In the summer of 2011 I went to New York City on a strictly tourist visit. This was a trip to the city to see things that normally I would have pretended to be too cool for: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park….the bars on the Lower East Side. We stayed at a hotel in SoHo that was typical of boutique hotels in Manhattan: small, classy, and filled to the brim with history.
One evening I turned off the television before bed, only to wake up around 3 AM (the witching hour) to find the TV turned on. It was tuned to a different channel (one filled with static) and speaking in a weird, distorted mechanical voice. After staring at it, nonplussed, for a good two minutes or so I got up, crossed the room, and carefully unplugged the thing from the wall. When I mentioned it to the front desk clerk the next morning she shrugged and said, in that utterly jaded way that all New York front desk clerks seem to have mastered, “Oh yeah. This place is haunted, I’m surprised they didn’t tell you when you checked in.”
Luckily, of course, it wasn’t nearly as frightening an experience as any of the films in this list. When it comes to hotels of horror, these are the kind of places you’re going to want to check out of as quickly as possible. Before they check you out instead.
10. Ghostkeeper (1981)
“Mountains can fool you. They can be dangerous.” So goes the advice of the old guy being propped up by his counter in the quaint little town. It’s good advice too, for what it’s worth. Ghostkeeper was filmed in Banff in 1980 and it’s a very contemporary Canadian production. It’s set in the middle of a snowstorm, the monster is drawn from Algonquin legend, and it features local Calgary legend Georgie Collins. The film is scored Paul Zaza, who also worked on Prom Night (1980) and My Bloody Valentine (1981). It practically chugs maple syrup, in other words, with a certain frostbitten claustrophobia that builds slowly until it reaches it’s icy fingers up to your throat.
The hotel itself is bleak and suitably abandoned, a structure that doesn’t belong in it’s environment and acts the part. It’s not quite as grimly impressive as a certain other lonely old hotel tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, but the secret horrors it keeps prove to be just as lethal.
9. Identity (2003)
Identity’s horror bona fides are proven by virtue of the fact that it’s basically And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s classic 1939 mystery. Both share the same basic conceit, dropping ten people in and inn before someone starts murdering them one by one. While Identity’s plot is a bit more, uh, convoluted than Christie’s, the sense of creeping dread is the same.
There’s something unsettling about lonely remote motels in the first place. Sometimes when you seem them, rising out of their otherwise desolate surroundings, you have to wonder who was insane enough to put a motel there in the first place. The motel in Identity is a lot like that, and whether or not you accept the film’s third act, the underlying fact is that being trapped in that situation in the middle of a rain storm would be absolutely terrifying.
8. The Innkeepers (2011)
There’s something about New England hotels that instantly put me on edge. It’s probably something left over from Lovecraft; An unsettling feeling that any of them could really be the Gilman House and that a crowd is only moments away from gathering outside to drag you into the shadows. The Yankee Pedlar of The Innkeepers may not be home to a race of mutated fish people, but it is home to a malevolent spirit hungry for living souls. It too has a “Room You Must Never Go Into” but unlike the other such rooms, the Yankee Pedalr’s room is the entire basement level.
Like the Gilman House, it is run-down, with a sense that corners had been cut on maintenance and that it’s glory days have past. The third floor is stripped of furniture and the windows are boarded over. There’s a sense of abandonment to the place, but that feeling is more than just physical abandonment- it’s the abandonment of the light itself.
7. Eaten Alive (1977)
Filming his follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was reportedly a contentious affair for Tobe Hooper. Hooper wanted to make a serious horror film, like his (in)famous high-water mark. The producers, meanwhile, wanted something a little more comedic. The result is a strange mixture of the two. The film was shot entirely on a sound stage at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood. Apparently the presence of a large pool that could double as a creepy swamp is what really sealed the deal. This lent itself to shooting the film in a strange, eerie half-light that makes both the comedic and the horrific elements surreal.
The film’s Starlight Hotel practically defines the word “seedy”. It’s a rundown dump that oozes terror from every inch. The Starlight wears it’s black-tooth disintegration proudly, and it’s proprietor matches it perfectly. Judd is as unhinged as his hotel, and both are seemingly covered in a thin layer of humid slime right from the beginning.
Keep an eye out for an enthusiastic john named Buck, played by Robert Englund 😉
6. Vacancy (2007)
This is why people should steer clear of weird remote motels. Vacancy follows a couple whose marriage is pretty much dead, driving along a backwoods road because the husband decided that getting off the interstate was a great idea. Naturally, the car breaks down and the friendly mechanic (played by Ethan Embry) gives them directions to a cozy little motel where they can stay for the night. The motel seems nice enough, if a little run-down, but the owner has quite naturally rigged up hidden cameras so that he can film every aspect of their terror and presumable death. You know, as you do.
The lesson here, of course, is that once again you should never stop at motels where there ought not to be any motels, because they are quite obviously never good news.
