My Top 25 Ghost Stories/Haunted House Movies
With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it was high time we took a look at some of my all- time favorite spook-fests. Keep in mind these are just my personal favorites, but by all means feel free to add your own lists in the comments section down below if you disagree or if you felt I left out something more worthy. Also, be sure and click on the links for trailers, additional information, and even some of the movies themselves!
We start with one of the best ghost stories of the last decade, and quite possibly the best of its kind since the classic clocking in at # 2, with which it shares many plot points. After a few unfortunate missteps, it was looking like director James Wan was going to go down in the history books as the “Saw” guy and not much else, but he regrouped with the co-creator of that franchise, Leigh Wannell, and came up with this winner, a massive box office hit that solidified Wan’s status as a horror maestro to be reckoned with- and one that didn’t have to rely on gore to deliver the goods. “Insidious” also shows how much more effective a horror film can be with a solid cast, and this one boasts a first-rate one that includes Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Patrick Wilson and genre favorite Lin Shaye. Be sure and check out “Insidious: Chapter Two,” opening September 13th. Hopefully, it will be just as good as this one.
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that this film reinvented the genre for a new generation by showing that the power of suggestion can effectively trump anything FX & CGI-heavy modern horror can come up with. Most of what happens in the “PA” films is in the mind of the viewer, who does half the work for the filmmakers as they worry just what is around that corner or lurking in the shadows. By the time something actually does, you’re already halfway out of your seat in anticipation. Personally, I like the second installment best, though the third does a clever job of filling in the back-story. Pity the fourth abandoned the core storyline for a mostly unrelated incident, but maybe they’ll redeem themselves with the fifth one, which was postponed for some retooling until next year.
Another game-changer, this one got everyone’s attention by throwing everyone for a loop with a left-of-center ending that caught most people off guard completely. Alas, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t leave well enough alone, squandering the good will created by this film with a succession of ever-more ludicrous films most of which hinged on a last-minute twist, but with far less rewarding dividends. He should have quit while he was ahead, because this one is a keeper, even if it doesn’t hold up to further scrutiny necessarily. Say what you will about his subsequent offerings, the ending to this one was a jaw-dropper that first time around, and you know it.
Speaking of twist endings, this one still packs a punch, even after all these years. Made on a budget of $33,000 (you can barely get a car for that these days!), this indie classic is one of a kind. A clear influence on George Romero’s later zombie-themed flicks, as well as well as directors known for hallucinogenic visuals like David Lynch, this gem was shot in all of three weeks. Though under-appreciated at the time of its release, it became a cult classic that still holds up today, despite plenty of rip-offs of said twist. The surreal visuals, the dream-like pacing, and the eerie soundtrack all work together to make one of the best horror flicks of the 60’s, IMHO.
An early effort from auteur Guillermo Del Toro, he would later hit pay dirt with a variation of the themes he first explored here in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but this film holds its own. It’s a complicated ghost story that rewards multiple viewings, and was co-produced with legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, harkening back to that director’s earlier, more horror-oriented work. Don’t let the subtitles scare you away- the movie will do that just fine. Toro would later pay it forward with the even-better movie he produced, which clocks in at #7 and also deals with a spooky orphanage.
Though a cult favorite among those in the know, you rarely hear this one mentioned by most horror fans when it comes to lists like these. Hopefully, this will help to remedy that. It’s nifty little hippie-era film that plays a bit like a variation of the aforementioned “Carnival,” but with a unique twist and feel of its own. To be honest, I’m hard-pressed to even categorize this one, which involves a psychological thriller angle, possible vampirism, and, of course, ghosts. Or does it? I’ll let you be the judge. Fair warning: this one is a bit of a slow-burn, and plays a bit like an art-house horror film, only before there really was a name for such a thing. If you like your horror a bit more on the subtle side, this one’s for you.
Another chiller that benefits enormously from a solid cast, this one was a big influence on some of the higher-ranking films on this list (see #15, 3, & 1 in particular), which might dull some of its originality to modern audiences, but there’s something to be said for getting there first. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, thanks to the loopy stuff that happens throughout the film that keeps the viewer guessing. And come on, how can a flick with Bette Davis, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith and Oliver Reed be all bad? Answer: it isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty great. See for yourself…if you dare.
