Halloween is truly my favorite time of year. With my birthday the day after, the holiday has always had very positive associations for me: fake spiderwebs and scary organ music playing outside meant I was about to get lots of candy and presents. Maybe this positive reinforcement as a child explains why I get so excited about all things dark and spooky. But Halloween has been elevated to a special status for me over the years. The Celts believed October 31st was when the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead was the thinnest. Samhain was the night that spirits would appear, and a night that marked the transition from the light half of the year to the dark. It was a night of ambiguous in-between-ness. I love how significant these original meanings behind Halloween were. To me, Halloween does not equal watching bloody torture movies, or listening to “the monster mash”, or dressing up as a sexy cat. It can be a lot more meaningful, contemplative, and real than that.
Halloween, even in its earliest stages, is inherently Gothic. The Gothic tradition is full of collisions between the dead and living, the past and present, the natural and supernatural. Here are just a few Gothic films touch on these themes, and will set the mood for a haunting and beautiful Halloween!
The Innocents (1961).
Based on Henry James’ 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw, this film is enthralling, beautifully shot, and delightfully creepy. The story follows a young governess stationed in a large Gothic estate, charged with looking after two children. While the kids start acting increasingly strange, she starts to see mysterious figures of a man and a woman throughout the grounds of the estate. The Innocents really is a must-see, though you won’t be able to get a certain melody out of your head after watching it…
Häxan: Witchcraft through the ages (1926).
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for 1920’s cinema, but even those of you who find silent film boring will be shocked by this one. Häxan is a quasi-documentary on the history of witchcraft, with elaborate reenactments set during various points in history. Not surprisingly, most of the film focuses in Europe in the middle ages, and there is some amazing imagery in these scenes. If nothing else, make sure you watch the unforgettable “Black Sabbath” scene.
“Last Night I dreamed I was at Manderly again”… Rebecca is a subtle chiller from Hitchcock that hits on all the major Gothic tropes: an old, creepy mansion on a cliff, a fair maiden inhabiting said mansion, recently married to a man who grows increasingly frightening, an evil housekeeper, a vengeful spirit that just won’t go away… you get the picture. Within the walls of the Manderly estate, the lines between the supernatural, bitter reality, and psychological breakdowns are masterfully blurred, making this a true classic in the Gothic genre.
Fall of the House of Usher (1926).
There have been several film adaptations of Poe’s short story, but Epstein’s is the dreamiest, in my opinion. Beautiful, surreal shots through haunting bogs and cathedral like mansions are my cup of tea. The combination of the visuals with the eerie, melancholic Medieval-sounding score is perfect.
The Woman in Black (2012).
Though this is a recent horror film, its pacing and visuals are reminiscent of some of the the older films on this list. It’s a classical Victorian ghost story that’s beautiful to look at and is genuinely creepy—if you can get over the fact that Harry Potter’s in it and he has a son!
I hope you find a film or two on this list to be intriguing, and sound off in the comments section if you have a favorite beautiful Gothic chiller you like watching around Halloween time!