Whether you watch it for the thrill, the vicarious violence or preemptive survival tips—just in case—the horror genre offers a lot more than the jump scares and gore. The evolution of filmography, sound engineering and set design has made the experience of horror movies as tense and realistic as ever. The haunted house subgenre has delivered a balance of familiarity with the extraordinary.
The trope follows a more-or-less predictable plot. A person or family moves into a new home, the initial series of unsettling events crescendos to a life-threatening game and ends with a face-off against the forces within the house. The journey from the dream home to a place straight out of nightmares becomes riddled with visual and auditory gags that remain with viewers. To this end, the sets and techniques continue to evolve, achieving the most believable and terrifying shots.
Here are our top picks for the haunted houses that have trailed on-screen:
- The Uninvited (1944)
The Uninvited directed by Lewis Allen is widely regarded as the first full-length horror film to treat haunted houses and spirits with gravity. The story of the brother-sister duo that moves into their new home evolves into a full-blown nightmare, complete with disembodied weeping and a family of ghosts with a convoluted past.
The Academy Award-winning cinematography, the eerie score and the tensely wound storyline make the haunted house seem even more menacing. Though its charm lies in the elegant portrayal of spirits, the film is an archetypal horror production that juxtaposes psychological and supernatural events to a remarkable end for its era.
- House (1977)
The haunted house in this Japanese film is trying to kill seven schoolgirls—oddly enough, named after their personality traits. The unwitting group visits the haunted mansion where inanimate objects get possessed into murdering them.
While today the effects may seem a touch laughable, cinematic imagery like cats crawling across pianos, murderous mirror reflections and the floating decapitated heads found an experimental outlet in this Japanese horror. The director, Nobuhiko Obayashi, consulted his daughter while crafting the visuals, helping him create a surrealist take that rides high on eccentricity.
The movie was filmed on the sets of Toho, the Japanese production company behind cult classics like Godzilla. The amateur cast and film schedule without a storyboard made the on-set direction more spontaneous. Highly aspirational and technical for the era, the film uses animation, backdrop paintings and blue-screening to create a figurative collage of horror.
- The Amityville Horror (1979)
A newly-wed couple moves into a home unaware that it was once a site of gruesome murders. The malevolence of the house is steadily revealed, hurting the children in a series of accidents and even manifesting the spirits as their invisible, imaginary friends. The involvement of the church runs parallel, with the priest sensing a demonic force in the house while the family experiences walls weeping blood and cold spots within the home.
Based on the true story of the homicides in Amityville, New York, the film was shot at another location in New Jersey. The exterior was remodelled after the original house and the director, Stuart Rosenberg, encouraged the participation of local police as extras and fire-department for providing rain for multiple scenes. The creepy score and some very effective set-designs within the haunted house which has come to be recognised for the “eye windows”.
The sinister aspect of the house is offset by the comforting tones of the surrounding foliage. While the film garnered mixed reception, it remains a landmark production in horror, the demonic “get out” scene conveying universal foreboding for decades after its release.
- Poltergeist (1982)
Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s paranormal horror film targets the idyllic suburbs, depicting everything from interdimensional spirits to animated trees. The planned community sits over a cemetery with the corpses rising from their destroyed graves. It dramatically turns a lovely family home into a portal to the spiritual dimension.
The locations for filming include Agoura Hills and Simi Valley in California, both exemplifying the suburban setting with children riding bicycles and lawns along sidewalks. The crew also created a practical mechanism to film lengthy scenes in one shot, passing through different spaces to highlight the portal transportation. Special effects and scores are instrumental in developing a mixed bag of grotesque visuals that won many prestigious awards.
- The Others (2001)
Another cult classic with superb performances and a chilling plot set in 1945, The Other has a family of three in the mire of a house haunted by more than just ghosts. The photosensitive children and their mother encounter the people they call the “others” who are the dead inhabiting houses of the living, sharing their home but unable to perceive each other.
The director, Alejandro Amenábar insisted on filming in Spain to instil the Catholic symbolism into the very setting. The house depicted in the film is a country estate in Cantabria while Kent’s Penshurst Place, England, provides the backdrop for a few scenes. The sense of movement in the plot is constant, matched by the powerful screenplay. The subtle false scares deliver a uniquely dreadful experience, especially in combination with the exceptionally befitting score.
