Chances are, if you grew up in a busy enough town or neighborhood, you lived near a haunted house. Barring that, you lived in the haunted house yourself. Are your memories influenced by the haunted house films you saw as a kid, including titles featured on this list of the best haunted house movies ever? Maybe. Even so, and even as we continue to slog towards some enhanced concept of enlightment, most of us still like ghost stories.
More specifically, most of us are fascinated by haunted houses. They have certainly been a part of film history for nearly as long as the history of film itself. It is technically a subgenre of ghost stories, which in of itself is a subgenre of horror. At the same time, there are more than enough haunted house movies to justify its own category. For this list of the top haunted house films, there were dozens of movies to pour over.
If anything, haunted house movies seem to be more popular than ever. The 2000s and 2010s have brought a surge of spooky abode stories, including no less than two major multi-film franchises (Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring) that are still being explored/picked at by enthusiastic studios. William Castle knew the score, as far as haunted houses were concerned. They don’t cost a lot of money in most circumstances. They rely on atmosphere, performances, a certain degree of effects, and pacing. The best haunted house movies of all time will have those qualities, and perhaps something else to distinguish it even further.
As for me, my parents still live in a house they believe to be haunted. I don’t know if that’s true, but there were certainly nights growing up where it seemed at least plausible. Our favorite haunted house movies can create that plausibility in a variety of ways.
The 15 Best Haunted House Movies Ever
1. The Uninvited
Director: Lewis Allen
The great Ray Milland, a Best Actor winner (for 1945’s The Lost Weekend) who leant his enthusiastic presence to many a horror film, is in flawless form here. The Uninvited is a great example of horror movies that can find audiences for decades, simply because they are masterworks of atmosphere and performance. The creakiness is intentional, but the film’s anachronistic elements lend something to its appeal, rather than detract from it.
The Uninvited has a lot of fun with being one of the first movies in history to take ghosts seriously. That tone strongly influences this story of two well-meaning nitwits (the other being Ruth Massey, another great) who fall in love with a house that couldn’t possibly look more haunted.
Watch if: You’re up for one of the all-time greats in haunted house movies. Avoid if: You can’t get into movies where seemingly smart characters make bone-stupid decisions.
2. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Director: William Castle
I love this movie dearly, and have since childhood. Even so, it’s a pretty silly story of a group of people brought together by an eccentric millionaire (Vincent Price in a career-defining moment) to spend a full night in a haunted house. The eccentric millionaire has a scheming, gallows-sarcastic wife (Carol Ohmart). All of the characters have assorted threads to bring them together.
However, the characters are not really as important as the movie itself. Director William Castle had a long career in directing low-budget charmers with wonderful gimmicks. House on Haunted Hill benefited from that, as well as Price playing the droll smarminess to the glorious nines.
It still works today because that sense of fun is part of the film’s actual DNA. The House on Haunted Hill is a ride, similar to Space Mountain. It’s an old ride, yeah, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best Vincent Price movies. Avoid if: You prefer your haunted houses to be made from more somber materials.
3. The Innocents (1961)
Director: Jack Clayton
More than its status as one of the best haunted house movies ever made, The Innocents, based on the Henry James novella The Turning of the Screw, is a psychological horror masterpiece.
Deborah Kerr, playing a governess who becomes convinced her young charges are being manipulated by malevolent spirits, is a key part of that psychological horror. She responds to her increasingly nightmarish surroundings with such a natural approach to creating fear and uncertainty, we effortlessly connect to how those things relate to her surroundings.
The Innocents is also beautiful in its willingness to constantly make you question what’s going on. That kind of mentality puts considerable weight behind the ending, as well.
Watch if: You’re in the mood for a classic to mess with your head. Avoid if: Too much uncertainty creates real anxiety for you.
Based on a legitimate ghost story classic by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting uses rich details in its surroundings to create a wholly effective horror movie. The Haunting is also a great example of how good characterizations and good performances are just as important to a horror movie as anything else.
The Haunting isn’t necessarily scary. In that specific regard, you could make a case for whether or not the film has aged well.
However, as most of us know, a horror movie doesn’t need to be overtly terrifying to be enjoyable. Over the years, The Haunting hasn’t lost one shred of its considerable, multifaceted entertainment value.
