My Top 5 Haunted House films

The haunted house has been a staple of cinema since the beginning. Cob webbed shadowy corridors and creaking doors used to varying effect to create that perfect spooky atmosphere. I love a good ghost story but so often I think it is done poorly. I really dislike the Insidious film series for their reliance on jump and noise scares rather than fear and tension … just my opinion. While I can find something to enjoy in the run of ghost film remakes like 13 Ghosts (2001), The House on Haunted Hill (1999) or The Haunting (1999), they don’t deliver the creepy horror I love in a good haunted house film.

Below is a list of my top 5 favourite Haunted House films:

1.       The changeling (1980) – After the death of his wife and daughter George C. Scott moves to a renovated mansion to focus on his music and work through his grief. His time in the house is soon interrupted by noises in the night and distant whispering voices. This opens up into a mystery that is preventing the unquiet spirit from moving on.  The Changeling uses its locations and sound brilliantly to unnerve the viewer. The film is laced with tragedy and lose, which makes the final reveal the more impactful and shocking.

As a side note, I should mention that the events of the film are loosely based on events that the screenwriter claimed happened to him when he lived in a town house in the mid-60s.

2.       Poltergeist (1982) – For years there have been tales of the production of Poltergeist and who was actually in charge on set, Producer Steven Spielberg or Director Tobe Hooper. Regardless of who actually ‘directed’ the film, the fact remains that this is one of my favourite horror films. It is the quintessential modern haunted house film, clearly influenced by the events of Amityville. 

The standard American family living in a good neighbourhood where the kids can play safely. It is template 80’s Americana. This is then be shattered by the ‘abduction’ of the youngest daughter, leading to the acceptance and handling of the supernatural presence. There are moments that stretch the suspension of disbelief (a tree attack!) but the overall film is a masterclass is quiet drama being punctuated with hard hitting scares. More so than The Amityville Horror (1979), this film helped move ghost stories from gothic mansions to modern suburban homes.

3.       The Others (2001) – As I mentioned in the opening, in the late 90’s, early 00’s Gothic horror was not in vogue. It was replaced by loud, more action orientated horror (13 Ghosts / The House on Haunted Hill / Ghosts of Mars). However, in 2001 Alejandro Amenabar wrote and directed the first Spanish entry on this list, the Spanish/American produced The Others. A magnificent gothic tale that plays like a novel.

The film lays interesting and believable constraints on its protagonists, as to why they cannot leave the haunted location. Trapping them in with the fear, unable to escape. This makes for great conflict as we watch Nicole Kidman’s lead start to unravel as she deals with events that she does not want to believe are real, while trying to protect her children. The tension and scares culminate is a successful twist and a satisfying ending that a lot of modern horror films lack.

4.       Paranormal Activity (2007) – Found footage films are the lowest budget films that can be made. This usually means they are a gateway into Hollywood for armature or up-coming film makers, but they are usually poor. Every now and then though a film comes up that understand how to use the format to great effect. For me, Paranormal Activity nailed it.

The film follows a couple that have moved into a new house and quickly start to experience strange goings on. The hand-held camera footage is given justification and I am pulled into the daily goings on of the couple and their friends. This is then used to great effect later to build tension and for the viewer. The Camera doesn’t always focus on the central point, so you are pushed to take in the whole screen to look for the scare. The tension builds in this films to an excellent open ended pay off, the way a found footage film should. 

5.       The orphanage (2007) – “Presented” by Guillermo Del Toro but the creation of Director J. A. Bayona. I will admit that this being a subtitled film meant that it took me a while to get around to watching it. I am so glad that I eventually did. A woman returns with her family to the orphanage in which she grew up to reopen it as a home for children. However, things take a tragic turn when her son goes missing. This one event starts to pull together strands for a mystery involving her past as well as that of ghosts trapped in the orphanage.

Oscar Faura’s cinematographer is beautiful throughout. He and Bayona use the central building and its cliff side local to create a sense of isolation and timelessness. This accentuates the fear and tension as the film grows to its tragic gut punch of a conclusion.