I never hear anyone talk about this neat little chiller that’s sort of a down-and-dirty variation of # 6 & 5. Basically, a group of people descend upon a haunted house and are picked off one by one in various gory ways- it’s kind of like a slasher ghost story in which the house itself is the killer- and even the surrounding grounds, for that matter. Just because you’re out of the house doesn’t mean you’re out of danger, so watch it with the gloating! The ending tends to divide people, but I think it’s a hoot. Minor spoiler: it involves the Devil himself, in a scene reminiscent of the later “Angel Heart,” only loopier. Watch out for that buzzsaw!
Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat, but only because it’s a trilogy of films, and each has their own fans. Besides, I’d be remiss to point out one without mentioning the others. For the record, though, I’m partial to “The Beyond,” mostly because it’s the only one I actually had the pleasure of seeing in a theater, thanks to a reissue, courtesy of super-fan Quentin Tarantino. These films are certainly not for the faint of heart, and come courtesy of the demented brain of gore-meister Lucio Fulci, best known for “Zombie,” featuring the infamous “zombie vs. shark” scene. At the risk of sounding like SNL’s Stefan, this trilogy has everything: a mad scientist, a crazed artist, killer spiders and bats, levitating zombies, indoor tombs, a blind ghost, inexplicable teleportation, a girl regurgitating entrails (for real- they used actual animal entrails!), Seven Doors of Death, and, yes, the Gates of Hell itself. It’s never boring, but it sure isn’t for everyone. You’ve been warned.
Director Ti West can be hit or miss- witness the perfectly dreadful “Cabin Fever 2” and “The Roost,” which is only saved from being the worst birds-gone amok film by the laughable “Birdemic”- but he completely nails this early 80’s horror homage, which actually plays more like a 70’s exploitation flick, in look and staging. It all revolves around a college student who takes a babysitting job that seems pretty sketchy- probably because it totally is. Genre vets Mary Woronov (“Death Race 2000”), Tom Noonan (“Manhunter”), and Dee Wallace (“The Howling”) join indie queen Greta Gerwig (“Lola Versus”) and newcomer Jocelin Donahue (also in “Insidious 2”) for this stylized shocker, which has a go-for-broke ending that’s lots of fun. If you prefer more subtle scares, the same director also did the exemplary spook-fest “The Innkeepers,” which is the flip-side to this film, with a sequel on the way next year.
The newest film on this list, it also marks the second appearance by director James Wan, who somehow managed to up the ante on “Insidious” by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink for this ghost story- or should I say the story of ghosts, as there are more than one floating around in this bad boy, including one of the creepiest dolls you’ll ever see. Supposedly based on a true story, it revolves around the Warrens, the original paranormal investigators before all these yahoos started running around with cameras in every allegedly haunted house on the planet. Much like the aforementioned Fulci trilogy, this one has a lot going on, including ghosts, witches, possession, creepy artifacts, and that dastardly doll. The end result is like a greatest hits of haunted house movies and one of the most fun horror movies I’ve seen in many a moon. Hopefully, Wan will keep up the good work for years to come. Just no more “Saw” movies, alright?
Like “The Sixth Sense,” this one has a wowser of a twist, but I feel like this one works a lot more effectively upon further scrutiny after the fact than that one. Plus, it’s way scarier. It’s about a woman who starts to come unraveled when she suspects her family is not alone in their house. It’s kind of a twist on the same story that inspired # 9 on the list, Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” Those photographs of the dead are super creepy (and supposedly- gulp! – real), and the whole gambit of there actually being a reason the house is so gloomy (the kids are hyper-photosensitive) is pretty cool. Another film with a name cast, this has Nicole Kidman, “Dr. Who” Christopher Eccleston, and “Lost”-vet Fionnula Flanagan in it. It’s pretty great, and rewards multiple viewings.
Another chiller I rarely hear people talk about, this one proves that sometimes, it’s all about location, location, location. Set in an actual abandoned mental institution, with the set decoration made up of found items left behind, you can practically feel the walls closing in as you watch the film. It revolves around a crew of asbestos removal workers, with a cast that includes Josh Lucas (“J. Edgar”) and “CSI”-vets David Caruso and Paul Guilfoyle. As the workers try to keep their minds off their creep-tastic surroundings, tensions build, and we get a storyline told parallel about a former inmate of the institution, via his taped hypnotherapy sessions, hence the title. Some didn’t like the twist ending- or didn’t understand it- but if you get it on DVD, the deleted scenes help fill in the blanks for those who need the extra help. It’s worth the extra effort, and like many of the films on this list, rewards multiple viewings.
