Visit any city, town, or village around the world and you are likely to find a house that people believe is haunted. A house is haunted one of two ways. Either there are spirits of the dead who are still in the structure or the house itself is possessed or otherwise cursed. Parapsychologists believe that ghosts manifest for various reasons, such as a violent or unexpected death, suicide, or a drawn-out-type of tragic event.
The haunted house has long been a staple of horror literature. Early examples of legends about haunted houses include a haunted villa in Athens, Greece, and the tale of “Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad” in the Arabian Nights. Edgar Allan Poe used a haunted house in stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Nathaniel Hawthorne penned “The House of Seven Gables.” Other excellent yarns about haunted houses include William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, Richard Matheson’s Hell House, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Motion pictures have been quick to adapt and create their own morbid variations of the haunted house theme. In some instances, there have been iconic houses that have not been haunted at all, such as the house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The following list compiles horror movies that showcase a haunted house of some type that is either possessed or is occupied by ghosts and other supernatural forces.
Made in the United Kingdom in 1963, The Haunting took as its inspiration Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Directed by Robert Wise, the movie centers on a group of four people who come together to investigate the strange goings-on at a lavish house. The movie introduced to audiences the idea of a paranormal investigator (a ghost hunter, if you will), as well as the idea that psychics or “sensitives” could sense and even communicate with the spirits of the dead.
The underlying horror of The Haunting is director’s Wise’s subtlety with special effects and his ability to draw inspiring performances from his actors. Wise exploited sound and skewed cinematography to evoke moments of terror, using the house’s own lavish interiors as menace. Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn all turn in excellent performances, and Nelson Gidding’s screenplay stands as a clinic on how to write an effective horror tale.
The Legend of Hell House
It’s no secret that the great Richard Matheson used Shirley Jackson’s classic novel as inspiration for his own novel, Hell House. Matheson’s own take on the story is distinct, however, going in a completely different direction. Matheson adapted his own novel for the screen, undergoing a name change to The Legend of Hell House. Originally screened in 1973, the movie centered on a group of physicists and psychic mediums who spend a week in a haunted English manor once owned by a reclusive and demented old man known as Emeric “Roaring Giant” Belasco. One of the psychics, played by Roddy McDowall, was involves in a previous research expedition in which everyone but him wound up dead.
The Legend of Hell House is an interesting experiment in fear, one that postulates that perversity and immorality can taint both the living and the dead. Indeed, such strong but misguided emotions and activities can even contaminate inanimate objects, giving them a perverse life of their own. Director John Hough does a fine job handling the performances and milking the sets for atmosphere. If anything, the film is a bit too talky, but otherwise makes for a creepy night of entertainment.
Leave it to Stephen King to pen a modern haunted house story that pays homage to authors like Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson but weaves its own distinct plot, characters, and ideas. In 1980, Stanley Kubrick adapted King’s The Shining into a movie, changing the storyline to fit his own needs. Kubrick’s version of The Shining told the story of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family. Jack takes a job as an off-season caretaker at the snowbound Overlook Hotel. Jack’s son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) possesses psychic abilities (known as “the shine”), and he soon becomes aware of the many ghosts who inhabit the hotel. It turns out that all previous caretakers at the hotel have died in it and their ghosts now begin to influence Jack so that he and his family can become one with the hotel’s spiritual staff and guests.
Although Stephen King did not like them movie, Kubrick’s The Shining nevertheless is a chilling, atmospheric, and at times terrifying story. There are some subtle nods to Matheson (perversity leading to the supernatural) and Jackson (a young and naïve sensitive), and the bulk of King’s novel is represented well enough. The combination of horror, mixed with a pervasive atmosphere of dread, makes The Shining essential viewing for fans of haunted house movies.
The Amityville Horror
Based on Jay Anson’s bestselling novel of the same name, 1979’s The Amityville Horror was supposedly inspired by actual events. The film was so successful that is spawned various sequels and even a remake in 2005. The movie centers on a house located at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. The house’s main claim to fame is the fact that Ronald Joseph DeFeo Jr. killed his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters in the house (this actually happened). The story takes this mass murder and postulates that DeFeo was possessed by supernatural forces that now begin to torment the house’s new tenants, the Lutz family.
Although not a stellar movie, The Amityville Horror manages to pull off some nice scares. The house itself is creepy, with its eye-like quarter windows used to good effect. The pig-like entity “Jody” is also terrifying, although the movie does not do a good job with bringing this creature to life. One of the movie’s best scenes is when an entity in the house screams, “Get out!” The recipient of his command is poor Father Delaney (Rod Steiger), who suffers physical and psychological ailments throughout the movie.
The haunted house genre comes full circle with the 2001’s television miniseries Rose Red. Written by Stephen King and directed by Craig R. Baxley, the movie intentionally borrows heavily from Shirley Jackson’s book. (King originally pitched the idea as a remake of The Haunting.) The story focuses on Dr. Joyce Reardon (Nancy Travis) and a team of psychics who investigate the Seattle mansion known as Rose Red. The house has supposedly claimed the lives of 23 people and some claim that the house can change its interior, even increasing in size.
Rose Red is a pretty good movie. It feels padded to accommodate the four hours it takes to tell its tale, but the house itself is a lot of fun to watch as it changes and manipulates the characters. Nancy Travis makes for an annoying central character, but the supporting players turn in solid performances. Many of the deaths are contrived, but there are some moments that will produce a chill or two.
The Legend of Hell House Trailer
Trailer for “The Legend of Hell House.”