5 Haunting Horror films based on true stories (aside from Amityville Horror).

When I started researching this I was expecting to find a glut of films that would fit this category in the 70s and 80s. There were a couple but they were a bit tenuous (The Exorcist). It seemed more like a nugget of a real-life event was taken and then turned into something completely different. I suppose this way no one extra had to be paid. This changes in the early 2000’s and from 2005 onwards we have had a continual stream of Horror Movies based on ‘real events’. This has culminated in the Conjuring films, based on the accounts of the Warrens.

Below is a list of 5 films that are based on alleged real paranormal events:

1.       An American Haunting (2005)

Events: in 1817 the Bell family started to suffer an alleged haunting by a ghostly witch. It started when the head of the family, John Bell, came across a strange animal in his corn field. Shocked by the animal’s appearance he opened fire, the animal vanished. That night for the first time, the family were bombarded by a beating sound on the side of their home. From that point on the haunting got worse.

The noises continued. Sometimes outside the house, other times in the same room as members of the Bell family. Many people as well as the family reporting the sounds as well as seeing and feeling things within the house over several years.

Whatever the entity was that was haunting the family it made its final attack in 1820, when it allegedly poisoned and killed John Bell. Laughing loudly as he took his final breathes. It is said that the ghost returned in 1828 for a short time but was not heard of again after that.

This is regarded as one of the earliest and most wide spread hauntings in American History.

Film: The film has got an interesting cast with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek and several up and coming actors at the time. It has an interesting modern wrap around mechanism as access into the period setting. It also maintains the actual, relative down beat, ending of the legend but condenses the haunting period of years to what feels like months. While the film maintains the haunted happenings the scares and tension never really amount to much, it was only a 12 (PG-13).

It was an interesting exercise in period drama horror, however I think this would have been better if it had either been more stylised (ala Sleepy Hollow) or tried for some harder edged scares and content (ala Annabelle Creation).

2.       The exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Events: The film is based on the tragic events that lead to the death of German woman Anneliese Michel. She dies in 1976 suffering from malnourishment and dehydration after months of being subjected to exorcist practices.

After suffering a seizure at the age of 16 Anneliese began to suffer increasing periods of depression. These low points and neuroses began to become focused on religious artefacts. A huge concern for a girl that came from such a religiously devoted family. Soon both she and her family became convinced that she was possessed by something evil. After several attempts the family convinced two priests that she needed intervention.

This started the exorcisms that eventually led to her death. Following her death her parents and the two priests were prosecuted for murder. They were found guilty of negligent homicide. This also forced the Catholic church to distance itself from the case and change its stance to state that she had been mentally ill and not in fact possessed by an evil force.

Film: They take a leap with this film as the story is told in retrospect, dealing with the court case that follows the death of Emily Rose. This is not a film about whether they can save the possessed girl, we know the answer is no. The film spends more time dealing with the question of whether she was possessed at all. It’s an interesting conceit and that isn’t fully explored. If they had had the confidence in the audience, it would have been a better film. However, they never want to completely condemn the priest.

In a better film, he would have been played as a more unreliable narrator. There would have been more uncertainty about whether she was possessed or if the priest hadn’t been obsessed due to his religious zeal.

That said, the film is good fun and the core cast are mostly good. This is a solid possession horror film with an interesting concept. The frustration is that this had the potential to be something more and elevate the genre and story into a classic.

3.       The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

Events: of all the ‘True Events’ on this list, this is the one that has the most holes. This is the first but not the last appearance of the Warrens on this list and their paws are all over this.  The haunting was alleged to have focused around the House and son of the Snedecker family, who was suffering from a form of Cancer. Minor events were reported but nothing of great note. That is when the Warrens got involved and the story became ‘clearer’.

The entity harassing the family was supposed to have been linked to the previous use of the house as a mortuary. It was stated that there were several employees of the mortuary that practiced necromancy and necrophilia. It was the spirits of these people that were returning at the heart of the events.

