The Haunted House Movie is one of my favorite types of horror movies. Multiple factors contribute to my appreciation, but the biggest thing for me is what a haunted house movie accomplishes as a trope. Haunted house movies may not be the scariest genre, but it is certainly the most unsettling in my book. These movies are about the pollution of the sacred sanctuary of a home. Otherworldly forces beyond human control destroy the integrity of a house as a protective dwelling, which terrifies me on a deep level.
As human beings, shelter is paramount to our survival. We must have a place to shield us from the elements. We must have a secure retreat to protect us from hundreds of daily threats. We also rely on such spaces to let down our guard, to relax and temporarily discard the various masks that keep us confident in public spaces. We find privacy at home. We find refuge at home.
Home is where we unwind in front of the TV after a long day of work. Home is where we keep our possessions. Home is where we dose in bed while fighting a nasty cold. Home is where we shower. Home is where we tuck our children in before we go to sleep.
Home gives us stability and strength, but it is where we are most vulnerable. Because we are dependent on the private physical space of a home, we want a house to be idyllic, peaceful, tranquil. We want a home to be warm, inviting, and full of love.
This is hardly the case, and those of us who have such happy homes are lucky indeed. There’s no shortage of private domestic problems waiting at home for many of us. When we step across the threshold, the problems of the public world may melt away, but just inside are a host of potential problems—money issues, parenting challenges, family arguments that wither into frigid resentment. There may be other, more menacing problems waiting for us, problems we don’t want to see. Problems we don’t want to name.
At its core, a haunted house movie is a story that challenges our assumptions about home. If we ignore or problems at home, if we neglect our familial relationships, if we disdain bad things that happened in the past, they will not stay tucked away in a junk drawer or remain silent in a locked cupboard.
The best haunted house movies subvert the concept of a safe haven and make it a prison. The walls that kept danger away serve only to lock in characters with their ghosts and force them to acknowledge secrets that refuse to be forgotten. The reveal of a terrible truth destroys delusions of safety and control, but also clears the air. There is always an emotional and psychological catharsis in a haunted house movie. This catharsis balances the score, sometimes at great cost to the characters.
The best haunted house movies are about reckoning and redemption.
In keeping with the archetypal meaning of a haunted house, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most renowned, influential haunted house movies. The following movies are some of my absolute favorite horror movies of all time. They are dark, moody, scary, and often heartrending in their examination of how the characters interact with the haunted house. Haunted house movies are perfect for depicting the intersection of the past and the present and how the sins and crimes of older generations have imprinted upon the house like invisible handprints. These handprints mark the house with unresolved burdens for the present and future and there is no escape until the house is cleansed. If it can be.
Without further ado (HERE BE SPOILERS):
The Innocents (1961)
“Based on the Henry James story “The Turn of the Screw,” a psychological thriller about a woman who takes a governess job for two orphans in a Victorian home. She begins to see what she believes are ghosts and suspects the children’s bizarre behavior is the result of supernatural powers.”
Have you ever moved into a new apartment or home and wondered about the people who came before you? Haunted house don’t have to be haunted b actual ghosts. They can be haunted by mystery, by scandal, by the faintest whispers of pain and depravity. A person may be sensitive to the psychological residue of a house, or simply have an active imagination easily stoked by rumors.
I’ve always loved this movie. This psychological horror at its finest, exploring all the ways a person can create their own nightmare with a little push from the past. Like in The Turn of the Screw, the audience is never really supposed to know if the governess is truly seeing ghosts or if she is losing her sanity. We are not meant to. The audience is meant to wonder what is happening and why, which leads us to experience Miss Giddens’ own uncertainty.
This uncertainty is masterfully executed depiction of the house. By day, the house is intimidating but beautiful. At night, when there is nothing to occupy her mind and everything to provoke it, the house is ominous. Everything she hears, everything she sees could be a clue or even proof that the ghosts are possessing the children. The house is powerful in its power of suggestion and its capacity to invoke paranoia. It symbolizes deep moral turmoil.
