You flip the light switch and wait for the flickering bulb to reach maximum luminosity. As you slowly descend the narrow, creaking stairs a wave of coolness settles upon your skin. Rapidly, the chill travels down your neck, your back and out your fingertips. A cobweb brushes your cheek and you over dramatically swat it away like a swarm of mosquitoes. Over in the corner, a figure looms ominous and bathed in shadow.
Fuzzball, the neighbor’s cat runs past the small, dusty hopper window startling you. As you catch the corner of a storage shelf, the furnace kicks on with a resounding roar and glowing red eyes. Without even thinking, you spin around, searching for the exit. Quickly, you ascend the stairs, flipping the light off with determination and slam the door behind you. The basement has stayed cluttered for this long, it can certainly wait another few months.
“As you slowly descend the narrow, creaking stairs a wave of coolness settles upon your skin […] Over in the corner, a figure looms ominous and bathed in shadow.”
Basements have long been a staple of horror films and will remain a staple of domestic-centric terror for good reason. By their nature, basements are dark, often forgotten or rarely visited rooms of a home. They’re excellent at collecting boxes, dust…and secrets. When one descends into a basement, the entire weight of the home above is literally looming over you. Often times, there is only one exit in a basement and if you’re lucky, a small and hard to access window.
While logically our brains know the contents of a basement are often mundane and quite dull, the imagination is powerful and often leads to tricks being played on the mind. Basement lighting is rarely adequate and only furthers visual misinterpretation. Lawn tools become killers, clothing becomes ghosts. And then there’s all those amazing horror films that have taught us to second guess venturing down those stairs. Here are 10 of the best (and scariest) basements in horror.
10. The Amityville Horror (1979)
Tagline: For God’s sake, get out!
Poor George and Kathy Lutz. Here they were, happy newlyweds, embarking on the next chapter of their lives and purchasing what they thought was going to be their dream home. And yet, little did they know the evil that was lurking beneath. As George descends into madness, tortured and tormented by an unknown force, the fate of his entire family hangs in the balance. Luckily, just in the nick of time, they discover the house had been built atop a Native American burial ground and had once housed an infamous devil worshiper. Hidden, behind one of the basements walls they discover the source of the home’s evil and wisely, choose to vacate the premises. Pretty sure this information was left out of the real estate disclosure.
9. The Evil Dead (1981)
Tagline: They got up on the wrong side of the grave.
Here we learn a valuable basement lesson: If you find a tape, or a weird-looking book in a basement. Leave it alone. However, Ash & Co. did not abide by this rule and subsequently released some very nasty demons. The only perk to this particular cellar style basement is that what once was merely a curiosity magnet can actually function as a ‘Possessed Co-Ed Containment Device.’ By utilizing the room in such a way, we as an audience also get some pretty iconic cellar level shots as well.
8. Don’t Breathe (2016)
Tagline: This house looked like an easy target. Until they found what was inside.
While the basement in the Blind Man‘s home is not dirty, cluttered or dark, what it does contain is much, much worse. Throughout the film, we follow Rocky and her friend’s sneak and tiptoe around the home in tense and claustrophobic ways. And while the majority of the film plays on some of the most basic human feelings of fear and tension, once the story moves below ground it takes the film in a whole other direction. In an effort to stay spoiler-free (the film’s not that old after all), let’s just say this is a basement no one would want to live next door to and is certified nightmare fuel.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Tagline: They won’t stay dead!
One of the most iconic horror basements of all time, here we see a room take on multiple important roles. During the first half of the film, the basement inside the farm house is a refuge, a safety net and simultaneously, a point of contention. While Ben adamantly disagrees with the idea of holing up inside the basement, Harry equally disagrees with Ben‘s plan and thinks the basement is their best chance. Perhaps motivated by his daughter’s injury and related sickness (but mainly his cowardice) Harry flees to the basement leaving the rest of the group to fight off the hordes of living dead. But soon, in a poetic twist of fate, Harry and his wife meet their end at their own daughter’s hand in, where else, but the highly contested basement. Despite all the terror surrounding them outside, the biggest threat was right there with them all along.
6. The Sect (1991)
Tagline: Satan has chosen his victims. The battle with evil has begun.
Also known as La Setta or The Devil’s Daughter, this Italian film was co-written and produced by Dario Argento and directed by Michele Soavi. It features Jamie Lee Curtis’ sister, Kelly Curtis as a kindergarten teacher named Miriam who lives and works in Frankfurt. Through no fault of her own (but perhaps due to fate) she becomes entangled in the web of a Satanic cult. Unbeknownst to Miriam, the house she has been living in has a secret and sacred well in her basement. Before long, the cult and their evil plans become forceful with Miriam utilizing the basement and its well as their prime evil lair. The pure scale of this massive and vast secret basement hideaway is unique and fascinating. It also lends as a warning to explore every nook and cranny of the place you ultimately call home.
