Ghost Stories: The 10 Best Moments in Haunted House Movies
Growing up in a religious household, supernatural films were always a favorite of mine, and none more so than the classic haunted house movie. Settling in for a good ghost story, whether read or watched, was a great introduction to horror in general, and the best of these played on so many of our basic fears, from the unknown to death itself. So with that in mind, and the release of The Conjuring 2 a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good time to look back at some of the scariest Haunted House movie moments in cinema history. Obviously, if we are talking about specific moments, it would be hard to get past spoilers, so please beware.
As a father, nothing is more terrifying than the fear of losing a child. Poltergeist plays on this fear in such a real way that even people without children could feel the grief of loss when Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) is lured into the ghost dimension. While the crux of the film is the fight to get her back, the most terrifying scene simply involves her older brother's epic duel with an animated clown doll. With the combined powers of Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper, how could this movie not terrify every child in America? It plays on just about every childhood fear imaginable, from phobias of clowns to fear of the dark.
This is not the only time that James Wan will be on this list. Insidious is his first Haunted House film, and it is without question his most artful one. It follows one family's journey as they fight to get their son back from The Further, a place for the tormented souls of the dead. It's no coincidence that this movie follows Poltergeist on this list. The films share many of the same themes; the most obvious one being the abduction of a child. In this movie however, it is more of a supernatural abduction than a physical one. The most frightening scene involves the characters Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai's (Rose Byrne) most terrifying night. We begin with the house alarm going off and a door being mysteriously opened, then the father and mother being separated. With the tension ramping up, the sequence culminates in the discovery of a figure in the child's room. The film is like a bad dream and Wan turns the screws masterfully.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The movie that is based on probably the most famous haunted house case of all time, at least in America, and follows the Lutz family as they go from first time home owners to tormented being by what appears to be the Devil himself.
The scene that gets me the most in Amityville isn't really what most people would consider the most intense or terrifying; when a Priest (Rod Stieger) shows up to bless the house very early on in the movie. It is such a slow burn of a scene and it ends with the ominous "get out" from one of the most frightening voices in movie history.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
I get a lot of stick from certain friends about how I feel about the Paranormal Activity movies, but I don't care. I love them all the same, and even at their worst I find them infinitely watchable. Waiting for the big scare is the best part of both haunted house and found footage movies, and no franchise does either better than these films. Paranormal Activity 3 is, in my opinion, the strongest entry in the series. It has the most interesting protagonist, and the best use of children in the entire set of movies.
The most interesting and best scene in the movie occurs when the two small children are left alone with a babysitter one night. The use of a rotating camera and the appearance of the ghost in the most interesting way possible makes this a real standout.
The Others (2001)
Atmosphere is such an important thing for a horror movie. Without it, a piece of the puzzle for creating a great film is missing, and the 2001 period ghost story, The Others, has it in spades. If you have not seen the film all you really need to know is that Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) lives with her two children in a house, and spooky stuff starts happening. That is all you need to know. Let yourself be surprised by the twists in this movie. I am reluctant to even give away a favorite scene, but if I had to, without spoiling anything, it involves the hired help slowly walking towards the house, as their true identities are finally revealed. The twist at the end of the film was so surprising for me at the time, that I came back to the theater the very next day just to see if I could spot clues.
The Conjuring (2013)
The Conjuring is the best horror movie of this decade. I might catch a little grief for that, but I believe it without question. The seriousness with which James Wan takes these movies, makes it so believable and scary. The movie follows Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they try to help the Perron family escape from a demonic infestation. The best moment in the movie occurs when Mrs. Perron (Lily Taylor) is lured into the newly discovered basement one night, and all hell breaks loose for her. With the mother locked away fighting her own battle, the oldest sister must contend with a terrifying apparition that, to this day, still gives me goose bumps. The Conjuring is just one of my favorite movie going experiences, and I adore Wan, so it goes without saying that this would make the list.
The Shining (1980)
More haunted hotel than house, this movie still qualifies. The Stanley Kubrick film is very loosely based on the classic Stephen King book, and thank God. While some will complain about the various differences in the film, I come to praise it. Some things work as stories to be read, while other things are just meant to be movies. The standout scene for me in the picture takes place right after Danny (Danny Lloyd) visits the infamous room 237. Danny's father (Jack Nicholson) visits the room to investigate and we are introduced to what appears to be a beautiful woman. That is until, after some inappropriate behavior, she is revealed to be a disgusting old hag. For whatever reason, this scene absolutely wrecked me the first time I saw the movie. I am sure Freud has a very good theory on why it bothered me so much, but for now, I am going to stick with the fact that it is legit scary.
I am 100% cheating here. This is an anthology film with only one section being a haunted house movie, but boy what a perfect little thing it is. The section titled 10/31/98 was created by the film making team called Radio Silence, who also are the stars of the short. It is a very simple setup, as the guys think they are going to a haunted house party, but actually go to a real haunted house where some sort of exorcism is taking place upstairs. To pick a favorite moment or scene is also a cheat, as the last half of the short is just one long scene starting from the point of the guys rescuing a girl, to said guys being stuck on train tracks. I will not spoil any of the movie for you. It is an experience, and is smartly placed at the end of the anthology as there is nothing else in the movie able to top it. Please watch it, and even if you hate the rest of the film, I believe you will appreciate this section.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
They don't make pictures like this anymore. For a period of time, haunted house movies all seemed to follow the same formula. A team or group of people were either dared or hired to investigate a haunted house to prove the existence of ghosts. I can understand the appeal for studios to make these flicks, as almost all of it could be filmed on sound stages, and outside of a few special effects, you could suggest the presence of a ghost with noise or wind. With Hell House, you have all of the great archetypes: The Scientist, The Medium that wants to help the ghost move on, The Survivor from a previous incident, and The Companion. The beautiful thing about the film, without spoiling it too much, is everyone is wrong. It turns out the ghost in the movie is just an asshole.
As far as a favorite moment, I am tempted to choose the amazing performance by Roddy McDowell at the end, but I don't want to spoil the big reveal. Instead, I would choose the first sitting by the mental medium, Florence Tanner. She is possessed by what appears to be the son of the former owner of the house. All hell breaks loose as she begins to speak in a deeper voice than what one would think possible for the character, and tables begin shaking. This is such a classic ghost story that you can see it's fingerprints on almost every film like it since.
The Innkeepers (2011)
Such a great throwback of a horror movie. Ti West's film is one of the better indie type horror flicks of the modern era. Famous for his slow burn filming style, The Innkeepers takes a bit of time to actually get going as far as the scares are concerned. A great deal of time is spent with characters just roaming hallways and listening for things in the dark. But once the movie ramps up, it's a great ride till the end. My favorite thing about the movie is the way it deals with people basically lying about paranormal activity to get attention.
That is where the best scene in the movie takes place. Our two protagonists Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are in the basement to make contact with the spirit. Both are believers in ghosts to a certain degree, but Luke has been lying the whole time to impress his fellow innkeeper. Once Claire spots the ghost behind Luke, he has had enough and bolts the hotel all together, leaving Claire to face the ghosts alone and meet her fate. It is such a great moment that sets up the ending of the movie in a very emotional way.