13 Must-See Hauntings
Executing a good haunting is a very difficult task and has only become more difficult as audiences become more horror-savvy (able to readily anticipate plots and scares). Hence, while there are many hauntings available, most are not worth your time or money. In an effort to steer veterans and novices alike down an entertaining path, we have compiled an all-star list of thirteen outstanding haunts.
Note: The four classics have stood the test of time and are genuinely fantastic movies – complete with brilliant execution on the acting and directing fronts - but probably won’t creep out more seasoned fans. Nonetheless, they deserve a watch. Even if their creep factor has eroded over time, they remain fantastic movies.
The Uninvited (1944) was the first feature film to depict a ghost with the intention of scaring audiences. The protagonists in the film are otherwise skeptical until they experience irrefutable proof of the ghost’s existence. Ghosts in previous films were thrown in for comedic value or ultimately proven to not exist – often related to an elaborate prank. Yet, the supernatural phenomena in The Uninvited actually scared audiences. Although not the first psychological horror film it is arguably the first one with a high creep factor independent of monsters. The story is simple enough: A brother and sister become enchanted with an old house in a seaside town. After purchasing it, they discover that the daughter of the man who sold them the house threw herself off a cliff and into the sea while a resident. The brother and sister hear unexplained sobbing at night, feel drafts in closed corridors and sniff scents without a recognizable source. Sound familiar? That’s because The Uninvited became the cinematic prototype for a haunting - copied and enhanced by others. The film is the ‘Psycho (1960)’ of hauntings.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) is the original (and probably best) spend-the-night-in-a-haunted-house-for-money feature. Although humans may have more of a hand in affairs than ghosts, House on Haunted Hill is the classic haunting most frequently referenced in pop culture. Although not very scary by today’s standards, it remains a gem of suspense and a treasure trove of great character acting. Vincent Price is particularly memorable in his diabolical role as the eccentric millionaire who will reward the brave souls that last the evening. This is a fun one to watch as a first course early in the evening on Halloween night (or any other night).
The Innocents (1961) is an adaptation of the Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. The latter is known as a masterful ghost story and often cited as one of the finest ever-written. Although The Innocents doesn’t measure up to that reputation, the Jack Clayton film revolutionized how palpable fear is imbued to audiences. Independent of conventional and more shocking scares, The Innocents plays on the effects of minimal lighting and music with tone and content meant to instill a sense of isolation. The result is a uniquely disquieting sensation felt by viewers into the bone. Its influence on future hauntings and horror generally was sweeping, as it broached new techniques to reach a more authentic scare. (Two others on this list: The Others (2001) and The Changeling (1980) utilize the same method pioneered by Clayton - proving its effectiveness even amongst contemporary audiences.)
The Haunting (1963) set a new standard for psychological horror. In his second horror film, the eminent director, Robert Wise, completed the foundation of modern hauntings by relying on the craft of some very talented actors (Julie Harris plays the lead) to express the effects of a haunting instead of saturating audiences with creepy imagery. In the film, a group of paranormal experts with unusual skills attempt to prove or disprove the existence of supernatural phenomena in Hill House – a place with the most diabolical reputation. The Haunting successfully adapted ghosts and ghost stories into a dynamic that accounted for the changing - more science-based - paradigm of our cultural consciousness with a public skeptical of supernatural phenomena. Much of the disturbing nature of the film lies in the lack of knowing whether the supernatural is present, or if we are just witnessing someone descend into madness. The Haunting’s character-driven performances blurred the line between mundane afflictions and more paranormal maladies – raising the bar for psychological horror, not to be lifted again until The Shining (1980) premiered seventeen years later. The Haunting also became the quintessential haunted house movie amongst America’s largest generation – the baby-boomers – and became the lens through which they would look to judge future hauntings.
The Shining (1980) is one of the most widely recommended horror films for one reason: An unmatched nexus of talent. Acclaimed director, Stanley Kubrick, bases his film on the novel of horror master Stephen King and cast Jack Nicholson for the lead. In the book, Jack Torrance and his family are employed as winter caretakers of a Colorado mountain resort. His son’s powerful psychic abilities interact with the disturbing history of the resort in an unexpected way.
Kubrick tweaks an already compelling storyline and includes flashes of grotesque imagery so audiences experience them as the psychic boy experiences them. (Among the more iconic flashes is the infamous wave of blood that pours out from the elevator.) Taking a cue from The Innocents (1961), Kubrick also takes pains to ensure that the creepy theme music (or lack of music) and camera angles imbued a sense of isolation amongst audiences – much like the isolation experienced by the family in a Colorado mountain resort. Jack Nicholson’s performance as struggling writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance is Oscar worthy and his methodical descent into a possessed madness is one of the best in cinema history.
The Changeling (1980) deserves a spot on any list of hauntings. Cited by many fans and critics as one of the greatest psychological horror films of all time, this one stars George C. Scott in a typically Oscar-worthy performance. He plays a grieving composer who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident moves from New York to a mansion near Seattle, only to be disturbed by another who has died. Although The Changeling has the usual unexplained movements and sounds, plus haunting imagery that only a séance could produce, like all great psychological horror films, this one relies on the abilities of the actor(s) to imbue the audience with his experience of fear. The creep factor is high and the ending worth the wait.