It is not the house or children who have become possessed. The governess has become possessed by her own psychological issues.
The Haunting (1963)
“Dr. John Markway, an anthropologist with an interest in psychic phenomena, takes two specially selected women to Hill House, a reportedly haunted mansion. Eleanor, a lonely, eccentric woman with a supernatural event in her past, and the bold Theodora, who has ESP, join John and the mansion’s heir, cynical Luke. They are immediately overwhelmed by strange sounds and events, and Eleanor comes to believe the house is alive and speaking directly to her.”
The Haunting is similar to the Innocents in many ways—mood, tone, a female lead character who may or may not be going crazy. But where The Haunting departs from The Innocents is in the presence of supernatural activity. The Innocents never confirms or denies that ghosts are haunting the house, but something paranormal is certainly happening in The Haunting. Whether or not the house is haunted by ghosts or acting as a sinister amplification of the Eleanor’s latent psychic power is the real question.
I’ve written before about how physical spaces mold and impact our behaviors, thoughts and feelings. The shape of a room or the construction of stairs on a stair case can have subtle but acute effects. And this movie really is all about the house, a sprawling, baroque mass of a house. It has a dizzying, disorienting effect on camera, with multiple off-kilter shots and dramatic lighting. As the house works on poor Eleanor’s nerves, it becomes less and less of a house and more of a living presence, pushing her closer to the edge, as it has done for all its other inhabitants. I love how The Haunting reminds me not to take the structure of a house for granted – human psychology is not so robust as to escape the influence of a person’s dwelling, especially if that dwelling is trying to make a person commit suicide.
The Changeling (1980)
“Composer John Russell is vacationing with his family when a car accident kills his wife and daughter. Distraught with grief, Russell leaves his home in New York City for a giant, secluded house near Seattle. Soon Russell starts to feel the presence of a ghost, a boy who drowned in the bathtub there. Russell seeks the assistance of Claire Norman, who led him to the house initially, in uncovering the secrets of the boy’s death.”
The Changeling is an important haunted house film for one simple reason—the protagonist is a man. Almost all of the haunted house movies feature women and children in in the lead roles. If men are present in the story, they are either secondary characters (The Haunting) or presented as part of a family (The Shining). Rarely does a lone man face the terrors of a haunted house.
It’s not exactly surprising that the male lead in this film is a father (haunted houses do trade in domestic turmoil). Reeling from the loss of his wife and child, he grapples with his sorrow. His grief ultimately opens him up to the presence of the ghost in his new house. Still a father, he becomes obsessed with figuring out how to help the ghost.
It gives him new purpose. Which isn’t exactly a new plot device in this subgenre. What is interesting is that John never really exhibits signs of being scared of the ghostly activity, let alone terrified. When he first experiences weird sounds and creepy visions, he seems more curious than shocked. He never freaks out. Even when the ghost causes a mirror to explode and John catches a shard in his neck, his response is more annoyance than horror at the fact that he has a shard of glass in his neck. He is really only affected by two examples of ghostly phenomena, one that elicits a stoic look of shock and the other that causes him to collapse with disgust at the murderous actions of another father.
This portrayal is very different from the way mothers are portrayed in haunted house movies. I don’t think this is indicative of a fundamental difference between men and women. After all, if anyone, man or women, experienced the famous bouncing ball scene, I’m sure they would run from that house as fast as possible. No, this film is about the strength of fathers. It’s important that John was able to redeem himself for the death of his family by helping the ghost. When his family died, he watched helplessly. Given another chance, he is cool, calm and collected, which makes him the father the ghost never had.
The house and his ghost offered him redemption and, ultimately, peace.
The Shining (1980)
“Jack Torrance becomes winter caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel in Colorado, hoping to cure his writer’s block. He settles in along with his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny, who is plagued by psychic premonitions. As Jack’s writing goes nowhere and Danny’s visions become more disturbing, Jack discovers the hotel’s dark secrets and begins to unravel into a homicidal maniac hell-bent on terrorizing his family.”
