It seems like haunted house movies are always having a resurgence, but this horror staple has been around as long as there have been movies.
The greatest decades for creaky, freaky old houses may have been the ‘70s and ’80s, but filmmakers are still coming up with new ways to lure us into bleak mansions and spiderwebbed attics. We eagerly saunter back in to dark stories time after time, not in spite of knowing what’s to come, but because we want to be enveloped in shadows and the supernatural.
When film was new, the American public was at the height of the Spiritualist craze, with rampant interest in seances, ghosts, and other spiritual communication. It was only natural to channel that interest into movies – nearly every working spiritualist medium was fake, but they had to pretend to be real. Movies didn’t have the same problem; stories of comic and terrifying encounters with spirits could run free.
The first haunted house movies came from a place where horror wasn’t the hardcore pursuit it often is now. The first cinematic incursions into possessed homes were comedies as much as they were horror films. The intersection of comedy and the supernatural was perfect even in silent shorts like The Haunted House, a 1908 silent film from prolific Spanish director Segundo de Chomón, which contains stop-motion effects that were cutting-edge at the time.
(The Haunted House was also seen in The Babadook, one of the best recent films about a haunting, and you might have seen a gif from the film pop up online.)
Horror fans still get up in arms about whether comedy belongs in a horror film — just ask audiences who saw IT this year – but anyone defending the genre mix can point to cinema’s early days. The Old Dark House, from 1932, is an early haunted house masterpiece from Frankenstein director James Whale, with a group of people sheltering from a storm in an old mansion. It’s bizarre and funny, and so good that “old dark house” movies became a recognizable subgenre.
Part of the appeal of haunted house movies, for producers, was the ratio of budget to potential return. These films could be relatively cheap to make, by repurposing standing sets populated by sparse casts. Even in the age of large-scale special effects, these movies were just as effective without the sort of expensive set pieces that raise eyebrows in the accounting department.
The 1940s treated the form, with that budget appeal in mind, as the ‘20s and ‘30s had, with the supernatural often played for comedy or caper plots. We see that in Bob Hope’s haunted house comedy The Ghost Breakers, where Paulette Goddard inherits a Cuban mansion that may be haunted — or may just be an object of interest for gangsters, as she discovers in conjunction with Bob Hope’s mixed-up character. The Ghost Breakers, adapted from a play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, was a critical and popular hit, remade multiple times, and eventually became a primary ancestor of the Ghostbusters movies.
Supernatural movies got more consistently serious in the ‘40s with films like The Uninvited, a 1944 haunted house story with wickedly moody (and Oscar-nominated) cinematography, where Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey buy an old seaside house for a price that is probably too good to be true. This one is beautiful and moody as hell, with images that are pitch-prefect icons.
The Uninvited also featured a great score by Vince Young, the main theme of which was adapted into ‘Stella By Starlight,’ a jazz standard that even people who don’t know a lick of jazz will recognize; Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal version is hard to top, but Chet Baker’s mellow instrumental is also brilliant.
1960’s Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 helped pull horror from the drive-in level up to the mainstream, and then the massive success of The Exorcist in 1973 cemented horror as a mainstay – and also led to a couple decades full of all the haunted house movies that most people have seen at least parts of.
Beginning with House on Haunted Hill, the 1959 Vincent Price film from master huckster William Castle, there’s a run of great and/or classic movies that make up the bulk of most “best of” haunted house movie lists. In The Innocents, from 1960, a brilliantly shot gothic horror, a governess believes the two children she cares for are possessed by the ghosts of prior staff of the large, possibly haunted house in which they all reside. It’s a terrific moody mansion story. So is The Haunting, which in 1963 established a haunted house template that movies still use today.
From there, it’s nearly a sprint through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Take Richard Matheson’s adaptation of his novel, which hit film as The Legend of Hell House, with a great score from Doctor Who music mainstays Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. 1979’s The Amityville Horror, based on a widely-reported real life story of a haunting, is more iconic than it is great, and spawned a whole set of sequels and remakes. 1980’s The Changeling is a far better and consistently-overlooked story with George C. Scott as a man haunted by the ghost of a child.
A pair of early ‘80s films, The Shining and Poltergeist, stand as the two most significant haunted house blueprints. Stanley Kubrick’s film from 1980 liberally adapts Stephen King’s novel into a chilling and lyrical portrait of insanity, and is crafted so beautifully that the Overlook Hotel paradoxically becomes a place you’d want to visit, even knowing the horrors within. The fan reaction to The Shining is so intense and consistent that there's even a documentary, Room 237, exploring how people extrapolate their own meaning and ideas from the movie.
And Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg created Poltergeist as an offshoot of a Close Encounters sequel concept, imbuing it with such a recognizable sense of suburban unease that it remains the archetypical blockbuster haunted house thrill ride.
The genre nearly died in the ‘90s, as horror went into its first revival since the boom that began in the ‘60s. Japanese horror, beginning with films like The Ring, helped revive atmospheric horror even as American movies brought other forms back to prominence. But the first compelling haunted house movies of the new millennium were produced in Spain. The Others and The Devil’s Backbone, both from 2001, might be the first great entries in a new wave of moody haunted house horror that fuses The Shining and gothic traditions, and which also includes The Orphanage and The Innkeepers.
Studios latched on to found footage haunts thanks to the Paranormal Activity series. That kicked off in 2007, and led to bigger studio efforts like The Conjuring films. (A UK TV series, The Enfield Haunting, tackles the same story that inspired The Conjuring, with a more "real world" approach.) Smaller movies are still exploring the corners of the genre, however. A great one is Housebound, from New Zealand, which filters a solid story idea — a troubled young woman is under house arrest at her family home, which she begins to believe is haunted – through the exaggerated sensibility of early Peter Jackson movies.
Seeing the history of the genre from a bird’s-eye view, elasticity may be the best quality of the haunted house movie. There’s no question about some films being “haunted house movies” - even casual fans know The Haunting and The Amityville Horror, The Shining, Poltergeist, and The Conjuring.
But can Psycho be seen as a haunted house movie? What about Gaslight, from 1944, where a jerk of a husband tries to drive his wife crazy, in part by denying her experience hearing footsteps in their house and seeing the lights dim of their own accord? You’ll see the amazing 1928 silent film The Wind referred to as a haunted house movie here and there. In that one, Lillian Gish moves to an isolated ranch out west, and is nearly driven crazy by the wind battering her home – and by the men demanding her affection. There’s more murder than haunting in the movie, but the overall effect is enough to make me willing to accept it as a sidebar entry.
What about any version of The Phantom of the Opera, and by extension Brian De Palma’s amazing Phantom of the Paradise? These movies are built around a central location which seems haunted to some of the people in the story, even if it’s not sold to us in that way. Having invoked Peter Jackson above, is his own The Frighteners a haunted house movie? Not exactly, but it’s a cousin of the genre at the very least.