Top 10 Classic Horror Stories

TT10 October 30, 2012 Comments Off


Halloween, a time for boys and ghouls of all ages to gather around for candy, costumes, and scares.  It is the 2nd most commercially successful holiday of the year, and has evolved over the years as it grows and changes with the times.  One of the biggest factors in the development of Halloween over the years has been the horror genre.  Some of the best evidence of this can be traced back to the classic literature that inspired many of the great trends we follow for the season.  This list showcases some of the greatest works of horror literature written before 1960, and debatably some of the best novels of all time.

10. The Turn of the Screw

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Henry James’ ghost story shows the horrors of one woman, the newly hired governess of two children: Flora and Miles.  Shortly after taking on the job, Miles is expelled from school and takes to living at home.  The woman begins to see visions of a ghostly man and woman, who seem to be after Miles.  She suspects that Flora can see them, but merely keeps quiet.  As she attempts to delve further into the details of Miles’ expulsion she learns that the male apparition she keeps seeing is the former valet: Peter Quint and the female figure is Miss Jessel, the former governess.

The landowner described Quint’s relationship with Miles as “too free” as was Miss Jessel’s with Flora.  After a few more encounters, the governess comes to the conclusion that Miles and Flora are frequently meeting with the ghosts, and after a few more sightings, attempts to point out the ghosts to the landowner and Flora.  Both claim not to see it, and believe it to be a cruel joke.  Flora then falls sick and is taken off the property, leaving the governess and Miles alone.  They are encountered one more time by the ghost of Quint, which ends in Miles’ death.

What makes this story such a great horror is the open-endedness of it all.  It leaves it up to interpretation to decide whether there is truly a haunting, or if it is the story of the governess’ descent into madness.  It is a haunting tale that leaves a lasting impression and helped define the generic horror story

9. The Phantom of the Opera

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Although it’s been severely out shined by its musical counterpart, the novel by Gaston Leroux was what started the classic tale.  This novel follows the story of a young woman named Christine, whose father was known as the best wedding fiddler in the land.  Throughout her childhood, her father told her stories of an “angel of music”.  On his deathbed, she promises to send her the angel of music from heaven.  Christine is eventually given a position in the chorus at the Paris Opera House, and begins to hear a beautiful, unearthly voice which speaks and sings to her.  She believes it to be the angel of music, and asks him to teach her to sing heaven’s music.  The voice however belongs to the physically scarred and mentally disturbed architect of the Opera house, who built himself a secret alcove to live in.  He helps Christine give fantastic performances, and falls in love with her.

The phantom, having been extorting money from the management for years, causes a series of “accidents” after their refusal to surrender a box seat to him.  He then kidnaps Christine and reveals his identity to her.  She begins to find herself attracted to her abductor, but is horrified when he reveals his hideously scarred face.  He then agrees to grant her temporary freedom in exchange for her devotion to him, and she begins to plan escape with her lover, Raoul.  During her freedom, more disturbing “accidents” occur to any who get close to Christine or threaten her success.  She is then recaptured and after a confrontation with Raoul, he captures and begins to torture Raoul, until Christine threatens suicide.  He then steals from her a kiss, which overwhelms him with emotion, as he’d never received affection before, and releases them, letting Christine follow her own heart.  He dies shortly thereafter of a broken heart and is buried by Christine.

This story is the basis for what is widely considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, and has lost in the shadow of its counterpart ever since its inception.  The story is another haunting tale, highlighted by the Phantom’s seemingly limitless influence of the opera house.  Although it is more of a romance than a horror, it can be found on the shelves of both in bookstores galore, and remains a popular story.

8. The Haunting of Hill House

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The Haunting of Hill House is widely recognized as starting the trend of the haunted house.  The story follows Dr. John Montague, who hopes to find scientific evidence of the existence of the supernatural. He rents the purportedly haunted Hill House for a summer and invites as his guests several people whom he has chosen because of their past experience with paranormal events.  Over time, all of the inhabitants begin to experience strange events while in the house, including sounds and unseen spirits roaming the halls at night, strange writing on the walls and other unexplained events.

One of the guests in particular, Eleanor Vance, tends to experience phenomena to which the others are oblivious.  As the story goes on, a series of vague and disturbing events continue to happen increasingly often, while nearly all are seemingly aimed at Eleanor.  Eventually it becomes quite obvious that the house is draining her sanity, and the group attempts to evacuate her from the house.  She resists, but is then forced out and driven away only to be killed when the car crashes into a large oak tree on the property.

What makes the story such a great work of art is how horrific and vague it is about the odd events that take place within the house.  Similar to “Turn of the Screw”, it leaves it up to interpretation whether the house is actually haunted, or if the events are a figment of Eleanor’s imagination.  This story was the very first of the haunted house subgenre, and did a fantastically thrilling job in setting the bar.

7. The Masque of Red Death

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The Masque of Red Death shows a land that is stricken by a disease known as “The Red Death”. Despite the rapid spread of the disease, the prince of the land decides to lock the gates of his town and continue life as normal. He soon decides to throw a masquerade ball, and decorates his room in single colors. The final room is decorated as black with red windows. The party goes well until midnight, when a new guest appears, with a corpse like mask, and bloodstained black garb.