This isn’t your typical haunted house movie, since The Shining is set in a hotel, but it works. Isn’t that the interesting thing about hotels? They’re not our normal safe space, but oftentimes we are forced to treat a hotel room the same way, despite how impersonal they are, despite how many people have occupied the same room.
So I love how The Shining focuses on the how the Overlook Hotel is not only alive but also a collection of the psychological residue of all the depravity and destruction caused by previous visitors. It’s luxurious and relaxing on the surface though the hotel is rotten to its core beneath the gleaming white walls and zany carpets.
It an evil place, one that uses its isolation and twisted corridors to tempt those already on the edge to jump clean off it. The house reflects the maze of Jack’s mind and becomes an extension of his abuse. It pushes him too, telling Jack everything he ever wanted to hear to justify his actions. It’s elegant vast rooms are vessels for the turmoil of anger and resentment roiling beneath the surface. Its ghosts are gleeful instigators bent on unleashing Jack’s abusive insanity in order to add a few more souls to its collection of terrible people. His bullied wife and fearful child realize they are locked inside a well-furnished and beautifully decorated prison.
“Strange and creepy happenings beset an average California family, the Freelings — Steve, Diane, teenaged Dana, eight-year-old Robbie, and five-year-old Carol Ann — when ghosts commune with them through the television set. Initially friendly and playful, the spirits turn unexpectedly menacing, and, when Carol Ann goes missing, Steve and Diane turn to a parapsychologist and eventually an exorcist for help.”
Poltergeist is one of my favorite movies; hell, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I love the film for any reasons. In particular, I really appreciate how the house is so normal, so 80s, so nondescript. It’s not decrepit or bleak. It’s large and suburban, which, in the 80s, was a home many aspired to own. If a person lived I such a house, that meant their family was well-off, safe, and had access to important amenities like good schools. The suburbs were supposed to be havens from the dirty, crime-ridden cities, and a home like this was supposed to be an indication that your world was very much in your control.
That’s not reality at all.
When the film begins, the condition of the home mirrors that stare of the family. Their home is warm and inviting, a little messy with three children and renovations, but a lovely home nonetheless. The father works and does well enough that the mother can stay at home, like the perfect American family. But the comfortable banality of their suburban life is threatened by old sins. In haunted house movies, old sins never go unpunished, and ghosts don’t really care who they punish. Overnight, the family’s bastion of upper-middle class tranquility becomes their worst nightmare, literally stealing a child. IT becomes a portal through which the ghosts express their anger at how this house, this 1980s American dram, was built at their expense.
The Others (2001)
“Grace, the devoutly religious mother of Anne and Nicholas, moves her family to the English coast during World War II. She awaits word on her missing husband while protecting her children from a rare photosensitivity disease that causes the sun to harm them. Anne claims she sees ghosts, Grace initially thinks the new servants are playing tricks but chilling events and visions make her believe something supernatural has occurred.”
There was no way I could make a list like this and not include The Others. It’s a magnificent haunted house movie in all the ways a haunted house movie should be— it has a brooding and formidable house, somber and dark interiors, an expertly calibrated sound and art design, a fragile yet overbearing mother and creepy pale children, and unsettling supernatural phenomena.
What is special about The Others is how the film is rooted in the point of view of the ghosts themselves who do not realize they are ghosts. With this simple twist, The Others becomes a story of overwhelming grief rather than fear. It focuses on the meaning of home, of a spouse and children. Family is instrumental to a person’s identity, and when that identity changes, people sometimes react in awful ways. Grace’s character has clung to an old version of who she was and what her family was. Even after Grace snaps from the grief of her missing husband and caring for the children, and even after she learns what she did to her children, she refuses to accept that her identity has changed. And because her identity is rooted in the home, her ghost refuses to surrender the house.
