- Floorboards creak, doors slam shut, and spooky spirits go bump in the night; the haunted house movie is a staple of the horror genre, and for good reason — paranormal thrills never go out of style. Where slashers and creature features come and go from cinematic trends, tales of ghostly apparitions and supernatural spooks never seem to go out of style. Perhaps it’s because the haunted house genre contains magnitudes. Gothic romance, quirky comedies, and of course, tales of terror populate the genre, which offers a big, free realm for filmmakers to play in. It’s also a visceral, primal fear, but unlike the zombies and slashers that prowl through other horror hits, there’s something fundamentally unknowable about ghost stories; a mysterious freedom that allows filmmakers to bend the rules without breaking the suspension of disbelief and discover countless ways to conjure up fear from the specters of the dead.
With that in mind, we tried not to be too pedantic about what could earn a spot on the list. The films didn’t have to be straight-up horror, though the nature of the genre ensures that there will be some chilling or at least morbid moments. We also allowed for films that offer a refreshing spin on the haunted house format like Insidious and Lake Mungo — they may not match the traditional idea of what a haunting looks like, but they absolutely embrace the structure and tropes of the genre to deliver their thrills and chills.
The haunted house genre is vast and enduring, which means this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, but in putting it together we looked for a mix of classics and newfound favorites from across the decades. So grab your EVP recorders and full spectrum cameras, and get ready for some ghostly good times in the picks below, and for more recommendations check out our list of underseen haunted house movies.
Many of the great ghost stories embrace our skepticism of whether our protagonists are actually haunted by ghosts or just losing their minds to unexplained sounds, forgotten placements of objects, and their mind fills in the blanks in ways that then present spooky visages. Robert Wise’s The Haunting presents this as a dare. There’s a spooky mansion with handed down tales of hauntings, death, and insanity. Someone’s about to inherit the house, though, so they pay to send researchers of the paranormal to stay in the house and provide him explanations for the haunting.
Is the house on the hill actually haunted? Or does being told that it’s haunted play tricks on everyone inside? Some retain skepticism. Others go mad. It seems that if the house wants anything, it’s both of these responses because both skepticism and belief will continue to send people there for answers. — Brian Formo
The friendly family home plays host to one of the rare instances in which producer Steven Spielberg aims to scare the pants of his audience members. Poltergeist made a bunch of American suburbanites question their real estate purchase and doubled down on the old adage of “Location, location, location.” If you don’t know just why the Freeling family’s home was built in the worst possible place, then I highly suggest you go watch the film again (or for the first time) right now.
Led by the charismatic Craig T. Nelson, the cast of Poltergeist is every bit as enjoyable as the spectral special effects on display here. There’s an earnest family vibe among the actors as if the five-some were actually related by blood. Part of that is due to Spielberg’s uncanny ability to conjure heartfelt emotion; the rest is just pure talent and spot-on casting. It makes the horror all the more believable after the parapsychologists and spiritual medium clear out and the real scares swoop in thanks to the house’s peculiar position between this world and the next. This classic still holds up more than 35 years later thanks to picture-perfect casting and stellar special effects. – Dave Trumbore
Where other ghost tales may focus on homes stirred into tumult by specters or human possession, The Entity supposes something a lot more discomfiting: the act of being repeatedly raped by a ghost. That’s what Barbara Hershey’s mother of four must survive on a somewhat regular basis in her home, a status that she calls in Ron Silver’s doctor to give her some insight into. The attacks themselves are brutal even as they feature nothing more than Hershey struggling against an invisible being. That’s the talent of Sidney J. Furie coming out, and it’s the grinding mechanical noise accompaniment as much as the images of Hershey unable to control her own body. The movie takes a turn toward scientific reasoning – amongst the ghost rape – which unfortunately suggests a lack of confidence in the sheer madness and emotional effectiveness of the premise and its execution. Up until the attempts to bring in physics, chemistry, and whatnot into this unnerving nonsense, however, The Entity is uniquely memorable, and not for particularly joyful reasons. – Chris Cabin
In the wake of The Sixth Sense, plenty of horror movies tried to copy M. Night Shyamalan’s storytelling with a “shocking” twist of their own. A lot of them missed the point entirely, but one in particular stands a cut above: The Others. This 2001 film from Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar is a downright creepy haunted house movie with a jaw-dropping twist that recontextualizes the entire story. But what makes The Others endure is that the twist doesn’t negate or lessen everything that came before, it only enriches it.
