What makes for a good haunted house story? It’s not an easy feat to pull off. The scares should be tactical and believable, as the setting dictates. The descriptions should be detailed, transportive; should emulate the precise feeling of walking down a hallway, unsure of what lurks around the corner. It sounds easy to breathe terrifying life into the bones of a creaky old manor, but getting it just right is the key, and so few horror writers or creators have successfully done it.
Horror maestro Stephen King has written his fair share of spooks, but he never really attempted a dense haunted house story until 2002, and not in his usual medium, but as a television miniseries. That three-part event series was Rose Red, about a mysterious home in Seattle that can’t stop growing—even though no living soul is building it. The series was inspired by a very real—and allegedly haunted—house, and served as a melting pot for some of King’s prime horror influences. And though it’s a victim of the limitations of early 2000s television, Rose Red is one of King’s most ambitious and fascinating works; a haunted house story that both wears its influences on its sleeve and weaves its own terrifying, grotesque mythology.
Here’s a look back at Stephen King’s Rose Red, it’s many references and allusions, and why it’s one of the best haunted house stories of all time.
It pays homage to Shirley Jackson
King has been very blunt about why it took him so long to dip into the haunted house genre: because he was convinced the best haunted house novel had already been written. In his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, King called Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House—along with Henry James’ Turn of the Screw—the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” Jackson’s novel—about a team of investigators and psychics who go to a famous haunted house to either prove or discredit its status—is a clear influence on Rose Red, which follows a parapsychology professor named Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis) who leads an expedition into an allegedly haunted Seattle mansion. Same as Dr. Montague in Hill House, Dr. Reardon assembles a team of psychics to join her: Annie Wheaton (Kimberly J. Brown), an autistic teenager with telekinetic powers; Cathy Kramer (Judith Ivey), an automatic writer; Emery Waterman (Matt Ross), a psychic with retrocognition; Nick Hardaway (Julian Sands), a telepath; Pam Asbury (Emily Deschanel), a psychic television host; and Victor Kandinsky (Kevin Tighe), a psychic with precognition. Along with a descendant of the family that built the house—Steven Rimbauer (Matt Keeslar), who also happens to be Reardon’s lover—they explore the famously contorting mansion, and almost immediately encounter the angry spirits that live there.
It’s not just the basic plot that mimics Jackson’s novel, but also the structure. Rose Red opens with a passage not unlike the famous paragraph that opens The Haunting of Hill House, about the very nature of hauntings:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The inspiration makes a lot of sense when you consider the origins of Rose Red, which grew out of an idea King had in 1996 to adapt The Haunting of Hill House into a feature film. Though that idea didn’t pan out, imbuing his project with the spirit of Jackson’s storytelling is part of what makes Rose Red so potent. It’s what he chose to expand on that gives his story its own unique stamp.
It’s inspired by a true story
King didn’t just borrow inspiration from Shirley Jackson, but he also infused Rose Red with the real-life mythos surrounding the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. If you’re unfamiliar, the home is a real structure that’s still standing in the northern California city, which was built by Sarah Winchester beginning in 1884. Sarah was the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company—a famous gun manufacturer, which sold a large amount of the rifles used in WWI and WWII—after her husband’s death from tuberculosis in 1881. She inherited about half a billion dollars when adjusted for inflation, and used the money to build a Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion. Sarah was superstitious and was left shaken by an encounter with a Boston-based medium, who told her the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles needed a home. This inspired her to build her mansion—and to keep building it, because she believed if she stopped, she would die.
The result was a home full of strange hallways, maze-like properties, and other tricks and dead-ends that were meant to confuse the spirits. As promised, the home was continuously built until Sarah’s death in 1922, when all projects halted abruptly. Today, the Winchester Mystery House—as its been branded—is a popular tourist destination. It was also very clearly an inspiration for Rose Red.
Like Sarah Winchester, Rose Red’s fictional widowed heiress Ellen Rimbauer had her home built until her death. And like the Winchester house, Rose Red was full of dizzying rooms and riddles. However, in King’s lore, Rose Red never stopped building itself—those dead ends showing up seemingly out of nowhere, the ghouls intent on ensnaring houseguests and growing their numbers. It’s a fun twist on a piece of American folklore, and one that King uses to a very creepy effect. The ghosts in Rose Red—of Ellen, her maids, her children, and many others—are depicted as zombie-like phantoms. They make the idea of being trapped in this house even more terrifying and relentless.
The cast is stacked
ABC/Buena Vista International Television
Even if the ghouls don’t lure you into Rose Red, you should be interested in the cast. Nancy Travis is perfectly strange as Joyce Reardon, a woman who grows more and more unhinged on her quest for righteousness. Veterans like Kevin Tighe and Judith Ivey give the story some weight, and Julian Sands is deliciously creepy and on-point as the psychic who seems to see and know the most about the dangerous mess they’ve all wandered into. Matt Ross—who’s now perhaps best known as a director of films like Captain Fantastic—is one of King’s most vicious and deplorable characters, a doomed mommy’s boy with an ugly worldview who mocks and derides his fellow psychics with a sneering grin. You’ll also recognize Westworld‘s Jimmi Simpson as a journalist who tries to unravel Reardon’s project–but is swallowed by the house before he gets the chance—and Melanie Lynskey as Annie’s loving sister. Emily Deschanel pops up in a brief but important part, shortly before her role on Bones made her a big name. The whole thing is anchored by Kimberly J. Brown, who you might recognize from Disney fare like Halloweentown. Annie is an arguably problematic character—King has a storied history of associating mental illness and other handicaps with psychic or magical abilities—but she’s treated with tenderness by all of the main characters, and she really does give the series its heart.
All of these things blend together to create a series that is largely imperfect but enchanting all the same. A story that wears its influences loudly and proudly, but marries them together in a peculiar and distinctly King way. The most successful aspect of is that, by the end, it feels like a real place—and a dreadful place. What else could you want from a haunted house story?
Header Image Credit: ABC/Buena Vista International Television