From Amityville to Alcatraz, American history is brimming with ghost stories. And the good folks in Hollywood are only too happy to perpetuate these legends. In the past few years alone, we’ve seen An American Haunting and The Haunting of Molly Hartley. But this weekend, there’s a new ghost in town—and this one may actually scare you.

The Haunting in Connecticut, starring Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan, Elias Koteas and Kyle Gallner, is based on the true story of the Reed family, who moved to Southington, CT in the late 1980s in order to be closer to their son’s cancer treatment center but wound up with a host of other problems. At the helm of this genuinely disturbing tale is Peter Cornwell, who is making his feature directorial debut after winning a string of international awards—including the FIPRESCI Prize at the Valladolid International Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Short at the San Sebastian Horror and Fantasy Film Festival—with his animated short, Ward 13. Here, Cornwell tells us why making a short film can still be the best way to break into the industry and what it takes to scare an audience.

Jennifer Wood (MM): The film marks your feature directorial debut—which is a pretty impressive feat, considering the great cast and anticipation surrounding the film. How did you get involved with the project?

Peter Cornwell (PC): My short film, Ward 13, got me a lot of attention around Hollywood. I liked the script and pitched the producers my take on the movie. I must have said something right.

MM: There’s such a debate these days about the best way to break into the business—do you go to film school, start in the mailroom, post to YouTube? Shorts used to be the calling card of aspiring moviemakers; do you think more moviemakers should go back to this tried and true method of “make a short and submit it to some bigger fests?”

PC: Based on my experience, making a short seems to have worked out. The idea of doing it in animation was to make a big action blockbuster essentially by myself. The fact that it is shot like live action and is like a mini-feature compressed into 15 minutes helped. Producers felt I could make an exciting movie, because I’d already made one (literally in miniature)! In fact, because it’s only a short, meant that producers didn’t have to find 90 minutes to watch it. They actually had less excuse not to. It got me a lot of meetings, maybe more than if they’d had a whole feature to sit through!

MM: It sometimes seems that there’s a new “haunted” movie in theaters every other weekend, but your story has the distinction of being a true one—and a story that is fairly well-known among lovers of ghost stories. How did having a “true story” basis for the film help you creatively? Did it also hamper you in any way—perhaps feeling an obligation to be true to the story and not take too much artistic license?

PC: It gave us a lot of raw material to draw from. If you want to make a gritty, realistic ghost story, then there’s no better place to start than a true story. That said, we were making a movie not a documentary, so you have to take some license for it to work on the big screen. The writers worked with Carmen Reed, who lived in the house, and it was important to me that she was happy with how we told her story.

MM: Your upcoming project, The Occupants, has a supernatural vibe to it, too. Have you always been interested in the supernatural?

PC: You saw that on IMDb? The Occupants was a film I was at one time going to make with Warner Brothers and David Heyman, who produces the Harry Potter films. For every film that gets made lots almost get made. The fact that I got so far with that one helped me get The Haunting in Connecticut.

As far as being interested in the supernatural: I like that there are things we don’t fully understand. That we live in a world that is bigger and weirder than we think it is. And sometimes, what we don’t understand can scare the crap out of you

MM: Going back to my early comment about the saturation in today’s horror market: How do you hope The Haunting in Connecticut will buck that trend? It certainly seems to be geared to a more serious group of film fans—and fans of ghost stories—not just bored teenagers looking for a cheap scare on a Friday night. What would be the greatest compliment a viewer could give you about the finished project?

PC: That it is terrifying, but that it is more than just a ghost story.

MM: What’s the number one lesson you’ve learned in trying to scare an audience?

PC: Just creating a surprising jump moment doesn’t work. You first have to create an uneasy feeling of dread. And that is much harder and more subjective. That said, based on the feedback from audiences, this film achieves that. People get freaked out!

MM: All-time favorite horror movie?

PC: The Shining. I didn’t try to imitate it or anything, but there are a lot of great lessons about making scary movies in that film!

The Haunting in Connecticut is in theaters now.