The haunted house is a staple horror device. Usually hundreds of years old, ideally massive, and imposing with as many turrets as its roof can bear, there’s nothing like a haunted house to give you the creeps.
But making this list wasn’t as easy as you’d think. To qualify for the list, a film had to feature an actual haunted house – which immediately rules out many of the films that spring to mind when you read that title. The Shining, for example, is about a haunted hotel, not a house. Paranormal Activity initially seems like it’s about a haunted house, but it’s not the house that’s haunted, and also the supernatural entity is a demon, not a ghost. Ditto Insidious, which has some ghosts, but they’re not tied to any house in particular. Conversely, Rebecca has a brilliant and creepy house in it, but despite the second Mrs. De Winter’s anxieties, it’s not actually haunted.
So, yes, a lot of the films that tend to crop up on these kinds of list had to be ruled out. What follows is a list of great haunted house movies and TV shows that really do have haunted houses in them…
It’s hard to get more haunted than the Freelings’ house in Poltergeist. Despite being a brand new home in a shiny new development, something’s moving the furniture around, causing people to have violent hallucinations, and even talking to the kids through the TV.
It sounds terrifying, but since it was produced by Steven Spielberg, it’s actually pretty tame. If you fancy something spooky that won’t give you nightmares, this might be the one. It wouldn’t be a disaster if you accidentally picked up the 2015 remake, either; it’s faithful enough to the original without being slavish about it, and it’s got some decently funny moments thrown in for good measure.
13 Ghosts (1960)
William Castle’s 13 Ghosts is also relatively light on scares, but it’s so incredibly charming you won’t mind. The haunted house in this one was left to the Zorba family by their occult-loving uncle, and came fully furnished – with 12 ghosts.
Castle loved his gimmicks, and 13 Ghosts is presented in “Illusion-O,” a take on stereoscopic 3D that meant if audiences looked through coloured lenses, they could either amp up the appearance of the ghosts or block them out completely. It’s silly, but the dialogue is snappy, and the ghosts are at least original – where else have you seen the spectre of a circus lion and his trainer?
Unfortunately, this time round I wouldn’t recommend picking up the remake, which tries to be terrifying and fails, killing all of the original’s cozy fun in the process.
The Legend Of Hell House (1973)
Based on Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House, The Legend Of Hell House sees a group of psychic investigators moving into the home of Emeric “The Roaring Giant” Belasco. Belasco was supposedly an evil murderer, and his spirit is said to still walk the halls of his former estate. Sure enough, as soon as the investigators start setting up their bizarre ghost-detecting machines, all sorts of paranormal activity kicks off.
The twist ending here seems daft, but if you think about it long enough, it becomes disturbing instead. And the set-up is a classic, although it’s not as well-handled here as it is in another, similar film (more on that later!).
The Changeling (1980)
Bit of a slow-burner, this one, but it’s seriously creepy if it catches you in the right mood. George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a solitude-seeking composer who rents the wrong house while grieving his dead wife and daughter. The eerie old mansion is home to the ghost of a murdered child, and when it’s not pushing its wheelchair around the place, it’s pushing John to uncover its story and wreak its revenge. Murdered kids are the worst for that kind of ghostly pestering, but then maybe they’re entitled to a bit of post-death whining. You’d do the same, right?
If you’re bored of the standard haunted house repertoire (creaky doors, smashed religious icons, bleeding walls, etc., etc.), you could do worse than check out Hausu. A psychedelic Japanese horror starring mostly unknown (and inexperienced) actors, it sees a group of schoolgirls head out to visit an estranged aunt in the countryside, only to find that the aunt isn’t as kindly as you’d hope, and her house is full of horrors. We’re talking flying lamps, evil fridges, and pianos that bite. You’ve never seen anything like this before.
Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
Speaking of Japanese horror, I couldn’t leave out Tokyo’s most haunted. Director Takashi Shimizu has returned to the story of the murderous Saeki ghosts over and over again, making, to date, six films about them and their scary house, but this is probably the best of them all. Eschewing the traditional haunted house structure where things start off creepy and escalate to terrifying (if you’re lucky), it’s a non-stop ghost train with the creaky-voiced Kayako (Takako Fuji) and her wide-eyed meowing son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) popping up every couple of minutes. Brrrrrrrr.
