Real Places Behind Famously Frightening Stories

Discover old haunts that inspired thrills and chills in fiction and film

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Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. Kevin Fleming / Corbis

The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist stairs in Washington DC
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Washington, D.C.

When Blatty was a student at Georgetown University in 1949, he read newspaper accounts of an exorcism performed on a boy in the D.C. suburbs. He never forgot them; by 1973, they had laid the groundwork for his bestselling book and Oscar-winning movie.

Blatty set his exorcism in Georgetown and made his victim a young girl. In the film, she lived--and levitated and spewed vomit--with her mother in an imposing brick house at 3600 Prospect Street, NW (Blatty had lived on that street during college). Just a short walk away is the famous outdoor stairway that Father Damien Karras tumbled down to his death. The house is private, but the steps are very public, linking Prospect to the busy thoroughfare of M Street, NW.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," The Sketch Book, Washington Irving

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
(Kevin Fleming / Corbis)
Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

New York’s Hudson River Valley was the backdrop for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one of the earliest examples of ghost stories in American literature. Irving, a native New Yorker, relied on local landmarks and the lore about them handed down from Dutch settlers who arrived some 200 years before the story was published in 1820.

The real action in “Legend” begins in what is now called Patriots Park; a monument marks the site where in 1780 three men captured British spy Major John Andre beneath a tulip tree. The bad vibes from the event lingered, according to Irving, and it was not far from the “fearful tree” that the hapless Ichabod Crane first saw “something huge, misshapen, black, and towering.” That something of course was the infamous headless Hessian who chased Crane to the Old Dutch Church.

The church still stands, amidst the small graveyard where Irving’s ghostly Hessian soldier, would tether his black steed to the headstones. The writer himself is buried in the adjacent Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which offers tours of the real sites behind the legend.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

Bronte Wuthering Heights
(Patrick Ward / Corbis)

Ponden Hall and Top Withens, England

Brontë probably had two places in mind when she imagined Wuthering Heights, the haunted house in Yorkshire at the center of her only novel. The Heights’ remote, windswept location could have been that of Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse that overlooks the moors south of her hometown of Haworth. The structure itself could have been based on Ponden Hall, a 19th-century manor house also near Haworth; the single-paned window on the second floor may well have been the one that Catherine Linton’s ghost tried to climb through one wild, snowy night. (Ponden’s owners, Stephen Brown and Julie Akhurst, do offer tours to small groups.)

"The Flying Dutchman"

Cape of Good Hope
(iStockphoto)

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

The story of a ship called the Flying Dutchman doomed to sail the seas for eternity is a trusty old chestnut much loved in the arts. Richard Wagner turned it into an opera, Washington Irving wrote about it, American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder created a moody portrait of it, and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” introduced modern audiences to the legend.

Many believe the original vessel was sailing between Holland and the Dutch East Indies in the 17th century. As it approached the Cape of Good Hope near the tip of Africa, a fierce storm arose. The captain, perhaps eager to get the trip over with, vowed to round the treacherous coastline even if it took him until doomsday.

Those who want to see the results of his folly can stand watch from the Cape, now part of South Africa’s breathtakingly gorgeous Table Rock National Park.

The Shining, Stephen King

The Stanley Hotel
(Stock Connection Distribution / Alamy)

Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colo.

One fall night in 1974, King and his wife stayed in Room 217 of this rambling clapboard hotel in the Rockies. En route to the room, King said later, he saw ghostly children in the halls.

That encounter became a pivotal scene in his novel about a hotel caretaker who becomes possessed by the lodge’s evil spirits and in the 1980 film, starring Jack Nicholson. The Stanley didn’t make it into the movie, however; director Stanley Kubrick used Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, a spooky looking manse of stone and wood.

The Stanley embraces its notoriety just the same. Built in 1909 by automaker F.O. Stanley, the 138-room lodge offers ghost tours that include stops in the Kings’ room and the eerie long corridors. Guides also mention the ghosts King didn’t meet, such as a long-dead housekeeper who folks clothes still and a spirit who does not like anyone touching the hotel’s antique Steinway piano.

