We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
This week has the release of one of the most anticipated horror films of 2013. The Conjuring from James Wan (Insidious, Saw) sees the director returning to the haunted house concept but this time with a story based on “real events.” The early word is that the movie is absolutely terrifying and one of the scariest of the year. Wan isn't done yet in 2013, Insidious Chapter 2, sequel to his highly successful 2011 horror film, comes out later this year.
This particular director seems dedicated to bringing back old school scares to theaters. Unlike his earlier films (most notably Saw), this new wave of haunted house flicks features little to no gore and rely mostly on tried and true methods of effective lighting and creepy sound design. In fact The Conjuring is rated R, but not because of violence, language or nudity but simply because it's too damn scary for most people to see.
To help celebrate this new golden age of haunted house movies, I've put together a list of the some of the most terrifying and effective haunted houses in film history. However brave you think you might be, I doubt any one of you could step foot in any of these places without freaking the hell out. I know I couldn't. So here are my TOP 7 Movie Haunted Houses.
7. The Carmichael House from the The Changeling (1980)
Recap: A grieving composer moves into a creepy, old mansion with the hopes of piecing his life back together. As if the cold drafts and loud noises weren't enough, it turns out the house might be haunted, shocking I know. Soon he finds himself solving a bizarre mystery all while trying to maintain some semblance of sanity.
Reason: The Carmichael mansion features long hallways that lead into dark, wide open spaces often leading to strange echoes. The pipes are old and noisy, guaranteed to wake you up each morning at 6 a.m. A sobbing voice resembling a young boy can be heard throughout the house asking for help confusing even the most hardy and experienced spiritual mediums. It got into acclaimed badass George C. Scott's head, what makes you think you could survive even a week at this place?
Peter Medak's chilling haunted house tale is considered one of the scariest films of all time and for good reason. The Changeling moves at a slow, deliberate pace allowing you to soak in the grievous state of George C. Scott's intense performance right before hitting you with a string of all time great scare sequences. Of particular note is the influential and oft imitated séance scene which has Scott and a group of mediums communicating with the spirit with wildly scary results. One thing's for sure, you'll never view bouncy balls in the same light again.
6. The Maitland House from Beetlejuice (1988)
Recap: Tim Burton decided to turn the haunted house sub-genre on its head with 1988's Beetlejuice, a story about a recently deceased couple who decide to employ the assistance of the titular mischievous ghost to scare interested parties away from their beloved home.
Reason: The Maitland House features world class illusions and tricks from expert haunter, Beetlejuice, with recently deceased former home owners as capable amateurs in their own right. The house itself features a creepy attic linking to the afterlife dimension which would certainly prove hazardous to the living. It's possible normal people could potentially deal with just the Maitland ghosts simply because, well they aren't really interested in scaring people. Now this all changes if Beetlejuice gets put into play. He's a world class beast capable of some pretty terrifying scare strategies that aim to torture as well as frighten. I'd give you a few days in Maitland house before going totally bonkers.
The cool aspect of Tim Burton's reverse ghost story is that it follows the ghosts and their difficulties in scaring new inhabitants away. This isn't something you see often and as such proves to be more comical than actually scary. There are a few sequences at the end that are legitimately nutso but for the most part Burton keeps it light, humorous and visually stimulating. It helps that Beetlejuice is a wonderfully realized character played to hilarious perfection by Michael Keaton. Gorgeous, unique and fun, Beetlejuice only improves with age and continues to be regarded as one of Burton's beast.
5. The Danvers State Hospital from Session 9 (2001)
Recap: A group of asbestos removers are tasked with cleaning up a rundown, abandoned mental hospital. Over the course of the project, tension between the group members mounts as some go missing and a former patient's tapes clue the team into the strange history of the hospital.
Reason: The Danvers State Hospital is a closed mental asylum featuring a labyrinth-like structure filled with creepy old objects that are as fascinating as they are horrifying. The asbestos is the least of your worries as clearly something isn't quite right with the location. Terrifying tapes that feature spooky stories told from the perspective of a patient with dissociative identity disorder (or does she?) certainly don't help matters. Even in a group these guys couldn't handle the situation, I give most people a mere few hours before breaking down into tears and hightailing it to the nearest safe place.
Session 9 is one of those unfortunately forgotten modern horror classics that proves gore doesn't equal scares. Director Brad Anderson chooses psychological means as the preferred form of terror. It's old school all the way with very little of the movie taking place outside this one building and the excellent group of actors (Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Josh Lucas) are game for the whole haunted hospital bit. Unlike some modern horror where specific scenes often dictate how memorable the final product really is, Session 9 utilizes a slow burn mentality maximizing its effectiveness over a long period of time. It's truly one of the miracle horror films that features a perfect storm of brilliant components.
4. The Cabin from The Evil Dead (1981)/Evil Dead II (1987)
Recap: Creepy cabins in the middle of creepy wooded areas would be avoided by almost any other group of people...besides college students. When a group of college kids head out into the middle of nowhere for some partying, sex and a good time what they end up finding is something far more terrifying then crappy weed. An ancient book of evil fills the cabin with crazy spirits intent on reopening the doorway between dimensions.