Strictly speaking, the entity haunting the Oswalt family isn’t a ghost, it’s a kind of demon, but he comes with an entourage of ghostly kids, and they’re just as scary as he is, so I’m gonna’ say this counts. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a crime writer who drags his family into danger by moving into a house where a horrifying crime was committed, hoping it’ll inspire his next book. But, well, things never quite turn out like that, do they?
The scariest parts of Sinister are probably the old Super 8 movies Ellison finds in the attic, showing what happened to previous families who messed around with this particular demon – they’re violent in disturbingly creative ways.
Actually a bit scarier than you think it is, Beetlejuice features Tim Burton’s idea of a haunted house – all weird architecture and manic ghosts. They’re sad ghosts too, as the Maitlands return to their home after a car accident only to find that their house isn’t theirs anymore, and the new inhabitants can’t see them. If they want to have their house to themselves again, they’ll need to scare off the obnoxious new family.
It’s a smart inversion of the usual haunted house story where the living are trying to kick out the dead, and Michael Keaton’s “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse, while not your usual chain-rattler, is a creation of nightmarish energy.
The Skeleton Key (2005)
Something spooky’s going on in a crumbling mansion deep in the Louisiana bayou. When Caroline (Kate Hudson) takes a job as caregiver to an elderly man, she thinks she’s prepared for the isolation and weirdnesses of the household, but after running afoul of the lady of the house, Violet (Gena Rowlands), she begins to suspect her patient suffered more than just a stroke…
Creepy from the outset, what’s great about The Skeleton Key is the way its heroine is slowly seduced into believing in the supernatural. The ghosts here are particularly nasty ones (though in fairness, they were given good cause, initially), and it’s got one hell of a sting at the end.
Darkness was directed by Jaume Balagueró of REC and Sleep Tight fame, which should be a pretty good indication that it’s not the slick early-2000s Hollywood nonsense the box art makes it look like. Nope, this is a nasty little film with a creepy atmosphere and a killer twist – though there seem to be two different cuts of it around, and the one that takes out all the swearing and violence is a bit rubbish. The harsher one, though, will make you consider investing in a nightlight. Just in case.
The Others (2001)
This is one of those films you ideally want to know nothing about before it starts. It’s got an incredibly creepy set up: Grace (Nicole Kidman) is a frazzled mother, waiting for news about her soldier husband while trying to take care of her two kids. What makes that especially difficult is that the kids have a rare disease that makes them incredibly sensitive to light, so Grace moves them all into a remote country mansion where the servants are instructed to always keep the curtains closed…
Even if you think you know what happens, The Others is worth watching, because it’s a beautifully made, clever, and insanely creepy ghost story.
The Innocents (1961)
Speaking of kids with very particular needs, the children in The Innocents are a pair you definitely wouldn’t fancy babysitting. Based on Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, the film sees a new governess move into a fancy country pile to look after a couple of orphans. Their last governess died a year ago in mysterious circumstances, though, and the kids have a nasty habit of talking to people who aren’t there…
Every appearance of the ghosts in this movie is chilling, but probably the scariest thing about it is Martin Stephens, the child actor who plays Miles. He also played the leader of the creepy kids in Village Of The Damned, and there’s something really eerie about him.
House On Haunted Hill (1959)
Another William Castle film, the gimmick for House On Haunted Hill saw a plastic skeleton flown over the heads of cinema audiences. Sadly, you probably can’t recapture that particular thrill at home, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t worth watching. Vincent Price is on fine form as the dastardly Frederick Loren, a millionaire who invites a group of strangers to spend the night in his haunted house – with a $10,000 prize for anyone who makes it till morning. Ghosts should be the least of anyone’s worries, considering the elaborate games the party’s hosts are playing with one another, but that ending will give anyone goosebumps.
The Woman In Black (1989)
A made-for-TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella, The Woman In Black sees a young solicitor head out to a remote house to deal with the affairs of a recently deceased recluse. The fact that the only way to get to the house is to cross a narrow causeway that’s only accessible at certain times of the day and pretty much permanently shrouded in mist should’ve tipped him off that this was a terrible plan, but it’s only when he starts going through the paperwork that he realizes something spooky is going on.
This version is a bit slower than the Daniel Radcliffe remake, but it’s got one big scare that more than makes up for it – and the ending is better in this one too.
Another TV production, what makes Ghostwatch so scary is how utterly believable it seems. Originally broadcast “as live” on Oct. 31, 1992, it starred real TV presenters both inside a BBC studio and out on location, investigating a family’s claims that their home was haunted by a poltergeist known as “Pipes.” The ghost makes several appearances throughout, initially so subtle you might miss them, then increasingly obvious, and by the end, even the TV studio isn’t safe.