Watch if: You love a good, straightforward ghost story. Avoid if: You’re expecting something along more disturbing lines.
5. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Director: John Hough
Boasting one of the most pleasing titles on this list of the top haunted house films, The Legend of Hell House is a hallmark of British horror. Japan and England seem to have the best ghost stories. Obviously, many of the best ghost stories are set in dwellings.
The Legend of Hell House partially works for how seriously it takes it story and characters. It helps to fill your movie with actors who seem to have a genuinely good time with the material. It’s a simple story of some researchers hitting up a famously haunted house, with painful, life-threatening results. Legend of Hell House plays to our expectations for something like this, and it does that with relentless enthusiasm.
At the same time, The Legend of Hell House has at least a couple of surprises up its sleeve.
Watch if: You want to see a bunch of refined British actors go through hell. Avoid if: You’re mad that I said England and Japan have many of the best ghost stories.
6. Hausu (1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Hausu is less of a movie, and more of an experience that everyone should have at least once. That sounds like a backhanded compliment. It really isn’t.
Unlike a lot of movies with a reputation for insanity, Hausu doesn’t expect you to endure anything particularly traumatic. No one is going to have sex with a corpse, or lose themselves to the delusion of escaping certain, horrible death. Hausu is just really, really, really weird.
We have a group of students and a haunted house. That’s all the story you really need. The rest is simply surrendering yourself to this movie’s potential to surprise you. If you can do that, you will leave with one of the most entertaining movie-watching experiences in your life.
Watch if: You want to see one of Japan’s weirdest movies. Avoid if: You don’t want to see one of Japan’s weirdest movies.
“For God’s Sake, Get Out!” If nothing else, the 1979 box-office smash The Amityville Horror has one of the best horror movie taglines of all time.
A movie with seemingly as many fans as there is detractors, The Amityville Horror certainly comes across in depicting a threat so overwhelming, it creates and makes tangible a certain kind of oppressive, atmospheric madness. The movie’s mindset can catch you from an odd angle, forcing you to become engaged, even as the film descends into some, arguably, pretty silly stuff.
Margot Kidder is another strength for the film. Even as James Brolin seems to shift, if only slightly, into autopilot, Kidder looks for ways to ensure we care about these people.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most unapologetically wild horror movies of the 1970s. Avoid if: You’re expecting something dark.
8. The Changeling (1980)
Director: Peter Medak
George C. Scott, haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter in a freak accident, becomes drawn to a decades-old ghost story in a small town.
There aren’t many films like The Changeling, which goes about its business with what can only be described as sorrowful brutality. The film is like a low, almost inaudible hum. You have to stop, pay attention, and listen carefully. You must do this and keep up for a little while. At the same time, you must do this with the understanding that at any moment, the low hum will suddenly swell to screeching, delirious heights, and then explode.
Few haunted houses shake you to the core like The Changeling.
Watch if: You want a haunted house story of true originality. Avoid if: You have terminal impatience, especially with horror films.
9. Beetlejuice (1988)
Director: Tim Burton
Beetlejuice is one of the most inventive haunted house movies of all time. It may just be the best of the haunted house comedies.
That can be partially attributed to its depiction of the afterlife as just one long, joy-suffocating waiting room after another. You should also look to the film’s style and tone, which would come to define the filmography of director Tim Burton (from a screenplay by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren).
Finally, you look to the cast to understand why Beetlejuice continues to be so popular after 30+ years. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as the young couple who die, and become trapped in their rural dreamhouse, are two examples. Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Jeffrey Jones as the yuppie family who buys the home are three more.
Obviously, the greatest example of Beetlejuice’s brilliant casting is the man himself. As far as some people are concerned, Beetlejuice is still Michael Keaton’s best performance of all time.
Watch if: You want to see a classic among supernatural comedies Avoid if: You hate Robert Goulet. Or something. I don’t know. This movie is iconic for a reason.
Presenting a visit to a home haunted by a vengeful poltergeist as live TV, Ghostwatch really did convince some of its audience that they had witnessed a supernatural event.
What really sets Ghostwatch as an underrated classic haunted house movie is that you don’t have to actually believe this. The film, which used actual BBC journalists with their standard documentary style, makes it very easy to simply accept the movie as fun. When you can do that, you can give in to pretending it really did happen.
