Recently I gave my opinions regarding what makes a great haunted mansion in video games, and why the haunted mansion can be such a provocative setting in interactive media.
Now I want to detail ten of my favorite haunted mansions in videogames, and try to explain what makes them special to me.
Have you ever visited a place and felt like you were being watched but you didn’t know why? You walk into a room and the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, but you cannot come up with a reason for it. You shiver, but the room seems entirely normal. You must just be tired.
You sit down to read a book and enjoy some tea. You see something out of the corner of your eye, but when you look, it’s gone. It’s getting late. Time to go home. On your way out, you catch the attention of a frail old man who looks at you disapprovingly.
“What were you doing in there?” he scowls through his age-worn lips.
“I was just looking for a place to sit and read,” you say in good faith, turning red because you fear that you’ve done something wrong.
“It’s disrespectful,” he mutters, “Don’t you know that the lady of the house died in there?”
Being confronted by a ghostly presence is pointedly terrifying, but not knowing that a ghost is nearby is an entirely different brand of creepy in retrospect. Did you feel a cold hand on your shoulder? Did the rustling of papers signify a presence unseen?
That is where we find Agent 47 during his Traditions of the Trade mission in Hitman: Contracts. Tasked with assassinating Franz and Fitz Fuchs, 47 explores the hotel for hidden places to catch his targets off guard. Through careful exploration, 47 discovers a wing of the hotel that has been partitioned by the police.
It seems that you were not the only one with ill intent in the hotel on that day.
Sneaking past the policeman, 47 wanders the hallways of the restricted wings and can find a ghost floating about. Compelled by curiosity, 47 can find a crime scene, presumably the body of the ghostly man 47 has been following.
Even though there are many murders that take place throughout the game, there is something particularly creepy about finding the ghost of a dead man. It makes me wonder if the spirits of 47’s other victims are still floating around their respective locations.
What makes this especially creepy is that this branch of the hotel is entirely optional. The mission does not necessarily compel players to explore this wing of the building.
Most players probably finish the level without ever knowing that they are being watched by an otherworldly presence. Perhaps the silent assassin is not the most terrifying thing hiding in the shadows.
Gex is a lazy and cynical gecko, voiced by comedians Dana Gould or Leslie Phillips (depending on the regional version), who is tasked with casting the evil Rez out of the Media Dimension; the alternate reality in which television takes place.
Throughout his adventure, he jumps into giant television sets to begin each level (much like Mario 64’s paintings). All levels are themed after a genre of television shows; cartoons, kaiju, 70s cop shows, kung-fu… While each level played similarly, admirable was the amount of detail and visual puns put into each level.
The game’s horror levels, on the channel Scream TV, were particularly authentic and memorable. Genuinely scary in a way that most cutesy 3D platformers wouldn’t dare to be, Scream TV levels took place in the archetypical haunted mansion.
A farrago of horror trope elements, it blends together both fun-scary and genuinely-wee-your-pants-scary into an interesting final product.
Bookcases extend from floor to ceiling and floating platforms, represented by tables suspended in air by ghostly presences lift Gex to higher places. Coexisting are elements of comedy (water-coolers full of blood) and horror (little Chucky-like dolls wielding large knives that continue chasing Gex even after he knocks off their heads).
It is a fun romp through several sub-genres of horror, all tied together by Gex’s endless quips.
There are flavors of malice, injustice, mystery, betrayal, grandiosity, over-ambition, and murder. Discovering these horrifying stories about the inhabitants of a run-down house can be immensely unnerving, but it is nothing compared to discovering such terrors about your own family.
Mad Father is an independent horror game made in the RPG Maker engine. The player controls Aya, a young girl who lives with her scientist father in an enormous home far away from the rest of society.
Although things have changed since she lost her mother, she still has her father to depend on. He’s a bit odd, but he loves Aya very much and constantly works hard to make her happy.
Spooky things start happening in the home, though, and it prompts Aya to explore and dig into the mysteries that she has ignored for years.
I won’t be the one to spoil the story for you, but the choices and ambitions of the past continue to haunt the grounds in a very real way. Mad Father is a twisted, bite-sized horror adventure that can be played for free.
Not included on this list is one of gaming’s most famous creepy locations, the mansion from Resident Evil. I do not mean to discriminate unfairly against it, but I didn’t include it because it doesn’t fit my operational definition of a haunted house.
An infestation of zombies does not constitute a proper haunting. A haunt is a ghost affair. The mansion was swarming with the undead and inhuman, but it didn’t feel like there was any overarching force pulling the strings. The mansion itself was not “alive” in the way that a good haunted mansion is.
That said, let’s go ahead and immediately break my own rule. The Curien Mansion racetrack, based on the titular setting of House of the Dead, is a mansion overrun with zombies. I include it, though, because it is a fast-paced thrill-ride that plays with and amplifies many of the most fun aspects of the genre. The mansion does seem alive in the way that great haunted mansions are, as it changes lap to lap, throwing new surprises at the racers.
