The haunted house as ghost lore has been around as long as the idea of ghosts has. All around the world, no matter religion or location, the most common of paranormal beliefs is that the activity is anchored to a house or home.
Hauntings of any kind are fascinating, and exist as a belief everywhere in the world. So it’s not surprising that over the decades there have been countless movies made about the subject.
Here are my picks for the top ten haunted house movies:
I’m no longer a fan of found footage movies. It’s an overused gimmick at this point. However, there are movies that have used it well and I can’t fault them for the lazy filmmakers that came after and ruined the concept. Paranormal Activity is one of those movies that used the concept to the benefit of the movie.
Paranormal Activity is a pretty simple and linear movie, but the use of found footage is creepy. A young couple records their home wanting to catch any paranormal activity that might happen, thinking their home might be haunted. The movie is slow and subtle, starting mundane with weird and creepy noises. It ramps up throughout with loud thuds, slamming doors, and monstrous grunts. Watching it the first time had me feeling the same tension as the original Blair Witch movie.
The movie never goes way over the top as many haunted house movies have. That is mostly thanks the found footage concept keeping things reined in. It was such a low-budget movie. It was originally made as an independent film for $15k and Paramount Pictures picked it up and threw another $200k at it. They modified it and made a new ending. It made nearly $200 million worldwide, so naturally, a ton of sequels came along. None of them I watched. I figure Paranormal Activity is lightning in a bottle.
Betelgeuse Beetlejuice is a dark comedy and a lot of fun. It takes the haunted house aspect from the ghost’s point of view. It does a better job with it than other movies that have tried it (looking at you The Others). The movie wasn’t originally a comedy though. It was supposed to be a straight-up horror movie, with Betelgeuse being a winged create that was a rapist and murderer. That didn’t seem like the best idea for a family picture, so it was scrapped for what we got, thankfully.
A lot of the movies I love from the 80s come from nostalgia. However, that’s not so with Beetlejuice. I don’t know why, I just have no nostalgic feelings for it. Why do I like it so much? Mostly for the dark comedy of it all. Sure it’s a horror-comedy, but they can be dark comedies too, right? I don’t usually like the aesthetics that we get in Tim Burton movies but it works well in this, making the underworld more unique.
Let’s just hope when they inevitably make a sequel, it’s not the Hawaiian one that was planned.
During the 40s, there was a slew of supernatural-themed films and The Uninvited was seated right in the middle of them. It’s one of the first Hollywood movies to take ghosts and haunted houses seriously and really examine the concept. Paramount embraced supernatural horror movies long before most studios, with Dracula and The Mummy in the early 30s. It’s no surprise they did the same here, with at the time, a modern-day ghost story.
Siblings, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald find a beautiful house that’s cheap. That right there should be a red flag, but at the time it wasn’t a trope of haunted house movies yet I presume. Today, much of the plot is a stereotype of movies. There are creepy sounds, such as a woman crying and flowers instantly fading and withering. Some of the elements here are borrowed for later films.
The tone of the movie feels lighter than some other haunted house movies. Of course, being that it was released in 1944, that could be a big part of it. Most of the older horror movies don’t come off as what we know horror movies are today. The Uninvited builds tension as good as any of them and although it’s creepy at times, it doesn’t scare as well. The ghostly and creepy vibe is enough to make it a great haunted house movie.
House is a guilty please movie for me. It’s in line with Beetlejuice, as a horror-comedy, although not as successful and I feel it’s not remembered as fondly. Of course, there are horror fans out there that also love the movie, but with the birth of the internet, it has only become easier and easier to find people that like the same stuff.
There’s a lot of silly moments in the movie, but they all work well in contrast to the horror elements of the movie. House isn’t the first movie to put comedy and horror together, but it does a great job with it. Can’t say the same for the second movie. I haven’t seen the third or fourth to have an opinion on them.
Largely House is about a struggling actor that moves into a house left to him by his dead aunt and ends up haunted by an old army buddy of his from Vietnam. One of the funniest moments is when some women comes to him and he thinks she wants to go out with him, but tasks him with babysitting her son. It comes out of nowhere, she doesn’t even know him and asks this, putting him in the friendzone. Scenes like this shouldn’t work, but I find it hilarious. As campy as House is, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Also, seeing the movie has George Wendt in it, every time he enters a scene you’re obligated to shout “NORM!”
To be transparent, I’ve only seen The Innocents a few times. My most recent viewing was a year ago. However, it’s a great movie, so it had to make this list.
The Innocents is an adaptation from a stage play of the same name and both are adaptations of an 1898 novella called Turning the Screw, written by Henry James. I only bring up the stage play version, because the screenplay was originally written by the same person, William Archibald, and then reworked by Truman Capote. The stage play was the backbone of what the screenplay would become.
The movie is very ambiguous, which is the best part about it. It’s creepy and subtle, which is great, but it really drives at the psychology of the main character and us the audience. That’s why this movie has caused much debate over the years. It’s rare to see that kind of craftsmanship in movies, especially today. I understand why people see this as not only one of the best horror movies us all time, but one of the best movies in general.
The Changeling is a 1980 haunted house movie. Not to be confused with Changeling, the 2008 garbage that Clint Eastwood directed. Maybe I’m being harsh, I should go back and watch it again, I remember not liking it. We’re not here for that movie though. I guess technically you can say The Changeling is based on a true story. It would depend on what you believe about ghosts and hauntings.
