October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best haunted house movies wraps up the 2022 edition of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Certain places seem designed from the ground up to play host to horrors. Cabins in the woods. Cemeteries. Underground caverns. Australia. The one that brings us together today, though, is one that most of us find familiar. Our house, a place that could be cozy and modern or large and drafty — the common denominator is that a family of some manner calls it home. That’s what makes it so unsettling and terrifying when something evil begins haunting its rooms and halls.
It’s the reason haunted house movies — of one form or another — make up roughly fifty-two percent of all horror films. It’s true. Go count up all the horror movies ever made, do a little math, and you’ll see I speak the truth. We’ve all lived in a home of some kind, and the idea of unwelcome visitors, particularly the ghostly kind, is the kind of spooky none of us want to deal with. Makes for good, creepy fun when it’s someone else’s problem though!
And so the fifth edition of our annual 31 Days of Horror Lists comes to an end, as they always do, with a big list. This year’s topic? The best haunted house movies! As always, we applied some rules as to what constitutes a “haunted house,” and we settled on the simplest definition — a ghostly presence in a single-family dwelling, meaning no apartment buildings, no office buildings, no cruise ships. (And yes, as always, our rules are subject to gentle massaging and fudgery.) We’ll be doing a list of the actual best houses next year, but for now, keep reading to see our picks for the 35 best haunted house movies, as decided by Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, Valerie Ettenhofer, and myself.
35. The Grudge (2004)
Is The Grudge a perfect movie? No. Is it a better movie than the Japanese film on which its based, which is also directed by Takashi Shimizu and which may or may not also appear on this list? Debatable! But what it does have is indelible and scary, and it can be described in just a few words: knuckles coming out of someone’s head in the shower! If you need a few more, how about these: meowing cat-boy ghost. Scream queen Sarah Michelle Gellar. Produced by Sam Raimi. Plus, the movie roots its haunted house mythology in a brutal story that carries it through to its intense, fiery ending. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
34. Insidious (2010)
Stay away from attics, kids. Malevolent forces lurk in the dust mites. James Wan‘s Insidious is a relentless frightmare. Once young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) makes demonic contact with the upstairs entity, the film doesn’t quit with the jolts. Wan only understands escalation. Prepare thy nerves. Insidious is a bit of a dry run for The Conjuring, where the director takes the jump-scares to stratospheric heights, but Insidious‘ cozier dread is more my speed. Of course, there’s nothing cozy about the film’s third act, where it ditches the creaking doors and far-off spook sounds for the hellish horror that most films of this type never manage to achieve. Insidious’ finale is a big bang that spawns sequels and wannabes, but Wan’s micro-budgeted original remains king. (Brad Gullickson)
33. What Lies Beneath (2000)
What Lies Beneath answers that age-old question — what would a Lifetime movie look like if it had the polish of a Robert Zemeckis film? Claire and Norman Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford) are a seemingly happy couple living the perfect life in their quiet lakeside home in Vermont. After a new couple moves in across the way, Claire begins to notice strange occurrences and suspects the husband of foul play. As she begins to investigate, she discovers terrible secrets hidden within her own home. What Lies Beneath is a basic plot, but with the direction of Zemeckis and strong performances from Pfeiffer and Ford it’s a thrilling tale of suspense that manages to zoom through its two-hour runtime. The final sequence is as exciting as anything else on this list. (Chris Coffel)
32. The Pact (2012)
If this list were “best haunted house movies set during Christmas,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a better front-runner than The Pact. For those less interested in the snow-capped world of holiday horror, though, The Pact has far more substance than its familiar premise initially lets on. Sure, the film starts as a rote mystery about a young woman returning to her family home to find answers to her sister’s sudden disappearance. It’s a setup inflected by classic haunted house tropes, but the film soon gives way to an even greater mystery that spans well beyond ghostly archetypes, offering up twists that I’d wager a bet is eternal nightmare fuel for all of us. Director Nicholas McCarthy crafted a film filled with striking images that lean more on subtlety than brazen shocks, which makes The Pact a welcome change of pace from a subgenre that often gets its rocks off by spamming jump scares to death. (Jacob Trussell)
31. Paranormal Activity (2007)
In 2007, no place on earth seemed scarier to me than the random suburban home from Paranormal Activity. Oren Peli’s cleverly constructed found footage hit takes the interior of an exceedingly average house and makes it sinister, then leaves us staring at its nooks and crannies waiting for some evil to spring forth. More than many movies on this list, I think Paranormal Activity is as much about the haunted home as it is about its residents. I wouldn’t remember Katie and Micah’s names without looking them up, but I do remember exactly how that bedroom door looks from the security camera angle where Oren traps our POV again and again. Paranormal Activity succeeds for a lot of reasons, but it’s at its best when it’s letting us glimpse things its doomed protagonists don’t see in time, like a spontaneous fire, a door slamming in the night, or Katie’s eerie trance. Nearly everything in the movie – until the obviously supernatural ending – is subtle enough to seem both possible and able to be easily missed, and that’s scary as hell. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
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