By Jenny Milchman
With Halloween coming to a close, I can’t help wanting to enjoy the scary season for just a little longer. If you’re not ready to lean into the full-blown holiday season quite yet, here’s the remedy: six scary books and films to keep your fall on the spooky side!
Let’s start back in 1818 when Mary Shelley penned a tale so stunning—especially for a woman of her time—that her name didn’t appear on it until the second edition. Though some argue that the novel, about a scientist who creates a humanoid being in his lab, counts as the first true sci fi story, I consider it horror, foretelling some of the modern day ruin of our technology.
Several of course, along with spoofs and farces, but the 1931 version with Boris Karloff and the little girl is scariest in my book. Contemporary horror often relies on a kind of pure and stylized evil—think the Saw franchise, or almost any serial killer AKA slasher flick—that is fairly unrealistic. But director James Whale finds the heart of perhaps the most heartbreaking form of evil in his film—and it’s innocent.
Stephen King is the guy for a list like this, and in fact appears on it multiple times. Salem’s Lot, his second novel, is perhaps the creepiest one he wrote. It’s a peculiar little town story, a vampire book, and most of all, an answer to the question of whether you can go home again. If you can get your hands on an early edition paperback, read the flap copy. It has a last line gruesome enough for any Halloween.
Let’s go back to 1931 again with Bela Lugosi. “Dracula” the film is both a stranger-comes-to-town story—see Rainy Season below—and an introduction to the erotic, invasive concept of a vampire. Legions of spin-offs follow, from Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire the to the Twilight series, but best to start in good ole Transylvania.
A Stranger Comes to Town
We’re gonna turn to the King again with Rainy Season, a short story in the volume Nightmares & Dreamscapes as one of the creepiest, because who can’t relate to this conceit? Young couple goes off on romantic mini-vacay—today it’d be at an Air BnB—whereby they are instantly warned to turn right around, do not pass go. The problem is that the reason given seems so far-fetched, our poor couple simply can’t believe it. King layers in his usual depth and nuance—the issue of how small communities dependent on tourists feel about those invaders, for instance—in a way that makes for a tale both terrifying and tragic.
It’s a rare list where my favorite all-time film, “Witness” doesn’t fit someplace. There’s an actual line in it pointing to our category—Alexander Godunov saying, “Be careful out there amongst the English,” as little Lukas Haas embarks on a train to Philadelphia. There he will witness the most ghoulish sight of all—humans behaving very, very badly—whereupon the star of the film, Harrison Ford, promptly becomes the fish-out-of-water in much nicer environs.
The Bad Seed by William March is your go-to for the murder gene hypothesis—later given a contemporary twist by William Landay with Defending Jacob—but since it’s Halloween, I’m going to offer up The Omen by David Seltzer as a devilishly good yarn about a child who is just adorable enough to wrap his minions around his chubby little fingers.
If you haven’t seen “The Orphan” grab your bowl of fun-size candy bars and cue it up. A family adopts a young girl from an old-timey orphanage as their third child. This has a twist I challenge you to see coming—if you do, email me to explain why the movie doesn’t belong on this list!
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a goody, but I’m going to suggest a lesser known tale called The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons. Not what you might expect from Siddons, this is a terrifying tale about what happens when a haunted house is built from the ground up—a concept, for a little extra treat, that author Jennifer McMahon played with to grisly and haunting effect in her own recent The Invited.
“The Amityville Horror” is the quintessential it’s-perfect—now-we’re-$%#! movie. Have fun being all judge-y about when you’d get out and look out for some of the ickiest special effects connoting haunting that you’ll see. Then watch Eddie Murphy’s routine in “Delirious” and for the whole deal, you could even go visit the real house in Amityville on Ocean Avenue.
The Book and the Movie
For a special Halloween surprise as we wrap up, this entry is the same on page and screen. And we’re going back to Stephen King because of course it’s Misery and “Misery”. Annie Wilkes manages to be both muse and murderer when she rescues bestselling author Paul Sheldon following a car accident in a Colorado snowstorm. Kathy Bates won a rare Oscar for a horror movie and you can have a blast comparing the two versions. In the movie, Richard Farnsworth’s small role is a gem.
Happy Halloween & Have a Great November!
Great article. I remember Salem’s Lot (the film) absolutely terrified me as a kid. It was also the first Stephen King book I read, and still remains my favorite.
I’ve seen/read half of these but have to rush out and get the other half, including Jennifer McMahon’s book!