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Credit: Vertigo Entertainment

What lies beneath: Why basements are one of the scariest locations in horror

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Oct 5, 2020, 4:06 PM EDT (Updated)

Amid the bottles of wine, exercise equipment you no longer use, and boxes of forgotten items, basements in horror movies are home to buried bodies, vengeful spirits, and serial killers. The often windowless location is dimly lit, offering up plenty of storage space for all manners of terrifying entities and objects. Unlike the attic, going down to the subterranean level doesn't require too much effort (unless it is locked) and ease of access only adds to the terror. Entering might be a breeze, but the solo exit point means this sanctuary can quickly flip into an inescapable prison.

Metaphorically, being at the base of the home lends itself to hell on earth imagery, a fiery abyss in which monsters make their entrance into the world. Unlike the attic, which is not an ideal place to store a body (see Hereditary for the fly-infested result of doing so), the underground aspect makes it ideal for corpse storage — just ask Norman Bates for more details. This only adds to the creepy factor, as you never know what living or dead entities are waiting in the shadows when a character slowly descends the staircase. As we continue our horror journey around the home, let's dig into which films have utilized this space for scares.

Credit: Universal Pictures

Containing monsters like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers is a near-impossible task because one is already dead and the other seemingly can't be killed. Regardless, this hasn't stopped Final Girls from trying to trap them as close to hell as possible. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) finds out the figure haunting her dreams is a pedophile who was killed by neighborhood vigilantes (including her parents). Her plan to stop him starts in her dreamscape before she pulls him into the real world, in which she has set various boobytraps. Her mother had been hiding his murder glove in the basement furnace — helpful tip: burn this too — and this is where Nancy sets him on fire before trapping him in the room. Unfortunately, he cannot be contained by these weak parameters; it is going to take more than a locked door and flames to stop this monster.

The climax of the 2018 Halloween revival also featured a basement-turned-prison in a bid to finally dispatch Michael Myers. Set 40 years after events in John Carpenter's original story, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) lives out in the middle of nowhere in order to protect herself from the monster she knows will return. She has been training her entire adult life to stop the Boogeyman, which includes the safe room feature underneath her home. The subterranean sanctuary is where Michael meets his toasty end, standing impassively as the flames consume the room. However, his breath can be heard in the post-credits scene — and anyone who has watched a horror movie will know it will take a lot more than fire to rid the world of a terrifying killer.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Laurie's safe room couldn't protect her from the figure she fears most, and this is far from the only basement that falls short of its intended purpose. In A Quiet Place, the basement has been tricked out by the Abbot family so the aliens who attack when any sound is made cannot hear their newborn baby. This location is also where Lee (John Krasinski) has been researching alien weaknesses and figuring out how to make a functioning hearing aid for his daughter. She has been forbidden from entering, so there is already an aura of uncertainty around this room. The enclosed space serves as both a reason why the creatures are alerted to their presence — first when Evelyn (Emily Blunt) steps on the protruding nail on the stairs, second by the running water — while instantly upping the tension and claustrophobia levels. And while their hiding place is discovered, it also becomes a killing ground in which Evelyn and her family finally gain the upper hand.

A power imbalance in a confined space is one surefire way to elevate the audience's heart rate, and directors Jonathan Demme and David Fincher give a masterclass in how to achieve this in The Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac. Both serial killer-focused stories feature tenacious but inexperienced investigators, which only increases the apprehension levels of these scenes. When Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) unknowingly ends up on the doorstep of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a terrifying sequence follows after she figures out his identity. Entering his multi-room basement, her target flips the tables by turning off the lights and wearing night-vision goggles. Not only does he know the layout, but he has also taken away her ability to see. The 2016 horror flick Don't Breathe also plays with this convention and a basement location.

