted houses — those old things? Sure, they’re a staple setting for horror films, but they’ve been done to (un)death. Fortunately for anyone looking for ghostly thrills beyond the creepy manse on the hill where all those terrible things happened that one time, horror flicks have also ventured out into just about every location that can be macabred-up and a few that really can’t. Here are eleven movie alternatives to the haunted house.
A spaceship is a great place for a haunting from a logistical standpoint because it solves a classic haunted house narrative problem, that being, if this place is so terrible, why do people stay there (generally solved by explaining that either a)they’re forced to by a terrible rain or snow storm or b)they’re being paid to do so)? In a rocket, it’s a simple answer: they can’t go anywhere else because the ship’s the only place where they can do integral things like breathing. So movies ranging from the smart (the various iterations of “Solaris” where a man confronts what appears to be the reincarnation of his dead wife) to the dumb (“Event Horizon,” about a vengeful douchebag of a living ship that tortures its crew) have a pulpy pace-quickening vibe that wouldn’t exist if the characters could just hightail it out of there when things get hairy.
Also see: “Alien” (1979), which substituted a hostile deep space species for a ghost, but still refreshed the genre like no other film.
True story: After Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades on its way to Miami in 1972, killing 103 people, salvaged parts of the plane were used to refit other aircraft — which were then reported to be haunted by crewmembers from the unfortunate flight. Writer John G. Fuller investigated the anecdotes and put together an overheated non-fiction book, and before you could say “This sounds like a job for a TV movie!”, “The Ghost of Flight 401” arrived on the small screen in 1978. These days, air travel is unpleasant enough to send a shudder down anyone’s spine without an assist from the supernatural, but this Emmy-nominated film remains a classy artifact as TV movies go — Gary Lockwood and an early career Kim Basinger star — and managed a few chills that might not even be the sole providence of nostalgia. But it’s the casting of the ghost of the flight engineer that we all remember — who’d have guessed what terrors lurked in the heart of Ernest BOOORGNINE!
Also see: John Lithgow and gremlin to their airborne thing in the final segment of 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
If recent regional cinema is to be believed, then the scariest place on earth is an old Spanish orphanage. Guillermo Del Toro set his chilling “The Devil’s Backbone” in just such a place, and now the upcoming “The Orphanage” from Del Toro protégé Juan Antonio Bayona does the same with equally creepy results. Orphanages make nice symbols — for lost youth, or arrested development, or wasted potential — and all of that factors into Bayona’s vision of an abandoned orphanage turned into a home by one of its former tenants. Plus, placing a haunting in an orphanage lets you draw on one of the creepiest motifs in horror: evil ghost children who stare at you silently with their vacant expressions. For some reason, complete indifference is really scary in the eyes of a child. Remember the lesson here, abandoned orphanages — especially Spanish ones — are abandoned for a reason.
Before Viggo Mortensen became Aragorn and before Renny Harlin became known for helming such flashily forgettable action fare as “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Driven,” the two made sweet incarcerated horror music together with the aptly named “Prison” (1988). Well, not that sweet, but “Prison” does have the dubious distinction of being one of Harlin’s best as well as the finest film to come out of the late ’80s trend of the return of the vengeful executed (remember Wes Craven’s “Shocker”?). Mortensen plays an inmate who, along with former pro-wrestler Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister and others, is moved into a rundown, just reopened Wyoming prison where the new warden (Lane Smith) was once responsible for the electrocution of an innocent man. Natch, the dude’s ghost has been lurking in the penal complex waiting for a chance at revenge and to kill off characters in all manner of imaginatively gruesome ways. “Prison” was shot on location in the abandoned Wyoming State Prison, an asset Harlin uses to full advantage, with its gothic atmosphere and bedraggled yards and hallways. Ghost aside, “Prison” actually manages to make incarcerated life look wearying, boring and difficult, which is more than can be said for many movies of this ilk.