12 Best Haunted House Movies
We all live in houses . . .
What makes a good haunted house story? The history of the house should be fascinating, of course, because without a history – especially as it relates to human presence - the house will almost certainly have no ghosts, demons, evil spirits, witches, ghouls or monsters. This engrossing history gives these frightening apparitions a reason for hanging around the house or haunting it. Ghosts must have an agenda; otherwise, they’d probably go to the spirit world and play poker or something.
Of course, a haunted place doesn’t have to be a house. Any office, hotel, church or castle qualifies, though houses, especially old ramshackle ones, tend to look the spookiest.
Please read this list of the 12 Best Haunted House Movies:
12. The Unnamable (1988)
A list such as this wouldn’t be complete without at least one film based on a story by horror master, H.P. Lovecraft. The movie begins during the eighteenth century in the Winthrop house, where Joshua Winthrop, the owner of the house, has locked up his daughter, she-demon Alyda Winthrop. For some reason, when Joshua releases Alyda, she murders him. Then the movie springs forward to the present day, when six college students, four guys and two gals, decide to spend the night in the house, while looking for Joel, who, hoping to debunk the myth of the Winthrop haunted house, had disappeared the day before. One of the students is Randolph Carter, a paranormal investigator and recurring character in Lovecraft’s stories. The college students soon discover that the she-demon has killed Joel, hanging his corpse upside down and decapitating him. Thereafter, this unnamable creature begins slaughtering the kids one by one. Only Carter’s interpretation of the Necronomicon helps the surviving kids defeat the monster.
Please keep in mind that the Necronomicon doesn’t exist; Lovecraft invented it as a plot device for his various literary works. It’s since been used in many other horror movies as well.
11. Burnt Offerings (1976)
The Rolf family, hoping to escape the rat race of the city, rents the Allardyce house, an aging Victorian mansion in the California countryside. The only requirement for moving in is that the Rolf family must allow the Allardyce brothers’ elderly mother to live in one of the upper bedrooms, and they must also feed her. Strangely, this woman never shows herself to the others. Marian Rolf (Karen Black) soon becomes obsessed with the house, even as a series of odd occurrences strikes other members of the family. Eventually Marian’s husband, Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed) discovers that the old woman upstairs is in fact his wife Marian, now grown old. He then tries to take his family and flee the house, but is thrown from an attic window, landing on the windshield of his car. And Ben and Marian’s son David is killed when the house dumps a chimney on him. Thereafter, the Allardyce house seems rejuvenated now that new blood has been shed.
10. Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice, directed by inventive filmmaker Tim Burton, provides comedic horror at its best. The plot revolves around a married couple, the Maitlands, played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, who decide to redecorate their idyllic New England home. But there’s a problem – they soon discover they died in a recent car crash! Then another couple, the Deetzes, moves into the house and turns it into a modern art nightmare. So the Maitlands, now ghosts, try to scare away the Deetzes. For some reason, only the Deetzes’ daughter Lydia can see the Maitlands and befriends them. Unable to scare away the Deetzes, the Maitlands seek the help of an afterlife counselor who reluctantly suggests they hire a “bio-exorcist ghost.” The Maitlands select Beetlejuice, played by Michael Keaton. Unfortunately, Beetlejuice becomes obsessed with marrying Lydia, who could help him return to the world of the living. Now the Maitlands and Lydia must defeat Beetlejuice.
9. Poltergeist (1982)
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist is ghost story about the Freeling family, which moves into a home in a seemingly quiet suburban neighborhood. But as soon as the Freelings take up residence, their youngest child, Carol Anne, begins talking to the TV set. Soon the TV begins transmitting eerie static and then an apparition jumps from it, causing the whole house to shake, at which point Carol Anne famously declares, “They’re here.” After a series of inexplicable ghostly events, Carol Anne is sucked through a portal and into another realm, her voice now emanating from the TV set. A psychic medium tells the Freelings that a demon abducted Carol Anne to control other spirits. Eventually the Freelings discover their house rests over a burial ground, the headstones of which had been moved but not the burials. When the demon tries to abduct the remaining Freeling children, caskets of long-dead cadavers pop from the ground throughout the neighborhood, after which the Freeling house implodes into another universe.