Watching it now, with years of distance and knowing it’s not real, you’d think it’d lose some of its power, but nope. It’s still really, properly scary.
The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan’s ode to ’70s horror sees a pair of paranormal investigators coming to the aid of an unfortunate family who’ve moved into one of the most terrifyingly haunted houses ever. There are jump scares galore, as Wan lets his characters wander into darkened basements and play with antique children’s toys in excruciating sequences you just know are going to end with a ghost leaping out at you.
In between the scares, if you can look out from between your fingers long enough to notice, this is a smart film with a strong emotional core. It’s got some brilliant set design, some great performances, and some of the most gleefully swoopy camerawork in any film made since 1980.
The Uninvited (1944)
A sort of cuddlier take on Rebecca – with actual ghosts! – The Uninvited sees a brother and sister moving from London to Cornwall to take advantage of a gorgeous abandoned house they’ve found on the clifftops. Considering how long it’s been empty, the house is immaculate… except for one upstairs room, which is always cold, and somehow ugly, and, well, yeah, obviously it’s haunted. The dialogue is snappy, the characters well-realized, and the story engrossing. The Mrs. Danvers analogue is properly sinister too.
The Haunting (1963)
Based on Shirley Jackson’s properly creepy novel, The Haunting Of Hill House, there are a lot of similarities between this and The Legend Of Hell House. But this came first, and though its scares are more subtle, for my money they’re also far more effective. The group of paranormal investigators here don’t have any fancy electromagnetic machinery to measure the effects of the supernatural; instead, they’ve got only their own senses. And Hill House is happy to provide all kinds of phenomena for them to puzzle over, from mysterious chills to banging on the walls to unseen, cold hands in the night…
This story gets inside your head and never quite goes away. So little about it is ever explained, and it ends so horrifically that there’s no closure, only a creeping sensation that maybe, just maybe, some houses are actually evil.
The Haunting Of Hill House (2018)
Shirley Jackson’s novel was adapted again in 1999 as a lame Scooby-Doo rip-off starring Lian Neeson and Owen Wilson, but it got a Netflix reboot this year courtesy of Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Before I Wake, Gerald’s Game). Proving that the haunted house premise can work over 10 hours instead of just two, Flanagan’s smart, stylish, downright frightening take on the genre feels like a bit of a milestone. With enough space and time to burrow into Jackson’s classic novel (and for it to burrow into us), the series is a triumph of style and substance – atmosphere over cheap thrills.
A character based horror that doesn’t skimp on the details, Flanagan’s show is a wonderful celebration of the original novel – repairing the damage done by the ’99 version. What’s more, it’s got one hell of beautiful, terrifying, haunted house in it that actually feels like it’s worth staying in for an all-night binge-watch.
Crimson Peak (2015)
Crimson Peak seems poised to take its place in the official canon of brilliant haunted house movies. The titular Crimson Peak, known officially as Allerdale Hall, is the most elaborately designed haunted house you’ve ever seen, with its gaping roof, weeping walls, and sinking foundations; it’s a maze of tiny, darkened rooms, each one promising new horrors.
The ghosts themselves are similarly well-designed; they appear as skeletal forms, the injuries that killed them still clearly visible, their ectoplasm stained with the blood-red clay they’re buried in. Director Guillermo del Toro hired two of the best monster performers in the business, Doug Jones and Javier Botet, to play the ghosts, and used practical rather than digital effects wherever possible – an extra bit of effort that pays off massively, because these are some of the most physically present ghosts you’ll ever see.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Amityville Horror, based on the book of the same title by Jay Anson, claims to be based on a true story. And while that seems like it probably isn’t actually true, at all, it’s still a brilliant haunted house film – it’s an obvious choice, but there’s a reason for that. It’s just great.
For starters, it gets right what so many haunted house movies get wrong: the Lutzes know they’re buying a house with a history from the off, but the house itself is so big and so grand (and so affordable!) that they’re tempted into it anyway. George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) are believable, likeable characters from the beginning, and you can really feel their excitement and hope when they first move into the house. A few flies and a broken window aren’t going to put them off… but then the scares amp up (and, spoiler: when it gets properly scary, they do what any sensible person would do and move out!). The build-up of tension is effective, and it all just works.
The same can’t be said for most of the sequels, but the 2005 remake isn’t terrible – it’s just not as good as the original.