When shopping for a haunted house, what do we look for? Charm? Elegance? State-of-the-art appliances? No. According to the trailer for “Winchester” — the latest listing on the market for possessed real estate — what we want are “Spirits! Souls! Demons! Ghosts! Entities! Apparitions! Shadows! Beings! Devils! Poltergeists! Wraiths! Spectres!”
We’ll take it!
The movie, which opens Friday, Feb. 2, and stars Helen Mirren, was “inspired” by a real-life, wildly eccentric structure — the Winchester Mystery House, now a tourist attraction in San Jose, California. It’s long said to be haunted, though not every reputedly haunted house is. Nor is every horror movie with a house necessarily a haunted-house movie. “Psycho” (1960), for instance, features the creepiest Victorian in cinema, but it isn’t haunted except by Norman Bates’ psychoses. The animated “Spirited Away” (2001) boasted a structure full of phantasms, but can a bathhouse be haunted? “Beetlejuice” (1988) was inhabited by ghosts (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), but it’s too funny to be a real horror movie. And as scary as it is, “Insidious” (2010) wasn’t really about the house, but rather personal demonic possession (likewise, 2007’s “Paranormal Activity”). Also, a lot of horror movies rely too much on jokes, jump scares and a lack a seriousness about being seriously frightening.
What makes a movie seriously frightening? Hard to say exactly. But the following haunted-house movies ranked in order — all originals; no sequels (with one exception) or remakes — manage to accomplish it:
1. “The Shining” (1980) OK, technically, it’s a hotel (not even technically — it’s definitely a hotel). Still, the place Stanley Kubrick’s created in his masterful adaptation of the Stephen King novel is one of the many things that place it among the most unnerving works of horror, and one of the most complex, layered, cinematic and analyzed movies in any category. What can you say except “Honey, I’m home . . . ”
2. “The Conjuring” (2013) I hadn’t been this scared by a movie since I was 9 and watched “The Haunting”; one scene was literally spine-tingling, right up to the base of my skull. In it (the movie, not the skull), Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators whose work inspired the “Amityville Horror” franchise and who rescue a family stuck in a house that’s out to get them.
3. “The Haunting” (1963) The fabled Robert Wise, who directed “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” is also responsible for one of the most unnerving psycho-thrillers in the canon, one committed to the idea that what you don’t know — and can’t see — will definitely crawl out of the woodwork and kill you. Based on Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” it stars Julie Harris and Claire Bloom as survivors of psychic phenomenon who are brought by a paranormal researcher (Richard Johnson) into a mansion of malevolent intent.
4. “The Others” (2001) Spain’s Alejandro Amenabar certainly produced this century’s first great horror film, and it remains among the best, with atmospherics that are unnerving, acting that’s first-rate and an ending that’s a virtual heart attack. Nicole Kidman plays Grace, who, while waiting for word of her missing husband during World War II, moves her two photosensitive children to a darkened house on the English Coast. There, she starts to think the servants are playing tricks on her.
5. “The Orphanage” (2007) Ornately plotted and utterly terrifying, this Spanish-language chiller was produced by Guillermo del Toro (of 2018’s Oscar contender “The Shape of Water”) and directed by J.A. Bayona. It is about an adoptee who returns to the house that was her childhood orphanage with plans to turn it into a home for disabled children. Then her son disappears.
6. “The Innocents” (1961) In director Jack Clayton’s chiller, a viewer is never quite sure who’s evil, or crazy. Based on Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” it stars Deborah Kerr as a newly hired nanny who becomes convinced her employer’s abode is haunted. She isn’t quite sure about the children, either.
7. “Poltergeist” (1982) A smorgasbord of shock, fright and iconic dialogue (“They’re here . . . ”), this creeper from director Tobe Hooper (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and writer-producer Steven Spielberg was a seriously scary movie, one adorned with maggots in the meat, melting faces and imperiled children. It doesn’t soothe one’s nerves now to know the movie has this “curse” hanging about it (actresses Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke both died very young and under extraordinary circumstances), but even when it was new it was a winner. Remember: When building tract housing over a graveyard, always move the bodies.
8. “The Amityville Horror” (1979) Couldn’t leave this one out. Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the couple who move into the site of a mass murder in Amityville, this was an Oscar-nominated movie (for Lalo Schifrin’s score) that spawned a mini-movie industry.
9. “The Uninvited” (1944) Stylish, droll and a good deal less dreadful than most haunted-house stories, it stars Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as a brother and sister who buy a Gothic mansion on the Cornwall coast, and only then discover why the place came so cheap.
10. “Crimson Peak” (2015) There’s a bit of both “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca” in this Guillermo del Toro-directed chiller, in which young Edith (Mia Wasikowska) marries Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and is swept away to his remote English mansion, where Thomas’ sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), protects the family’s dark secrets.
11. “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) Vincent Price was in his ghoulish prime as an eccentric millionaire who offers $10,000 to whichever of his five guests can stay the whole night at his haunted mansion (it’s always a mansion, never a ranch). It was directed by William Castle, master of the primitive special effects who introduced “Emergo” during the film’s theatrical run: At the appropriate moment, a “skeleton” would fly over the heads of the audience.
12. “The Legend of Hell House” (1973) Mediums venture into house once inhabited by a 6-foot-5 serial killer.
13. “Ju-On: The Grudge” (2002) The best of Japanese director Takashi Shimizu’s six films about the murderous Saeki ghosts and their terrifying house.
14. “The Changeling” (1980) George C. Scott as a music professor living with the ghost of a young child.
15. “Sinister” (2012) Shot on Long Island, it concerns a true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) who moves his family into a house where he finds a box of home movies depicting grisly murders in the attic. Highly underrated fiendishness.
If one were in the supernatural realty biz, one might advertise the real Winchester House as a “24,000-sq.-ft., 160-room Queen Anne Victorian; lots of character; possibly already inhabited.” It’s not on the market, but it has a sales pitch. Or, at the least, a legend:
After her husband and infant daughter died in the early 1880s, Sarah Winchester — widow of William Wirt Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. — was supposedly told by a Boston medium that she should travel west from her home in New Haven and continuously build a house to accommodate the spirits of people killed by Winchester firearms. Thinking she was cursed and having inherited the equivalent of what would be $23,000 a day in income, she set out to spend it.
Construction began in 1884 on what would be a seven-story edifice (the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 brought it down to four), with dead-end hallways and windows that looked into other rooms. Building didn’t end till Sarah Winchester’s death in 1922. She was the architect of record.
Is it haunted? “Winchester” would suggest as much. The movie wasn’t available to be screened at the time of this writing, but Helen Mirren’s characterization of Sarah Winchester (her co-stars include Jason Clarke and Sarah Snook) seems to hew close to the real-life story — though audiences might be heartened to learn the movie is “inspired by actual events,” rather being possessed by them.