This did lead to several grander events. This included the son attacking his cousin and being held in a mental health ward for a period. However, following Ed Warren’s death in … several people linked with the investigation and the documenting of the events admitted that Ed told them to embellish what they knew in any way they could think of to make it scary.

The House is still occupied and the current occupants have frequently stated that they have never experienced any paranormal activity.

Film: The movie has a couple of well-placed scares and some moments of tension, however the overall film is very pedestrian. The facts from the true events are close enough regarding the house and its history. However, elements of the family are changed for safety. The focus on the main son having cancer is reduced.

There is little to say about this film really. It’s competently made, the acting is sufficient and its creepy at times but it just feels very run of the mill and safe for this genre. It’s a shame really because again, like the Exorcism of Emily Rose, this has the potential to add an element of ambiguity and tension with a just a few changes. Could the son’s illness have been at the root of the events? Could it be suggested in the film that this was a hoax to raise money to cover medical costs.

It’s worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre but there are better films on this list.

4.       The Conjuring (2013)

Events: Ah the Warrens. The couple that have now become synonymous with modern haunted house movies, thanks mostly to this film. As is usually the case, the story the Warren’s tell is very different from the truth the family have sated. The Perron family lived in the house at the heart of the story of a decade and the hauntings were spread over this while period.

The haunting was centred around the spirit of an alleged witch called Bathsheba Sherman who died in 1885. There is little evidence that she was in fact a witch, however it was alleged that she killed several infants as sacrifices to the devil. The haunting took on several aspects for the different inhabitants. Some saw apparitions, others were physically attacked but all the heard the noises and voices.

The haunting was never fully resolved. The case may have been closed by the Warren’s however after the Perron’s sold the house in 1980 there were further reports of ghostly activity. This is an event that I think deserves a more attention and possibly a closer adaptation of the story.

Film: Forgetting the alterations of the history this was a return to form for haunted house films. I really enjoyed the tone and feel of the film. It’s has an excellent sense of creepiness and uneasiness running through it. There are some incredibly well placed and paced scares that are incredibly effective.

The strength of the film is in the first two thirds. The build-up of the family dynamic and the relationship that grows with the Warrens. This investment in characters underlines the tension and scares. However, this is partially undone by a clichéd and overly dramatic finale. This will most likely be regarded as a milestone in horror history however it just falls shy of becoming a horror classic. I won’t even go into the dreadful sequel and Annabelle spin-offs. This Franchise has such potential but is being squandered on cheap jump scares and poorly written and preposterous characters.

5.       Deliver us form Evil (2014)

Events: The book ‘Deliver us from evil’ written by Lisa Collier Cool, chronicles the supernatural cases of former New York Police officer Ralph Sarchie. It is set up to be like the real life X-files. It covers a number of cases of possession and ghostly attacks that are alleged to be related to crimes that were left unsolved. Of course, they have been solved by Sarchie but the truth would not be accepted by the public.

Sarchie has appeared on several podcasts, radio and TV shows to promote the book and Film, telling his tales of the supernatural that lives in the Bronx. Demon neighbours, ghostly vengeful brides and the exorcisms that were carried out to save the people involved. Its sounds like he was a busy guy, maybe the Bronx is over a hell mouth and they would have been better off with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Film: Eric Bana is a New York cop that starts to uncover a conspiracy of soldiers possessed by demons from the middle east. The plot is a little daft and the direction is not subtle in anyway however this odd combination of horror and cop drama is fun if not scary. Bana is committed to the role and is sufficiently brooding and earnest about it all. It does all fall a part in the finale, as they usually do. If these events are alleged to have happened I am sure that someone in the media would have noticed.

A fun film for Halloween or with a few beers but not a solid recommend.

Evolution of the horror movie scare

As usual, before I start I have admit that I am not an expert in Horror films (despite the many, many films I have watched). This blog, as with all of them, is just my opinion and I am happy to be challenged and on anything I propose. In fact, I welcome your comments and feedback. So, let’s get stuck in.