This sounds like an elaborate way to approach Ghostwatch, but I promise its worth it.
The supernaturally-besieged family, along with the BBC-affiliated participants, all give perfect mockumentary performances, as well.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best found footage horror movies ever made. Avoid if: You just can’t get behind the fake documentary concept.
11. The Others (2001)
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Whether or not you see the film’s big twist coming is kind of irrelevant. I don’t think you’re going to be able to predict every twist and turn of this deeply unsetting story of a mother (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best) and her children being harassed by ill-tempered spirits. Well, are they? Maybe. Or not. But perhaps.
And so on.
The Others is infuriatingly unpredictable at times. Its design is to distract you with tension and visual jolts while forcing you to accept its deranged story. I can almost guarantee it will succeed in this.
Watch if: You want a movie that builds slow dread at a pace that’s somehow also blistering. Avoid if: You don’t like being manipulated.
12. Dark Water (2002)
Director: Hideo Nakata
Personally, few endings among the films on this list have left me as uncomfortable as Dark Water did when I saw the movie over 10 years ago.
Dark Water is pretty straightforward, coming from the same man who has done several entries in the Ring/Ringu franchise. A young mother and her child, fresh from a separation from the husband and father, set up a new life in a slightly dilapidated apartment. The ghostly happenings start early on, and this movie quickly becomes another example of a haunted house story in which nothing should be taken for granted.
Again, I promise that ending is going to stay with you. So will the performances by Hitomi Kuroki and Rio Kanno, who play the mother and daughter respectively.
Watch if: You want to see a great familial haunted house story. Avoid if: You just can’t get into foreign language films. The English language track for this isn’t great, but I’m probably being too fussy.
A surprise critical and commercial success, 1408 benefits from a hyperactive focus. Most of the film takes place in one room, and it revolves a single character. John Cusack is interesting enough to play that single character, an author and supernatural skeptic who finally runs into a haunted hotel room that’s the real thing.
The only other actor we see on a regular basis is Samuel L. Jackson, as the disconcertingly accommodating, knowing manager of the hotel. Jackson has often helped shape the tone of a movie, which somehow also manages to have a slight sense of humor about its very dark ideas.
1408 isn’t a flawless Stephen King adaptation, but it proves how deceptively simple a haunted house (or room) story can be.
Watch if: You like your haunted house stories straightforward, but with room to surprise you. Avoid if: You’re just too wary of movies based on Stephen King stories.
14. The Conjuring (2013)
Director: James Wan
With several movies in just nine years, it’s easy to forget just how much fun the first Conjuring can be. Putting its focus on Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as real-life paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, the movie isn’t a true-life depiction or account by any means. Yet it is one of the most interesting examples of world building, particularly with regards to the afterlife, in recent horror film history. It’s not surprising that it has generated so many sequels and expansions.
It is also okay to not care about any of that. On its own terms, The Conjuring proves you can still create something exciting out of established haunted house movie tropes.
Watch if: You’re in the mood for a haunted house movie with characters as striking as the atmosphere. Avoid if: You know you’ll want to watch the others in the Conjuring series, and you just don’t feel like making that sort of commitment.
15. Housebound (2014)
Director: Gerard Johnstone
New Zealand likes their horror movies weird. God bless ‘em for it, with praise for the likes of Peter Jackson and Jason Lei Howden. Housebound is an exceptionally funny, dark, and insightful character study, featuring a wonderful performance by Morgana O’Reilly as a young girl named Kylie. It just happens to also run that story neck and neck with a story about a house that may or may not be haunted.
Housebound almost lulls you into a false sense of security with some of its more ridiculous moments. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just something to keep in mind. The film’s less humorous flashes will unsettle you deeply no matter what.
Watch if: You’re up for any horror comedies from New Zealand. Avoid if: You’re one of those people who have a hard time with accents.
This was definitely a list where I wanted to highlight movies that sometimes get lost in this particular conversation. Again, we only get 15 slots for this chronological list. I’m not saying I think The Conjuring is better than The Shining. I’d just rather talk about The Conjuring with the space I have.
Here are a few runners up to keep your haunted house boppin’:
The Shining (1980)
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
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