The movie is based on events that supposedly happened to the writer of the screenplay, Russell Hunter. While living at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Denver Colorado in the 60s, Hunter allegedly experienced a series of unexplained phenomena. He found a century-old journal in a hidden room about the isolated life of a disabled boy. Apparently, during a séance, Hunter was led to some other house where human remains were found.
Real or fake? An interesting story either way. It also made for a great screenplay as well. The Changeling at the start had me kind of annoyed with the constant banging sound, but as the movie went on I found it more disturbing than anything else. The plot has become pretty typical of haunted movies over the years. Some for better and most for the worst. It does some of the more silly things we see in haunted house movies, such as stationary things floating around. I feel like that’s become a staple of most haunted house movies. Other than that, it’s a well-crafted, well-paced plot and of course, it’s creepy.
It also has George C. Scott, the man who can do no wrong.
It was years after seeing the 1999 remake of The Haunting that I found out there was an original. The screenplay was adapted from the novel titled The Haunting of Hill House (not a real place, I looked). The book is definitely about supernatural activity, but the movie was made more around the idea of mental breakdowns. Apparently, this is an element the screenwriter perceived from the novel.
Introducing the mental breakdown angle helped with the movie, making it more psychological. I love when moviemakers apply this atmosphere to an already creepy movie. I feel like haunted house movies in particular are a good subgenre for it to work. It’s also the major reason why the differences between this and the remake are like night and day.
The Haunting is a slow burn, but creepy. It also keeps the audience guessing, as it uses the mental breakdown of the protagonist Eleanor. Is the haunting real or is it Eleanor doing it? Maybe it’s all in her mind. The hauntings seem to be real, but also Eleanor becomes more obsessed with the house the longer she’s there. I love when movies like this are heavily psychological. If done well, they can even leave the audience questioning their own minds. Maybe that says more about me than it does the movie.
Check out our 31 Days Of Horror write-up of The Haunting.
Most of the movies on this list I hadn’t seen until I was an adult. Poltergeist is one of the few I saw when I was young and might very well be the first haunted house movie I saw. It’s one of those PG movies that in no way would be PG today. It probably wouldn’t even make PG-13. The 80s were a great time.
Poltergeist was directed by the late, great Tobe Hooper. It would have been directed by Steven Spielberg, but he was already directing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at the time. He was one of the co-writers of the screenplay though and it shows. You can feel his grubby fingers all over the movie.
I say that mostly in jest. Spielberg did intend for the movie to be a horror sequel of sorts to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Thankfully Hooper didn’t agree and wanted to stick to a ghost story.
Hooper did a great job, it starts out light and subtle and ramps up to some crazy shit. Although it has some of the more campy elements that we see often in haunted house movies, they play them out well. The family gets used to having a bedroom full of toys and random objects flying around constantly. There’s also a clown toy that of course scared me as a kid. Luckily I’m one of the few kids that didn’t end up with coulrophobia from Poltergeist.
Let me start with the 800 lbs. gorilla in the room. This movie is supposedly based on a true story. Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t remember all the facts surrounding this, but I remember some.
The Lutz family changed their story a few times, which is a red flag. Also, I believe it was said the Lutz’s were behind on payments and that’s the real reason they fled. Lastly, a few years back, I watched a documentary, I think it was My Amityville Horror. It was mostly an interview with Daniel Lutz, who was one of the kids. I didn’t believe a word he said and he came off as a complete asshole. Check it out for yourself.
So yeah, I really don’t buy into any of it. That said, the movie is great. That’s it, NEXT! This was the first of many movies based on the “Amityville Horror.” Now you can throw a rock and hit a movie that’s based on it. Some are so loosely based on it, they’re just piggybacking on the Amityville name.
There’s one called Amityville Toybox for Christ’s sake. Needless to say, it’s been whored out and not just by the Lutz family telling tales.
The Amityville Horror is a pretty creepy movie and ramps up with being scary. George Lutz starts becoming obsessed with cutting wood and keeping the fire going, seemingly going insane. The rest of the family starts having incidents happen to them, including a priest that the family turns to about the experiences they’ve been having. I think the movie could have used a bit more ambiguity maybe. By then, everyone knew the story, and seeing it’s supposedly based on that true story, why bother? It’s creepy and scary. Not everything has to make the audience question what’s real or not, Shawn. I know.
I kind of feel like I’m cheating with this one. It’s not a house that’s haunted, but a hotel. My excuse is that it’s a home away from home.
The Shining is not only top of this list, but it’s one of my favorite horror movies of all time. In fact, it’s one of my favorite movies in general of all time. I would call it a masterpiece.
The Shining is based on a novel with the same name, written by Stephen King, who notoriously hated the movie. Do you want to know how to make a good movie based on Stephen King’s crap? Have him hate it. Stanley Kubrick almost completely gutted the novel when making the movie. If you want to see what the movie would have been like, if it apparently followed the book more, watch The Shining mini-series. They should have called that The Shinning.
The movie isn’t just creepy, it’s downright spooky. Every scene feels haunted. Kubrick goes through painstaking detail with the camera work, so everything feels like a surprise and may or may not be a jump scare. There’s also Jack Torrance, the main protagonist, played by Jack Nicholson, and his gradual descent into madness. It grows increasingly throughout the movie and leaves us to wonder if the place is haunted or if it’s him losing his grip on reality. Maybe a bit of both.
To this day, I’ve easily watched this movie 100 times I’d bet. I still get creeped out when watching it, in the dark. No other scary movie does that for me, not like this. I feel the dread and terror, even though I know what’s going to happen. Honestly, just thinking about the movie while writing this gives me goosebumps.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? What are your favorite haunted house movies?