The film takes place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and stars Nicole Kidman as a mother caring for her children in a remote country house, made all the more complicated by the fact that the children suffer from a rare condition in which they’re allergic to sunlight. This allows Amenábar to play with mood and atmosphere in an organic yet frightening way, as most of the film takes place in dark, dusty rooms in this vast country house. It’s a terrifying endeavor, and Kidman does a tremendous job of selling all the twists and turns that occur in a way that keeps the story grounded and emotionally engaging. All these years later, I can still feel the punch in my gut from that ending. – Adam Chitwood
A Tale of Two Sisters
Kim Jee-Woon‘s chilling mystery A Tale of Two Sisters is an expertly crafted investigation of family dysfunction through the vehicle of supernatural horror. A sumptuous, gorgeous film, A Tale of Two Sisters follows a troubled pair of young sisters who return to their family home after a period of hospitalization in a mental institution. Devastated by their mother’s death and enraged by their father’s marriage to an uptight young step-mother they obviously hate, the close-knit duo faces unexplainable terrors when they return to a haunted home. In addition to gorgeous cinematography from Lee Mo-gae, which exploits every unturned corner and ominous bump in the night for its full effect, the bright light of day offering no reprieve, A Tale of Two Sisters is a beautiful psychological achievement, exploring trauma, guilt, and intimate familial bonds that border on dependent. The film is genuinely scary throughout, knocking out one hair-raising set piece after the next, but the harrowing truth behind the supernatural menace elevates A Tale of Two Sisters to resonant tragedy and cements it as the kind of groundbreaking horror drama that escalates the genre. — Haleigh Foutch
Stir of Echoes
Richard Matheson’s still-chilling story of ghosts and murder got a potent, buoyantly directed telling by longtime screenwriter David Koepp, but, unfortunately, it came out the same year as The Sixth Sense. Koepp, who has yet to direct another film that’s worth anyone’s attention, indulges in a handful of bump scares but otherwise, this tale of a Chicago telephone lineman (Kevin Bacon) who begins seeing the same specter that his young son is constantly speaking with is all mood and expert technical ability. The editing is remarkable, especially in a scene where Bacon’s everyman rushes home from a local sports game to check on his son, and Koepp neither lets up the tension too much nor makes the film pivot exclusively on plot turns. He has an easy, ingratiating sense of the Chicago area, and gets the tone of the friendships and relationships that Bacon’s character’s family increasingly count on convincing and naturally rhythmic, thanks largely to a great supporting cast that includes Veep’s Kevin Dunn and Kathryn Erb. Like Rosemary’s Baby and, yes, The Sixth Sense, the feel for the city is at once breezily familiar and surprisingly shuddersome, suggesting the piles of neighbors and strangers who have unjustly died in the place that you call home. — Chris Cabin
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak was heralded as the Mexican filmmaker’s first “adult” film in the English language. Fans were primed for something in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, and Warner Bros. leaned hard into the horror underpinnings in the trailers. As it turns out, however, Guillermo del Toro didn’t really make a jump-scare-filled horror movie, he made a Gothic romance. Once you embrace the fact that that’s what kind of movie this is, Crimson Peak’s lush aesthetic, romantic story, and colorful characters really shine. And in the title location, brought to vivid life with some incredible production design, del Toro crafts a haunted house of his own from the ground up.
Crimson Peak does indeed get scary, but all from a character point of view—it’s not scary in the sense that del Toro is trying to spook the audience. Mia Wasikoswska’s young Jane Austen-esque writer is a wonderfully drawn Gothic Romance/Horror heroine, and Jessica Chastain delivers a deliciously evil performance as the sinister sister of Tom Hiddleston’s seemingly wealthy heir—and of course the object of Wasikowska’s affection. Spooky, romantic, evocative—Crimson Peak really is a terrific watch. Just don’t call it a horror film. – Adam Chitwood
The crowning achievement of James Wan‘s fascinating filmmaking career thus far, Insidious packs on its roaming, fluid shots with endless amounts of tension and bursts of nightmarish nonsense. It’s one of those rare ghost tales that uses color with almost percussive attention, most notably in the bright red streaks of the man with the long, sharp nails, but the most eerie part of this story of suburban possession, with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne playing parents to a troubled boy, is when the lights go out. The film’s sequels may have over-explained and tired out the sheer strangeness of the other side, but Wilson’s trip into the foggy blackness in the first incarnation is the sort of stuff that makes you sweat while sitting in winter. Paced brilliantly and edited with rhythmic visual nuance, Insidiousdoesn’t have the sharpened sense of character that The Exorcist or The Changeling do, but it’s unmistakably one of the true heirs to those films’ electrifying way of conveying the confusion, instability, and fright of being haunted by those things one cannot see and are not meant to exist. – Chris Cabin
There’s no shortage of critical commentary on The Shining, and deservedly so. It’s one of the best outright horror films ever made and the same can be said for the subgenre of so-called “psychological horror.” But while the Torrance family and their dysfunctional relationships are at the core of the film’s emotional journey, the movie’s most horrific (yet memorable) moments belong to the “house” itself, the Overlook Hotel.