Essentially the same film, only one is in Japanese, and the other is an English-language remake. Both are equally frightening, though some may prefer their scares without subtitles. As much as I love the original and the many sequels and prequels spun off from it (6 films to date in Japan alone), the “Buffy” fan in me has to give it up for the English version, which stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and retains the intriguing structure of the original at least, as well as the original creator/director of the series, Takashi Shimizu. Two more American sequels followed, with the second one worth seeing, if only to tie up the loose ends from the first. The ghosts in these films are super-creepy, and emit a bone-chilling guttural groan that really sticks with you. I had it as my ringtone for Halloween one year and it would scare the crap out of everyone if it went off out of nowhere. I freaking love this series, and especially love the Japanese incarnations, despite my SMG inclinations.
This one scared the crap out of me as a kid, and as many times as I’ve seen it at this point, it still reels me in. A big part of it is John Carpenter’s über-stylish direction and menacing score, which he composed himself, a la most of his film scores. It didn’t hurt matters that he had a cast that included then-wife Adrienne Barbeau (“Creepshow”), Jamie Lee Curtis (also in Carpenter’s previous film “Halloween”) and her mom Janet Leigh (“Psycho”), plus genre stalwart Tom Atkins and Hal Holbrook, both of whom also cropped up in “Creepshow.” The locations here are pretty stellar too- love that lighthouse! Bonus props for the spooky intro with John Houseman. Whatever you do, avoid the remake like a plague.
Though it strays a bit too far from the source material for its own good, this adaptation of the classic Peter Straub novel gets enough right to still be mighty effective. And that cast! In addition to John Houseman cropping up again, this marks the last big-screen appearance of three legendary old-school Hollywood actors: Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Fred Astaire, plus Patricia Neal for good measure. Also cropping up is “Body Double”-star Craig Wasson in two different roles, and erstwhile “Borg Queen” Alice Krige as the worst girlfriend ever (also twice!), though not without good reason. This one has another great score by Philippe Sarde and a bare-knuckle finale that is literally chilling. The book may be better, but this take is nothing to be embarrassed by, that’s for sure. Now dance with me, you little toad!
A more direct adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw,” this is an old B&W classic that still holds up well today, thanks to compelling performances from the main leads, including Deborah Kerr (“From Here to Eternity”) as a governess in charge of two rascally kids who may or may not be lying about the presence of ghost on the property. Given that the kids are played by horror regulars Martin Stephens (“Village of the Damned”) and Pamela Franklin (“Satan’s School for Girls,” which is as awesomely campy as it sounds), it’s hard to tell one way or another. This tense little chiller was massively influential on a lot of films on this list, especially “The Others” and Kerr is superb and keeps you guessing about whether she’s crazy, the kids are, or if there actually are ghosts about. Fun fact: One of the screenwriters was Truman Capote! You’ll be surprised how edgy this is for the time in which it was made, but if you don’t mind old-school Hollywood movies, you won’t be disappointed, regardless.
Not to be confused with the more recent Angelina Jolie flick of the same name, this one has only just started to be reassessed as of recently, thanks to, of all things, an allusion in “Scary Movie 2.” Those in the know will tell you it’s one of the all-time great spook stories ever committed to celluloid, however. Once again, it has a great cast in its favor, including George C. Scott as a widowed composer (shades of “The Uninvited”) that goes to live in a surprisingly cheap mansion with some inherent quirks that may involve a ghost. Supposedly, the events actually happened to writer Russell Hunter, which only serves to make the movie that much more effective. This one has a surprisingly complex back-story that is pretty involved and demands a viewer’s attention. It’s also super intense, and builds to a fever pitch of an ending. Watch out for that bouncing ball!
Another Spanish shocker, this one was produced by the aforementioned Guillermo Del Toro, and would make for a perfect double feature with his “Devil’s Backbone.” As with that film, it revolves around an orphanage with some spooky secrets. When Laura, who used to live in the titular home, comes back with the intention of turning the now-abandoned building into a place for disabled children, creepy stuff starts to happen, culminating in the disappearance of her son. Has he been kidnapped, or is it something much more sinister? There are some brilliant ideas at work here, including a jaw-dropping twist at the end, that’s as touching as it is scary. It’s kind of a hard movie to describe, but if you picture “Amélie” as a horror movie, you’re halfway there. That mask Tomás wears sure is creepy. I didn’t know whether to shiver or cry at the ending, which is heartbreaking. Either way, it’s one of the best modern ghost stories you’ll ever see, in any language.
