What makes a building scary? Its design has something to do with it, certainly. But even the most innocuous looking suburban McMansion can be made scary by tales of terrible goings-on there in years past; it's things like that that make a house haunted, after all. Some say haunted houses act like "psychic batteries," soaking up all the negative energy that's spent inside their walls, then releasing it over time on unsuspecting new occupants. If that's true, then the bad things that happened at these places make them some of the scariest houses in the country.
1. Danvers State Hospital
Also known as the Massachusetts State Lunatic Hospital at Danvers, it opened for business in 1878 and closed in the 1990s, a victim of deinstitutionalization policies and budget cuts. Among other things, the staff there specialized in the pre-frontal lobotomy, wherein an ice pick-esque device was inserted into the orbital cavity, and swished around until ... well, until you have some very angry ghosts. Abandoned since the early 90s, it became a notorious shell of its former self, a crumbling edifice used in such horror films as the excellent Session 9. It was mostly demolished to make room for an apartment complex in 2006, though the iconic central edifice was preserved.
2. Ed Gein's house
Locals burned Ed Gein's house of horrors in 1957, a few months after he was arrested for cannibalistic crimes that would inspire writers to create Leatherface, Norman Bates and (in part) "Buffalo" Bill from Silence of the Lambs. Prior to that, it had truly been a horrific place -- isolated in a rural patch of Plainfield, Wisconsin, Ed had lived there alone ever since his brother and mother had died (the former under questionable circumstances), in a rambling farmhouse with no water or power. He used his farm-bred butchering and tanning skills to make "suits" out of women (mostly harvested from the local cemetery), as well as chairs, lampshades and other horrible objects. It was just as well that it burned, too -- the rumor was that an entrepreneur planned to open it as a tourist attraction called "The House Of Horrors," which would've been, well, horrible.
3. The Winchester Mansion
Sarah Winchester was the widow of gun magnate William Winchester, who after the deaths of her daughter and husband in the 1880s, sought the solace of a medium who told her that, in order to expiate the death visited upon the world by her husband's famous rifle, she had to "build a home for [herself] and for the spirits who have fallen from this terrible weapon." If she ever stopped building the house, the medium told her, she would die. So she spent the rest of her life doing just that, financed by her considerable wealth from the Winchester Repeating Arms company. It remains one of the weirdest buildings in the country, with more than 130 rooms, stairs that lead to nowhere, doors that open onto walls, and is stocked with details that reflect her peculiar superstitions -- like the number thirteen, which appears in everything from the number of candles in candelabras to topiaries in the garden in the shape of the number. The house, near San Jose, can be toured.
4. Chicago's "Murder Castle"
The 2003 best-seller Devil in the White City tells the true-crime tale of Dr. H.H. Holmes, one of America's first (and still most notorious) serial killers, who lured victims into his custom-designed Chicago hotel during the 1893 World's Fair -- and killed them. But he didn't just kill them -- this place was so fiendishly designed, it had a warren of soundproofed torture rooms in the basement, including a gas chamber, a dissection room and a crematorium. To add insult to injury, he sold the skeletons of several of his victims to medical institutions. Here's a detailed, shiver-inducing description of what went on there:
Over a period of three years, Holmes selected female victims from among his employees (many of whom were required as a condition of employment to take out life insurance policies for which Holmes would pay the premiums but also be the beneficiary), lovers and hotel guests, and would torture and kill them. Some were locked in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines that permitted him to asphyxiate them at any time. Some victims were locked in a huge bank vault near his office; he sat and listened as they screamed, panicked and eventually suffocated. The victims' bodies went by a secret chute to the basement, where some were meticulously dissected, stripped of flesh, crafted into skeleton models, and then sold to medical schools. Holmes also cremated some of the bodies or placed them in lime pits for destruction. Holmes had two giant furnaces as well as pits of acid, bottles of various poisons, and even a stretching rack, allegedly in order to create a race of giants. Through the connections he had gained in medical school, he was able to sell skeletons and organs with little difficulty. Holmes picked one of the most remote rooms in the Castle to perform hundreds of illegal abortions. Some of his patients died as a result of his abortion procedure, and their corpses were also processed and the skeletons sold.
At least 26 people met their ends in the basement of Holmes' "Murder Castle," which burned in a mysterious fire in 1895. (Holmes himself was apprehended in 1894 and hanged two years later.) The Castle's site is now occupied by a post office -- perhaps the least scary of buildings, atop one of the most horrific blocks in the country. The "castle" as it looked in the 19th century:
5. The Crenshaw House
Better known as the "Old Slave House" of Southern Illinois, the Crenshaw House was built by John Crenshaw, one of the only slaveholders in the history of the state of Illinois. As the owner of a salt mining operation in which "no free men could be found to work," he was granted an unusual slaveholding license in what was otherwise a free state. Not only did he use that license to his full advantage, owning more than 700 slaves at one time, but he participated vigorously in something known as the "Reverse Underground Railroad," in which free blacks would be kidnapped and enslaved by him. His house had a very unusual feature to facilitate this: a carriage door in the back, so his victims could be brought into the house without being seen.
But that wasn't the only chilling feature of the house. From Prairie Ghosts:
Located on the third floor of Hickory Hill are the infamous confines of the attic and proof that Crenshaw had something unusual in mind when he contracted the house to be built. The attic can still be reached today by a flight of narrow, well-worn stairs. They exit into a wide hallway and there are about a dozen cell-like rooms with barred windows and flat, wooden bunks facing the corridor. Originally, the cells were even smaller, and there were more of them, but some were removed in the past. One can only imagine how small and cramped they must have been because even an average-sized visitor to the attic can scarcely turn around in the ones that remain. The corridor between the cells extends from one end of the room to the other. Windows at the ends provided the only ventilation and during the summer months, the heat in the attic was unbearable. The windows also provided the only source of light. The slaves spent their time secured in their cells, chained to heavy metal rings. There are still scars on the wooden walls and floors today and chains and heavy balls are still kept on display.
The screams and cries of the slaves he tortured in those attic cells can supposedly still be heard by visitors today, and in the 1920s, the family who owned it started charging tourists admission to see the "haunted" upstairs. The house is currently closed to the public, but may reopen one day.