The haunted house is one of horror’s most time-honored tropes, a dark twisting of the place we call home into a maelstrom of terror and things that go bump in the night. There’s something eternal about the idea, so it’s no wonder that hundreds upon hundreds of filmmakers have channeled it for dark visions of their own. There are, of course, dozens of classics in the genre on the big-screen, but if you’re looking for the very best to dive into this Halloween season, these are the ones you definitely won’t want to miss.
1. The Uninvited (1944)
The Uninvited, a ghost story from Hollywood’s Golden Age, has pretty much everything you’d want out of a classic black-and-white horror-drama. It’s got a spooky old house, a cast of beloved character actors led by Ray Milland, a slow-burn supernatural narrative that moves at its own leisurely pace, and of course old-school ghosts. It might move a little slowly for modern audiences, but if you’re patient with it, it’s the kind of film that will wrap you up in its own creepy comforts. In 2019, Martin Scorsese named The Uninvited one of the scariest movies of all time; “the tone is very delicate, and the sense of fear is woven into the setting [and] the gentility of the characters,“ he wrote for The Daily Beast.
2. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
If you want a haunted house story that’s not scary, and might in fact leave you buoyant with joy, look no further than this classic starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison in the title roles. A supernatural romance about a young woman and the spectral sea captain who becomes her preternatural paramour, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is both thoroughly layered with ideas and wonderfully sweet, remaining a great change of pace from the horror films where ghosts usually dwell. Bernard Herrmann, the legendary composer behind such diverse titles as Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Taxi Driver, scored The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and considered it his best work.
3. 13 Ghosts (1960)
Legendary gimmick-happy genre director William Castle made two great haunted house films in his career, and while House on Haunted Hill (1959) is more than worth a watch, 13 Ghosts stands out now as the superior (and more overtly supernatural) picture. The story of a family that moves into a house they suddenly inherited, it’s a supernatural mystery that’s both satisfying and delightfully over-the-top, and the ghost effects (enhanced by Illusion-O, Castle’s gimmick of special glasses that allowed you to see the ghosts or avoid them at will in the theater) are still genuinely unsettling after more than 60 years.
4. The Innocents (1961)
Just like the story that inspired it, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a film that focuses more on the haunted houses we build in our own minds than on actual ghosts reaching out from the darkness. In that regard, it’s a tremendous showcase for Deborah Kerr in the lead role of a governess slowly losing it in a big, old, possibly haunted house. She gets wonderfully, devastatingly lost in Clayton’s Gothic atmosphere, and you will, too. The Innocents also made Scorsese’s list of scariest movies ever, with the Oscar-winner describing it as “one of the rare pictures that does justice to Henry James. It’s beautifully crafted and acted, immaculately shot (by Freddie Francis), and very scary.“
5. The Haunting (1963)
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of the all-time great haunted house stories, and it has given us more than one great adaptation along the way. If you’re looking for the best feature film version, though, look no further than Robert Wise’s psychologically rich, unshakably tense vision from the 1960s. The horror is subtle, but the way Wise’s camera paints with light and shadows will leave you searching every corner for a spirit. Russ Tamblyn, who plays Luke Sannerson—the heir set to inherit Hill House—in the film also appeared in one episode of Netflix's 2018 miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House.
6. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House is a masterclass in pure, straightforward haunted house terror, and John Hough’s film adaptation delivers all that and more. The film follows a group of experts as they head into the title house with the goal of finding proof of the supernatural. It quickly devolves into terror as the group encounters dark image after dark image, all building toward a terrifying conclusion that’s still one of the more fascinating haunted house resolutions in the cinematic canon. More than 25 years after its original release, the film inspired the creation of the MTV horror reality series Fear.
7. House (1977)
If you’ve never seen House, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 haunted house film, do yourself a favor and just go watch it. Right now. Don’t look up the plot, don’t watch trailers, just watch the movie and hold on for dear life. It’s been nearly 50 years since Obayashi’s film was released, and there’s still nothing else in the horror genre—or in any other genre—quite like it. It’s a dark dream full of imagery that will live in your head forever, and a singular achievement in haunted house storytelling. While House was an immediate hit in its native Japan, American audiences didn’t get a chance to witness it until more than 30 years later, when it began screening at festivals in 2009 and very quickly gained a cult following.
8. The Changeling (1980)
George C. Scott isn’t necessarily an actor you think of as an all-out horror icon, but he cemented that status for himself with a remarkable performance in this film, the story of a grieving composer who moves into a haunted house and begins to unravel a decades-old mystery. Scott is great in the central role, but it’s Peter Medak’s slow-burn horror direction, complete with antique wheelchair and menacing children’s toys, that cements this one as a haunted house classic. In order to get the details just right, screenwriters Diana Maddox and William Gray reportedly spent approximately six months poring over research for the film, including more than 700 books and close to 2000 case studies regarding parapsychological events.