Another shocker with Pamela Franklin- this time all grown up- this one revolves around another haunted mansion with dark secrets. Enter a group of parapsychologists to get to the bottom of things, including a physicist and two mediums, one of which is the sole survivor of a previous investigation. Note to ghost hunters: if nearly everyone died in a previous investigation, you might want to rethink things. Written by the legendary Richard Matheson, who died earlier this year, it takes the basic structure of the next film on this list and amps up the sexual underpinnings and the more overt action. Granted, bigger is not necessarily better, but here it works like gangbusters. The end twist is pretty genius, if demented genius. But then again, that describes Matheson to a “T.” He will be missed.
The granddaddy of all haunted house movies that followed, this one is as subtle as “Hell House” is over-the-top. The set-up is basically the same: a group of people are assembled in a house that is supposedly haunted to investigate. The cast includes a fantastic Julie Harris (“East of Eden”), Claire Bloom (“Charly”), and Russ Tamblyn (“Twin Peaks”). The house itself is amazing, and the special effects, though primitive, still hold up well today. Fun fact: the effects were a main source of inspiration for Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, especially the famous “bulging doors.” They remade this one in the late 90’s, but stick with the original, even if you don’t normally go for B&W movies. This one is surprisingly ahead-of-its-time, with intriguing sexual undertones that must have been pretty shocking at the time. As with “The Orphanage,” I can’t decide if the ending is a happy one or a sad one. It’ll stick with you, though.
Another one from the Japanese, the “Ringu” series has inspired even more entries than the “Ju-on” one, with two sequels, a prequel, a miniseries, a Korean remake and two American films. It remains the highest grossing film in Japan’s history and kicked off an unprecedented onslaught of Asian ghost-themed horror that, in addition to “Ju-on,” also includes “Dark Water,” “The Eye,” “Pulse,” “One Missed Call” and many others, some of which were also remade for the US, including all of the above. There are also books, mangas, and even a videogame. In a way, it’s the Japanese equivalent to our “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th” franchises, in that it just keeps going and going…
As with most foreign films, Americans will have to decide for themselves which version they prefer, but for my money, I actually prefer the US version. Though I miss some of the back-story of the original in the remake, the new version boasts a more elaborate storyline, and a boffo cast that includes Naomi Watts, Brian Cox (the original Hannibal from “Manhunter”), Amber Tamblyn (“Joan of Arcadia”), Pauley Perrette (“NCIS”), Adam Brody (“The O.C.”), Sara Rue (“Popular”) and an unforgettable Daveigh Chase (“Big Love”) as the ever-creepy Samara. The short film that causes all the problems is way freakier in the US one, too, and I like how they explain most of it in the “real” world in the film. Regardless, the ending is a nail-biter no matter which one you watch. You might want to forgo the American sequel, which is disappointing, given that it was directed by the original “Ringu” creator Hideo Nakata, but the Japanese and Korean sequels/remakes/et al. have their charms. This is horror done right in every way.
I’m probably going to get some crap for ranking this one so high, but hear me out. The novel by Jay Anson was the first “adult” book I ever read, and I remain fascinated by the true story that inspired it. Yes, I say true, because before there were the Lutzes-whose story very much remains in dispute- there were the DeFeos, who most certainly were wiped out en masse by one of their own in a story that is absolutely true. Regardless of what you believe about the validity of the Lutzes’ story, that much happened for real, and if ever there were a house that could inspire some haunting, it’s that one. It is, almost inarguably, the most notorious and famous haunted house in America, whether you believe in ghosts or not. As such, the movie earns a place on this list, even though it’s admittedly a bit melodramatic at times- looking at you, Rod Steiger.
