There are no shortages of haunted house horror movies, a major horror sub-genre. Paranormal horror makes for some of the spookiest, timeless horror features. The creaky floors, doors shutting on their own, and things that go bump in the night in what should be a safe space; your home. What further lends to the terror is the intangible nature of the paranormal, therefore the inability to effectively fight off attacks. Or the discovery of a home’s tragic history that refuses to stay dead. Over the decades, horror has presented a vast number of terrifying haunted abodes, from sprawling gothic mansions to the seemingly idyllic suburban home.
The very concept of a haunted house is vague enough that it lends well to reinvention time and time again, giving us classics like Alien, taking the haunted house blueprint and applying it to space, or The Shining, which uses a haunted house story set in a hotel to examine a break down a man’s sanity. To narrow down the scariest haunted house films in horror history, a broad sub-genre, all haunted buildings outside of traditional fare are eliminated; haunted asylums, orphanages, space stations, and the like all make for chilling locations to set a haunt, but exist beyond the scope of this list. Using that basic rule, the 10 scariest haunted house horror films are:
The Haunting (1963)
Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House, the plot follows a group of paranormal investigators as they study and investigate 90-year-old Hill House and its sordid history. Accompanied by Hill House heir Luke, Dr. John Markway, psychic Theo, and meek paranormal sensitive Eleanor navigate the labyrinthine mansion as subtle paranormal occurrences begin to pile up. The banging on the walls, the cold spots, and all the requisite signs of a home haunting occur. The most chilling moment comes when Eleanor tightly grips Theo’s handing in the middle of the night when an unseen stranger pounds their bedroom door. Only, it isn’t Theo’s hand at all. The Haunting is an unsettling story of creeping dread that proves horror doesn’t have to have an R-rating to get under your skin.
Based on a novel of the same name, this haunter was co-written, produced, and directed by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows). Starring Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, and Karen Black, this atmospheric gem favors slow burn mystery over jump scares. The Rolf family rent a bargain-priced summer home, a large mansion in Long Island, that comes with a strange caveat; the owners require that their elderly mother live upstairs and that the Rolfs care for her during their stay. Marian (Karen Black) agrees, so excited to claim the bargain price, and before long becomes obsessed with maintaining the expansive house. Unlike most haunted house fare, though, the house seems to thrive off the Rolf family’s presence. Particularly whenever they bleed. Moody, eerie, and fueled by a mysterious force the Rolf family can’t contend with, Burnt Offerings is an underseen horror film that subverts everything we knew about haunted houses.
If you have yet to watch this gothic ghost story, go in knowing as little as possible (don’t worry, no spoilers here). Alejandro Amenabar’s World War II-set haunter follows Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) as she cares for her two light-sensitive children and their servants in an isolated countryside house while her husband is presumably killed at war. With her kids refined to the house, weird events begin happening. The piano plays itself at night, things move on their own, and Grace’s daughter Anne claims to have seen strangers in their home. The ghostly jump scares stick their landing, and become even more unsettling with the psychological element; is Grace cracking under the pressure of upholding the home on her own, or is there an unwelcome presence?
One of the most common themes explored in haunted house horror films is that of the past coming back to literally haunt. For Annie Barlow (Caity Lotz), she’s forced to confront her past in the wake of her mother’s death and her sister’s disappearance, who was last known to be finalizing funeral arrangements from their childhood home. Annie’s return to her childhood home to retrace her sister’s footsteps not only stirs up bad memories from growing up, but also makes her a target for attack by an unseen presence within. Written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, The Pact manages to make even the most mundane suburban home sinister and reinvigorate old tropes. The Pact takes a huge left turn from the expected direction, with terrifying results.
This mockumentary style horror film written and directed by Joel Anderson tells a story of a family coping with the loss of their teen daughter Alice and the supernatural events that have emerged since her drowning. Alice’s brother Matthew sets up cameras around the Palmer household to record sightings of his dead sister, and the family seeks the help of parapsychologist Ray for answers. Part found footage and part faux documentary, including interviews with the family, Lake Mungo feels like a film within a film centered around the palpable grief of a daughter and sister. Anderson takes full advantage of found footage tropes, using the ghostly presence of Alice to deliver shocking twists and scares. In other words, it’s nothing like your average found footage film, and the ideas and imagery presented will linger with you long after the end credits roll.
Ju-On: The Grudge
Kayako and her son Toshio may be iconic, but it’s their house in which they are tethered and where the curse resides that gives them power. Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On series has rivaled Ringu in terms of Japan’s most terrifying ghost stories, and it’s no surprise that this long-lasting franchise is getting an American reboot next year. The unnatural way Kayako and Toshio contort their bodies as they haunt their victims is enough to send chills down your spine, and Shimizu is a master of the jump scare. The Ju-On series brings a whole new layer to the haunted house concept; those who are brave (or dumb) enough to step foot inside the Saeki home are doomed to bring the curse back with them. In haunted house horror, the body count is typically quite low. That’s not the case here.
When one thinks of haunted houses, usually the image of a gothic mansion or a dated home come to mind, not a Brooklyn brownstone. Yet it makes for one of the most unique and creepy haunted house flicks of all, when fashion model Alison Parker moves into one that’s been sectioned off into apartments. It doesn’t take long after move-in day for Alison to begin hearing strange noises, suffer insomnia and nightmares, and endure bizarre encounters with her equally bizarre neighbors. When she complains to her real estate agent, the agent is confused; the brownstone only has two tenants, Alison and the blind reclusive priest on the top floor. Also fitting in line with the Catholic horror of the decade, The Sentinel is an oft-overlooked gem with hellish roots.
James Wan’s ode to ‘70s supernatural horror employed every tool in his horror arsenal crafted from previous work on supernatural films Dead Silence and Insidious, proving himself to be a modern master of horror with his uncanny ability to draw out excruciating tension and scares juxtaposed with an emotional story filled with characters the audience actually cares about. It even takes the controversial real-life figures of Ed and Lorraine Warren and turns them into horror’s most endearing couple as they investigate the haunting of the Perron family at their newly purchased farmhouse. Atmospheric, tense, and expertly paced, it’s no surprise this film launched a horror universe of its own.
A well-regarded classic for a reason, this Tobe Hooper directed seminal haunted house story centered around the Freeling family proved that not even a newly built suburban home could be free from paranormal activity. Few horror protagonists are as amiable as the Freelings, led by patriarch Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams), and their plight of searching for missing daughter Carol Anne lends an emotional through line. More than that, Poltergeist brings one of the showiest haunted house films in cinematic history. From face peeling nightmares, corpse-filled swimming pools, and even attacking trees, Poltergeist is one epic spectacle that offers chills, laughs, and heart.
This definitive haunted house tale follows George C. Scott as John Russell, a music composer that moves into a large Victorian mansion in Seattle after the deaths of this wife and daughter. The usual phenomena begin shortly after moving in; banging on walls, spooky apparitions, and various other signs of hauntings. John begins to investigate the history of the house, finding a tragic secret and one very pissed off ghost at the center of the sprawling home. Scott’s compelling performance as a mourning man fueled by the mansion’s tragic mystery, the now iconic sounds and imagery (that wheelchair), and the way director Peter Medak frames his shots makes for one of horror’s scariest haunted house films ever. It’s so good that I’m surprised that it took them this long to attempt a remake.