This article is part of the POMEmag Séance Theme Week.
I love a good horror movie, but haunted house movies are the ones that I love the most. It’s the perversion of the home, a supposed safe space, that makes haunted house movies terrifying. Haunted house movies also tend to rely less on gore for scares and more on suspense, a tactic that tends to make the fear stick with me long after I’ve finished the film. I’ve waded through the best and the worst that haunted house films have to offer, and these are my favorites.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
This Vincent Price classic completely changed my opinion about black-and-white films when I was a little girl. An eccentric millionaire invites five strangers to a party he’s hosting in a haunted mansion. Upon arrival, the millionaire reveals that he will award $10,000 to any and every person that is still in the mansion in the morning. It seems like a piece of cake until strange things start happening, increasing the strangers’ paranoia. They begin to turn on each other as the haunting they did not believe in proves to be real.
House on Haunted Hill proves that you don’t need fancy-schmancy special effects to make a truly terrifying movie. As only some of the characters actually witness the haunting, the tension amongst them is much more effective than a gluttonous gorefest. However, if you’re in the mood for a gorefest, may I suggest the 1999 remake, also named House on Haunted Hill. Same premise, just a much grosser execution.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Based on the 1971 novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, this English horror film follows a small team of researchers as they investigate the Belasco House. The Belasco House is reportedly haunted by its serial-killing late owner. The researchers are made up of equal parts scientists and mediums, so there’s already tension before they head into the house. A violent haunting coupled with each researcher having their own agenda creates a stunningly frightening movie.
The best part about The Legend of Hell House is Emeric Belasco, the former owner of the home. Think of the worst person in the world, multiply them by ten, and you’re still not in the ballpark of how evil Belasco was when he was alive. Belasco was into perverting Christianity, and there’s no example more true of this than the crucifixion in his church. The Jesus figure on the crucifixion is heavily sexualized and revolts the investigators the moment they see it. Death has only opened up his options for tormenting other people.
The Conjuring (2013)
The Conjuring is more like a classic haunted house story than the other movies mentioned thus far. The Perrons, a family of seven, moves into a house in the middle of nowhere and begin to experience paranormal events from day one. Like most haunted houses, the paranormal events start off small but then quickly start to terrorize the entire family. With the help of Ed and Lorraine Warren, demonologists that also worked on the houses in Amityville Horror and A Haunting in Connecticut, the Perrons battle against the baggage that has come with their new home.
The Conjuring uses a near-perfect blend of special and practical effects. You aren’t overwhelmed by a bunch of unrealistic CGI, which works wonders in keeping you drawn into the movie. Add in some great characters, some wonderful acting, and a super scary backstory to the house and you have yourself a haunted winner.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
This modern classic follows a young couple who have purchased their first home, which soon shows its true colors. This movie employs the “found footage” style of filming which, when employed properly, is a great tool in getting the audience to suspend their belief. We see the entire movie through the lens of the couple living in the house, rather than as outsiders looking in. It makes the experience all the more terrifying.
Paranormal Activity stands out as a movie that used only practical effects in a time of 3D movies and out-of-control graphics. The acting was phenomenal; I was just as terrified as the young couple. Please note that I am only endorsing the first Paranormal Activity and not all of its subsequent sequels. I wouldn’t bother with those, as they lack the magic of the original.
If Steven Spielberg has a hand in a haunted house movie (he’s the screenwriter), then you know it’s going to be good. And Poltergeist does not disappoint. A family’s home is haunted by a poltergeist, but what makes this movie’s house stand out from other haunted houses in film is that it’s not a rundown, creepy mansion. It is instead a cookie cutter, picturesque piece of suburban heaven — certainly not the first place you would go looking for disturbed spirits.
While the special effects are a big dated (if you’re looking for good special effects, I would suggest the 2015 remake), the story and characters really make this movie. The two most notable characters are young Carol Anne Freeling, the baby of the Freeling family and seemingly the haunting’s focal point, and Tangina, the small-yet-powerful medium charged with cleansing the house. Poltergeist is a seminal piece of horror whose influence can be found in many of the films that have come after it.
It takes a lot for a haunted house film to be successful: the right effects, great acting that creates sympathetic characters, and a solid story. Haunted houses remind us that no place is safe, not even home. It’s that everlasting paranoia that keeps haunted house stories locked firmly in our nightmares.