Reason: It's a cabin in the woods. I mean, come on. What isn't crazy scary about this situation already? Add in the evil presence permeating through the ancient book of evil and you've got the perfect situation in which to kill a large number of people in gloriously grotesque ways. The spirits aren't the hide and seek kind, these are the insane, blood thirsty kind that are after complete and utter destruction. With demonic possession, evil animation of inanimate objects and total environmental control, it's unlikely your average human being even stands a chance. If you happen to be as tough as Ash, I'll give you a night. Everyone else? You've got a few hours before you are devoured into eternal damnation.
Technically the cabin isn't a house but this is a different kind of haunting. What the Evil Dead films did was so much more important. Sam Raimi and company made creepy cabins a thing, a really big thing in fact. These films are so influential that to this day, the series spawns legions of knock-off films that attempt to homage the classics typically with disastrous results. Unlike many of the other films on this list, Evil Dead takes pleasure in cutting off limbs, spraying gallons of blood and viciously murdering most of the cast in the most insane ways possible. Even with all of the violence, there's plenty of legitimately scary moments throughout both films to keep even the most pure horror fans on the edge of their seats.
3. Hill House from The Haunting (1963)
Recap: Desperate to find paranormal evidence of ghosts, a scientist enlists the help of two psychics to investigate Hill House, a huge house with a rich but strange history built on death. Weird occurrences make the visitors question their mission and their sanity.
Reason: Possibly the creepiest house ever built, Hill House features not just the inherent scary qualities that come from big houses but a design that is tailor made to frighten anyone occupying it. The angling of the walls is just a touch off causing the doors to frequently close by themselves. The house's history includes the many deaths previous inhabitants adding to the “cursed” perspective of the location. Hallways leading to odd areas will surely confuse people heightening the already tense experience. Considering the history and the unorthodox design of the house, thrill seekers may make it longer than one would expect, possibly a few days but I wouldn't be surprised if they are running to their mothers after one horrific night.
Robert Wise's The Haunting is truly unique in that even though it was released in 1963 the film continues to terrify audiences even today. The ghosts are never seen during the entirety of the movie but due to the suggestive power of freaky camera angles, nutty sound design and effective scene construction, The Haunting more than proves it's horror worth. It's pretty amazing what you can do with some excellent sound design, immaculate production design and a couple of amazing performances. Horror is always at it's most effective when it remains unseen. Modern horror should take note.
2. The Freeling House from Poltergeist (1982)
Recap: The quiet life of the Freeling family is suddenly thrown into disarray when ghastly spirits target the youngest daughter for abduction. The ordinary family must courageously defend both their daughter and home from invading forces from the beyond.
Reason: The Freeling home isn't anything particularly special. It's a normal house owned by a normal family in an otherwise normal neighborhood. There's a scary tree in the yard but nothing about the house screams “haunted.” There's something a bit stranger going on here as the objects in the house turn themselves on and off and move as if alive. The spirits themselves become the lifeblood of the house, hellbent on taking anything and everything (especially little girls) with them to the other side. These aren't ghosts out to merely scare, they're out for blood and won't stop until they get what they want. It doesn't help that the house is built on the foundation of a former cemetery. Once the television set starts speaking to you, I give you a few hours before you're out the door and on your way back home.
Poltergeist is perhaps the most successful haunted house experience in film history. There's nothing like seeing this movie with an audience, the scares feel bigger and the joy is infectious. Much like an attraction, Poltergeist is a thrill ride from beginning to end. It aims to entertain as much as shock and due to the excellent performances and assured direction from Tobe Hooper, the film certainly earns its place near the top of the horror food chain. The most frightening element just might be the relatable aspect of the entire situation. This could happen to anyone at anytime. A true suburban nightmare if there ever was one.
1. The Overlook Motel from The Shining (1980)
Recap: Writer Jack Torrance needs some quiet time to settle in and begin working on his newest book. When the winter caretaker position opens up at the Overlook Hotel, Torrance jumps at the opportunity to get some work done while also spending quality family time with his wife and son. While his son struggles with his newly discovered psychic abilities, Jack is slowly influenced by the malevolent spirits inhabiting the hotel sending the entire family down a hellhole of murder and insanity.
Reason: The only thing scarier than a haunted house is a haunted hotel. The size of the Overlook is massive and the structure is beyond confusing between the labyrinth room layout and long corridors. One could easily lose themselves for hours wandering around the place with no real direction. The odd design choices from the wallpaper to the carpet are as unsettling as the ghosts that haunt the hotel. During the winter, you are sure to be snowed in which gives the spirits ample time to spread dreadful paranoia to the inhabitants. If the ghosts don't kill you, you’ll surely kill each other. The average person's willpower is surprisingly low so I doubt there are many out there who could survive an hour much less a night in a place like this.
What more can be said of arguably the greatest horror movie of all time? Stanley Kubrick's The Shining completely reinvented what the film world viewed as horror in 1980 with more of an emphasis on psychological terror and confusing imagery. It isn't scary because of any one element or scene but instead because of Kubrick's insane commitment to keep each situation as creepy as possible through bizarre production design, a chilling score, and uncomfortable camera movements. The Shining is the total package and there hasn't been anything since that has been able to match the overwhelming sense of dread and pure terror wrought on the Torrance family. Kubrick got into the mind of the audience and showed them things they never thought possible, horror or otherwise. Respect The Overlook.