It’s a rare kind of movie that shows how much the dead can still maintain a connection to the old world, stubbornly refusing to accept the truth even after it is unveiled. Grief is powerful, and the living can haunt the dead.
The Orphanage (2007)
“Laura has happy memories of her childhood in an orphanage. She convinces her husband to buy the place and help her convert it into a home for sick children. One day, her own adopted son, Simón, disappears. Simon is critically ill, and when he is still missing several months later, he is presumed dead. Grief-stricken Laura believes she hears spirits, who may or may not be trying to help her find the boy.”
What is it about Spanish horror films that makes them particularly sinister? There is a certain realism to their films—it’s not gritty or grainy, but a worn feeling, aged, beautiful, and poignant. Spanish haunted house movies are legendary for their grasp of gothic elements, as seen in The Others. They’ve mastered atmosphere, light and shadows, the sight of a character shivering, and the small sounds of frantic gasps and creaking doors.
They’ve also mastered a balance between horror and sadness, delivering movies that keep you on the edge of your seat and make you weep buckets.
Seriously, The Orphanage is like a much, much more depressing version of Poltergeist, without the happy ending.
The titular orphanage is a grand old house, very much what the typical haunted house looks like. What is so interesting about this house is the importance Laura places on it. After growing up in the orphanage, an experience she remembers fondly, she wants to recreate that experience for other sick children. She even adopts an HIV positive child. But Simon’s illness weighs heavily on the family. Laura and her husband have convinced themselves they can extend his life, but they have a hard time grappling with the fact that their son will die soon.
Consequently, when Simon goes missing and is presumed dead, Laura is desperate to find him and will not hear reason. Against all odds she soldiers on, refusing to consider that her son might be dead. The house becomes a physical representation of her stubborn, frantic sorrow. It reveals terrible truths about the orphanage’s past. It becomes a self-imposed prison as she tries to communicate with the ghosts who live there. And it becomes a horrible mausoleum, a final resting place for the children she could not save. It is a somber monument to the unique despair and anguish a parent feels when they have failed, through no fault of theirs, to protect their children from death.
The Conjuring (2013)
“In 1970, paranormal investigators and demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren are summoned to the home of Carolyn and Roger Perron. The Perrons and their five daughters have recently moved into a secluded farmhouse, where a supernatural presence has made itself known. Though the manifestations are relatively benign at first, events soon escalate in horrifying fashion, especially after the Warrens discover the house’s macabre history.”
Here’s a film where the house in question is unnerving from the moment it appears on screen. Normally, I get annoyed when a house is obviously shady and the characters don’t leave for contrived reasons. However, I appreciate that that The Conjuring attempts to explain the characters’ reasons for 1) picking that house to live in and 2) staying in the house after it becomes clear a malevolent presence haunts it. Because the Perron Family doesn’t have much money, they can’t afford to purchase a nicer house closer into town, and once they sink all their money into the house, there is no way they can afford to move out. These details are subtle but make all the difference.
At the beginning, the Perrons are excited to move into the house, creepy or not, because they feel lie they’ve finally achieved a central part of the American dream – home ownership. That dream is dashed because of the devilish ghost that haunts the house, and the house becomes a stunning symbol of how their financial situation is a profound threat to the entire family.
The Perrons are even more helpless than your average haunted house dweller. It’s not unusual for haunted house movies to feature wealthy characters, or at least characters with means. Their time in the house is usually temporary (The Haunting) or they have the means to leave but chose to stay (Poltergeist). Or, at very most, the characters are physically barred from leaving the house for a time (The Shining). In The Conjuring, nothing physically bars the Perrons from leaving. But money is a force as strong as any. It traps people, backs them into corners, and confronts them with unsolvable problems. By the time the Perrons decide to spend the money to leave the house, it’s far too late to do any good.
These details really struck me. Everyone has experienced money problems at some point, but I guarantee most people have never been in the Perrons’ situation. It’s still terrifying to think of something so fickle and uncontrollable as money having the power to rob a family of their safety.
And yet it happens every day.