Like a theme park ride, Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed speeds the players through diverse and interesting settings with exciting events happening around the racers. There is always a lot to look at, and the action unfolding around the race always amplifies the adrenaline of the race.
Unlike Mario Kart, which has a very consistent visual aesthetic, S&ASRT celebrates the diversity of Sega’s back catalogue of games by putting the racers in the middle of their diverse game worlds with visual aesthetics that reflect that of the original games.
Although much more fun and happy than the House of the Dead games, the racetrack does take place in a genuinely creepy mansion. The course winds through a Frankenstein-like science lab, jumps through a hole in the roof ripped open by a winged demon, and speeds down a raging river tearing through the crumbling mansion. New horrors and surprises are always being thrown at the player.
Fast and dynamic, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed races through one of the most thrilling iterations of The House of the Dead.
Rare has been famous for crafting some fine haunted house-themed levels in the past. From Donkey Kong Country 2 to Conker’s Bad Fur Day and almost everything in between, being chased by ghosts is almost as consistent a tradition in Rare games as googly eyes. This love of the spooky culminated in a passion project released for the Xbox, Grabbed By the Ghoulies.
Paying homage to just about every type of classic monster, from spooky, scary skeletons to mummies to zombies to vampire chickens, all varieties of ghoulies are dead set on grabbing you!
Playing like a 3D beat-em-up with a variety of rules and restrictions placed on every battle, Grabbed By the Ghoulies is all about reading your surroundings and finding the best way to dispatch enemies with the resources at your disposal.
The game is colorful and the sounds are silly, making the journey approachable for audiences of all ages. It plants itself firmly in the fun-horror camp (that is, it uses horror imagery and tropes in a way that delights in the aesthetic and wants to have fun with the genre rather than with the express intent to scare players.
The game is as much a loving tribute to classic Rare as to haunted houses (the game has cameos galore and every design decision seems to harken back and make reference to the history of Rare). The familiar musical styling of Grant Kirkhope, who always loved writing spooky-fun music, gives the game a really bouncy and upbeat attitude.
The mansion is elaborate and intricately designed. For someone who loves classic horror tropes like I do (especially when used for fun), entering Baron von Ghoul’s mansion is like walking into a toyshop of spooky delights!
A famous artist mysteriously disappears, never to be seen again. Though time forgets him, collectors of fine arts do not. Thirty years after his mysterious disappearance, a group of opportunistic fortune seekers pushes open the door of his luxurious mansion, untouched for decades, in an attempt to find, restore, and recover the fine frescos that remain unaccounted for.
Upon stepping foot in the mansion, though, they find that they are not alone. The deeper they dig, the more they find of the mansion’s horrifying history involving suicide, infanticide, and all manner of gruesome and unfortunate deaths.
Sweet Home is a Famicom psychological horror RPG released exclusively in Japan alongside a film of the same name, but, while the film was fairly forgettable, the game is a masterpiece of early survival horror, inspiring and inventing many of the mechanics that would later appear in the Resident Evil games (the first of which was originally intended to be a remake of Sweet Home).
The player controls a group of five characters, each with individual abilities that come in handy in the restoration of the aged frescos and in dismantling the many traps and dangers hidden throughout the mansion. All five characters are simultaneously active, but the player can only create parties of three, at most. This means that the player must switch between two parties as they explore the mansion.
Healing items are limited, and there is no place to heal for free. To compound that danger, death is permanent. If a member of your party dies, he or she is gone for good. These design elements add a sense of real terror and genuine danger to the house.
The game was extraordinarily ambitious for a Famicom title, including multiple endings, gory cutscenes, and some of the most impressive graphics on the Famicom system. All of this comes together to make one of the scariest and most intriguing games of the Famicom library. A fan translation is definitely worth checking out.
Like getting lost in the woods, feeling that you’ve passed by the same stone six times already, the hallway loops, or at least seems to. Although it feels like you are running in circles, things seem to be subtly changing around you.
It soon becomes clear that you are not alone. There is a Minotaur in this endless labyrinth; the ghost of a murdered woman, and it is unclear whether or not she is dangerous.
Genuinely scary imagery is complimented by the game’s polished visuals and expert direction. Experience moments of proper suspense as the ghost walks just outside of the grimy bathroom that you are hiding in.
The further you progress through Kojima’s mad, winding hallway, the more messed up the location becomes. Cryptic puzzles and mysteries propel discovery and curiosity forward.
The sheer conspiracy theory-level madness that has surrounded the communities trying to solve the game’s most cryptic puzzles (deciphering codes, translating poetry from other languages…) is an interesting spin to the meta-text that reinforces the game’s themes of madness.
Whatever Kojima and Del Toro have in store for us, this Playable Teaser provided one of the most intriguing haunted houses I’ve seen in a game.
The first appearance of Mario’s mysterious enemies, the Boos, could not have been a grander entrance. After hopping and running through several colorful and exciting levels in Mario’s grand Super Nintendo adventure, the tone suddenly shifts. Mario finds himself standing in front of a towering structure, and he cannot convince Yoshi to go inside. Perhaps it’s true that animals can sense evil.