"Not many people have basements in California," comments Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in one of the scariest Zodiac sequences, which out of context is an innocuous observation. Earlier in the movie, one of the letters from the Zodiac killer mentions a basement, so this Cali home sharing this feature is a heart-in-the-mouth moment. Instead of fleeing, his desire to get the information trumps his visible fear and he follows Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) down into the darkness. Increasing in paranoia throughout the exchange, the footsteps Graysmith hears above only adds to the fear after Bob insists he lives alone. This scene serves to put the audience in Graysmith's shoes, amplifying the dread of this descent, and everything that follows is horror perfection.

Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was seminal in how it revolutionized horror and how we view the family home. The first Scream paid homage to this character when Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) said, "We all go a little mad sometimes," but it wasn't until Scream 3 that the basement was used as a scene of a crime. A room full of props from old scary movies is the ideal location for a jump scare and while Scream 3 is the worst of the franchise, this particular sequence is a fun one.

Bodies aren't the only things buried in the basement; this is also where vengeful spirits linger. In the case of The Conjuring, the boarded-up cellar is the epicenter of the creepy activity impacting the Perron family. A game of "hide and clap" leads to its discovery before a series of terrifying events culminates in the hiring of demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). In one of the most effective scenes, a bare lightbulb provides the sole lighting as they perform an exorcism in the dusty location.

The film is based on the work of the real-life couple who also investigated the controversial Amityville haunting — which inspired The Amityville Horror in 1979 (and the subsequent 16 films in the franchise), wherein a creepy location underfoot is at the heart of the terrifying goings-on within this so-called dream house. A secret room walled-off in the basement is painted blood red indicating "the passage... to hell!" as Carolyn (Helen Shaver) screams while sounding an awful lot like priest Father Delaney (Rod Steiger). Sometimes home renovations don't go as planned; you might find a room that was maybe formerly used by a satanist.

In the same way that an attic is host to all kinds of forgotten mementos, discovered items in a basement should best be left alone. The Evil Dead's Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his college friends learn this lesson the hard way when they spend their vacation in an isolated cabin. If a cellar door happens to open without anyone being near it, definitely don't go down because something bad will happen. Meta horror-comedy The Cabin in the Woods plays with these conventions, which includes the various nods to Sam Rami's 1981 movie, particularly in the objects found in the creaky cellar.

Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Getty Images

Teens are often caught up in the nightmare of a basement discovery and this is more potent when a tragedy has already occurred, making them more susceptible to nightmares come to life. Georgie's (Jackson Robert Scott) storm drain death in It has a profound impact on his older brother Bill (Jaeden Martell), which includes visions of Georgie in their basement after he has technically already passed away.

Not all basements are in the home of the living, which only raises the scare factor. No matter how you feel about The Blair Witch Project, the end of this "found-footage" movie delivers a terrifying visual in a dilapidated cellar. Everything has been leading to this moment and the film delivers with the combination of the trashed location, the creepy handprints of murdered children, and one of the final shots of Mike (Michael C. Williams) frozen to the spot with his back to the camera. There is no final resolution or act of violence. Again, the moral is to avoid creepy murder basements.

Houses of all sizes and states can be afflicted by terrifying basement syndrome; even the fanciest of residents can hide a grim situation beneath the ground. In Get Out, black mold is given as the reason why this area is off-limits, but we later find out the real reason why Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) has been kept in the dark when he wakes up tied to a chair. The final escape out of a basement is never easy, but Chris uses every weapon at his disposal to make it out of this prison alive and with his mind intact. The rich taking what they want is at the heart of this business practice, but in the recent Parasite, the lack of awareness as to what is going on directly below them and in the Seoul semi-basement apartments is a huge problem. Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning examination of the class divide uses a horror approach during the sequences involving the figure who resides below, from the ghostly vision appearing in the middle of the night to the violent acts that occur in the secret tunnels.

Hiding underground might feel like it can offer protection, but there are often forces far more terrifying at play. Some of the most indelible images from scary movies over the last 60 years have come from this location, and movies like Parasite prove there are still inventive ways to use a basement for scares. Hell on earth takes on many different forms — with plenty of spirits, killers, and monsters opting for this symbolic location to stake their scary claim.

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