9. The Shining (1980)
While technically a movie about a haunted hotel, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining works so well in part because of the way it makes said hotel into a single-family dwelling, surrounding the Torrance trio with vastness until the building seems to swallow them all whole. Whether you consider the film a story of haunted places or a story of haunted people, Kubrick’s ability to play with our perceptions and create a sense of near-constant unease has become legendary, making The Shining one of the essential horror films in any genre. Before he took on The Shining, Kubrick was in consideration to direct The Exorcist. He turned down the gig, explaining that “I only like to develop my own stuff.” (He clearly changed his mind to adapt The Shining.)
10. Poltergeist (1982)
What’s great about Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper’s Steven Spielberg-produced classic about a family whose new house is overtaken by spirits, is just how relentless the film is. From the moment the ghostly activity starts, it never seems to stop, and it never stops escalating as the film barrels toward its conclusion. But even with that in mind, and with the loads of horror imagery packed into the film, Poltergeist never loses its prevailing sense of fun and adventure, delivering a horror classic that you can watch without fear of being bummed out by the end. Spielberg originally approached Stephen King about writing the script. “It didn’t work out because it was before the internet and we had a communication breakdown,” King told Entertainment Weekly in 2018. “I was on a ship going across the Atlantic to England. It took so long to reply that Spielberg moved on.”
11. House (1985)
Steve Miner’s House is one of those movies that walks in two worlds so deftly that it’s almost head-spinning. The film follows author Roger Cobb (William Katt), who moves into his late aunt’s house to write a book, only to discover the place is haunted. Strange events ensue that are equal parts haunting and silly, and the film somehow deftly moves into a space where it works as both an outright comedy and as a rather pointed meditation of post-Vietnam anxiety in Reagan’s America. Yes, it sounds wild—but it works. George Wendt, best known for his role as Norm Peterson on Cheers, co-stars as Roger’s neighbor Harold; John Ratzenberger, who plays Norm’s BFF Cliff Clavin, appears in 1987’s House II: The Second Story.
12. Beetlejuice (1988)
While it’s firmly rooted in dark, zany comedy and not horror, Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice remains one of the great haunted house movies thanks to its focus on the expected tropes and how they twist when the perspectives get flipped. In a strange world where ghosts have a kind of society and code all their own, it’s a film that not only shows you both sides of a haunting, but reveals all the ways that ghosts can express themselves beyond strange noises and horrifying apparitions. Thirty-five years later, it’s still a joy to watch. Reportedly, Burton’s first choice for the role of Beetlejuice was Sammy Davis Jr. It was producer David Geffen who suggested Michael Keaton.
13. Ghostwatch (1992)
Originally released as a supposedly real BBC television special, Ghostwatch is best remembered now for the sheer terror it inspired in viewers on Halloween night in 1992, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, Ghostwatch is a fascinating cultural artifact within the mockumentary subgenre. Yet it’s also a thoroughly engrossing and genuinely frightening haunted house story, the kind of thing that will have you watching it over and over again, looking for all the hidden specters. The UK’s Broadcasting Standards Council reportedly received more than 20,000 phone calls and thousands of letters—all of them angry—following the initial broadcast.
14. The Others (2001)
Rich with textural, chilling visuals and a reverence for the visual language of haunted houses, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others is a film that will lure you into a sense of uncomfortable, unpredictable dread even if you already know its central twist. Thanks to wonderful work by a cast led by Nicole Kidman and Amenábar’s own assured direction, it’s one of those movies that casts a dark spell that feels unbreakable, from its meditations on post-war grief and trauma to its eventual ghostly revelations. In 2002, the movie made history at the Goya Awards—Spain’s version of the Oscars—where it won a total of eight awards, including Best Film. It’s the first film to earn Spain’s highest film honor in which not one word of Spanish is spoken.
15. Dark Water (2002)
Though he’s perhaps best known for films like Ringu, Japanese director Hideo Nakata’s true masterpiece might be this intimate little ghost story about a mother and daughter who move into an apartment with a very dark history. Full of atmospheric flourishes and foreboding, Dark Water is a masterclass in building suspense, delivering a payoff, and then keeping the scares going even after the story has seemingly resolved. Three years after the film’s release, an English language version starring Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly was released.
16. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters is an unforgettable exercise in psychological terror for a number of reasons, but among the most striking is the way the filmmaker convinces you more than once that he’s switching genres. For a huge chunk of the runtime, the film might just be a gripping psychological drama with a few haunted house flourishes for the sake of symbolism. But by the time it’s over, and you realize it was a haunted house film all along, you realized that the ghosts of this film are all the more potent, and all the more horrifying. To this day, A Tale of Two Sisters remains the highest-grossing horror film in its native South Korea.
17. Paranormal Activity (2007)
In an age when ghost-hunting shows were growing increasingly popular, a film like Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity felt understandably inevitable, but that does nothing to diminish its impact. The setup is simple: A couple sets up cameras in their house to try and capture apparent supernatural happenings. While the found footage format is by now well-worn by many sequels and copycats, the film is still a low-fi chiller with an unforgettable ending, not to mention one of the most influential horror releases of its era. Steven Spielberg got a copy of the DVD, which he was reportedly convinced was haunted. He loved the movie, though, and the ending audiences see was suggested by the Oscar-winning director; in 2017, Peli admitted that he still prefers his original finale.