From the earliest days of cinema Horror has been a popular genre. With films like The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922) people loved being scared. Over the course of the next century the genre evolved and changed to reflect the fears of society. Also, upping the ante again and again on what the films could show to elicit fear and scares. Each generation has films that they claim are the best in genre and are the peak of fear. The question is, who is right if any of them?

I am a big fan of horror movies and enjoy the varied sub-genres for different reasons, expecting different things from them. However, there is a core conceit, I should feel a sense of fear when watching the film. It’s how that fear is evoked that might change. For example, the tension built up in the first half of ‘Halloween’ (1978) creates a sense of fear that elevates the events of the second half of the film. While the notion of Freddy Krueger in the first Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), a killer you cannot escape, is scarier than many of the actual ‘scares’ in the film. The film plays for blood rather than tension.

Since these films were released the genre has altered several times. The 80’s were filled with slasher films and low budget high gore video nasties. There were entries into the genre in the mid to late 70s that can be considered ‘classic’ films. However, the genre has always been fuelled by B-movie fare. It was these movies that became much of the output in the 80’s. unfortunately this meant that the genre was at a low point going into the 90’s. It was pulled from the doldrums by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson with Scream (1996).

The film was a huge success and made Horror a viable commercial prospect again. As is always the case, Scream was followed by a litany of poor imitators. It also opened the channels for the ante to be upped once again. As we had had the video nasties of the 80s in the early 2000’s we were introduced to torture porn with SAW (2004) and Hostel (2005). The popular films source of scares had shifted again, now to victims literally being tortured or under threat of torture. The mechanics of the torture device might be clever but the scare had become simple and base.

I’m not a fan of these films. In fact, I find them tedious and a slog to watch. In my opinion, the acceptance of these as milestones in modern horror is the moment that the craft of creating tension and paying off with a scare was dropped. However, they were not the only films that changed the course of the genre during this period. The Blair Witch Project (1999) introduced the low budget high tension scares of the found footage format to the mainstream. It also introduced the notion of moving the focus of a threat or scare from the films characters to the viewers. This combination of excessive gore and direct viewer threat has been the main thrust of horror films for the last decade.

Things have started to change in recent years. Directors like Adam Winguard and Ti West have started to reintroduce the slow burn horror movie (House of the Devil 2009, You’re Next 2011). Are we at the start of another shift in horror? Could films like ‘Get Out’, ‘IT’, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ or even ‘Split’ drive the shift into the next iteration of popular Horror?

All these shifts and varying films are filled with different types of scares but do some work better than others? I understand that different people are effected by different scares but I also think that the art of a well-structured scare has been lost. The majority of horror films of recent years have all made the same mistake, in my opinion. There is a belief that the scare needs to be directed at the audience. This has been done over and over with loud musical stings and jump scares. Don’t get me wrong, these can be effective when used in the right place and sparingly. However, they have become the standard go to shorthand for a movie scare. By the third time something jumps out at me with a thump of noise, I check out. The other issue is that by directing these scares at the audience more than the characters they take the audience out of the experience rather than bringing them in. why should we care about a character surviving if we as the audience are continually put in their place?

It should be remembered that Horror films, like all forms of entertainment must contain a variety of elements to work. Some jump scares are fine, as long as they are accompanied by the building of tension and some well-placed reveals. The other elements that are more important are characters that matter and the audience cares about. It should be these characters, that we grow to love, that are under threat and to which the scares are directed. Fearing for these characters, I believe, is more effective than an audience directed scare. The final element is the context of the scare within the story. A scene can be well constructed, look great and have excellent effects but if the story is poor or makes no sense then everything else is for nothing.

All those different types of horror films that have been popular and fallen out of favour. All those masters of horror that have brought something new. They’re all valid and all deliver something worth watching as both movies and examples of Horror history. However, for all the differences the things that remain constant are at the heart of all good films. A good story, filled with characters we care about that is filmed well. Within that a good writer and director can introduce any types of well-constructed scares and the audience will be terrified.

What are the examples you think of that manage to blend all of these elements to make a great Horror Film?