5. Psycho (1960)
Tagline: A new- and altogether different- screen excitement!!!
While the total time spent in this basement clocks in at under 2 minutes, those 2 minutes are some of the most iconic in all of film history. Here we have tropes and imagery being established that horror films will play upon for decades to come. The single, swinging bulb. The secret twist towards the end of the film. Cobwebs, shelves and stacked boxes. Imminent and layered terror. Perhaps you could even say the basement scene in Psycho is the Mother of all basement scenes in horror. *wink*
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Tagline: Scary as hell.
Like the tagline says, this is one of the truly terrifying basements on this list. While all of these mentioned here are great and special examples of basements in horror, the final scene in Blair Witch is next level creepy AF. Think back to the first time you saw the film. All the foundation that had been established, all the tension had been stacking up for those final moments. It really doesn’t take much to push the story over that terror ledge. Unlike so many of the other homes on this list, the house here is dilapidated, decaying and trashed. Already, the house is terrifying all on it’s own. Add in some strange pictures on the walls, children’s hand prints and isolation and you’ve set the stage for a powerful final act. What you do see in the basement is as scary as what you don’t and therein lies the true artful beauty of this haunting scene.
3. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Tagline: In every neighborhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid.
In this underrated Wes Craven classic we have a killer mix of classic Craven ideas with 80’s adventure-comedy sensibilities. There’s treasure, mystery, creative and unique antagonists and even a social commentary on gentrification and class warfare. What starts out as a simple burglary quickly turns into much more. As our young hero Fool finds himself in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, he soon discovers the true wealth of secrets that the evil Robeson‘s are stashing in their basement.
2. The House by the Cemetery (1981)
Tagline: Read the fine print. You may have just mortgaged your life!
Leave it to Lucio Fulci to create one of the goriest, squishiest and haunting basements out there. It’s one thing to find some mice, abandoned belongings of a previous tenant or even some water damage in your AirBNB’s basement. However, it’s a whole other thing to find a psychotic 150 year old man named Dr. Freudstein who barely survives full decomposition by utilizing body parts from unsuspecting victims. The film provides an interesting blend of supernatural ghost story with physical, present danger in the unique way that only Fulci can. And of course, there’s those signature Fulci maggots as well.
1. The Conjuring (2013)
Tagline: Based on the true case files of The Warrens
One of the interesting things about streaming services is the amount of information they can gather about people’s viewing tendencies and histories. Among the wealth of information they can gather is when and where people choose to abandon or stop watching something. In a 2018 Forbes article on films that were too scary to finish, The Conjuring appeared on that list with audience’s typically shutting off the film 77 minutes in. So what happens at that point in the film? Well, that’s the moment that Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) discovers the noose in the closet and falls all the way down to the basement. Now, previous to this moment, Carolyn had a less than comfortable experience in the basement. Then, Lorraine and Ed explore the basement finding nothing but intense creepy vibes and a creepy piano. However, while the couple are exploring the basement the tension is high.
Due to the found-footage style of the film here, James Wan is able to manipulate the scenario and play with our fears. Lighting, shadows, sounds and the quick panning from one subject to another conveys the terrifying and claustrophobic nature of their surroundings. It’s not hard for us as the audience to image ourselves in that very scenario. The intensely creepy groundwork has been laid for the exact moment that Lorraine once again finds herself in the basement. And she is not alone. Taking into consideration the setup that the film has made, it makes sense that a lot of audiences would choose this moment to simply say, ‘Nope.’ Every single time the film takes us into that basement, it embodies the most intense and stereotypical basement fears, and in supremely effective ways. And for some, it’s so effectively frightening it was easier to simply turn the film off and leave the characters in The Conjuring forever trapped in that terrifying basement.
Before we ascend the stairs and shut the door on this subject, I’d like to call out a few more basements as Honorable Mentions. Cuts had to be made, but all of these films have incredibly creepy (or classic) basements and have likely contributed to many irrational basement based fears.
- Get Out
- The Cabin in the Woods
- We Are Still Here
- The Silence of the Lambs
- It (2017)
- Black Christmas
- Hell Night
- Spider Baby
Which basements send shivers down your spine? Have any other bottom floor favorites to add to our list? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!