This place has seen some shit. The combination of the hotel’s sprawling layout, isolation in the Colorado Rockies, and desolation during long winter seasons (and the fact that it was built on a Native American burial ground, you know, that old chestnut) makes this one gnarly place for gathering and concentrating negative spiritual energy. If anything, The Shining only gets to show off a fraction of the evil woven into the hotel’s iconic carpet scheme, and even that small amount mostly focuses on Room 237. The Overlook Hotel might just be the ultimate haunted house of all time, just one excellent aspect of an incredible horror classic. – Dave Trumbore
There’s a lot going on in Beetlejuice: A married couple kicks the bucket and ends up on the wrong side of the mortal divide. They’re introduced to a whole other netherworld populated by ghosts, ghouls, and a bio-exorcist by the name of Beetlejuice. This new manner of existence comes with a set of rules written down in a handbook, but nothing in it prepares them for the horror that awaits them in their former home. A new (and awful) family has moved in and they’re really screwing the place up with their gaudy aesthetic.
Beetlejuice’s clever twist on the haunted house movie sub-genre is that our hero characters are actually the ones haunting their former home. Burton wrings out every ounce of comedy he can from this conceit as the deceased Maitlands attempt to use their new powers to scare off the invading Deetz family. This makes their remodeled Connecticut country home the front line in a battle between the world of the living and the dead, complete with sandworms, the musical styling of Harry Belafonte, and the selfish and self-destructive machinations of the title character. “Jump in the Line” and put this film in your queue if it’s been a while. – Dave Trumbore
Though the haunted house genre had arguably fallen out of favor by the time The Changeling hit theaters, Peter Medak, whose early ‘70s black comedy The Ruling Class set a buttoned-up reputation for the would-be auteur, managed to make a film that would ultimately become a mannered classic of the genre, trendiness be damned. Evoking all the sweeping, creeping dread of The Haunting injected with a core of deep-seated loss, The Changeling isn’t so much a horror film as it is an unsettling mystery, brilliantly shot and calibrated to tick every known box of the genre while managing to build a mythos deep enough to step out very much as its own. A clear influencer of future child horrors like The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage, Medak’s meticulous direction coupled with George C. Scott’simpassively masterful performance as a father in the throes of immense loss makes the film an unmissable stand-out, even as The Changeling rumbles towards its inevitable, gothic conclusion. – Aubrey Page
The Innocents is one of the most evocatively shot horror films of all time. Both narratively and visually, this ghost tale is about what we do in the shadows. The black and white cinematography makes candle flickers unpredictable, the space under a doorway extra creepy, but Jack Clayton also uses it to highlight the black-and-white approach of right and wrong adherence in religion that makes people go mad. In The Innocents, we’re never sure if the ghosts are real or are a manifestation of a mind that’s shaming itself for losing innocence.
Deborah Kerr plays a governess who believes that the grounds of the house—where she cares for two orphaned children—are haunted, perhaps even working to possess the children. Her first inkling of a haunting comes after she hears the children’s uncle (a lascivious Michael Redgrave) boast of a sexual encounter. There’s further evidence that the previous governess and her brutish lover might have introduced sexuality to the children at a young age. There’s an inkling that Kerr’s governess is so sexually repressed that her desire to take care of children is a substitution for feelings of attraction to their experienced uncle. She sees ghostly spirits, whether they’re there or not, and Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis find shadowy dread in every corner. But an undervalued feat is done by screenwriter Truman Capote, who turns a screw on the Henry James novella, The Turning of the Screw, and introduces a locket and photograph at a much earlier point than James’ novella in order to turn the screw on the audience and call everything into question. — Brian Formo
Lake Mungo has no right to be as scary as it is, and yet through a series of still images, docu-style interviews, and slow zooms, it somehow manages to be one of the few films over the last decade that has kept me up at night. Filmed documentary style, Lake Mungo abandons nearly all the flourish of the found-footage trend in favor of a lowkey realism. The feature film debut from writer-director Joel Anderson (and sadly his only to date), Lake Mungo is a quiet and contained portrait of grief that follows a mourning family experiencing signs of the paranormal after their daughter tragically drowns. The faux-documentary horror drama unfolds their tale through a series of unexpected twists that turn genre conventions and audience expectations on their head without ever dropping the suffocating atmosphere of grief-tinged terror. What makes Lake Mungo so special is the honesty and purity of the emotions it exploits, making for a ghost story that is appropriately imbued with a rich, complicated sadness. And while the film has a few unexpected turns, the final big reveal is unlike anything else I’ve seen on a film, a devilishly clever concept that earns pure existential dread. — Haleigh Foutch