Event Horizon (1997): Most may wonder how a Sci-Fi flick made it to this list … Clearly you haven’t seen this one if you think it is anything less than a brilliant haunting that just happens to take place in space. As terrifying as they come, Event Horizon explores the disturbing implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Our only comfort is that all the events take place on the far side of the solar system. In the film, the USS Event Horizon mysteriously reappears – having disappeared years earlier. The spaceship is not haunted by a troubled spirit, but has been imbued with a force that seeks to venture to an alternate universe – a realm of pure chaos, where carnage and depraved violence are as immutable as the law of gravity.
Try to imagine something so horrible that you are dying to poke your own eyes out rather than watch … Worse yet, you are compelled to return to it again and again – like an addict seeking another hellacious fix. Such an existence is the pinnacle of experience when the fabric of the universe itself is a work of horror and once revealed will haunt all who grasp even an IV drop of it … to madness.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) is not the first found footage film, but certainly demonstrates that anyone with a modicum of filmmaking sense can grab a camera and make a good haunting – absent any effects - if they understand the underlying basis of fear. Hitting the Indie circuit with an advertising campaign that had mock-up missing person flyers of the cast passed out in nearby college campuses, The Blair Witch Project chronicles the disturbing experience of three filmmakers that get lost in the woods. With peculiar noises, strange behavior, unexplained wooden stick figures and paths that lead them in circles, the film is the finest cinematic narrative of a ‘haunted forest’ available. Taking their cue from Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), The Blair Witch Project relies on solid acting that leaves audiences guessing whether the supernatural element is real or in the minds of the characters as they attempt to cope with a sanity-testing situation. As with all good hauntings, in the end it doesn’t matter … as the fear is very real.
The Others (2001) is one of the creepiest ghost stories in the mode of The Innocents to ever follow the 1961 classic. Its twist ending is as good as they come and flips the standard formula for hauntings on its head. Nicole Kidman’s performance as the mistress of a manor on the Isle of Wight who waits for her husband to return from the war is a tour de force and reminiscent of Julie Harris’s in The Haunting. The execution is nearly flawless with a creep factor that doesn’t rely on scares so much as one woman’s unnerved feeling at witnessing unexplained phenomena as simple as the opening of curtains. She invites us to walk a tightrope of suspense on our way to an unexpected conclusion. Dark and gripping throughout with a truly unique ending.
Paranormal Activity (2007) has been described by many horror fans as one of the freakiest films they have ever seen. This shoestring budget success, regenerated lagging interest in found-footage horror, but more importantly truly hit home. Showing real individuals in seemingly real situations with tension building steadily from night to night at the point of greatest vulnerability for everyone - that point that all who have nightmares dread … What lurks over you as you sleep soundly? What if you wake up to find that the very thing haunting your dreams is real? Like, The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity demonstrated that fear does not need great effects. When acted with skill even shadows can strike terror into the heart.
The Orphanage (2007) is a master work and probably the best foreign horror film you have never seen. Synopsis: A mother’s child disappears one day. The mother believes a malevolent presence to be responsible – a belief only heightened as she investigates the dark history of the old orphanage where she and her husband live. This true-to-life psychological haunting has some magnificently creepy moments as the action builds to a horror that strikes deep and resonates because of its authenticity – a fear that can only come from finally understanding the nature of horror. Those who speak Spanish will have an advantage over others, but the subtitles do not detract from the slow but increasingly unsettling burn that leads to a conclusion that only the darkest nightmares and deepest fears could tap.
Insidious (2011) takes a relatively unique approach to the concept of a ‘haunting’. Director James Wan impressed horror fans with the Saw franchise. But just when we thought he could be another Rob Zombie, he switched from gore and torture and opened new territory in person hauntings. Insidious is a story of a boy’s ability to leave his physical body in his sleep and the trouble he encounters one evening while trying to return. This is the first film to bring the phenomenon of astral projection – often referenced in Occult philosophy - into the realm of horror. Wan expertly crafts scares through a combination of minimal lighting, unanticipated imagery and a Hitchcock-esque music theme. He does not succumb to the ease of CG and the ghosts are all the more frightening as a result. Insidious doesn’t revolutionize horror with new techniques, but the execution guarantees that even seasoned fans will check their doors at the conclusion.
The Conjuring (2013) is a recent but noteworthy addition to cinematic hauntings. The film is the first cinematic adaptation of a case of supernatural activity encountered by paranormal experts, Ed and Lorraine Warren – pioneers of the field. Seasoned horror director, James Wan, brilliantly conjures (haha) an extremely high creep factor with atmosphere that keeps the attention of audiences rapt in a way reminiscent of The Uninvited, only enhanced. Although there are scares throughout, the tension that builds to a crescendo of fear after a steady upward climb is worth the wait.
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