Did you know there are 97 steps that Father Karras tumbles down at the end of The Exorcist? Or that Wendy Torrance backs her way up 23 sets of stairs brandishing a baseball bat as her crazed husband Jack threatens to bash her brains in in The Shining? Whether you’re Sarah (Madeline Petsch) climbing them to investigate that noise you heard in the creepy attic à la Polaroid (2019) or you’re Chris (Dana Kimmell) running down them trying to escape the masked maniac that who just butchered your friends like in Friday the 13th Part III (1982), staircases have a special spot in horror lore. We here at Nightmare on Film Street thought it was time we paid tribute to these flights of fright and give you something to run the stairs of your mind; 97 Steps to Hell: The Top Ten Most Iconic Staircases in Horror.
10. Gremlins (1984) – Mrs. Deagle‘s Stairlift
You’ll want to buckle in for our number ten entry on our Most Iconic Staircases of Horror because it’s a wild ride! Mean old Mrs. Deagle, played by Polly Holliday (Alice, 1976-80) is of the age where getting up and down the stairs on her own isn’t as easy as it used to be but thanks to her trusty new stairlift, cheating poor children out of their homes and being a well-rounded curmudgeon is made that much easier. Grumps needs their beauty rest too, don’t you know?
But the crazy cat lady soon finds that karma can be cruel as she is visited by a group of festive carolers. As she opens the door to throw water on the revelers, she quickly realizes that these aren’t her parent’s serenaders. A gang of grinning, snarling gremlins barks an off-key tune as a lone assassin slips inside via the cat door, undetected. Downer Deagle retreats into her home, slamming and locking the door. In a panic, she fumbles to her stairlift and straps in to make a hasty retreat. But it seems our little gremlin friend has messed with the chair’s wiring and when the Grinchy old bat hits the go switch, the chair flies up the curved staircase at such a speed that when it reaches the top, it keeps going, catapulting her, the chair and her attitude right out the upstairs window and into the street below.
9. Crimson Peak (2015) – Allerdale Hall Grand Staircase
Edith Cushing, played by Mia Wasikowska (Piercing, 2018), lies on the cold snow-covered floor of the Allerdale Hall foyer as Lucille Sharpe, played by Jessica Chastain (It Chapter 2, 2019), looks down at her from the third-floor terrace. The latter having just pushed the former over the railing of the balcony where she tumbled down the grand bifurcated staircase of the gothic revival mansion.
The L-shaped staircase is a character all on its own in this film, wrapping around the foyer in a serpentine way, leading the way to the heart, head, and belly of the house. The massive overbearing banister with dark wood carvings holds in place the dusty, leaf-littered steps of this once warm and welcoming feature of the house. Now it simply acts as a conduit between downstairs and upstairs, ground floor to attic, showing that while any life that was once held within the walls of the estate may be gone, it certainly still lingers.
8. The Haunting (1999) – Spiral Staircase
The 1999 remake of 1963’s The Haunting may not be everyone’s favorite but there’s no denying how nerve-racking the tension-filled Spiral Staircase scene is. For those that haven’t watched the Jan de Bont (Speed, 1994) directed haunted house story or have simply forgotten about it, the scene in question features a precarious wrought-iron staircase and a mega-ton of suspense.
As Dr. David Marrow, played by Liam Neeson (Darkman, 1990), attempts to reach a precariously perched Nell played by Lili Taylor (The Conjuring, 2013), the massive wrought iron spiral staircase he traverses is being dismantled by a shifty spirit. The hulking apparatus, suspended by cables, literally falls apart under the poor doctor’s feet the higher he gets in a scene where the set-piece is as integral as the actors.
7. Poltergeist (1982) – Freeling’s Staircase
I know that the late Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) directed Poltergeist in 1982 but you can’t watch the scene where the spirits of the dead walk down the Freeling family’s S-shaped staircase and not see Steven Speilberg’s (Jaws, 1975) influence written all over it. Everything from the slow build-up in tension to the grand visual payoff, in the end, is everything that classic Speilberg embodied at that point in his career.
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It’s a masterful scene starting with the set design. The shape of the home’s staircase is perfect for the surreal supernatural happenings throughout the movie. Its S-shaped design gives it an off-kilter feel, a precarious nature that, at times, plays with the viewer’s perspectives giving it a dangerous, unstable feel on both a conscious and subconscious level. The spirits that traverse it at the rise of this four-minute scene are the icing on the cake. The almost faceless beings glide down the steps in a restless etherealness that is bound to send chills down even the most discerning of viewer’s spines.
6. Halloween (1978) – The Wallace House Staircase
We all know it. It’s ingrained in our collective psyches. Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis (Prom Night, 1980), has just found her friend Annie Brackett, played by Nancy Kyes (The Fog, 1980), sprawled out on the bed dead with a tombstone placed at her head. Then her other friend Lynda, played by P.J. Soles (Carrie, 1976) pops out of the closet, dead as well.
As she backs out of the room in complete and utter shock, she soon finds the person responsible for what she just discovered. In fact, he’s ready to do the same thing to her with a very large kitchen knife. He swings at her, slices her in the arm, and in the melee, she topples over the railing and down the stairs. What follows is one of horror’s most iconic shots. Michael Myers, played by Nick Castle (Halloween Kills, 2021), rounds the top of the simple straight staircase and pauses as he looks down on Laurie while she writhes in pain at the bottom. A simple shot that embodies modern horror at its most primal.
