There’s something about large houses, especially Gothic ones, that just creeps people out. They’re so big and foreboding and creaky and altogether unsettling. And having to live there?! Forget about it. In Guillermo del Toro‘s new film Crimson Peak, the huge manor house contains not just secrets and creepy, though gorgeous, decor, but also some nasty-looking ghosts.
The haunted house movie is certainly nothing new, and if I’m being honest, that remains the one type of horror film that’s sure to scare me. Because ghosts are scary. I’ve attempted, through clasped fingers and behind pillows, to compile my seven favorite haunted house movies of all time! I’ve also left off movies where it doesn’t take place in a house, specifically. So, like, del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone is a favorite, but it’s not a house where the ghosts reside. Make sense? Read on, if you dare, and as always, your mileage may vary.
7) The Conjuring (2013)
This one is only a couple years old, but I couldn’t help but put it on the list. It’s not just old mansions that can be haunted, as a few movies on this list will attest. Sometimes a regular old house in the country can be scary as all get out. As in, people, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. James Wan’s film sees a family moving in in the ’70s and very quickly a malevolent force begins toying with the children and mother, and only a pair of real-life paranormal investigators can help. It’s a supremely scary movie, and what Wan does incredibly well is to set up the scares in mundane ways. The centerpiece of the whole film is the Blind Man’s Bluff game where the mother (Lily Taylor) is blindfolded and looking for her kids who clap to let her know they’re around. Except, that’s not them clapping. So scary.
6) The Legend of Hell House (1973)
British horror from the ’60s and ’70s is a personal favorite of mine, and this movie, based on a Richard Matheson novel, is one of the best. A group of people with psychic abilities or sensitivities along with a parapsychologist stays in an old house that was once owned by an infamous sadist. A lot of evil things happened in the house and it seems a lot of that energy has stuck around. One of the psychics, played by the excellent Roddy McDowall, has been there before and it nearly drove him insane, but he returns in order to collect a hefty paycheck. Director John Hough (who also did Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain and The Watcher in the Woods) was able to achieve all of the film’s impressive ghost effects entirely in camera, meaning using trickery and magic. He still refuses to explain how they did a lot of that stuff, but you’re too busy being freaked out by the movie to notice.
5) The Others (2001)
Remember 2001, when horror movies were terrible? This supremely creepy Gothic mystery changed that a bit. Nicole Kidman plays a mother of two children who is attempting to make them believe their house isn’t a super haunted place. Buuuut, all the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. There are a lot of really, really eerie moments in the movie, and the fact that the movie brings in those creepy sepia-toned photographs of dead people (that were really a thing) into the narrative helps set the proper atmosphere. This movie also has one of the best twist reveals of any horror movie, though at the time, the twist ending was the huge thing so everybody was doing it. But the question of who really are “The Others” is one that will stick with you after you see it, still.
4) The Orphanage (2007)
On a similar vein as The Others, this Spanish film is scary because it involves children, and children are super freaky. A lot of haunted house movies are also mysteries where the characters need to figure out why the ghosts are ghostin’ up the place. The aforementioned Devil’s Backbone is this, and Crimson Peak looks to be the same. The Orphanage falls into this camp as well, with our lead character (Belén Rueda) trying to figure out who the ghost boy with a sack mask is, and later what became of her own adopted son after being in the once-condemned orphanage where she herself grew up. It’s a very compelling film, and director J. A. Bayona’s use of long hallways, columns of light and shadow, and distance between creepy things, makes this one of the most effective and affecting movies on the list.
3) The Innocents (1961)
I cannot tell you how much this movie creeped me out after seeing it last year. Black and white movies aren’t usually the most scary, but if they’re as gorgeously shot and subtle and downright disturbing as this one, it doesn’t matter how old or greyscale it is. Based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw and partially written by Truman Capote, this movie is set almost entirely in an English manor house (of course) where a wealthy guy pays a new, untested governess (Deborah Kerr, who made a living playing governesses) to come watch his young niece and nephew. She gets along with the kids very well, but it quickly becomes apparent that the boy is preoccupied by some much older proclivities. She learns that the former governess died and it was due to her relationship with the groundskeeper, who was a heel but whom the boy got along with very well. Anyway, ghosts show up, in the corners of frames, and shadows are everywhere. It’s a gorgeous movie, I’d definitely recommend it.
2) Poltergeist (1982)
“B-b-b-but Kyle! That’s not about an old, dark manor house at all!” Yeah, I know, fictional person, that’s the whole point! Just like The Conjuring, Poltergeist takes a regular house and makes it terrifying, but more than The Conjuring, it takes anyhouse, on anystreet, in anyneighborhood, USA. It was a recently-built house that happened to be on top of an ancient Indian burial ground, but even if it wasn’t, would it matter? The point of horror movies is to make you look at the world around you differently, and this is a movie where every toy, every appliance, every bit of static on the TV is frightening, and it’s beyond effective in that way. Tobe Hooper is this film’s credited director, though many maintain producer Steven Spielberg’s hands were the guiding ones; either way, it’s a terrifying trip into suburban paranormal glory. Go into the light.
1) The Haunting (1963)
And finally, this was the no-braineriest of no-brainers on any of these lists I’ve done recently. 52 years later, Robert Wise’s minimalist horror film is perhaps the most perfect haunted house in film history. Why? Well, because it’s not a house full of ghosts; Hill House itself is haunted with evil. The recurrent theme of loneliness, isolation, and depression have made the house, which has winding staircases and long corridors, a place of real bad mojo. We never see any ghosts in the film, but the sound effects and amazing practical trick of having doors pulsing in and out (Disneyland ripped off that trick for the Haunted Mansion ride) are all we need to feel very ill at ease and sure that something sinister is going on. The film also has troubling psychological implications for its main characters, especially Julie Harris’ repressed psychic who’s spent her life taking care of her sickly mother and not venturing out into the world. Naturally, the house has a great time with such an innocent creature. This is the movie that coined the phrase, “Some houses are born bad.”
There you have it! My top 7 favorite haunted house movies. There are A LOT more movies that I couldn’t fit on this list, but they’re still great. Share your favorites in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!