There’s something about a haunted house movie with wailing winds and terrifying specters that fits perfectly in October and the Halloween season for if ever there was a night when unhappy spirits would roam the earth, it would be Halloween.
An unseen presence walks darkened hallways; doors creak as they open by themselves. A phantom voice speaks from beyond the grave. The tropes and archetypes of the subgenre are as familiar as your favorite warm blanket which you huddle under as the film begins.
The ten movies on this list–in no particular order–have been favorites of mine on creepy October nights past, but they are by no means all of my favorites. I wanted to mix together those that are standards and some that you might not have seen before.
So while I love them The Amityville Horror, Insidious, Burnt Offerings, The Conjuring, and a host of others will not appear here. I would, however, love to see some of your favorites in the comments!
#1 Thir13en Ghosts (2001)
This remake of the 1960 William Castle film starring post-Scream Matthew Lillard not only boasts one of the coolest haunted house I’ve ever seen on film, but also some of the most violent specters ever assembled in one location.
From the Hammer to the Jackal, these were definitely not your run-of-the-mill ghosts! The Kriticos family were definitely not prepared for their “inheritance.”
#2 The Haunting (1963)
If I ever make a list about haunted house movies and don’t include 1963’s terrifying The Haunting, assume I’ve been kidnapped and an impostor has taken my place.
Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, and Richard Johnson star in this carefully crafted adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel which finds a scientist attempting to awake the spirits of Hill House. To say that he is successful would be an understatement.
Using atmosphere, sound, and shadow, the film is, at times, more terrifying than any modern FX laden slasher. Turn the lights down low, grab your popcorn and someone to hold onto because once The Haunting has you in its grasp, it won’t let go until the final enigmatic plot twist.
Honorable mention also goes to Mike Flanagan’s brilliant adaptation of the same novel titled The Haunting of Hill House which you’ll find on Netflix!
#3 The Changeling
No, I’m not talking about the movie starring Angelina Jolie.
George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, and Melvyn Douglas lead a brilliant cast in The Changeling, based on a story by playwright Russell Hunter.
After losing his family in a tragic accident, composer John Russell (Scott) moves into a sprawling mansion to work and heal. Little does he know that he isn’t the only resident in the house. An unhappy spirit begins to haunt his every waking hour, and it’s up to John and Claire (Devere), the woman who rented the house to him, to get to the bottom of a terrifying mystery.
The acting is amazing; the house is gorgeous, and the use of sound will have you gripping your chair.
There’s not a child of the 80s alive today who doesn’t remember little Carol Anne putting her hands on the TV and declaring, “They’re heeere” in her sing-song voice.
The trailer alone for Poltergeist was enough to chill us, and the movie followed through in ways we never expected. Tobe Hooper’s haunted house flick is a classic for many reasons but the performance by Zelda Rubinstein as psychic Tangina and its story of a family struggling to bring back their daughter from another dimension struck a particular chord with audiences and made an indelible mark on the genre.
#5 Rose Red
Okay, yeah, it’s technically a mini-series, not a movie, but it’s just so damn good that I had to include it on this list.
Horror master Stephen King drew together elements of classic ghost stories like The Haunting of Hill House and combined them with legendary real houses like the infamous Winchester Mystery Mansion to create his own story of a psychologist (Nancy Travis) who brings together a group of psychics in an attempt to awaken a terrifying and sprawling old mansion.
Rose Red boasted an interesting cast including Julian Sands (Warlock), Kimberly J. Wheaton (Halloweentown), Melanie Lynskey (Castle Rock), Matt Ross (American Psycho), Judith Ivey (The Devil’s Advocate), Kevin Tighe (Road House), and Emily Deschanel (Bones). It might be too long for a single night, but it’s definitely worth a watch if you can find a copy.
#6 The Innocents (1961)
Based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and a subsequent stage play version of the novel by William Archibald, The Innocents tells the story of a young woman (Deborah Kerr) who takes a position as a governess for the niece and nephew of a businessman who took custody of them after their parents died.
As time passes, she begins to note strange behavior in the children and comes to fear that the house and its ground might actually be haunted. The ambiguity of the haunting and in the film’s resolution only underlines the preceding tension of the film, which has been cited by Joe Dante and Guillermo del Toro as one of their favorite haunted house films.
There is a reason why it has been adapted so many times for film and television. It will also be the subject of season two of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting on Netflix.
If you haven’t seen The Innocents, add it to your list this Halloween. It’s incredibly good and totally worth a late night viewing with friends.
#7 The Others
Alejandro Amenabar’s period film set in the 1940s is one of the most atmospheric pieces on this list.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a woman who, along with her light-sensitive children, have locked themselves away in a large manor house while waiting for the family’s patriarch to return from World War II. When strange things begin to happen in the home after the arrival of a mysterious trio of servants, Grace finds herself in a terrifying predicament that she cannot ultimately explain away.
The film, and its twist and turns, are beautifully put together. The candlelit rooms and constantly opening and closing doors give a real sense of claustrophobia by the film’s end that creeps off the screen and into your own living room.
#8 The Orphanage
J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage is the rare film that manages to be both terrifying and heart-wrenching.
Laura (Belen Rueda) moves back to the home where she grew with her husband and son. The house once served as an orphanage for handicapped children, and Laura is intent on reopening its doors as a place to take care of children in need.
When her own adopted son begins communicating with an unseen entity, however, Laura finds herself confronted with her own past and the spirits of those, long gone, who still walk the building’s terrifying halls.
#9 House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Yes, it’s a little cheesy and a lot campy, but for a fun night in, there are few haunted house movies more entertaining than 1959’s House on Haunted Hill.
William Castle directed Vincent Price in this tale of a wealthy man who invites a group of strangers to spend a night in a notoriously haunted house with the promise of $10,000 each if they survive the night.
With it’s walking skeletons and old women on dollies, the film was one for the ages, and well-deserving of the remake it was given in 1999.
#10 The Uninvited
Though not necessarily scary by today’s standards, 1944’s The Uninvited helped develop some of the tropes that others would use for years to come when creating their haunted house films.
The massive house with a surprisingly low price tag, the mysterious and unexplained noises, and the shadows that are just a tad too dark all add up to an incredible story that has to be seen to be believed.
If you enjoy a good haunted house movie, this one should definitely be on your list.