From House (1977) to Ghostwatch (1992), these are the best haunted house movies.
Creaking floorboards, rattling windows, flickering lights — the haunted house horror is a pivotal sub-genre in cinema. Tales of ghostly apparitions and paranormal thrills are unlikely to go out of style. Unlike creature-features or post-apocalyptic devastation, an isolated haunted house evokes a very primal fear within us.
Scariest Haunted House Movies
1. The Uninvited (1944)
“Old Dark House” films, a horror sub-genre, used eerie, expansive mansions to craft thrilling mysteries. Films like Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) and James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) were all masterworks of mood and menace. But the ‘supernatural’ terror was largely non-existent, or if it was, it was practically explainable. However, Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited didn’t try to rationalize the ghost phenomenon or play it for laughs. This was groundbreaking for American cinema at a time when horror films typically recycled monster plots, spurred by the success of Frankenstein, Wolfman, and The Mummy.
The Uninvited, based on Dorothy Macardle’s novel, is set on the hauntingly atmospheric Cornwall islands, reminiscent of the foreboding mansion in Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940). It follows London siblings Roderick and Pamela on vacation, who, despite rumors of hauntings, purchase a deserted mansion on the seaside cliffs. Upon moving in, they experience unsettling disturbances.
While the film may seem visually elegant yet dated, it continues to deliver genuine scares, over seven decades after its release.
2. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
William Castle’s unabashed and darkly funny feature is a minor cult classic in the haunted house horror genre. Considering modern horror standards, it may not be very scary and only modestly entertaining. But Castle’s moody atmosphere and Vincent Price’s casting bestows an unquestionable legacy upon the film. Price was best known for horror movies he made in the 1950s. In House on Haunted Hill, he plays a wealthy, eccentric Frederick Loren.
Loren and his fourth wife, Annabelle, host a ‘haunted house’ party, promising ten thousand dollars to any guest who can last the night. Predictably, the guests face a series of frightful encounters. With a concise 75-minute run-time, the horror movie swiftly establishes memorable set pieces, offering a brand of timeless, campy fun that a modern haunted house movie may lack.
3. The Innocents (1961)
Jack Clayton’s film adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is a standout in cinematic ghost stories. Set in the 19th century, it follows a naive governess, played by Deborah Kerr, who travels to a secluded estate to care for two orphaned siblings, Flora and Miles. As she experiences unexplained voices and visions, and observes the children’s disturbing behavior, a hidden evil is revealed.
Co-written by Truman Capote, this intriguing horror film was shot in filmed in monochrome Cinemascope. The Innocents is unique in its subversion of typical ghost story conventions, presenting evil in an ambiguous light and weaving in Freudian themes. No other ghost tale has explored repressed sexual energy and conservative disquiet like this one. Deborah Kerr’s flawless performance as governess Giddens adds to the foreboding ambience.
4. The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s film, The Haunting, is a highly skilled adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel. The film revolves around three unique characters who interact with supernatural elements in the notorious haunted Hill House. Dr. John Markway, a psychic explorer and anthropologist, conducts experiments on these phenomena. He invites the flighty Eleanor Lance, who as a child experienced several paranormal occurrences.
There’s also the cool-headed psychic Theodora, and Luke, the heir to the infamous manor. Shortly after their arrival, the house’s threatening nature becomes evident. The story mostly focuses on the unstable Eleanor and her hostile relationship with the house. Unlike other horror films, The Haunting doesn’t visually depict any ghosts, maintaining a chilling uncertainty about the unseen dark force, similar to The Innocents.
Wise’s meticulous framing and suggestive visuals set a disturbing atmosphere throughout the film. Julie Harris’s portrayal of Eleanor effectively highlights the story’s psychological aspects.
5. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
John Hough’s film, based on Richard Matheson’s novel, shares a plot similar to Shirley Jackson’s classic horror work. It follows a diverse group of paranormal researchers and scientists exploring a haunted mansion to unravel its eerie mysteries. Unlike Jackson’s psychological horror, Matheson’s story delivers raw, physical terror. The mansion, known as ‘Hell House’, is said to be cursed by its former wealthy, bohemian owner, Emeric Belasco.
A terminally ill industrialist, intrigued by the afterlife, purchases the deserted mansion. He assembles a team to uncover the secrets hidden within the sealed-off house. The film features some truly frightening set-pieces, enhanced by a spine-chilling atmosphere. However, the film’s stereotypical and absurd character portrayals prevent it from reaching classic status.
6. House (1977)
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s psychedelic horror film breaks traditional norms with its vivid and surreal imagery. It narrates a classic haunted house story where a schoolgirl and her friends visit her sick aunt’s old, eerie country house, only to encounter demonic spirits, dancing skeletons, ghostly cats, and a carnivorous piano. The film follows dream-like logic. Its hallucinogenic trickery, which influenced Sam Raimi’s devilishly fun tone in Evil Dead, are a testament to Obayashi’s innovative storytelling.