The prince is infuriated that a guest with such morbid humor would join his party and tries to stop him, but the guests are too afraid to try to stop him from passing through each room. The prince finally catches up to him upon reaching the final room, and confronts him. A struggle is heard and the guests enter the room to find the prince dead, and the cloaked figure standing there. They check the figure and discover that there is nobody beneath the costume. Everyone then becomes victim of the red death and die.

As one of Edgar Allen Poe’s finer works, it shows just how horrifyingly powerless we are against death’s embrace. It remains one of his most famous and most powerful works, and is another frightening allegory to our daily lives.

6. The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Oscar Wilde’s timeless psychological thriller shows the downfall of young and impressionable Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray possessed unnatural good looks and beauty, matched only by his bright innocence and youth. After posing to have his portrait painted, he met the reckless and influential Lord Henry Wotton, who convinced Dorian that his youth and beauty wouldn’t last. Distraught, Dorian slipped into a depressed meltdown, realizing that he was bound to grow old and ugly while the painting would remain young and beautiful forever, and that he’d give his soul for it to be the other way around. The lights flicker and the wind rattles the curtains, but Dorian merely dismisses it. He begins to spend increasingly more time with Henry, who spreads his twisted philosophies about life onto him.

Dorian then meets and falls in love with an actress named Sybil Vane, whose love for him in return destroys her acting talent. After realizing her wasted talent, Dorian abandons her and breaks her heart, causing her to commit suicide.This is the start of many acts of vice Dorian begins to see himself commit, and as he remains young and beautiful, the painting grows older and uglier with every sin he commits. His descent into sin is accompanied by a descent into madness after killing Basil Halward, the painting’s creator. He is eventually driven to attempt to destroy his painting, but the painting ends up killing him, and stealing his youth and beauty for itself, taking on its original image and remaining on display in his attic.

This story shows just how far a man can fall, and how dangerous a negative influence can be. The painting in turn grows and becomes a wicked force all its own. It’s a very chilling tale, and the character of Dorian Gray has become immortalized. He and his painting have been referenced several times in media to follow, and he is a classically chilling character.

5. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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Washington Irving’s Halloween horror: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” tells the story of Ichabod Crane and his hapless attempt to win the heart of Katrina Van Tassel. After taking on the position of a new schoolteacher, he hears the tale of the headless horseman, who is said to have lost his head to cannonball during the revolutionary war, and comes out at night to search for his head and is especially interested. He begins to indulge himself in the town’s ghost stories, as he hops from residence to residence, taking up room and board in exchange for teaching, since he isn’t paid for his job. In one instance of this he meets Katrina, who becomes a student of his. He falls for her flirtatious charms and falls in love with her…or at least her inheritance. He attempts to woo her, and is met with competition in the form of Brom Van Brunt, whose physical stature has scared off all other suitors.

As Crane avoids physical confrontations with him, Brom turns to pranks to try and scare him off. After a series of pranks he is invited to a party at the Van Tassels’, and the night doesn’t go off very successfully. On the ride home he passes down the path in the tale of the headless horseman, and begins to see a figure following. He begins to try and loose his follower, but it turns into a full scale chase when he learns his pursuer is none other than the headless horseman himself. He races to the churchyard and scrambles to get across the bridge to the safety of the church. Relieved after reaching the “safe zone”, he turns around to see that the horseman has not disappeared as the legend says, and the horseman hurls his detached head at Crane. Crane’s horse returns alone that night and he is never seen again, the town believing that Brom’s pranks must’ve scared him off.

The tale of the headless horseman is one of the most recognizable Halloween tales in existence. The horseman and Crane have gone on to become iconic symbols of terror, their story referenced countless times in forms ranging from the subtle use of the name Crane in the Batman villain Scarecrow (Jonathon Crane) to the not so subtle use of the horseman himself in several forms of media. It’s a story that everyone knows and can appreciate, more than deserving of a spot on the list

4. Frankenstein

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When Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin wrote her timeless classic, she was unaware of the success it would gain. After spending his youth studying in school and getting g his degree in chemistry and natural philosophy, Doctor Victor Frankenstein believed he had discovered the secret of life. Armed with this knowledge, Victor fashions a body out of old body parts he can salvage from graves and cadavers. During a night of intense thunder and lightning, he is able to bring his creation to life. However, the sight of his monstrosity horrifies him, and he is powerless to stop it from escaping. During his attempt to track down the creature, he learns that it is responsible for the death of his brother, while the adopted daughter was tried, found guilty, and executed for the crime.

Victor retreats to a mountain residence in an attempt to ease his mind and is confronted by the monster who demands that the doctor build him a mate. Victor initially refuses, but is eventually convinced by the monster. After reproducing his results with a female monster, he begins to question the morality of his actions and destroys his new creation. The monster is enraged and vows revenge, in turn killing Victor’s best friend, fiancé, and (indirectly) his father. Victor attempts to track down his monster, but dies of illness in the process. The monster mourns the loss of his creator, and wanders off to the north to die alone.

