What Makes a Good Haunted House Movie?

There are some great haunted house movies out there (not enough if you ask me). As someone who grew up in an active home, I know that I have to set aside my experience and not ridicule movies that don't seem to accurately portray the reality. Instead, I focus on the elements that are critical for the movie to be on my top fav list.

Here's 5 elements I find crucial to a great haunted house movie -  

Setting For a haunted house movie to make it, it's going to have to seem like a haunted house. In other words, no ultra-modern loft in New York, but perhaps some farmhouse or Victorian era home with quirks and unusual architecture. Some movies like "Rose Red," the remake of "The Haunting," and "The Nesting" had wicked awesome homes, but the movies just didn't carry the setting. You can't expect a house alone to carry the plot. The movie "13 Ghosts" remake had the house as part of the mechanism that kept the 13 ghosts locked in and when it wasn't guarding them any longer, they were free to terrorize the occupants.  It's not what you know about the house that gets you, it's the secret it holds....

Mood You cannot have a truly good haunted house movie in daylight continuously, bright lights and cheeriness. The scariest times and places for a haunted house are stormy/darkness/nightfall, and those forbidden nooks and crannies from closets, like "Poltergeist" and attics and basements. Music is vital to horror movies in general, but haunted house movies need a good building background of sounds that enhance the mood even more. Those moments of silence contrast and cause us to hold our breath....  

Characters A haunted house happens to a family, sometimes to someone moving in alone, but generally there should be enough varied characters that there is a skeptic among them, one who is vulnerable, one who is a brave idiot who rushes in to be the hero. It never matters so much what happens to the people living in the haunted house, it's how each character handles it that makes us relate. When the character has that "I admit the place is haunted" moment, we take their side on the quest for answers and resolution. Think of the character of John Russell in "The Changeling." He set out to right a wrong made long ago in the hopes of representing a ghost and creating peace in his home. His stubborn desire had him getting into lots of trouble with a senator and with the law as he sneaked into a home to dig through the floorboards. A man who was once grieving the loss of his wife and child, was now on a mission with consuming passion and bravery.  

History Haunted houses don't just happen. They have a history. Making that history enough to create a lack of resolution is key. Movies like "Amityville Horror" missed the boat with their explanations. They threw a lot of ideas out there and hoped one would stick--was it Indian land, the portal to hell, and the site of a mass murder? One of those surely must have created the havoc. Instead, it left the watcher ambivalent about who was the enemy.

Battles Homeowners don't just walk away from a haunted house or else you have, well, no story. So, why do they stay? What do they do to try to fix things? What is the solution? In "Legend of Hell House" the scientist tried a machine to drive away spirits. In "Poltergeist" they brought in a ghost hunting team and then a psychic medium. There are little battles, those moments when someone catches a glimpse of a figure, a voice, an object movies, but the degree of assault by the unseen forces escalates. These different battles and then attempts at resolution are what keeps the audience curled up in their seats, feet tucked under, waiting to see what it takes to make the owners go on the attack.

My top list in no particular order below. You will probably notice some big-name haunted house movies aren't on here such as "Paranormal Activity," "Amityville Horror" and "Poltergeist." Although these movies were entertaining, they did miss an element of believability or clarity about what they were fighting, the mood, setting or characters were not enticing enough. The ones I list here on my top favs are based on the overall quality of those five elements.


 The Haunting

The Legend of Hell House

The Changeling


  1. I would add "The Unnamable" (1988)

  2. I agree, Sharon, characters, mood, and setting are penultimate factors in creating a good ghost yarn. History and/or battles are essential, too. That 13 Ghosts remake wasn't even a subtle ghost haunting film; it was just too much of an amusement park scare ride to even be counted as a "reputable" ghost story. Your citing of The Changeling as among the best cannot be disagreed with. I just hope that when The Woman In Black debuts next month, it'll creep us all out, just like it was intended to in its original stage production. Best wishes …

  3. I'm putting Unnameable on my list and I cannot wait to see Woman in Black!!!

  4. Woman in Black is on my list to watch in the theater.. I am SO HOPEFUL!

    Insidious kicked butt. I love it.

    oh and the 13th Ghosts Remake, was nicely done... I rather enjoyed it.

  5. What makes a good haunted house movie? I would say unequivocally that it's the person you're watching it with.

  6. Insidious was crap... not trying to be mean about it . They could've done a lot better. Actually, I really haven't seen a good ghost movie in years. As for TV, I love American Horror Story. The series started with a slow build, and took off in the end.

  7. I totally disagree with Max...I just recently saw Insidious and boy it did it scare me. I had goosebumps all over my body for an hour after watching that film. It's been a very long time since I was that scared watching a film and that one did it for me!

  8. also camera angles, and the types of shots that make the movie have an effect on how you feel about it

  9. Insidious was amazing!!! What about Haunting in Connecticut? I loved it!


Post a Comment