As the length of our current, no-end-in-sight stay-at-home orders stretch from days to weeks to possibly months, there’s a good chance you’re getting to know your home like never before. Whether living in a studio apartment or a spacious house, the spread of the coronavirus has given many of us a chance to consider our living spaces in obsessive detail. There are upsides to this, of course: You might get a chance to clean out some closets or alphabetize your books or whatever project you’ve been too busy to get around to doing. But forced confinement can morph into torment before long, and homes that once felt like comforting shelters can start to feel like traps. Or worse: Spend too much time in one place and it can seem like they’re out to get you.
The unease we feel in our own homes is at the root of the haunted house movie. A time of quarantine might seem like the worst possible moment to dig into this strand of horror film, particularly for those who want to escape to pre-COVID-19 times when travel and interacting with strangers didn’t seem fraught with danger. On the other hand, those looking for movies to stream might be better off just leaning into our new reality and bingeing some movies about perilous homes and the malevolent spirits that live there.
Here’s some of the best to get you started… (One note: This list sticks with houses, so the haunted hotels of The Shining, The Beyond, The Innkeepers and such are out of bounds, terrifying as they are.)
The Uninvited (1944)
The best haunted house movies often suggest more than they show. Take The Uninvited, which teases all sorts of horrors and restless, hungry spirits but waits to the end to put any on screen. By then, the film has already worked viewers into a state of unease via the story of a pair of siblings from London (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) who get a fantastic deal on a picturesque Cornwall house by the sea, only to find they’ve also inherited its secrets and some unexpected troubles — like rooms they can never make warm and disembodied voices that weep through the night.
Director Lewis Allen brings a light touch to much of the film that makes its descent into scary territory all that much more effective: The house seems perfectly normal until it’s not. Writing about the film, critic Farran Smith Nehme captured what makes it, and other haunted house movies, so unnerving: “People do not, as a general rule, encounter chain-saw-wielding cannibal families when they go too far outside the city limits. But how many have been alone in a strange and isolated house and lain awake, hoping that the sound outside the bedroom door wasn’t footsteps?”
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
The Uninvited arrived on the heels of breezy supernatural comedies like Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost. Its success didn’t kill off that sort of movie, though, and William Castle’s fun, low-budget The House on Haunted Hill proved that goofiness and scares could live side by side. Vincent Price stars as eccentric millionaire Federick Loren, who invites a group of strangers with the promise of a $10,000 gift — provided they spend the night in a haunted house. Once there, they unexpectedly become embroiled in Loren’s tumultuous marriage to the unabashedly murderous Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), a drama playing out in a house with secrets of its own.
In a peculiar choice, Castle uses a characteristically modern-looking Frank Lloyd Wright building for exteriors but fills the sets with creepy Victoriana. Then again, little about the film makes much sense, but Price is so much fun in the lead and Castle so fond of cheap jolts it doesn’t matter. House on Haunted Hill also marked the beginning of Castle’s fondness for using cheesy gimmicks to sell movies: The film touted the revolutionary “Emergo,” an innovation sure to shock moviegoers.
In reality, it was a plastic skeleton on a wire that “floated” over the audience at a key moment. Quarantine idea: Use your free time to recreate the effect at home. It’s fun!
The Haunting (1963)
Like The Uninvited, Robert Wise’s The Haunting harnesses the power of suggestion for a ghost story that relies heavily on disorienting camerawork and otherworldly sound effects to depict a creepy, sprawling estate whose residents have a long history of dying under violent circumstances. An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s great The Haunting of Hill House (later the basis for a Netflix series), the film stars Julie Harris as Eleanor, a woman whose childhood experiences with the supernatural leads to an invitation to join a team of paranormal investigators. Their time at Hill House stirs up restless spirits but also old secrets, guilty feelings, repressed sexuality and other problems that Eleanor and the others have brought with them. Sometimes it’s not the ghosts that get you — they just help your destruction along. (By coincidence, both House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting were remade in 1999. Neither is really worth your time, but The Haunting is an avoid-at-all-costs mess.)
The Innocents (1961)
Speaking of repression and secrets, you’ll find both in abundance in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw that bears the heavy stamp of Truman Capote, one of its credited screenwriters. Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, a governess sent by a wealthy man to care for his orphaned nephew and niece at his mammoth country estate. Once there, she learns that her predecessor and another employee died under mysterious circumstances after some unseemly goings on. Soon she begins seeing what she believes to be their ghosts, spirits that no one else around her can see. Or can they? Clayton keeps playing with the possibility that the house’s ghosts exist only in his protagonist’s head, but the ambiguity only makes a strikingly shot film — filled with images of dust and decay — that much more disconcerting.
After taking on the assignment of directing a haunted house movie for Toho, director Nobuhiko Obayashi turned to his young daughter Chigumi for advice. She threw some wild ideas his way about violent mirrors and disembodied heads and he ran with them, bringing in his own ideas in the process. A veteran of experimental films and commercials featuring Western stars like Charles Bronson, Obayashi turned a movie about a group of girls visiting a haunted house into a wild cornucopia of wild moments, some funny, some disturbing and some residing in some grey zone in between the two. (You may never look at a watermelon the same way again, for instance.)
So is it a horror movie? A comedy? It doesn’t really fit either description. It’s a bizarre hybrid unlike any other movie.
