Why do we love horror films? Well, the motivation for people’s decisions to watch horror varies considerably. Some experts say it is because these type of films tap into our primal fears. Sure I can see that. Many of us like a good scare and I guess nothing arguably gives you the creeps the most like a good haunted house movie. It’s often said that all bets are off in the scare department when it comes to haunted house movies because we can all relate to being home alone late at night, especially upon hearing strange things that thump in the night. In situations like that it’s fair to say our imagination and fears can often get the best of us. Anyway, short of turning this article into a couch session, here then below, are the best haunted house movies of all time.
10. Beetlejuice (1988).
Tim Burton’s 1980s cult classic Beetlejuice definitely feels like it is punching above its weight as a haunted house horror. But this riotous comedy horror deserves more respect than horror enthusiast seem prepared to give it. While it lacks bloody veins and puss it makes up for it with jump scares that are timed with comedic precision. It ultimately takes the piss out of death and mortality and its poster boy is none other than everyone favourite lunatic/exorcist Michael Keaton as Betelgeuse. The premise of the film is simple enough. A lovely Connecticut couple played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, who lost their lives in a car accident, have to try to scare away a New York family who has moved into their house. In short they make terrible ghosts and are forced to take drastic actions by seriously considering the services of the bat shit crazy Betelgeuse to get rid of them.
9. Crimson Peak (2015).
When the King of Horror, Steven King absolutely freaks out over a film you better believe it that is a winner! Upon seeing a screening of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, King commented how ‘fucking terrifying’ it was. As a film enthusiast I couldn’t agree more. At the heart of Crimson Peak is a marriage-and-murder plot orchestrated by two scheming siblings – Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). Its unsuspecting victim is an ambitious young writer called Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). Apart from the first act, much of the film takes place in Allerdale Hall, a living breathing decaying mansion that creaks and even bleeds red. When newly-wed Edith Cushing suspects all is not well, she not only has to deal with explosive revelations about her husband and his relationship with his sister, she has to fend off the spirits which haunt the Sharpe’s ancestral home. Interestingly, Crimson Peak director Guillermo Del Toro, back in 2015 apparently went to great lengths to emphasise that his movie wasn’t strictly a horror, nor a haunted house story. According to Del Toro, he thought it was a Gothic Romance inspired by the incredible stories penned by writers like Ann Radcliffe and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. While many other elements pay homage to Crimson Peak’s gothic sensibility, the thing that stands out the most is Del Toro homage to Jack Clayton’s camera work in the haunted house classic The Innocents (1961).
8. The Conjuring (2013).
James Wan’s The Conjuring stands as the original and the best of the The Conjuring Universe films. Some say it is also the best modern horror movie of all time. Importantly, it follows familiar horror tropes that help set up this film as a strong haunted house creep show. When a family (the Perrons) moves into their new home (an old farmhouse), they soon discover it’s haunted by a demonic presence. Two renowned paranormal investigators are summoned to help the terrified family. They must work quickly to uncover the haunted history of the old estate to save the family especially the matriarch of the family, Carolyn Perron, who has been fully possessed by the evil spirit named Bathsheba. In short, The Conjuring is a masterclass of how to set up a frightening story. Its most unsettling scenes call for patience before finally reaching often an unnerving climax. Of interest, the evil doll named Annabelle is first introduced in this film, who comes to play a large role in The Conjuring franchise.
7. The Others (2001).
Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others is an incredibly spine-chilling ghost story. It has almost all the gothic horror tropes you’d expect with a magnificent remote haunted mansion front and centre. Set during the last days of the World War 2, Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Stewart, a wife and mother of two young children, who have a light sensitive disease. Interestingly, Kidman as Grace will do almost anything to protect her children with measures like locking every single door in this fortress-like house and drawing all the curtains to keep the seemingly deadly sunlight out. It’s truly difficult to sum The Others up without spoiling its big twist ending. But what I will say is that the movie really comes alive once Grace is convinced the house is haunted by spirits. The setting is incredible, the climax unexpected (despite subtle clues leading us along the way) and the performances are seemingly flawless. Nicole Kidman shows why she is such an amazing actress. Interestingly, if this film was in the hands of an inexperienced director, I’d hate to think how they might have butchered the suspense, especially the psychological aspects of the film.
6. The Orphanage (2007).
The Spanish language film The Orphanage feels very much like it was inspired by films like Poltergeist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. When a married couple with their adoptive son return to the same orphanage where Laura (Belen Rueda) grew up, to open a new home for disabled children, they immediately have their hands full when soon after their young son Simon disappears. It is here that the film’s main protagonist Laura believes that her son was taken by ghosts and a paranormal investigation takes place in the hope of unravelling the mystery.
There is so much that is unnerving about The Orphanage, maybe no more so than a frightening looking child with a sack over his head who first attacks Laura before Simon goes missing. If you will allow me a moment, here are some of my thoughts worthy of your attention. Firstly The Orphanage requires patience and its audience to pay attention. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has gone to great lengths to create a world of deep sorrow, dread and suspense. Secondly, it’s fair to say apart from actress Belén Rueda stunning performance, the huge empty orphanage itself is a formidable character. Thirdly, it goes without saying, The Orphanage is a frightening film, in which the lines of what is real and make-believe are successfully blurred especially when the lens is through Laura’s eyes. Lastly, be warned, this film evokes many parents worst fears in which the ending is quite devastating.
