With the recent arrival of The Haunting of Bly Manor to Netflix, a miniseries in the vein of 2018’s hit The Haunting of Hill House, the haunted-house genre has gotten a timely boost. While Bly Manor takes many liberties with its initial inspiration, Henry James’s classic gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw, the series shares one of the book’s most common haunted-house tropes: The ghosts may or may not be a manifestation of what’s going on in your own head.
One of horror storytelling’s greatest strengths is its ability to viscerally capture, through images and sensory details, the experience of mental collapse or psychological dysfunction. And one of the greatest things about a ”haunted” house is that what haunts it might not be a ghost at all. Sometimes it’s a person inside of the house who’s haunted, not a thing (think Insidious). Sometimes it’s an event that hasn’t happened yet — a premonition rather than an apparition (think Eve’s Bayou). Sometimes it’s a manifestation of personal trauma and psychosis (Martyrs or The Babadook) or a manifestation of even larger cultural trauma (Poltergeist or Pan’s Labyrinth).
And, of course, sometimes, the ghost is you, the viewer. And that feels especially true in 2020, when, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have probably deepened our relationships with our own homes over the past seven months.
As we look forward to what will certainly be a unique, very indoor Halloween 2020, we thought it’d be fun to take a look at haunted-house movies — and specifically the kind that play with the tension between the internal and the external, the supernatural and the psychological. Many haunted-house movies work because the ghosts within them are real. But sometimes, the ghosts aren’t real — or maybe they are real, but they’re also connected to the workings of the mind, rather than, say, a real demonic possession or an external supernatural event. Or maybe it’s a bit of all of the above.
We invite you to try these psychological haunted-house recs if you’re in the mood for something a bit different. We can’t promise you that all these hauntings will have a tidy ghost dispersal at the end — but they will leave you wondering if that noise you heard in the dark was all in your mind.
The Old Dark House (1932)
Our first pick for this list is cheating a bit, but hey, it’s our list. Recently restored and having re-entered the critical consciousness, The Old Dark House is an early film from legendary horror director James Whale (Frankenstein). Over the course of an evening, a crew of sophisticates up from the city find themselves stranded in a thunderstorm and forced to seek shelter in a strange Welsh farmhouse — which, of course, turns out to be harboring more than just mortal dinner guests. Boris Karloff is hailed in the credits as “KARLOFF!” and billed as the star, even though he plays a sinister mute side character eerily similar to Torgo from Manos, The Hands of Fate. The rest of the ensemble cast, a cadre of British stage and film actors, including Charles Laughton, tiptoe around him to hilarious effect.
By turns catty and campy, The Old Dark House drips with cheeky nods to haunted houses and psychological horror tropes — despite not quite fitting into either genre. “Madness came,” the 101-year-old patriarch tells the lovers at one point, referencing her bizarre, slightly murderous family. “We’re all touched with it.” As a horror-comedy, The Old Dark House marries its gothic themes to merry Edwardian farces and Clue-esque dinner parties. But it retains the basic template for a true psychological horror: You’re never sure whether the house’s malevolence has infected the occupants, or whether their collective psychosis has imprinted itself on the house.
The Innocents (1961)
The Innocents dramatizes The Turn of the Screw in a way that’s frankly unforgettable and shocking, perhaps even more today than it was in 1961. You may recognize Deborah Kerr from her much more mild-mannered roles in other movies like The King and I and An Affair to Remember. But Kerr’s performance here, as a disturbed governess who may or may not be projecting madness upon the children she’s caring for, is just shy of frenzied. The Innocents is a must-see for anyone who loves gothic horror, stories of possession, or just stories with unreliable — and possibly deranged — narrators.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House remains one of the most famous examples of psychological horror because of its fantastic acting and its dedication to ambiguity. Wise uses a stable of filmmaking tricks — from jump cuts to canted angles and dreadful special effects — to vividly portray mental confusion and disorder, while the legendary stage actress Julie Harris slowly deteriorates in front of us. As a bonus, if you liked the film, you can delve even deeper into a different level of haunting with the excellent standalone Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House.
Amityville 2: The Possession (1982)
The second film in the bloated Amityville franchise is a prequel, not a sequel, and it’s based on the real-life 1974 annihilation of the DeFeo family. On one level, Amityville 2 is campy and overwrought, featuring Satanic panic, sibling incest, and every other over-the-top ’80s trope imaginable. (As a bonus, it features one of my favorite lines in a horror movie: “He did it to HURT GOD!”)