Not scary enough? Turn on any TV then and watch “The Shining,” which plays continuously on the in-house channel.

"An Apparition in the Engineers' Castle," in The Sealed Angel, by Nikolai Leskov

The Mikhailovsky Castle
(Inga Leksina / Alamy)

Mikhailovsky Castle, St. Petersburg, Russia

“Buildings have reputations just as people do,” Leskov wrote in 1882. To prove his point, the Russian writer set his ghost story in one of St. Petersburg’s most infamous landmarks: Mikhailovsky (St. Michael’s) Castle. The Italian Renaissance-style castle was built between 1796 and 1801 for Emperor Paul I, a paranoid fellow who believed he’d be safe inside such a fortress from his enemies. But 40 days after he moved in, Paul was killed in his bedroom--the victim of a plot hatched by his own son.

Mikhailovsky gradually became a school for military engineers, who spun yarns about ghostly goings-on in the castle (such as the one Leskov recounted of a shrouded figure whose nocturnal appearances scared several students). Today, the castle is part of the Russian Museum.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Poenari Castle
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Poenari Castle, Romania

The crumbling fortress perched on a cliff above the Arges River was one of several used by Vlad Dracula, ruler of southern Romania in the 15th century and the man behind Bram Stoker’s immortal (pardon the pun) vampire tale. The castle was in ruins when Dracula came to power. To restore it, the legend goes, he forced several hundred prisoners to ferry bricks and stones up the cliff along a human assembly line.

Poenari (poh-yeh-NAR) is open to anyone able to ascend the more than 1,400 steps that lead to the summit. Once there, spectacular views of the Carpathian Mountains unfold from the battlements--the same ones that Dracula’s wife jumped from in 1462 as she chose death over being captured by the Turkish army encamped below.

The castle Stoker described in his breakout 1897 novel was probably a composite of three. Of those, Poenari was the only one the real Dracula inhabited. He was imprisoned briefly in the second one, Bran Castle, also in Romania. And the third one is Slain’s Castle in Scotland; Stoker stayed near Slain’s for several years and reportedly was inspired by the grim Gothic building on the rocky east coast. It is in ruins now, while Bran is a museum.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holy Trinity Church
(Lee Pengelly / Alamy)

Holy Trinity Church, Buckfastleigh, England

Richard Cabell was not a popular guy. Some said he was such a hellion that when he died in 1677, his neighbors built a sepulcher around his tomb in Holy Trinity’s cemetery to make sure he couldn’t get out; they even covered the actual grave with a heavy stone slab for good measure.

Such precautions, however, did not prevent Cabell’s hounds from surrounding the mausoleum at night, howling for their master to rise up and hunt with them across the moors of southern England. This legend grabbed the keen imagination of Conan Doyle when he visited Devon in the early 20th century, and he based one of his best-loved Sherlock Homes mysteries on those spectral hunters. In his story, giant paw prints found next to the savagely mutilated body of Sir Charles Baskerville led Holmes on a ghost-hunt.

Much of the 13th-century church burned in 1992. But Cabell’s vault is intact; peek through the barred windows if you dare.

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier country
(Gary Eastwood Photography / Alamy)

Menabilly, England

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderly again.” And so begins Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic romance about a young bride trying to live in a home possessed by the spirit of her husband’s first wife.

Manderly was largely based on Menabilly, an Elizabethan-era manor the English writer first saw in the 1920s when she trespassed on its grounds near the Cornish coast. Two decades later, du Maurier--flush with the proceeds from the bestselling novel--was able to rent Menabilly. She lived there with her family until 1969.

The manor house is not open to the public. However, the owners rent out two cottages on the grounds as holiday rentals. The beach around Polridmouth Bay--where Rebecca deWinter’s wrecked sailboat washed up--is accessible via a short hike from the village of Fowey.

Fans of the 1940 movie version of “Rebecca” shouldn’t even try to find the baronial estate that features so prominently in the Oscar-winning film. Director Alfred Hitchcock used a model for the exterior shots. He shot the movie in California since England was in the throes of World War II at the time.