I’m not going to lie– I love spending time in haunted houses. Not real ones, mind, but a vicarious thrill from the screen or page is one of my favourite things. Because of this I’ll watch pretty much every haunted house film that comes my way, from the sublime (“Stay out of the light, Carol Anne!”) to the ridiculous (see 1988’s Ghosthouse, although that does have some of the creepiest music linked to a clown doll in cinematic history*). There a far too many to make a list, but lets chat about them anyway, shall we, and I’ll share some of my favourite ways haunted house movies scare me.
In a dark dark wood…
…there was a dark, dark house, and in the dark, dark house there was… the perfect setting for a horror film. When you say ‘haunted house’ the image that springs to mind is usually a creaky old mansion and movie makers were not slow to utilise this in the early days of horror. The Old Dark House (1932) is not a haunted house film per se, but it did set the template for many films that followed. Based on the hit book Benighted by J.B. Priestley it was one of the few early films that played spooks for scares instead of laughs, with the winning pairing of director James Whale of Frankenstein fame with Universal horror star Boris Karloff. It follows the now familiar storyline of strangers forced by circumstance into spending the night in a spooky old mansion and the tension and atmosphere created by Whale and the excellent cast (as well as Karloff there are excellent turns from Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Gloria Stewart and Eva Moore) means it still stands as one of the creepiest films around.
Being forced to stay in a creepy old house is also the premise for one of my other favourite films– The Woman in Black. But just to be pernickety I have to say that I prefer the BBC version from 1989. Although the later Hammer version with Daniel Radcliffe was fine the TV version just seemed to capture the awful feelings Susan Hill was able to conjure a little better. And although reading the book I always pictured Geraldine Chaplin as the titular dark-garbed lady, Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon from Poirot) gives a surprisingly freaky go at the role.
One of my all time favourite haunted house films just about fits into the spooky mansion type, although with significant differences. The Changeling is on just about everybody’s list as one of the best haunted house movies, and with good reason– it is almost the perfect ghost story on film. George C. Scott is a bereaved composer who takes up residence in a beautiful but run down mansion only to discover it is not as empty as he had thought. Funnily enough this movie also features Melvyn Douglas– who was the dashing young Penderel in The Old Dark House and plays the elderly scion Senator Carmichael in The Changeling.
Although The Changeling is definitely a story with a spooky house it also straddles this next category as well. Part of what is so frightening about the 1980 movie is that so many of the scares happen in the bright light of day. We all know about things that go bump in the night but there is something about the supposed safety of daylight that make daytime bumps even more scary.
This is part of the creepiness for me in films like The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982). Rather than strangers being stuck somewhere spooky these films bring the terror right into the comfortable family home. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Poltergeist but it is the contrast between the cosy normality of the Freelings and what happens to them that still gets me every time. And if you love Poltergeist as much as I do I suggest you check out Steven Spielberg’s 1972 TV movie Something Evil for spooky times in rural Pennsylvania.
Another film that does this is the under-seen based-on-a-true-story TV movie The Haunted (1991). In this film the Smurl family move into a suburban duplex, only to become seriously bothered by spirits and demonic forces. None other Ed and Lorraine Warren (of The Conjuring fame) have to step in and help them out. I have heard that The Haunted is finally going to get a dvd/bluray release which could help it get the audience it deserves– although you can still see it at the moment for free on youtube.
The other true story haunted house movie I recommend at every opportunity is actually a mini-series– The Enfield Haunting stars Timothy Spall as the hapless Maurice Grosse who investigated the strange occurrences in North London in 1977. Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm (The Killing) it came out 2015 and is the perfect antidote to those who found the treatment James Wan gave the same subject matter in The Conjuring 2 a little cheesy ( I should say I love James Wan and the first three quarters of The Conjuring are some of my favourite haunted house cinema moments ever).
A more recent and excellent example of the Suburban Nightmare is The Pact (2012) a tasty little film that makes creepy use of Californian afternoon sun and suburbs to highlight the hidden horrors of returning to your childhood home.
Paranormal Period Pieces
Just because the I love ghosts in mundane and modern settings doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of love (a LOT of love) for Victorian/Edwardian ghost stories as well. As a bit of a costume freak I love a nice period drama and if you whack some ghosts in there as well I’m in nerd heaven. Which is why I have a lot of time for The Awakening (2011). Rebecca Hall is a professional skeptic on a personal mission to de-bunk the psychic frauds preying on the bereaved after the first world war, only to have her own beliefs shaken at a spooky school for boys where there are funny goings on. Dominic West in suspenders AND a ghost story– hello! If you liked The Others (2001) then you’ll probably enjoy this.
I’m Freaking Out, Man…
Another type of haunted house film I am particularly fond of is the slightly psychedelic, totally psychological haunted house freak out film. The Haunting (1963) based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a sterling example of this– strangers are brought together in a reputedly haunted house to capture evidence of the supernatural. Their interpersonal dynamics and personality, as well as the trippy house itself are just important as the ghosts as sources of scares. In particular the tenuous friendship between the very different characters played by Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, and the interior dialogue provided by Bloom’s fragile Eleanor Lance make this movie such a stand out for me.
A film in a similar vein is the 1973 British feature The Legend of Hell House, based off the book by the same name by Richard Matheson (who wrote the screenplay as well). Here it is full 70s victoriana as the sinister Belasco House seems ready to consume the paranormal investigators itself before they get a chance to probe its insides. The saturated colours and psychedelic decor seem as much of a paranormal presence as the purported ghosts– victims of a six foot five Victorian serial killer.
The more modern version of this trope comes from the mini-series Rose Red (2002), penned by Stephen King and featuring our own Melanie Lynskey. It is another ‘team of psychics’ film in which the house itself seems be the entity responsible for unearthly happenings. It’s a ‘twisty hall’ story where the walls and rooms won’t stay put and everybody has to face their own personal freak-outs; something that King always writes well).
Are you a haunted house fan like me? Let me know what your favourites are because I am always on the hunt for a new creepy mansion or spooky duplex to spend an evening in!
*see what I mean?!