The director’s background in pop commercials is evident in the film’s hyper-real and absurdist special effects. Despite its fast pace, the film might be too unconventional for some horror fans. However, others might appreciate its chaotic, gory, and excessively humorous elements, praising it as ‘incredibly original’. I, for one, am part of the latter group.
7. The Changeling (1980)
Peter Medak’s haunted house horror doesn’t add anything new to the genre. But it does provide a compelling aural-visual experience that plays on viewers’ perception. The story centers on John Russell, a noted composer and music professor, who, after losing his family in a tragic accident, moves into a large, eerie mansion.
Once there, he starts hearing strange noises and uncovers the house’s chilling history. While the plot may not be groundbreaking, the film’s subtle, atmospheric scares make for a memorable viewing. George C Scott delivers a tender performance as the lead. The film’s slow pace might not appeal to everyone, but those who appreciate classic horror should give it a watch.
8. The Shining (1980)
One of the scariest haunted houses in the history of film is Overlook Hotel. Adapted from Stephen King’s best-selling novel, Stanley Kubrick’s film is a terrifying study of madness and isolation.
Jack Torrance (Nicholson), a writer and recovering alcoholic, becomes the winter caretaker of the eerie hotel, accompanied by his wife Wendy and their psychic son Danny. As the family endures the harsh winter in isolation, they gradually succumb to the mysterious insanity that haunts the hotel. Kubrick’s masterful use of sound and visuals, combined with Nicholson’s intense performance, creates a deeply unsettling atmosphere.
Unlike the novel, which clearly presents supernatural elements, Kubrick’s approach is more suggestive and open to interpretation, leading to numerous theories about the strange events at the Overlook Hotel. Even without its haunted house aspect, The Shining remains a chilling psychological and domestic horror.
9. Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist, a riveting haunted house horror film directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written and produced by Spielberg, unfolds in a peaceful suburban setting. It centers on the Freeling family, who start noticing unusual happenings in their home, culminating in Carol’s vanishing.
This film delivers not just a spine-chilling experience, but also a clever critique of suburban life. Despite its release after The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist surpasses it with its emotional intensity and more compelling scare tactics, all underscored by remarkable special effects.”
10. Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice marked the first big break of the ‘master of macabre,’ Tim Burton, showcasing his unique, darkly whimsical style. The story follows a couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland, who become ghosts after a car accident and find themselves confined to their New England home. Their peaceful afterlife is disrupted when a new family moves in from New York. In desperation, they summon Beetlejuice, a lecherous bio-exorcist.
Burton creatively flips the typical haunted house narrative, focusing less on a dramatic plot and more on his distinctive visual flair. Michael Keaton’s lively portrayal of Beetlejuice remains unforgettable even three decades later. The classic is getting a sequel Beetlejuice 2, releasing next year.
11. Ghostwatch (1992)
Ghostwatch, BBC’s controversial horror mockumentary, first aired on Halloween 1992, but was deemed too disturbing for further broadcasts. However, after its DVD release in the US and UK, the TV movie gained a cult following. Created by Stephen Volk and Lesley Manning, the film convincingly tricked its audience, surpassing later found-footage horror films. It features famous TV presenters investigating a notorious haunted house in Britain.
Ghostwatch is a fascinating blend of horror film and factual TV tropes. To enhance realism, BBC1 journalist Michael Parkinson and other reporters were cast as themselves, leading some viewers to mistake the scripted drama for reality. The film is filled with unexpected, chilling moments that continue to unsettle audiences even 25 years later.
12. The Others (2001)
Alejandro Amenabar’s low-key ghost story is much indebted to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (adapted to film by Jack Clayton). The year is 1945 in Jersey, England. Grace (Nicole Kidman) awaits (with her children in a huge mansion) the return of her husband from World War II. She is convinced that her children are photosensitive – allergic to sunlight. The devoutly religious Grace keeps her kids in darkly lit rooms.
Strange, unexplainable things follow, terrorizing the entire emotionally constricted family. Like any effective haunted house horror, The Others has its fair share of suspense and jolts. Director Amenabar never degrades the proceedings with faux revelations. Nicole Kidman offers one of her career-best performances. She perfectly embodies Grace’s emotionally plain surface emotions and gradually reveals the anxiety and anguish below the surface.
13. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro uses ‘ghost’ as a clever metaphor for the long-lasting devastation of war in this art-house horror. The narrative unfolds in a remote Spanish orphanage in the 1930s as Civil War rages outside the premises. The place houses a small group of boys and has a skeleton crew, but it can barely feed the kids. The boy-protagonist Carlos is brought to live at the orphanage. He hears that the place is haunted and a ghost roams the corridors.
The orphanage is also marked by the presence of an unexploded bomb in the middle of its yard. Del Toro’s brilliance lies in how he combines the elements of history and fantasy. The scenes with the ‘vengeful’ ghost are disturbingly eerie. The restless apparition is also used as a fine symbol. Just like the unexploded bomb in the courtyard, indicating the prospect of not-too-distant war.
14. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
Takashi Shimizu’s horror movie adopts the familiar ‘onryo’, or vengeful ghost scenario prevalent in Japanese horror movies. In a Tokyo house, a man has once killed his wife and possibly his son. For years, the ghostly presence seems to curse the people entering the house. Rika, a volunteer care worker, is sent to the house to look into the situation.
While observing the house and the family currently living in it, Rika discovers certain strange things. The narrative is broken into chapters and shows various people who have fallen prey to the ghosts. The Japanese film doesn’t boast any interesting dramatic arc. But Shimizu effectively evokes a claustrophobic aura and unease. The eerie sound effects enhance the effect of the sinister imagery. The sight of the forlorn Japanese boy-ghost, particularly, leaves a lasting impression.
15. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Kim Jee-woon’s eerie psychological horror is a triumph of nerve-wracking atmosphere. The story opens with two teenage sisters, who return to their father’s house from a mental institution. The mother’s suicide is suggested as the reason behind the sisters’ mental affliction. The stepmother tries to make the girls comfortable, but the elder sister accuses her of past abuse.
Supernatural forces seem to plague the house as the family dynamics get worse. A Tale of Two Sisters isn’t your regular haunted house horror. The film’s most fascinating aspect is Kim’s framing techniques and good use of screen-space. The stunning images, full of oft-kilter shots and slow tracking shots hold up pretty well on repeat viewings.
16. The Orphanage (2007)
JA Bayona’s gothic horror has the touch of Devil’s Backbone and The Others. Yet, Bayona arranges the unoriginal derivative elements in a fresh way, crafting an emotionally resonant piece. The titular orphanage is a large, Victorian-era mansion. Laura, one of the orphanage girls, who was luckily adopted by a rich couple, returns. She buys off the mansion with Carlos, her physician husband.
Her plan is to turn it into a home for children with special needs. Laura’s own adopted son, Simon is HIV-positive and needs to take life-saving drugs. Soon, Laura and Simon experience strange occurrences. Bayona is a fine visual stylist who displays a good sense for tone and pacing. He skillfully manipulates the horror-movie grammar, utilizing even a burlap bag to spook us.
17. Lake Mungo (2008)
Joel Anderson’s uncannily spooky Australian movie sort of begins in Lynchian territory. Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns in a lake during a family outing. Her parents and brother naturally find it hard to cope with her loss. But the family can still feel her presence in the house. Mysterious noises emanate from her room leaving the mother with vivid nightmares.
The twists in the narrative reveal a dark void beneath the tranquil surface, similar to Lynch’s TV series. Irrespective of the familiar plot, Lake Mungo is a contemplative horror film, revolving around the themes of manipulation and memory. It has very few traditional shock elements and no traces of gore. Yet, Anderson’s low-key direction gradually casts a spell. The ending is intense and the film lingers long after you’ve finished watching it.
18. Insidious (2011)
Insidious by James Wan is a fine blend of demonic possessions and haunted house horror tropes. It begins with Josh Lambert and his wife Renai moving to a new house. Their pre-teen son Dalton is apparently drawn to a mysterious force in the house. Unfortunately, Dalton falls into a coma after witnessing the creepy thing in their attic.
Soon, more supernatural events plague the household. Consequently, a team of gadgets-savvy paranormal investigators try to unearth the truth. James Wan gained spotlight with his debut feature Saw (2004). With Insidious, he took on a more subtle approach to horror. While the Saw movies revel in gore, Insidious is suggestive and creates an eerie, atmospheric mood.
19. The Conjuring (2013)
With The Conjuring, James Wan returned to the traditional horror tropes of The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. It’s supposedly based on a true story, chronicling the experiences of demonologist couple Ed and Lorraine Warren. Similar to the incident at ‘Amityville’, the truthful nature of the story is totally disputable.
Nevertheless, Wan offers a genuinely scary haunted house horror. The narrative follows the Perron family – the father, mother, and their five daughters in the early 70s. The family buys and moves into an old farmhouse with all their savings. Soon, they begin to feel the presence of an evil spirit. Despite the deceptively simple premise, the technical wizardry fervently cooks up spine-tingling tension. Wan sensibly avoids overdoing CGI and gore.
20. Crimson Peak (2015)
Guillermo Del Toro is known for ably mixing socio political commentary with preternatural factors. In this gothic horror romance, however, the focus solely rests on breathtaking visual design. Crimson Peak is also a story ‘about ghosts’, where unlike Hell House or Poltergeist, ghostly pestilences are kept in the periphery.
Set in the late 19th century, the story revolves around Edith Cushing, daughter of a wealthy construction businessman. Edith falls in love with a refined Englishman Thomas, who arrives in New York with his enigmatic sister Lucille. When Edith’s brusque father ends up dead, Edith marries her beloved and travels to his dejected family mansion in Britain. This haunted house movie contains a sharp tonality and psycho-sexual ingredients almost similar to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Alas, the storyline doesn’t truly match up to its grand visual ambitions.
There we are! These are some of the best haunted house movies that should be on your watchlist. If you’re looking for more scary movies, check out 13 Ghosts (1960), Burnt Offerings (1976), Monster House (2006), I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016).
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’