5. The Changeling (1980).
Martin Scorsese cites The Changeling as one the scariest movies of all time. It is an incredible compliment from the famed director, who apparently even owns his own 35mm copy of the film. Even Steven Speilberg, owes a great debt to this 1980 haunted house classic. In 1982, during the production of Poltergeist, Speilberg as the film’s producer screened The Changeling to the entire crew. He’s quoted as saying “This is what it should be” referring to The Changeling and how its creepy tone could help make Poltergeist a worthy horror picture. Moreover Alejandro Amenábar apparently used The Changeling as inspiration for his own haunted house classic The Others, starring Nicole Kidman. Interestingly, Peter Medak who directed The Changeling is not a fan of The Others, despite its critical acclaim. The reason behind why Medak is so upset by The Others has everything to do with all the elements Amenadar borrowed from his own film.
So anyway, what is it about The Changeling that has horror enthusiast like Scorsese so excited? Well, the film successfully ticks all the right boxes you might expect from a haunted house horror. “How did you die, Joseph? Did you die in this house? Why do you remain?” was the tagline used which seemingly helped set the stage for this supernatural murder mystery of a house plagued by a ghost. It stars the brilliant George C. Scott (Patton) who plays John Russell, a music composer struggling with his own grief, after losing his family in a car accident, who moves into an old Victorian mansion which was vacant for more than a decade. In short, it isn’t long before Russell is caught up in the terrifying shenanigans of a ghost who wants to bring to light the dark secrets of the haunted mansion.
4. The Haunting (1963).
The Haunting based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House is often considered one of the best haunted house movies of all time. It’s a compliment that is well deserved for this creepy black & white classic considering director Robert Wise’s low-key ability to entertain and scare his audience without a single onscreen ghost. Moreover his innovative use of experimental wide-angle lenses, ingenious camerawork and sound design is something that has over the years also received enormous praise. The story itself, focusses on a scientist (Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway) who is seemingly hell bent on proving the existence of the paranormal world. Along for the ride he invite two women (Julie Harris and Claire Bloom), in which one will by the end lose her mind. As for the haunted mansion itself, it too plays a pivotal starring role with its ominous presence. Interestingly, with rooms that look slightly askew, its eerie corridors and furnishings and doors that buckle and bulge, it’s no wonder the narrator of the film warns us that this house was born bad. In short, The Haunting is a frightening film (maybe not by the standards of some modern horrors), but more than that it is a rare film in which Robert Wise allows the audience to imagine the terror, allowing the psychological aspects of the film to play havoc.
3. The Innocents (1961).
I recently revisiting The Innocents for this top ten list and I was reminded why I really like this classic British horror. I was equally surprised how much its palatable tension also still holds up for modern-day audiences. Ultimately the scares are scary, largely heightened by a cinema lens filled with claustrophobic terror and striking B&W light and shadows. While films like The Orphanage uses horror tropes like creepy children, it is far from a modern invention, which you will see first hand in The Innocents. Based on Henry James’ novel The Turn Of The Screw, the film opens with a new governess hired to look after two troubled orphans – Flora and Miles. It soon becomes apparent that the orphans last governess, Miss Jessel, who died a year earlier in mysterious circumstances, together with a former groundkeeper, are behind some very strange happenings on Bly estate. Eventually the new governess, Miss Gidden (Deborah Kerr) realises that these ghosts are affecting the behaviour of the children under her care. There are many loose threads and questions beckoning to be answered throughout this film. Are the two orphans really possessed by the ghost? Is Miss Gidden imagining the whole thing? Is she suffering from some sort of neurotic breakdown? The ambiguity of the film is superb, right down to its chilling finale.
2. The Shining (1980).
There was a time when The Shining adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name was far from the picture we love today. Many critics upon its release hated it and even Stephen King despised it because it was markedly different from his novel. Though in time The Shining flowered into an immortal classic, so much so that it would have been so easy to hand over the keys to The Shining as the greatest haunted house horror movie of all time; because quite frankly almost every fucking scene in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is full of dripping dread and bone-chilling suspense.
I’m often still haunted by Jack Nicholas performance especially his unsettling smile as Jack Torrance, a weak-minded individual and recovering alcoholic, who goes on loose his mind and eventually his life in the haunted Overlook Hotel. That said, there’s nothing scarier than Jack welding an axe through his bathroom door and announcing in his best murderous voice “Here’s Johnny!”. No wait, sorry I’m lying. The sight of a blood-spewing elevator, creepy twin girls and a beautiful naked women who decays before our eyes is pretty much up there in terms of high stakes horror. But I have to say as uneasy as some of these things might sound, The Shining excels not so much as a haunted house story but one of the broken mind and abuse.
1. Poltergeist (1982).
The best haunted house movies we keep coming back to. And this my friends is Hollywood’s ultimate haunted house movie. Don’t be fooled by its original PG rating, Poltergeist has long been the yard stick we’ve measure haunted house movies with many of the tropes modern horrors like The Conjuring (2013) and Insidious (2011) relied upon for their success. Released in 1982, the hottest filmmaker of the 80s Steven Spielberg teamed up with director Tobe Hooper to create a suspensful, well executed story of a typical suburban family haunted by seemingly vengeful ghosts. Interestingly, what makes the home of the Freeling family standout from your typical haunted house settings – rural mansions, farm houses and orphanages – is that it is a brand new planned community suburban home; one which is the least likely to be a haunted house. Of course, there is one glazing omission developer overlooked – the fact that it was built on an Indian burial sight. So while life appears to be perfect at first for the Freeling clan, unexplained happenings soon after start to undo the family’s tranquil suburban existence. The pronouncement of “They’re here!” sets in motion an array of paranormal activity that results in Carol Anne, the youngest member of the Freeling family, being abducted into another realm.