In the 2015 remake, the Bowen family encounters ghosts from a parallel universe – right in their own suburban home – and the neighbors don’t see a thing! What’s most notable in the remake is that it includes the technological advancements of the present day: smart phones, iPads, flat-screen TVs, GPS and drones. Is it better than the first one? This contest is probably a draw.
8. The Conjuring (2013)
This movie highlights about as many haunted house clichés as one can imagine. It is also supposedly based on a true story, increasing its marketing possibilities greatly. The story also takes place in 1971, about the same time as the one upon which the Amityville Horror is based. The movie goes thusly: the Perron family of seven, including five daughters, moves into a remote Rhode Island farmhouse and begins experiencing intense ghostly activity. When one of the spooks becomes violent, the Perrons enlist the help of Ed and Lorraine Warren, two paranormal investigators who come to the house and set up recording equipment. Eventually the investigators videotape an attack on the family by the malevolent spirit of a woman who had sacrificed her daughter to Satan many years before. At this point, an exorcism is needed – or the Perrons must leave the house forever. Anyway, this movie did very well at the box office and is certainly a haunted house classic worthy of note.
The Conjuring 2 was released in 2016. It stars paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who travel to jolly old England hoping to chase away or destroy the so-called Enfield Poltergeist. Based on a true story, this sequel isn’t as good as its predecessor but definitely worth a view anyway.
7. The Others (2001)
The Others, written, directed and scored by Chilean-Spaniard Alejandro Amenábar, is a modern gothic film starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Stewart, a woman who awakens from a nightmare while in her mansion located on Jersey, a British island off the coast of France during post-war Britain. Her two young children, Anne and Nicholas suffer from Xeroderma pigmentosa, which prevents them from entering sunlight. Stewart soon experiences paranormal activity in the house. She summons a local priest, who blesses the house and then she searches the house, finding a “book of the dead” filled with family photos; also, headstones in the family cemetery show that the three family servants are actually dead. At the climax, Stewart discovers a horrible secret about herself and her children, who are, in fact, “the others”—ghosts that now inhabit the house.
6. House (1986)
This psycho-horror fest stars William Katt as Roger Cobb, a horror author who moves into his aunt’s house while he writes a novel about his gut-wrenching experiences in the Vietnam War. Perhaps this isn’t such a good idea, because Cobb’s son had disappeared while staying in the house and later his aunt committed suicide. As soon as Cobb enters the house it seems to manifest his inner demons by opening portals to a hellish parallel universe. Soon Cobb becomes convinced that his lost son can be found somewhere in the house – perhaps behind that spooky closet door! The house doesn’t appear to want him around either, doing everything it can to scare him away. The movie launched a series of sequels, beginning in 1987 with House II: The Second Story.
5. Hell Baby (2013)
Hell Baby is a farcical, dark comedy written and directed by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, both of whom play priests in the movie. Anyway, a married couple moves into a ramshackle house in New Orleans. A neighbor calls this fixer-upper “the House of Blood” and of course it’s decidedly haunted. The woman (Leslie Bibb) is about ready to give birth and begins speaking in a creepy, demonic way. Two Vatican priests are called to the house to perform an exorcism. When the baby is born, it’s a devilish little creature that starts biting everyone – with hilarious results. This movie is a scream – pun intended and could be one of the funniest horror movies ever made.
4. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
The master of macabre, Vincent Price, must have recognition on this list too. In this horror classic, Price plays millionaire Fredrick Loren who, while living in a gloomy mansion, throws a soiree for his fourth wife, Annabelle. Loren offers five “guests” $10,000 apiece if they can spend one night in his haunted house. The catch is you actually have to live through the night, of course. (Insert maniacal cackle here.) At the beginning of the party, Annabelle warns the guests that her husband is psychotic and may have murdered his previous three wives. You gotta love it! Directed by horror master William Castle, the climax happens in the basement, where Loren, while operating a walking, talking skeleton scares Annabelle until she accidentally falls into a vat of acid. This film is so full of haunted house clichés it must be an homage to the genre – or perhaps a parody of it.
3. The Shining (1980)
Produced and directed by the illustrious Stanley Kubrick and based on one of Stephen King’s best novels, The Shining certainly has great billing. Oh, and it also stars Jack Nicholson, who plays alcoholic writer Jack Torrance. Hoping to write some good copy – and avoid the bottle - Torrance takes his wife and young son to spend the winter in the Overlook Hotel. Once snowed in, Torrance’s son Danny begins having psychic flashes about the Overlook’s past occupants, including a man who murdered his entire family. It appears Danny has what’s called the shining. Meanwhile, having no luck with his writing, Torrance succumbs to the hotel’s evil influence and eventually rampages after his family wielding an axe, at one point hacking a hole in a door to get at his wife. Then he sticks his head through the new orifice and shouts, “Here’s Johnny!” This becomes an iconic moment in American pop culture. Perhaps the best part of the movie is when Torrance chases his son outside, where they run through a snow-bound topiary and maze.
2. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Physicist Lionel Barrett takes a mysterious machine to the infamous Belasco house, hoping to use it to neutralize what he calls the house’s “unfocused electromagnetic energy.” This quintessential haunted house was owned by Emeric “the Roaring Giant” Belasco, who reputedly disappeared after murdering numerous people in his humble abode. Two mediums accompany Barrett to the house, as well as his wife, Ann, who soon experiences erotic visions and, while naked, demands sex from Ben Fischer, the physical medium. At this point, Barrett activates his machine, though the house fights back, killing Barrett. Eventually Fischer discovers the mummified corpse of Emeric Belasco behind one of the walls and deduces that all of the psychic events in the house were due to Belasco’s telekinetic powers. Fischer then reactivates the machine, hoping to finally send Belasco’s spirit to the afterlife.
As a footnote, paranormal aficionados seem to think that ghosts have a measurable electromagnetic field. On TV shows such as Ghost Hunters, investigators often wave about EMF meters, hoping to detect the presence of spiritual entities.
1. The Haunting (1963)
Paranormal investigators come to Hill House in search of ghosts or spiritual phenomena. Julie Harris stars as Eleanor “Nell” Lance who responds to an ad inviting her to the house because she’s experienced the supernatural. From the beginning, Nell senses the ghostly forces within Hill House, where over the years many strange occurrences have been reported. Soon, however, everyone experiences the inexplicable happenings, such as a pounding that can be heard throughout the house, doorknobs being twisted when nobody is there and a door pushed inside out as if it were made of rubber. Also, the house holds numerous eerie statues which are often photographed until you expect them to spring to life, but they never do. In fact, you see no ghosts in this movie. Nevertheless, Nell knows they exist, because they kill her in a car accident so she can reside with them forever in Hill House. This suits her just fine too! The riveting psychological aspect of this movie makes it the best haunted house movie ever.
Interestingly, director Martin Scorsese listed The Haunting number one on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all times.
Of course, many of these classic movies have been remade. Catherine Zeta-Jones starred in a remake of The Haunting in 1999. In this version, those statues come to life, as you knew they would. Given the high level of today’s special effects, they simply must! But this flick didn’t have a ghost of a chance of measuring up to its predecessor, for perfection is almost impossible to match or surpass.
Haunted house stories go way back. One of the first was The House with Seven Gables, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851. Incidentally, Vincent Price played in a film adaptation of the novel and other Hawthorne stories entitled Twice Told Tales in 1963. This fascination with haunted house stories is understandable because these yarns exemplify humankind’s attraction to death. Further, because nearly everyone lives in houses, and many die in them, they can be both familiar and frightening, like that eccentric aunt you may have. For these reasons people just can't get enough of haunted house stories.
But such stories offer hope as well. The only way ghosts can exist is if spirits or souls are real. And if ghosts are hanging around in houses, maybe there really is an afterlife of some sort. It may not be much fun existing in such a creepy state, but it beats death everlasting, doesn’t it?
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© 2011 Kelley Marks