Last week we spent a few days in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where, at the insistence of my teenage daughter, we visited a commercial haunted house. It's called Mysterious Mansion, but there's nothing very mysterious about it. Visitors pay $16 a pop for 15 minutes of being jumped at and chased around by people in weird makeup and masks. There was the obligatory scary clown, some girls covered in fake blood, and a guy in a Grim Reaper outfit wearing jeans under his robes. My daughter had a good time, but for the adults the most entertaining part was watching a teen girl in the group ahead of us totally lose it and bail a third of the way through the house. The rest was just darkness, narrow spaces, and some irritating strobe lights. The underwhelming experience left me thinking about my favorite haunted houses in classic movies and why they're so much better than these attractions that pop up all over the place come Halloween.
For me, a good haunted house movie has several elements. One is atmosphere that I'm given time to appreciate. Another is a compelling narrative that explains the supernatural phenomena and creates a reason to care about the characters (including, ideally, the dead ones). I like weird effects more than gore; in fact, I'm not much on seeing anyone's intestines or brains, which is why I don't watch slasher films. I want my haunted house to have ghosts, not psychopaths (but I'll forgive the occasional psychopathic ghost). With those criteria, it's probably no surprise that my top shelf haunted house movie is...
THE HAUNTING (1963)
THE UNINVITED (1944)
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
OK, so this William Castle classic is not a very serious haunted house movie, but it's just so much fun, and it does offer a couple of great jump scares. That blind housekeeper gets me every time! Besides, Vincent Price and William Castle have to be on this list somewhere. It's just not Halloween without them. This is the go-to pick for a Halloween party where you want to laugh and shriek in equal measure.
So, if you're looking for haunted houses this Halloween, I suggest you start with one of these instead of standing in line to hand over your cash for fifteen minutes with scary clowns. These are the movies whose worlds I wish a haunted house would take me through, where ghostly music plays and the things you don't see are a lot more terrifying than the things you do.
Looking for related classic horror posts? Try "The Gothic Influences of Disney's Haunted Mansion" and "The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition."