Perhaps the most consistent staple in the horror genre is the ghost movie. For as long as horror stories have been around, tales of disembodied spirits stalking the homes of the innocent (or not-so-innocent) inhabitants have been uttered by everyone from esteemed writers to children around a fire.
I will admit that of all the different sub-genres of horror, it is the haunted house movie that I love the most. I think I gravitate towards these stories because there is always an inherent mystery at the heart of every haunted house. There is a reason that ghosts chose to inhabit these homes, and almost always this reason is tinged with tragedy, regret, and the darker instincts of humanity. The ghosts themselves act as mirrors to our own fears of leaving unfulfilled lives as well as just being reminders of our own impending deaths. While other monsters are meant to scare you, there is a reason that ghosts are said to haunt you.
Now it goes without saying that a great house is essential for every great haunted house movie. And Hollywood has provided many such great houses with their ominous corridors, darkened bedrooms, and nefarious architecture that simultaneously draws you in while making you want to run in terror. And so what better thing to do, on this Friday the 13th in October, than to celebrate the very best of these haunted houses.
Honorable mentions: Beetlejuice, The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, Hausu, Insidious, The Uninvited
10. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) dir. William Castle
Of all the houses on this list, the House on Haunted Hill is the one that most resembles a Scooby-Doo mystery house with its secret doors, passageways, traps, and the hint that the real terror may be among the living rather than the dead. Though the exterior or the movie is of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, the interior is a glorious mishmash of garish architectural styles. This provides the perfect backdrop for the millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) to throw his party in which he invites five strangers to spend the night with the promise of a rich financial reward if they do. While the gags and scares are more reminiscent to what you may find at your neighbour’s DIY haunted house, this one qualifies just because the movie is easily the most fun horror movie on this list.
9. POLTERGEIST (1982) dir. Tobe Hooper
While it is certainly the most ordinary looking house on this list, this is precisely what makes it terrifying. It is easy to imagine an abandoned mansion at the top of the hill as haunted. But the thought of a mass produced and cookie-cutter suburban house that you and I could easily move into as the abode of malevolent spirits is easily cause for concern amongst even the most skeptical of us. In the hands of Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist becomes more than just a haunted house movie but is an allegory of North American suburban life where our perfectly manicured if sterile existences can literally be a mask for skeletons buried beneath the foundation. Plus on a completely surface level, the movie suggests that any of our houses could be haunted, and that is terrifying enough.
8. THE CHANGELING (1980) dir. Peter Medak
The Changeling follows John Russell (George C. Scott), a New York composer who moves to Seattle after the tragic death of his wife and child, and soon finds himself haunted by another tragic death in his new home. Unlike the cookie-cutter suburban house of Poltergeist, the house in The Changeling is every bit the stereotype of a haunted house as it is a large Victorian mansion that stands in complete contrast to the modern city it is surrounded by. The strength of this movie lies in the ability to inspire both pathos for the tragic circumstances that precipitated the haunting of this house as well as inspiring sheer terror for the haunting itself. The fact that this movie has made me slightly wary of empty wheelchairs, attics, and second floor walkways speaks to the reason why this house makes the list.
7. CORALINE (2009) dir. Henry Selick
The house in Coraline is an old dilapidated mansion in the middle of an Oregon countryside that has been converted into apartments. Coraline and her parents occupy the middle unit where its plain and barren nature still hints at the opulent and majestic history it once had. But Coraline’s apartment hides a secret in that it has a gateway into a strange and magical parallel world, where her house in transformed into the perfect paragon of domestic bliss and whimsical adventure. But in a classic case of something being too good to be true, the shiny veneer of this fantasy world hides a much more sinister secret and the more Coraline spends in that world, the closer she gets to uncovering it and coming face to face with to its horrific nature which places her in great peril. It is the rare children’s movie that is truly scary but is so good that it is almost worth traumatizing children over it.
6. CRIMSON PEAK (2015) dir. Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro is perhaps one of the most imaginative filmmakers working today (it is still painful to think that he walked away from The Hobbit). In Crimson Peak he lets his imagination run wild as he creates his homage to the Gothic horror mansion and he is entirely successful. Between creaky elevators, creepy basements, opulent chambers, and most importantly roaming ghosts del Toro basically throws everything and the kitchen sink at this house and it mostly sticks. Unfortunately the twisty plot never fully rises to the level of the house itself. Nonetheless it is still a glorious return to the kind of luxurious gothic horrors made famous by Roger Corman’s Poe cycle in the 60s and 70s that is more creepy than it is scary. Unfortunately in trying so hard to evoke Gothic architecture, Crimson Peak is more of an homage than an original contribution to the genre, in stark contrast to the remaining houses on this list.
5. THE OTHERS (2001) dir. Alejandro Amenabar
While being undoubtedly the best movie ever set on the Isle of Man, The Others also has one of the best haunted estates in ever. Set in the days following World War II, it follows the widow Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) as she tries to raise two children who are extremely photosensitive and predictably for this list, finds herself seemingly haunted by malevolent spirits. What makes this house unique is that the extreme photosensitivity of the children makes daytime, our usual source of solace in ghost stories, as terrifying as anything that happens in the dark. In addition, the movie does well to shine a light on real life practices of the time that were every bit as creepy as the ephemeral activities of the house. The mist filled grounds, impossibly dark hallways and rooms, and semi-Victorian setting aid in creating a tense atmosphere , making the ending of the movie not just tragic but truly terrifying.
4. THE ORPHANAGE (2007) dir. J. A. Bayona
There is a cardinal rule in ghost movies which is that by far the creepiest thing you can show are ghost children. And carrying on in that grand tradition is The Orphanage, where ghost children are provided and in spades. The greatest compliment that I could pay this movie is that it is still one of the few horror movies that I refuse to watch alone, simply because from beginning to end it is seems to be perfectly calibrated to wreck nerves. There is a scene of a childhood game that gets played at the end of the movie that I literally still have to watch through half-closed eyes, not because anything terrifying actually happens during it, but the dread of anticipation that something bad might happen is unbearable. As far as the setting is concerned, even in the best of times an old derelict orphanage is going to seem creepy, so just imagine how terrifying it is when actual ghosts are involved.
3. THE HAUNTING (1963) dir. Robert Wise
In many ways The Haunting is the quintessential haunted house movie. The introduction of the movie chronicles the sordid 90-year history of the house in question which automatically renders is a prime candidate for a haunting. The premise of the movie is of four individuals who have decided to lock themselves to investigate the supposed spirits that inhabit the place, which undoubtedly is the inspiration for all those endless haunting reality series that have taken over the travel cable channels. And the house itself is a masterpiece, a labyrinthine house of impossible angles, closing doors, cold spots, and at the centre, a nursery for extra scares. The movie is not afraid to throw the book on every cliche of a haunted house, as it represents the genesis of the modern haunted house movie. As such, it is a must watch for every fan of horror.
2. THE SHINING (1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Fine. I will admit this is a bit of a cheat because it’s not a house. But how could you not include the Overlook Hotel, one of the greatest fictional haunted places ever? Also since the Torrance family does live in staff quarters during this movie, I’m going to say it counts. Where to begin with this hotel? There are just so many iconic places in this movie from the elevator to the ballroom to the cavernous hallways. And we still haven’t mentioned the tricycle scene, Room 237, or the hedge maze, each of which are hall-of-fame moments not just in horror movies but in the history of film. And with all respect to Stephen King, the fact that Kubrick doesn’t clue us explicitly whether what afflicts Jack is ghosts or mere cabin fever makes the movie that much more terrifying.
1. THE INNOCENTS (1961) dir. Jack Clayton
Truth be told, it would have to be a great movie house to take the top spot from the Overlook Hotel, and fortunately the Gothic mansion at the heart of The Innocents is up to the task. The story of the governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) who takes up her position caring for her employer’s niece and nephew is perhaps the perfect example of Gothic horror. The house is appropriately luxurious and yet instantly becomes ominous the moment the lights dim. The ghosts presence and motivation are not precipitated by malevolence but by forbidden love, which makes their appearances less scary but tragic and haunting. The children at the heart of the story are the perfect mix of adorable and creepy, with our feelings towards them changing on the turn of a dime. And at the centre of it all is Deborah Kerr, who magnificently anchors the movie with equal parts naivety and regality. Together all these elements come together to create the perfect ghost story, set in the perfect haunted house.