18. The Orphanage (2007)
One of the most enduring images in 21st century horror so far comes from J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, a haunted house narrative that features, among other things, the unforgettable specter of a little boy in a cloth mask. But that boy and that mask are only a fraction of the story. Over the course of its runtime, The Orphanage packs in loads of other scares, both otherworldly and existential, cementing its place as one of the best horror films of the last 25 years. Horror icon Guillermo del Toro makes an uncredited cameo in the film, playing a doctor.
19. Lake Mungo (2008)
A family reeling from the loss of their daughter agrees to be interviewed for a documentary exploring the possibility that their house is haunted. What happens next is one of the most remarkable horror narratives of the last 25 years. Eerie, beautiful, and full of thoughtful meditation on what we leave behind when we go, Lake Mungo is both a classic ghost story and a dazzling effort by director Joel Anderson to tell that ghost story in ways we’d never seen before. Jordan Peele considers Lake Mungo one of the scariest films he has ever seen, and used it as an inspiration in making Us (2019).
20. Sinister (2012)
We might be stretching the definition of “haunted house movie“ here a little bit, as the entity in Sinister is more demon than ghost. But director/co-writer Scott Derrickson’s film is so good that we’re ignoring that and getting right to the good stuff. Unbelievably tense and full of great, gruesome detail, Sinister is the kind of haunted house movie that will make you think twice about every corner of your own home, especially if you just moved there. And if you like found footage, the home movie segments are still chilling, even if you’ve seen them 100 times. In 2012, co-writer C. Robert Cargill told Complex how the idea for Sinister came to him from a nightmare he had after watching The Ring.
21. The Woman in Black (2012)
Built on the strong foundation that is Daniel Radcliffe’s assured performance as a lawyer sent to a haunted house to process an estate, The Woman in Black is a film with loads of atmosphere and plenty of old-school charm. Like the ghost stories of old, it’s not afraid to take its time, but like modern ghost films it’s also willing to employ a more vicious jump scare pace to get the job done when it’s required. The result is a horror hybrid, a blend of old and new that still packs a punch. Misha Handley, the young actor who plays Radcliffe’s son Joseph in the movie, is Radcliffe’s real-life godson. The actor suggested Handley be cast in the role in order to strengthen the bond seen between father and son in the film.
“It is very hard to create that chemistry with a 4-year-old boy, who you have never met before and who is stepping onto a film set going, ‘What in the hell is all of this?’ That was one of the reasons that I suggested [director] James [Watkins] audition my real-life godson,” Radcliffe told the Associated Press.
22. The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan’s franchise-launching film is among the most successful, and most frightening, horror movies of the 2010s, and still looms large in a horror landscape that’s since moved through many sequels and spinoffs. Wan’s ability to wring maximum screams out of a good jump scare is, of course, legendary at this point. And while there’s no shortage of that kind of terror in The Conjuring, it’s the human struggle at its core that will keep you hooked. In 2021, the Rhode Island home that inspired the film hit the market for $1.2 million.
23. We Are Still Here (2015)
One of the best horror films of the 21st century so far, Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here begins with a simple premise—a grieving couple moves into a cursed old house in New England—and then wrenches the absolute maximum impact from its scares. Geoghegan’s ghosts are more violent than the spectral spirits of old, but it’s not just the gore that’ll leave your jaw on the floor. There’s an unshakable eeriness here that endures long after the film’s over. The movie is packed with references to Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (1981), which had a massive influence on Geoghegan; in addition to similar locations, many of We Are Still Here’s characters are named after both characters and actors in the Italian horror master’s film.
24. Crimson Peak (2015)
Guillermo del Toro is one of horror’s great visual stylists, but even by his standards, Crimson Peak is truly stunning. A classic Gothic romance full of decay, sensuality, and ghosts, it’s a film that feels like stepping into another world, a meditation on certain well-worn tropes that somehow emerges as something entirely new. That’s thanks in part to the trio of stars—Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Mia Wasikowska—at its core, but the film’s sweeping, chillingly seductive energy is pure del Toro.
The film is partly inspired by a night spent at New Zealand’s supposedly haunted Waitomo Caves Hotel, when del Toro was scouting locations for the The Hobbit movies (which he was originally attached to direct). “I heard a horrible murder being committed in the room,“ del Toro told the New Zealand Herald. “I was actually terrified. I didn’t sleep at all that night. What was strange was the next morning I was not tired, but I was wired and scared. I never imagined having those fears. It was absolutely terrifying.“
25. His House (2020)
Two African refugees settle into government-provided housing in the United Kingdom, and quickly discover they’re not alone. Like so many horror films on this list, His House begins with something very straightforward, easily graspable by any audience, then evolves into something else entirely. The horror sequences, courtesy of director Remi Weekes, are some of the most harrowing in recent haunted house memory, but what sticks with you about His House is its focus on how the horror we witness shapes us, and how far we’ll go to survive—even knowing that the ghosts of our choices won’t ever leave.