I’ve given a brief explanation of what makes the Boo mansions great in last week’s article, so I won’t reiterate all of the same material, but, suffice to say, Mario encounters an enemy that makes brilliant use of illusion.
Reintroduced in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario 3D World, the Boos are a terrifying foe because they pit the game itself against Mario.
Collectively hovering above Mario’s head like a fog of spirits, the Boos engage in all kinds of mischief. They will transform themselves into false doors, taunting Mario with promise of an exit to his torment. Doors lead to impossible locations, looping Mario endlessly through the mansion as the timer in the top right corner slowly ticks down to Mario’s death.
Accompanied by some haunting music (a sudden shift from the rest of the game’s themes) and introducing unique and novel mechanics, the Boo Mansions always have new and unpredictable tricks to pull on the fearless plumber.
Whether it be in Super Mario World or the many iterations of the haven of Boos in games since, Boo mansions are always chock full of tricks and treats.
Banjo-Kazooie is memorable, more than anything, for its hugely diverse selection of game worlds. Existing in a world where fanciful fairy-tale settings exist alongside grimy, cold, impersonal heavy-industry, Banjo-Kazooie’s level selection runs the gamut of familiar video game level tropes, each spun in an interesting way.
One of the real strengths of the worlds of Banjo-Kazooie is how grounded they feel. Even though there are fantastical elements (talking sphinxes, flying carpets, live turtles with choirs inside of their bodies…), the levels are grounded in an internally consistent reality in a way that, say, Super Mario 64’s levels were not.
In the deepest pits of Gruntilda’s massive lair; the furthest away from Banjo’s home in Spiral Mountain, positioned precariously over a bubbling pit of lava, stands a darkened passageway. Beyond which stretches a dark graveyard; a path winding through unmarked headstones to a broken-down, old shack.
As Banjo makes his way to the shack, the headstones sprout legs and chase him. Terrified, he ducks into the shack and emerges on the doorsteps of Mad Monster Mansion.
It is almost ubiquitous among video game developers that one of the greatest inspirations in creating intriguing fictional worlds is the ingenuity and innovation of the Disney theme parks. Nowhere is that more clear than in the design of Mad Monster Mansion which takes after Disneyland’s famous Haunted Mansion in many ways.
Disney’s Haunted Mansion set the visual template for haunted houses in fiction. It defined the color scheme; purple, green, and black; it defined the sound of the music; droning organs and theremin; and it characterized the friendly yet threatening ghosts that have become a staple of fun-horror since then.
Mad Monster Mansion differs from the traditional haunted mansion in one very interesting way; most of the action takes place outside of the mansion.
One of the archetypical horrors of the haunted house is the fact that there is no escape. When you are inside, the house prevents you from leaving.
In an interesting subversion of this trope, the mansion itself is a place that invites the player in, but it is difficult to actually enter. Instead of being connected by staircases and hallways, each room in Mad Monster Mansion is accessible only through certain windows, which have to be shattered to enter, like a vandal breaking into the broken-down house at the edge of town.
Expanding on the game’s pervasive thematic element of the world being built around music and musical instruments, one building that the player can fully explore is a dilapidated church with massive pews facing an enormous pipe organ, which Banjo and Kazooie can climb and battle atop.
Other creepy locations include a wine cellar inhabited by spirits (of the non-alcoholic variety), a creepy hedge maze enemies can chase you through (PTSD flashbacks of Zombies Ate My Neighbors re-emerge), and an enormous Ouija board, which will surely … spell … your doom … or … will cast a … spell … on … there’s a pun in there somewhere.
Accompanied by some of the best music and enemy design in the game, Mad Monster Mansion is a creepy, kooky location where anything can happen.
You may be asking why I chose the GameCube game’s mansion instead of one of the locations from the 3DS sequel. For one, the ghosts in the GameCube version are more interesting.
Human-like and diverse in design, they clearly communicated the idea that they were people who had died in various ways, each having lived their own lives with hopes, aspirations, and struggles. It communicates a sense of history.
In contrast, the ghosts in Luigi’s Mansion 2 (aka: Dark Moon) are cartoon-like characters. They have always been ghosts and were never “alive”. The locations Luigi explores are not sites where terrible things have happened. They are aquariums where ghosts go about their business. There is no longer any tragedy, and that tragedy is essential in creating a great haunted mansion story.
Luigi’s original mansion was a masterpiece of the fun-creepy design. The music is elegant, demented, and fun. The lighting is dramatic, especially as Luigi shines his torch all over the room.
Unlike the sequel, everything takes place within the mansion. There is no escape. All of Luigi’s time is spent in the creepy mansion, as he shivers and nervously calls out for his brother.
Each room in the mansion is special and houses some kind of surprise. Like a real haunted house, you never know what you are walking into, and you never know how the world is going to transform around you.
Luigi’s Mansion marries the creepy and the fun with an elegance that few can manage, and it may just make for my favorite haunted mansion in video games. Happy haunting!