Still, I love this movie. The score by Lalo Schifrin is one of the best horror film scores ever and was nominated for an Oscar and I really get a kick out of the ongoing series- nine movies and counting, plus a slew of documentaries, including a testament by one of the Lutz children, Daniel, entitled “My Amityville Horror.” Yes, many of them are ridiculous (witness the haunted lamp in Part 4, and the haunted clock and dollhouse in others), but the series is still a lot of fun, and the second installment, “The Possession,” which deals with the true part of the story (with some admitted elaboration) may be even scarier than the original. Hell, even the inevitable remake was pretty enjoyable, and I don’t think I can say that about any other Ryan Reynolds movie, period. In short, like it or not, it’s a classic, and it has totally endured for nearly 35 years. That’s pretty impressive, all things considered. Watch out for that purple pig!
Unlike the last entry, I can’t imagine anyone disputing the effectiveness of this shocker, which still has the power to induce nightmares to anyone who sees it. Directed by horror maestro Tobe Hooper, of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame, and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg (who may have co-directed certain scenes, depending on who you believe), this is the very definition of a horror classic. Hooper perfectly sets up the drab suburban dwelling and typical family, giving the viewer time to get to know everyone concerned, then proceeds to scare the living daylights out of you for the rest of the film with one memorable scene after another.
My sister had a clown that looked just like the one here, and I wouldn’t go near that thing for the life of me. Still wouldn’t, though hopefully, she’s torched that horrid thing by now. I do miss TV’s going to snow after a certain point, though. (Ask your parents.) I also love that it has a second act just when you think everything’s over and done with, horror-wise. The sequel’s not too shabby, either, but you probably want to skip number three. The score, by Jerry Goldsmith, was Oscar-nominated, as were the special effects. Reportedly, they’re working on a remake, but I can’t imagine it will top this one.
This is pretty much the undeniable champ of ghost stories, helmed by one of the most indisputable masters of film, period. Though Stephen King isn’t a big fan, given how much the story diverts from his original novel, just take a gander at the much-more faithful mini-series version that King himself wrote and was intimately involved in creating and tell me which one holds up better. It’s no contest, really. Yes, star Jack Nicholson goes crazy so quickly that it’s not hard to see what’s coming, but oh my god, that location! Has there ever been a more imposing set than the one here? And has there ever been a better-directed horror film, period?
Every frame of this movie seethes with barely-contained dread and menace, to the point that the film inspired a documentary, “Room 237” that deals with various, sometimes ludicrous, interpretations of the symbolic minutia found hidden throughout the film. I also love that the location is hardly your typical dilapidated, cobweb-strewn, shadowy haunted house, but instead a near-clinically clean, brightly-lit setting that is nonetheless incredibly frightening even in its utter banality. Note also how it dwarfs everyone in it, especially little Danny.
And the way Kubrick subtly stages things in such a way that the viewer is made to feel unease because something about the structure doesn’t add up, the way it doesn’t quite fit with what you’re seeing architecturally, is nothing short of brilliant. It reminds me of the infamous Winchester House, where doors open into walls and staircases lead into the ceilings and so forth. It really is a genius move on Kubrick’s part, and helps make “The Shining” a ghost story quite like any other in that it all happens in what couldn’t seem more normal on the surface: a luxury hotel.
The cast is uniformly excellent, though Shelley Duvall admittedly grates a bit, and there are too many memorable scenes to count. Personally, I love the encounter on the stairs between Duvall and Nicholson, but that Room 237 scene is admittedly childhood-trauma inducing. A friend of mine and I used to mess with guys who hadn’t seen the film by showing them that scene, promising them nudity of the likes they’d never seen- we weren’t lying, but I’m sure none of those poor guys will forget it!
It really doesn’t get any better than this, and I sincerely doubt it ever will. This is the movie you use to argue the validity of horror movies on the whole. Case closed.
Of course, on lists like this, some movies are bound to fall by the wayside. Here are a few other stand-outs: “The Entity” (a “true story” about a ghost rape!), “Inferno” (Dario Argento goodness), “The Sentinel” (a nutty one with a great cast that has to be seen to be believed) “The Watcher in the Woods” (another spooky one with Bette Davis), “The House Where Evil Dwells” (an American movie with Japanese underpinnings before it was fashionable), “Sinister” (solid scare-fest with Ethan Hawke) “Night of the Demons” (another surreal one, with Scream Queen legend Linnea Quigley), “The Messengers” (yes, Virginia, Kristen Stewart did make a decent scary movie once upon a time), “The Woman in Black” (the one with Daniel Radcliffe) and “The Legacy” (with Roger Daltrey of the Who!).
Leave out any of your personal favorites? Submit your own list below in the comment section!