Spiritualism and Entertainment

The idea of a life after death has fascinated and enthralled cultures all over the world throughout history. From the Egyptian Pharaohs being buried with all their worldly possessions to take with them, to the Fox sisters starting the spiritualist movement in 1848. It’s a core part of what makes us Human, the curiosity about what happens ‘next’.

For so many centuries knowledge and teachings on the spiritual were the remit of religious leaders building up or preying on an ignorant populace. This moved from churches to village and concert halls with the spooky Victorians and the Fox sisters. Access to knowledge and demonstrations of the afterlife started to spread. As is usually the case it was quickly realised that this could be a source of entertainment and more importantly, wealth. So of course, spiritual meetings and séances moved to theatres where tickets could be sold. The seats filled with people all seeking something; entertainment, a better understanding or just maybe a message from a passed loved one.

Nothing exists without an opposite also being created as a reaction. So, as the popularity of these spiritualist faith meetings grew organisations started to pop up using scientific processes to prove that these mediums and spiritualists were real or frauds. The most notable organisation in Britain was and still is The Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in 1882.

From their own website (www.spr.ac.uk):

“The first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. We hold no corporate view about their existence or meaning; rather, our purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education.”

This is not to say that they are cynical sceptics, far from it. Many are looking to validate an experience or belief with some scientific evidence. Others are believers desperate to experience something paranormal.

Over the decades though notable individuals have stood alone in their attempts to prove that most if not all of it is fraudulent activity. The most famous being Harry Houdini. Houdini sought solace in spiritualism following the death of his mother, only to prove each medium he visited to be a fraud using his knowledge of illusions. He became so set on his course that it ruined his friendship with Sir Author Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle, a member of the society for psychical research, was a dedicated believer publicly speaking passionately on the subject. He went to the extent of supporting and vouching that the Cottingley Fairy photos were genuine. Seriously, go and google these photos and you will start to see why Conan Doyle’s reputation started to tarnish as he got older.

Obviously neither man concretely proved their case before their death, as the arguments still go on between believers and sceptics. However, interest in the subject started to wane during the second world war, only being the interest of dedicate followers and old women reading tea leaves.

It was not until several high-profile cases of supernatural activity (The Amityville Horror and the Enfield Haunting) erupted into the world media and pop culture in the 70’s that things changed again. This became kick started the ‘satanic panic’ and the paranormal came on to everyone’s radar once again. This resulted in paranormal celebrities springing up. In the UK we had Uri Gellar and in America there was Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Ghosts and ghost hunters had appeared on the silver screen since the earliest horror films. Movies were one thing but people were clamoring for evidence of the real thing. However, it would seem that no one was willing to take the final step and take the risk of putting the practices of the SPR or even the Warrens on mainstream television. Not until 1992 at least.

On October 31st 1992 the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch a TV drama designed to look like a live broadcast. It used known TV presenters, not actors and a ‘live’ on location broadcast from a family’s haunted house. The show caused controversy and has become a cult sensation in Britain when it was banned for 10 years. However, it has one more legacy that can’t be ignored.

It was the jumping off point from everything that had gone before. All that desire to see a ghost, proof of an afterlife or just a quick scare … but based on ‘scientific’ evidence was funnelled through the fictional drama of Ghostwatch to become every ghost hunting show that has come since. In the UK I would refer in particular to ‘Most Haunted’, which started in 2002.

Since the early 2000’s dozens of Ghost Hunting shows have started on channels all over the world. They’re cheap to make and fun to watch. I doubt these mediums, spiritualists or ghost hunters will go away any time soon. They will just find a new medium through which to present their case and make some money. However, the question remains, whether in a church, theatre or on TV have they proven the existence of ghosts?

Do you believe?

I will be going into a lot more detail on Ghostwatch in the next episode of 20th Century Geek, when I talk with the writer and creator Stephen Volk. After that I will be looking at the other side of the coin and talk to several close friends about their own supernatural experiences.

If you have any stories please send them in (20thcenturygeek@gmail of use the contact us page) or find me on Twitter (@20thcenturygeek).