The Changeling (1980)
One of the biggest hits of 1979, The Amityville Horror turned a bestselling book about a (maybe) real-life haunted house into a hit movie starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the new residents of a house that doesn’t want them to live there. Its fame outstrips its quality, however: Despite a handful of memorable scenes, it’s a slog of a movie that never builds up much atmosphere or gives viewers a reason to care if its characters live or die.
But horror fans had only to wait a year for a much better, if less widely seen, haunted house movie. George C. Scott plays a composer who, after losing his wife and child in a freak motor accident, moves from New York to the Pacific Northwest, where he rents a cavernous home with a, um, colorful history. Soon he’s hearing strange noises, watching doors slam on their own and seeing visions of a drowning child — supernatural visitations that only intensify as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. Scott’s intense, as usual, in a mournful lead performance, but it’s Peter Medak’s direction that turns a fundamentally silly story into a truly upsetting movie. Medak’s camera sweeps and tilts as if being worked by a spirit with the ability to find the most disturbing images for any given scene.
The phrase “haunted house” immediately summons up images of turrets, creaking staircases and cobweb-covered furniture. The great innovation of Poltergeist is the notion that any house could be haunted, even the interchangeable homes in those carefully plotted suburban developments. Scripted by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist takes Spielberg’s gift for capturing the look and feel of everyday life and uses it to dark ends as the Freeling family desperately tries to retrieve its youngest member, a girl named Carol Anne who seems to have been sucked into another dimension by way of the family television set. Here all the elements of American suburbia turn against the Freeling family, from the big tree outside to the swimming pool in the backyard. Where E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which hit theaters just one week after Poltergeist’s debut, saw the potential for wonder in America’s blandest stretches, Poltergeist finds only horror, holding a dark mirror to E.T.’s twinkling lights.
On the other hand, maybe some ghosts can help make some otherwise dull existences a little more exciting? In Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin) meet untimely ends but stick around to haunt a dream home suddenly invaded by some tacky New Yorkers and their black-clad daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). To rid the house of its new residents, the Maitlands recruit the unpredictable “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), but the film’s cleverest twist has less to do with its notion of a reverse exorcism than the playful idea that the dead and the living have more in common than they might expect, and that just about anything can be improved by a touch of the macabre. (Burton would end up making a whole career around that notion, in fact.)
The Others (2001)
One mark of a great movie: It works even if you already know its this-changes-everything-twist. You can watch Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others knowing full well what’s coming and still get the creeps. In fact, if anything, it seems creepier on a second viewing. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, a woman trying to resume a life interrupted by World War II and raise her children in a remote English country house. The only problem: Grace, her children and their servants don’t seem to be entirely alone. To say more would spoil a film that would make an excellent double feature with one of the choices above (but to say which would also ruin the twist). But ultimately it’s Amenábar’s atmospheric direction and a wrenching Kidman performance that makes The Others so effective. Together they find horror in the notion that some homes never allow their owners to leave.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
Taking inspiration from Poltergeist and borrowing a page from The Blair Witch Project playbook, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity follows a young couple as they attempt to document possible otherworldly invaders in their new San Diego home. As in Poltergeist, a new home proves welcoming to an old threat. And, as in The Blair Witch Project, the use of cheap, handheld video cameras somehow makes it all deeply unsettling, as if we were watching the most disturbing home movie ever made. Peli makes great use of offscreen space and an aggressive sound design, but it’s the ordinariness of it all that sells the fright. What happens to this one spirit-plagued couple could happen to anyone, anywhere.
The Conjuring (2013)
By contrast, The Conjuring is an exercise in cinematic showmanship. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell helped usher in a more intense era in horror movies with the grisly 2004 film Saw. In 2010, Wan and Whannell went back to low-budget basics with the stripped-down, very good Insidious. But it was Wan’s The Conjuring that showcased his technical abilities like no film before via a creepy haunted house story involving the paranormal research team of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), the real-life couple who investigated the Amityville haunting. Here they look into strange goings on at a Rhode Island farmhouse, an investigation that allows Wan to wring scares using everything from slamming doors to ghostly possession.
It’s the polar opposite of Paranormal Activity’s minimalism, but every bit as effective. Both films spawned sequels and spin-offs, creating little cinematic universes of their own and confirming that the 21st century was just as scared of ghosts as the years that preceded it.
With that question answered, here’s another: Will our time stuck inside create new haunted house stories for a new, housebound era? Sure, what’s outside is terrifying. But so is being stuck inside four walls when there’s absolutely nowhere else to go.
The Best Stuff to Binge in Quarantine
- Check out our picks for the best HBO deep cuts to stream.
- Want something different? Here are the dumbest comedies guaranteed to make you laugh.
- In its 40th season, the reality show Survivor is better than ever. Here are the best past seasons.
- It’s time to sit back and listen to some Steely Dan — the perfect music for the moment.
- Forget Contagion. It’s all about The Happening.
- Want more active entertainment? Portal is the game you need.
- The unabashed optimism of John Prine will make you feel better.
- For Gen Z, everyone seems to be on Club Penguin.
- If you feel like the world is doomed, try French New Wave cinema.
- Take a trip back in time with 10 essential silent films.
- Spend some time doing jigsaw puzzles. They’re great for anxiety relief.
- Hungry? You can watch a Michelin-starred Italian chef livestream his dinner.
- Thirsty? Here’s our list of the best fictional bars in pop culture.
- When all else fails, Cheers!