Godwin’s tragic monster is the second most recognizable symbol of Halloween, beaten only by one. The horrific tale of the monster’s brutality and the tragic life of Dr. Victor Frankenstein have gone down in history, as portrayed in movies, literature, and other media. Probably the most popular Halloween decoration, the monster is instantly recognizable and the name “Frankenstein” is one that everyone knows.

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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The story begins with prosecutor Gabriel Utterson , being told the tale of a sinister figure seen murdering an innocent girl. The man was said to be Mr. Edward Hyde, and was purportedly seen handing a check to the family of the girl signed by Dr. Henry Jekyll. Also Jekyll had suddenly and inexplicably changed his will to leave Hyde beneficiary. Utterson then decides to track down Hyde, and upon finding him, is repulsed to discover how ugly he is. Hyde willingly gives him his home address and Utterson follows it to discover the residence of Dr. Jekyll during one of his dinner parties. Utterson then discusses the matter of Hyde with Jekyll but is dismissed as Jekyll claims for it to be under control. After nearly a year of uneventful nights passes, Utterson is contacted to consult in a murder that Hyde was suspected in. Jekyll’s cane was found at the scene, but he claimed to have severed all connections to Hyde. Utterson remains suspicious, and Jekyll begins to hole himself in his laboratory.

After great concern over the terrifying sounds coming from it, Utterson and the police decide to break in and investigate. They find inside what appears to be the dead body of Mr. Hyde, with a letter in his hand. The letter explains that Dr. Jekyll would periodically drink a serum which would turn him into Mr. Hyde. At first he delighted in becoming the morally free creature unbound by conscience, but then soon found himself addicted to the serum and transforming involuntarily, even without the potion. He then vowed to cease his transformations and was initially successful, but found himself involuntarily transforming again, and thus locked himself inside. He soon became Hyde permanently and committed suicide.

The characters of Jekyll and Hyde mark a symbolic struggle that is instantly recognizable. It portrays the clash between good and evil and how easily one can lose control. Like Dorian Gray it shows the slow corruption of a good man as he is overtaken by his inner evil. The eerie detail and grotesque fashion of Hyde’s persona are what make this dark story such a great horror. Used to inspire many similar stories, it is the first of its kind and used an unusual amount of violent detail for the time.

2. The Telltale Heart

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Often referred to as Edgar Allen Poe’s masterpiece, The Telltale Heart shows the gripping power of guilt and paranoia. The story begins with the narrator confessing that he has killed an old man. His motivation for doing so was fear of the old man’s pale blue dilated eye. Claiming that his actions were those of a criminal, not a madman, he defends his sanity. Watching the old man in his sleep, as he’d done before, the man suddenly awakes with a start. His heartbeat is loud and pronounced, causing the narrator to strike out in fear of being heard. He then dismembers the body and hides the pieces beneath his floorboards, taking careful measures not to spill any blood or leave any trace.

The police then arrive, having been alerted by the neighbors of the old man’s shriek. The narrator acts casually and guides the police around his house without giving any notice that anything is out of the ordinary. Out of pride and self-assuredness, he even brings the police into the old man’s bedroom and seats them right above the floorboards where the old man is buried. The police don’t suspect a thing, and the narrator is calm until he begins to hear the beating of the old man’s heart. The police are unaware of the increasingly loud beat of the heart, and the narrator is sure they must hear it, and are mocking him by playing innocent. Eventually his guilt overtakes him and he breaks down in front of them ripping up the floorboards to show them his handiwork.

The story’s major psychological impact is what makes it such a great story. It shows the narrator’s demise at the hands of his own madness and paranoia, knowing that his demise is only one heartbeat away his breakdown helps make for one of the greatest stories of horror in history, and without a doubt the most well-known of Poe’s works.

1. Bram Stoker’s Dracula

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The story of Dracula begins with Jonathon Harker, a young English lawyer, who travels to Transylvania to complete a business transaction on real estate with Count Dracula. He is overwhelmed by the paranoia of the land of the mystical creature known as “the vampire”, but nevertheless is undeterred. Harker meets the count as planned and, although initially his guest soon finds himself prisoner in the manor. Harker realizes that the count possesses supernatural powers and is met with the horrifying conditions of the manor and attempts to escape.

Meanwhile, a vamperic encounter causes his friends and family to turn to old friend and resident expert, Van Helsing. After a series of further vamperic encounters, they determine Dracula to be the leader and source of the problem and vow to destroy him. After killing Dracula’s assistants and driving him out of his manor, they are able to destroy him once and for all, but are now plagued by the knowledge that vampires do exist and are a real threat to society.

This story has become infamous as the single most recognized piece of gothic culture. Starting the popularity of the vampire story, Dracula was the original tale of terror. It is a name that is recognized by anyone and everyone, and has become the biggest symbol of Halloween in existence. When you think of horror, vampires always come to mind, and there is a good reason for that. Bram Stoker’s masterpiece: Dracula is, and always will be, the best of all horror stories.

Article written by Daniel Jerz.

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