5. The Beyond (1981)
The second of Fulci’s “Gates Of Hell” trilogy proves why you should never accept an inheritance that consists of a strange old hotel in Louisiana. Why? Because they’re always haunted, that’s why! The Beyond gets dragged sometimes because it’s seen as an “incoherent” film. And , in fact, it is. The entire film was based on death scenes Fulci had sketched out, and strung together with a few words that Fulci felt explained his vision. It starts off as a “haunted hotel” movie and ends up as a zombie film.
People have likened The Beyond‘s narrative to a fever dream and that’s a good way of describing it. It gets by on it’s oppressive atmosphere, which creeps with a palpable sense of glee, but when the film does reach out and bite, it holds on and mauls you. It’s suitably goth-New Orleans, with it’s plantation-era architecture covered over by the languid greenery that thrives on un-breathable humidity. It’s dirty and dusty and covered in grime. This is a building that feels as though it were made to be abandoned.
4. The City Of The Dead (1960)
The City Of The Dead is the original British name of the film. American horror fans and lovers of the Misfits will know it better under the name Horror Hotel. Heavy Metal fans will know it from the scenes that were recycled to be used in Iron Maiden’s Bring Your Daughter…To The Slaughter music video, or King Diamond’s Sleepless Nights. And if that’s too much for you, surely you’d recognize Christopher Lee’s “Superstition, Fear, and Jealousy,” dialogue, used to preface Rob Zombie’s Dragula.
The Raven Inn, where the unfortunate Nan Barlow goes to further investigate her professor’s ideas on 17th Century American witchcraft, fits the bill for the Americanized name. It’s a creepy wooden building where the shadows play eerily across the wall even when the weather outside seems fine, complete with a bellhop who moans rather than speaking. When it turns out that there’s a cult of Satanists in upper management, it comes as literally no surprise. It’s the sort of place where you’d be disappointed if there wasn’t a witch cult running the show.
3. Hostel (2005)
Yes, it was brutal, gory, and at times senseless. Yes, it was the first film to be castigated as “torture porn”. Yes, it offended the Slovak Republic, who objected to the portrayal of their country as some kind of stereo-typically backwards, trash-ridden Eastern European wasteland. Yet still, the idea of it all was enough to allow creepy European hostels to join lonely backwoods motels and foreboding hotels in the high mountains in the pantheon of Places You Should Never Go.
How many Gen Xers and Millenials have found themselves in the protagonist’s position? Like the deserted Lover’s Lane of their parents, the fun times in Europe are haunted for a generation by the specter of graphic gore. Hostel is the urban legend that drives the second thoughts that come when you’re already halfway there. And let’s be honest, Hostels by their very nature are pretty creepy.
2. Pyscho (1960)
A lot of things can be said (and have already been said) about Psycho. It’s arguably Hitchcock’s best film and of course many of it’s scenes and motifs have found their way into the common culture. It sustained a huge level of controversy for the time owing to Hitchcock’s flaunting of a number of Hollywood conventions surrounding sex and violence. It made people afraid to get into the shower without locking the door first.
We’re here to talk about hotels, though, and the Bates Motel is the creepiest motel of them all. You may have noticed that I’ve said repeatedly throughout this list that if you come across a weird out-of-the-way motel that you should never stay there. Let me reiterate this with special emphasis here: your odds of dying a violent, ghastly death go up greatly if you check-in to one of these motels. The Bates Motel is a dilapidated place, warped and full of shadows and mirrors. Like all motels, the rooms seem tawdry, cramped, and dirty. The floral print in the rooms seems aged and outdated regardless of the year. Is that a bloodstain in the shower?
What drives the Bates Motel to the next level is the Bates‘ family home lying within eyesight of the motel itself. The decrepit, gothic house looks like a vulture perched over the motel, ready to devour the helpless souls that wander in.
1, The Shining (1980)
As though there were any other choice.
The Overlook is the definition of evil. A lone, brooding presence high above the world in the Rocky Mountains, waiting for an unsuspecting traveler to come by. Like any great and ancient evil, it sprawls majestically, assured of it’s own power. It has all of the grandeur of the Grand Budapest Hotel with none of the whimsy. If a building could be said to smirk, the Overlook’s would be plastered across it’s entire facade.
Kubrick’s long, unblinking stare at it’s aspects draws out the horrifying undertone: the banality of it’s evil. Everything about the place is designed to appeal to old-money snobs for whom skiing is tiresomely gauche. The malevolence present in it, however, renders the touches of opulence as sinister. The hedge maze becomes a leering monster, and the grand staircase quivers on the edge of madness. One gets the sense that every inch of the place is stuffed with the unquiet ghost of the past, in a very literal sense.
Like any good haunted hotel, the Overlook has the Room You Must Never Go In, and Room 237 is the rotted but still beating heart of the entire presence. Everything spreads out from there, but the evil is most concentrated in that room, in that bathtub, in the horrifying specter of a suicide that has been left to bloat. Every other room in the collection of Haunted Rooms pales in comparison. When Room 237 finally has you in it’s clutches, it’s not coming to scare you. It’s coming to eat.