On another level, it’s genuinely creepy. Actor Jack Magner bears an eerie resemblance to family annihilator Ronnie DeFeo, who murdered his parents and siblings and later claimed to have heard voices urging him to commit the killings. Amityville 2 was panned on release but has risen in critical esteem over the years, perhaps because family annihilation is something we take more seriously — and subsequently fear more — than we did in 1982.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Eve’s Bayou is an untraditional haunting. Lovecraft Country’s Jurnee Smollett, at just 10 years old, turns in a stellar performance as Eve, a girl growing up in Creole Louisiana, surrounded by a tight-knit community and traces of witchcraft — both of which help her navigate her way through a fraught web of family secrets. The supernatural is everywhere, but instead of battling ghosts, Eve struggles with her own second sight, including a premonition of tragedy that might be a manifestation of much darker family secrets, and childhood trauma yet to be exposed.
You’d never guess from her subtle, mature directing that Eve’s Bayou was filmmaker Kasi Lemmons’s feature debut. And it’s a crime that, 23 years after its release, this sultry Southern Gothic melodrama isn’t better known.
Event Horizon (1997)
Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill are at their best in this zany, unhinged classic about a spaceship that becomes possessed by — well, you’ll see.
Many of the best space movies — including Alien, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and 2001: A Space Odyssey — all have an element of psychological horror: As the occupants of the lone spaceship drift deeper into the uncharted unknown, they grow more stir crazy, and they’re more likely to confront themselves, their demons, and their ghosts. Event Horizon takes that general premise, wraps it in barbed wire, and bludgeons you with it. This film tortures its doomed spaceship crew with their own worst nightmares and many more unthinkable horrors, before finally revealing the secret of what their ship has become. You may not think of a spaceship as a haunted house, but this ship will prove you wrong.
The Others (1999)
The Others suffered at the box office and with critics by being overshadowed and compared to better-known films with similar premises. That’s a shame because the pleasures and chills of this supernatural gothic thriller are manifold. Take the sheer weirdness of its conceit: A pair of children who are allergic to light is permanently confined to their huge Edwardian mansion alongside their mother (Nicole Kidman, who’s absolutely transfixing in her smothering obsession with her children). Director Alejandro Amenábar layers on the creepiness as Kidman’s character starts hearing voices and seeing things, emphasizing her increasing psychosis with a hypnotic grace. All the while, Amenábar blurs reality until even the film’s twists leave you with more questions than answers.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
This relatively obscure Korean horror film spawned an utterly terrible US adaptation called The Uninvited that no one should watch. The original film, however, teems with paradoxes, veering across timelines and shifting from soft and graceful to agitated, confused, and horrific. Two sisters battle growing conflict with their stepmother and wrestle with an unspoken shared trauma, all within their family’s desolate country house, where ghosts and angry spirits manifest.
A Tale of Two Sisters turns around the riveting performances of Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young as the titular siblings. It also makes outstanding use of editing, staging, and camera work to tell its story more through suggestion than dialogue. The result is a wonderfully jarring, unforgettable portrait of family dysfunction, wrought with imagery you won’t soon forget.
The Orphanage / El Orfanato (2007)
Another debut film that’s almost too good to be true, The Orphanage is a masterful psychological portrait of grief, isolation, and loneliness, as well as a gorgeously wrought aesthetic achievement. J. A. Bayona’s fable of a woman whose son goes missing is a tale of spiraling obsession and of the traces that remain in a house with a violent history — a violence that perhaps inevitably imprints itself on the present. The film reconciles these two themes with a vision of great hope and optimism, but what remains with the viewer is the sheer harrowing despair of actress Belén Rueda as she allows her huge, empty house to swallow her and her grief whole.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)
Deliberate and methodical, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House unfolds at a snail’s pace in order to give viewers a full sense of its empty, titular house. Lily (Ruth Wilson) is hired as caretaker to Paula, the house’s sole elderly inhabitant, and Wilson moves just as slowly and methodically within it as the camera does. It’s as if she’s becoming gradually absorbed into the walls and the story of the house itself as she uncovers its past. The whole atmosphere is inevitable and inexorable — a movie for when you just want to choose your own demise.
Where to watch: Netflix