5. American Psycho (2000) – The Stairwell at Paul Allen’s Condo
Bodies in the closet, bodies in the bedroom, bodies in the restroom, Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale (The Machinist, 2004) has amassed quite the collection of beauties in his “new apartment.” While this condo may be nicer than his old one, it is most certainly a house of horrors. As is the entire building. It holds a creepy isolation that seems out of place in a city like New York, including the oddly shaped stairwell.
Prostitute, Christie, played by Cara Seymour (The Knick, 2014-15), tries to flee from chainsaw-wielding maniac Bateman, screaming bloody murder she scambles her way to the building stairwell. A lifeless, gray, cinderblock quarter-turn Winder staircase that hugs the triangular wall all the way to the bottom floor. It’s here that it looks as though Christie may make her escape but Bateman has other plans as he drops the chainsaw from a much higher floor and ultimately runs Christie through with the plummeting saw.
4. The Shining (1980) – Overlook Hotel Colorado Lounge Staircase
It is one of cinema’s most iconic scenes. Wendy Torrance, played by Shelley Duvall (Tale of the Mummy, 1998), backs away from her husband Jack, played by Jack Nicholson (Wolf, 1994) as he becomes increasingly unhinged. Her torment is real as she swings the bat at her brooding man and our heart breaks for her as the confusion over his state of mind swims aimlessly around inside of her head.
But the massive u-turn staircase the scene is set on is the perfect backdrop for such an intense exchange. The placing of the characters and their awkward ascension adds to the tension between them almost like a third character in the scene. This is something that late director Stanley Kubrick was famous for in his scene construction and the dividends in preparation pay off a thousandfold in creep-tastic fashion.
3. Psycho (1960) – The Bates House Staircase
Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho is iconic for many reasons and one of the first images to pop into one’s mind when thinking of the 1960 black and white classic is the brooding Victorian Gothic Second Empire Bate’s House set high up on the hill overlooking the Bate’s Motel in the valley below. It’s an imposing building stooped in mystery, conjuring all kinds of creepy images as to who or what might be lurking inside. Who’s that in the upstairs window?
This entry is so iconic that it actually has two staircases that are both chill-inducing in their own right. First, there is the long climb to the house up the long and winding concrete staircase all while the foreboding dwelling watches you take every step. The second, as Detective Arbogast, played by the late Martin Balsam (The Sentinel, 1977), finds out, is the more deadly. As the detective climbs the ornate, straight staircase and reaches the top, he meets Mrs. Bates, or Mother as she is called by her son Norman. And Mother has a way of turning unwanted guests away… for good.
2. The Changeling (1980) – The Burning Stairs of Carmichael Mansion
The Carmichael Mansion was home to Seattle’s prominent Carmichael family until 1906. The family up and left the palatial estate inexplicably that year. Since then, strange things have been rumored to happen inside the house. Enter music professor John Russell, played by the late George C. Scott (The Exorcist III, 1990), a widower who retires to the house to mourn the loss of his wife and daughter. It isn’t long until Russell is tangled in a murder mystery that leads him to the office of United States Senator Joseph Carmichael, played by the late Melvyn Douglas (Ghost Story, 1981).
But the scene in question comes when the Senator returns to his childhood home, right in the middle of the place destroying itself. John is injured on the floor of the front hall after being blown through the railing and over the edge by the angry spirit plaguing the house and Senator Carmichael walks in entranced in some kind of daze. As he climbs the stairs, the wooden railings burn, lined with flames, and as soon as he reaches the second-floor landing, the whole staircase collapses stranding the Senator upstairs and Russell downstairs. It’s an incredible scene that helps build the film’s climax to a fever pitch.
1. The Exorcist (1974) Corner of Prospect St and 36th St NW
Arguably the most iconic staircase on this list, the straight stone staircase dubbed “The Exorcist Steps,” stretches 97 stairs from Prospect St. and 36th St. NW in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. down to M Street NW. Constructed in 1895, the stairs have officially deemed a landmark in a 2015 ceremony held on Halloween which had the film’s director, William Friedkin, and screenwriter William Peter Blatty in attendance for the occasion.
Everyone knows the scene in question. Father Karras, played by the late Jason Miller (The Eternal, 1998), finally exorcises the demon Pazuzu from Regan, played by Linda Blair (Hell Night, 1981), and depending on who you talk to, he either throws himself out of the bedroom window or the demon forces him out the bedroom window and down the flight of stairs resulting in a bloody, shocking finish to the film. Fun fact, the stunt man who did the stair fall did it twice… 97 stone steps… twice. Ouch.
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There you have it! The Top Ten Most Iconic Staircases in Horror. I hope you’ve enjoyed every step of this list as much as we did putting it together. In fact, we hope it didn’t let you down and kept your spirits up! How did our list add up to yours? Did we miss any staircases that you think should be elevated? Let us know on our official Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Discord accounts. Not into social media? Sign up for our Neighborhood Watch Newsletter to get the horror delivered straight to your inbox. Until next time, guys and ghouls, check your head, mind the gap, and watch that last step, it’s a doozy!
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