- American Horror Story (2011)
The ‘Murder House’ in the first season of the critically acclaimed TV series revolves around the Harmons who move into their new house. The history of the house unfolds in step with the intrusive new neighbours and people from their past. The tonality of horror is set right from the outset, including the title track. The score and imagery build the tension through each scene, further enhanced by camera angles and screen framing.
The Murder House in the pilot episode is a 1902 Tudor-style family home in Los Angeles. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck recreated this mansion on a set for further filming, with interiors that reflect the original. The house and its victims-turned-ghosts become significant characters in the series. The award-winning special effects, sound editing and art direction bring the horrors of the haunted house to life.
- Conjuring (2013)
The landmark instalment that sired the Conjuring universe is an adaptation of events relayed by paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The family home stands on the land cursed by a witch, following the sacrifice of her child and then herself to demonic forces. Going through the various stages of possession, the film revolves around a family at the centre of a bloody, demonic conjuring.
The shooting lasted 38 days in EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina. Exteriors of this haunted family home were filmed at the Keith House in Currie, outfitted with the necessary spaces as per the scripting. The film explores many unforgettable scenes throughout the house—the clapping in the hallways, escalating encounters in the children’s bedroom and the haunted cellar where the final exorcism occurs.
- Crimson Peak (2015)
Guillermo del Toro’s old-school Gothic genre of haunted house films may be considered a dark romance in disguise. The marital home of the heroine, Edith, is named the Crimson Peak as it sits on a red clay mine at Allerdale. Enthralling characters framed by a succession of beautiful backdrops, complete with the Victorian era interiors, costumes and dialogue. The depravities of Edith’s husband are revealed to her by the ghosts inhabiting the slowly sinking mansion, with walls and floors seeping with the blood-like beneath.
The shooting was primarily done at the mansion constructed for the film at the Pinewood Toronto Studio and public streets in Hamilton, Ontario. Director’s inspiration from The Haunting and The Innocents is reflected in the style of filming while the set design is an attempt to revive the high-production period dramas with a modern take on the traditional horror film. The set also incorporates details like moth-inspired motifs used in flooring and wallpapers, exaggerated architectural elements and a colour palette synchronised with the narrative.
- Hereditary (2018)
Ari Aster’s 2018 horror narrative revolves around a house that was “born bad” and a miniature artist with a family history of acute mental disorders.
The miniature family house built by the matriarchal protagonist symbolises the people within as dolls manipulated by the dark forces. Shot to enhance this relation, the film employs an adaptive set with removable walls and ceilings. The set was designed after scene-by-scene mapping and replicated by miniaturist Steve Newburn, enabling transitions between the dollhouse and the stage. The team even created a customised lens with Panavision to get the extra wide frames to capture each room to perfection.
The exterior was shot at a gated community, “the Colony” in Salt Lake City, Utah and the interiors were constructed on a stage of Utah Film Studio. Each space within the life-size set was built to accommodate optimal filming and equipment movement along the wide corridors and doorways. Since the haunted home and its eerie surroundings are at the core of the occult history of the family, the director ensured that each space within it carried subtly oppressive undertones.
- Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Director Mike Flanagan shot the mini-series in the fashion of a full-fledged horror film in ten extensive instalments. The 2018 adaptation of the homonymous book by Shirley Jackson is loosely based on the original plot. It spans the childhood and adult lives of the family inhabiting the Hill House, weaving back and forth in time to create a truly chilling plotline.
The Tudor-style Bisham Manor in Georgia serves as the chillingly spooky exterior of the house, with the interiors filmed at the EUE/Screen Gem Studios in Atlanta. The author’s exploration of psychology and non-linear timelines become amplified through masterful filmography.
Films have come a lon way, from being a tool of storytelling to an experience that epitomises technology. Practical scares and ground-breaking post-production aside, the reason haunted houses scare us is because they change the perspective of our own environments—double-taking at dark corners, being wary of mirrors and treating every strange noise with dreadful suspicion. So for the ones of us looking for a reset and perhaps some sleepless nights, haunted houses are cinematic experiences that can deliver it all.