It has experienced recent resurgence in popularity in recent years but the haunted house movie is one of the longest running traditions in horror, dating back decades upon decades. This is a sub-genre that has lent itself to numerous reinventions. From the gothic dramas of the ‘40’s, to the FX-driven movies of the ‘80’s down to the current surge of found footage pictures that see release on a regular basis. Haunted house thrillers, much like their residential spirits, just keep on going. And with good reason, too. The fascination with ghosts and the paranormal will never go away. People will always wonder whether or not we continue on after death. This kind of film relies on psychological scares more than physical frights. More than any other sub-genre, a haunted house story relies on the actor to sell the fear. If they’re afraid of the sound of footsteps, we will be too. Here are five movies that applied the concept perfectly and are better than any haunted house film to see release in the past 20 years.
The Legend of Hell House
Richard Matheson adapted the screenplay for The Legend of Hell House from his novel. It’s about a group of people who go to the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” as they believe it is the one paranormal location that truly has yet to be debunked. The team is equally divided between physicists and paranormal psychologists, which makes for an interesting dynamic as the movie goes on. For most of its running time, The Legend of Hell House keeps the viewer wondering as to whether or not the story is actually supernatural. At the same time, it provides great atmosphere and genuine scares. It’s one of the few horror adaptations where the experience of reading it is almost identical to watching it.
It’s one of the most overlooked haunted house movies out there, but it’s also one of the best. George C. Scott stars as a composer who moves into a large Victorian mansion following the deaths of his wife and daughter. Obviously, he’s not alone in the house. He’s accompanied by the ghost of a murdered young boy. This is one of the scariest haunted house movies out there because it not only makes your hair stand on end, but is disturbing on an emotional level with the sense of loss that it conveys. In addition to that, there’s a horrific backstory that keeps unfolding throughout the feature. George C. Scott gives one of the best, most layered performances of his career.
The great revelation of Poltergeist is that it is not, in fact, about a poltergeist. Early in the movie, the parapsychologists explain the difference between a poltergeist and a haunting. They prepare for the former and when it turns out to be the latter, they are completely caught off-guard. Poltergeist is different from most movies in the sub-genre. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s the total opposite of the normal haunted house movie. While it creates tension, it’s much more loaded with special effects than most of its type, even bringing in other planes of existence.
Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting is one of the scariest films of all time. This is astonishing because virtually nothing happens in it. But all of the actors in the film completely sell the fear. The Haunting is one of the pictures from its era, like Psycho, that completely holds up. This one really should be used as a guide on how to make an effective horror picture, because it proves that the smallest sound, the slightest echo can be terrifying if done right.
People still seem to debate whether or not Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a haunted house movie. This really shouldn’t be the case, though, because the film makes no attempt to hide its supernatural side. The primary antagonist of the piece is the Overlook hotel, which begins to drive the Torrance family apart by tormenting young Danny with visions of its past and driving Jack further into insanity as he fulfills his role as caretaker. Really everything in The Shining comes down to playing a part. Jack is pretending to be a recovered alcoholic, Danny is trying to hide his gifts from his parents and only shares them with Halloran, Wendy is pretending that her family is on the right track, that everything is fine. All of these things are what the hotel chooses to exploit. As a result, The Shining is as psychologically unnerving as it is straightforwardly scary.